On January 29, a 42-year old manual labourer named, Fayajal Haque, walked out of his house never to return again. He remained incommunicado for two days. His family, including his wife Asiya Khatun, thought that Fayajal had gone to meet his other wife and was not worried.
They were wrong. At some point over the next two days, Fayajal walked into a school, slung a rope over the roof’s crossbeam and hung himself. His body was found by the school children on January 31, 2020.
This was not the first time Fayajal had attempted suicide. According to his father-in-law, he had attempted suicide multiple times in the recent past. It all started with the publication of the final list of National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam on August 31, 2019. The entire family had applied for NRC but after multiple verifications and re-verifications, Asiya found her name in the list but Fayajal and both their daughters were left out.
According to both Asiya and her father, this is what caused Fayajal’s mental breakdown. He kept losing his temper and started drinking heavily. Since August, he attempted suicide multiple times but his neighbours stepped in and foiled his attempts. “He turned into a madman”, says Fayajal’s father-in-law, “sometimes he took poison, sometimes he took the noose”.
Fayajal’s anger turned to desperation. The family had received a house under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, an affordable housing initiative of the government of India. During his last days, Fayajal argued with his wife about the futlity of maintaining a house when he and his daughters had lost their citizenship and would possibly be thrown out of the country.
“People told him all sorts of things and scared him”, says Asiya. Fayajal took an axe to the house and started tearing down the walls. “He didn’t even spare the roof and ceiling”, she says. A few days later, he hung himself.
Fayajal is not the only case of suicide arising over the fear of losing citizenship. Over the years, people of Assam have been put on trial multiple times to prove their citizenship, NRC being the latest in a long line of bureaucratic measures to ascertain who in the state is a genuine citizen and who’s not. Over the years, people have been driven to extreme measures when faced with the horror of losing their citizenship, being evicted from their home and hearth, and possibly being thrown out of the country.
Abdul Kalam Azad, a human rights researcher, maintains a list of people who have allegedly died because of apprehensions about losing their citizenship. He has been visiting the distraught families. According to his list, Azad says, Fayajal is the 37th person in Assam to have killed himself, allegedly out of the fear of being rendered stateless.
“Suicide is an extreme step taken by a mental health patient”, says Azad. “Think of the various stages of mental trauma preceding the cct. The number of deaths now stands at 37 but there are far more people facing acute mental torture because they don’t know what will happen to them next. The decades-old citizenship tangle has created a severe mental health crisis in Assam. What I am trying to say is that the people of Assam, especially the Miya community to which Fayajul belongs, is facing a mass mental health crisis. While calculating the human cost of the NRC process, we hardly consider the mental health of the people who have been left out,” he says.
The most distressing part of the NRC process is the limbo in which people who have been left out have been placed. The final NRC list was published on August 31, 2019, six months ago and exactly five months to the day on which Fayajul’s body was found. Since then, no new notification has been released by the Supreme Court which is monitoring the NRC process in Assam. There is no clarity on when the filing of applications for objection and inclusion in the list will be announced, much less what the fate of the people who were not able to prove their citizenship, will be. Uncertainty hangs over the 1.9 million people who have been left out of the NRC.
More than anything else, those left out have to live a life of waiting, not sure when the next step in their citizenship trial is about to start. A process that was meant to finally put an end to the citizenship crisis in Assam seems to have been stuck in time.
Meanwhile, life moves on for the Haque family. Asiya is back to work and the daughters, Farida and Rashida, have resumed classes in the school where their father, driven by anxiety, killed himself.
The author is a writer and researcher based in Assam. The views are personal.