'Foreigners' Forever

Distress Deaths in Assam

Zamser Ali

At a time when various civil society groups and human rights activists are furiously busy, helping the people of Assam to fill in Claims forms at the Nagrik Seva Kendras (NSKs) run by the NRC, the entire process—NRC, and '3Ds' (D Voter, Declared Foreigners and Detention Camp)—all these three processes have been escalated all over the state. From November 29 to December 15, a short span of 19 days, five persons have fallen victim to distress deaths.

This new phenomenon that the State is witnessing gets complicated: Thirty five suicides and now distress deaths. These are people who are facing an insensate process, a callous bureaucracy related to NRC, 'D Voter', 'Declared Foreigners' process leading them to the dreaded 'Detention Camps'. They have died of heart attacks.

Tragically, these are Indian Citizens, those who possess all valid documents but have been struggling to establish legitimate Citizenship Rights. They are victims of both discrimination and a state of total unaccountability. Not only the government machinery but even the quasi-judicial authority Foreigners Tribunal and even higher Judicial Authorities are also playing a partisan role in declaring them 'foreigners', armed with a pre-conceived notion that all valid documents in a maximum number of cases have been ignored. Among these large number of exclusions, only a few have been able to knock at the door of Supreme Court, where, after years and huge expenses, many of them were finally able to establish the right of Citizenship.
But the poor and illiterate, who do not even earn enough to support their families can ill-afford a legal effort to the Supreme Court. This costs a huge sum of money after they have spent their hard earned wages on the process in the foreigners tribunal(s) and the High Court. By this time, they have had to sell off all the properties including pet animals or be groaning under huge debt. After such a near arbitrary declaration of 'foreigner' they are sent to detention camps which thereafter become their address until death. The instances of such occurrences are extremely high all over the state.

The economic loss, social degradation and above all uncertainty relating to citizenship have caused a vast state of mental disturbances all over the state. The processes causing distress are the '3D processes', the 'D Voter (Doubtful Voter) process', the 'Declared Foreigner Process' (leading to the Detention Camp), unique only to Assam. Nowhere else in the world is there a provision for such camps. The processes have caused both trauma and humiliation for Indian Citizens wrongly identified or married as 'D Voter', 'declared foreigners' or detained in such detention camps, without any proper justification. Hundreds of people born in the State of Assam or living in the state even after the fifth or more generations have been illegally detained, held and harassed after being labelled foreigners year after year.

There was a wide consensus within Assam that believed that the on-going process of NRC will identify the real foreigners and open up the way to enlisting the genuine citizens, freeing genuine citizens from all sorts of harassment, hatred and humiliation. But, the selective and partisan attitudes of both the Government and the NRC authority have been closing the door to hundreds of Indian Citizens, preventing them from enlisting their names in the updated NRC.

The shifting process of changing of modalities and SOPs (Standard Operating Procedure, which was prepared for updating NRC) have caused millions of people to be excluded from the draft NRC, though they possessed all sorts of genuine documents to prove themselves as Indian Citizens. However, these documents have not been recognised or accepted due to minor discrepancies.

Uncertainty rules the lives of these hapless people as a discriminatory attitude in NRC officials makes matters worse. This new phenomenon has caused the death of another five people of the State in a short span of 17 days.

The five persons who died in Assam from November 29 to December 15, 2018 are Afzal Ali, Mahibor Rahman, Sahera Banu, Sashi Sarker and Kailash Tanti. With the death of these five persons, the number of NRC and 3D related distressed death has risen to 40 after the NRC process began.

Afzal Ali
It was Afzal Ali of Village Barkajuli under Tamulpur Police Station of Baksa District who died of a heart attack on November 29, 2018. Mujib Ali Ahmed, a local social worker and member of BTAD Citizen Rights Forum alleged, "Afzal who is a Goriya Muslim (The word Goriya Muslim means the clan of Muslims in Assam, who were migrated from Gaur or North Bengal in between the 12th to 17th centuries) could not find several names of his family members in the final draft of the NRC. Though the family have no record of migration and no relation with the Bengali speaking Muslims, this situation became humiliating for him.

"He was afraid, concerned and worried about the fact that the names of his family members, which didn't appear in the final draft NRC, might be declared as foreigners. He was running from pillar to post to alleviate the situation when he developed a sudden chest pain on November 29. A person, who has no history of any cardiac problems died in his home on the same day before reaching hospital."

The family members of Afzal Ali alleged that he was killed by NRC authority through their discriminatory attitude. "Afzal Ali felt chest pain suddenly when he came to know that linkage documents which were submitted earlier, will not be acceptable" said Najrul Islam, the General Secretary, ABMSU.

Sahera Banu
The day after sudden demise of Afzal Ali, on November 30, 2018, Sahera Banu (51), of Barpeta District attended a Foreigners Tribunal hearing at Barpeta to prove her citizenship. After the hearing, the depressed woman, on her way to home, suddenly felt pain of her chest. She collapsed on the road. Bystanders promptly admitted her to a nearby hospital where she breathed her last in the wee hours of December 1, 2018. Locals alleged that Sahera Banu was depressed since her name was referred to a FT hearing as a doubtful foreigner. Nanda Ghosh, a young activist from Bijni alleged that though Sahera Banu technically died of a cardiac arrest the real reason lay elsewhere. She was killed by the system of triple D or D Voter, declared foreigners and detention camp.

"Others may meet the same fate as Sahera Banu if the discriminatory activities of Border Police, Foreigners Tribunal and NRC authority are not stopped promptly". Shaizuddin Ahmed, Advocate, Guwahati High Court said to Sabrangindia, adding that "discrimination dots the attitude of the NRC process and also the 3Ds, mirrored in the biased attitudes of the state government of Assam and the Indian government."

Mahibor Rahman
On December 3, 2018, Mahibor Rahman (65), a poor farmer of Nayagram, under Dholacherra Village Panchayat of Karimganj District went to NSK (Nagarik Seva Kendra or Citizens Service Centre under NRC authority), to find out the real reason why the name of his wife Renu Begums didn't appear in the final draft NRC. A poor farmer of Nayagram, which falls in the border area of Bangladesh in the Barak Valley, he was told that the Land document of 1963 which was submitted as Legacy document for Renu Begum has been rejected. Hence, Mahibor Rahman was asked to submit alternative document.

During the time of submission of the NRC claims applications, Mahibor Rahman searched high and dry to find Legacy Data, but failed. Other than the land document, Renu Begum might have had another document that is NRC-1951, where the names of her father and grandfather might have appeared. But, the entire NRC-1951 documents of Barak Valley is not available today as all old documents with the Deputy Commissioner's office in Silchar were damaged long back due to a mysterious fire Commissioner's office.

So, Mahibor Rahman was excessively stressed when he came to know that to ensure the listing of the name of Renu Begum in the final NRC, he needed to submit another document before 1971, which was quite impossible for him to source/collect. He suddenly collapsed in the Varandah (Extended area of a house) of the NSK. Onlookers present in the NSK hurriedly took him to nearby hospital where it was declared that Mahibor Rahman was dead.

The incident created huge ripples in the area. Bablu Das, outgoing President of Dholacherra Village Panchayat, nearby Bangladesh Border said, "Names of Mahibor Rahman and his seven sons appeared in the final draft NRC. But, the name of his wife disappeared from the list. This became humiliating to Mahibor Rahman. When he was asked to submit alternative document for Renu Begum, this became a cause of extra excessive stress for Mahibor Rahman, which he could not bear. Thus, NRC authority killed him."

The local people under the NSK alleged that the officials engaged in Dholacherra NSK behaved insensitively and rudely to the general public. Mahibor Rahman was also subject to such behaviour. Former Minister and Congress leader, Siddique Ahmed has demanded 10 lakhs ex-gratia to the kin of Mahibor Rahman.

Sashi Sarker (85)
Sashi Sarker (85), a poor peasant of Tulshijhora Village under Chirang District died in Goalpara Detention Camp on December 7,2018. This Dalit Bengali Hindu old man was framed as a 'foreigner', one and a half years ago and was thrown into the detention camp. According to the family member of Sashi Sarker, he possessed all bonafide documents. Yet, Sashi Sarker was framed as a foreigner and he was kept in detention camp right until he reached a ripe old age; he was very depressed. On December 6, the family members of Sashi Sarker at Tulshijhora Village were informed by the Jail authority of Goalpara that the health condition of Sashi Sarker had deteriorated and he was admitted to the Guwahati Medical College and Hospital (GMCH). The family members of Sashi Sarker rushed to Guwahati and searched for him at GMCH but failed. They then contacted the Goalpara Jail authority. At that time the family members of Sashi Sarker were informed that he had died already in the detention camp! The villagers of Tulshijhora have alleged that the real reason behind the demise of Sashi Sarker has been concealed from the family.

Kailash Tanti
Kailash Tanti, a tea garden labourer, who belongs to one of the most backward Dalit communities committed suicide when his name along with that of all of his family members had not appeared in the final draft NRC. The incident happened in Shyantila under Dholai tea garden at South Hailakandi which also falls under the Barak Valley. The tea garden labourer was found hanging near his house on December 17, 2018.

As per the FIR lodged by Anita Tanti, wife of Kailash Tanti, he was depressed when all the names of his family had been excluded from the final draft of the NRC. The Modalities of NRC allow that tea garden labourers -- most backward community of Assam (socio-economic and educationally)-should have had his name entered in the updated draft of the NRC without any documents. Persons belonging to the tea labourer community are eligible to be enlisted within the NRC, by just submitting their applications just like all tribals and some other groups of people who fall under the category of indigenous groups.

"However, it is a matter of concern that the names of Kailash Tanti and all his family members have been dropped from the final draft NRC without justification. Ever since the publication of the final draft, Kailash Tanti was under deep trauma and stress; he even showed signs of mental imbalance when he was asked to submit Legacy documents of his ancestors prior to 1971. As he had no information about such documents he was frightened that he might be harassed like the Muslims and Bengali Hindus in the name of being a Bangladeshi," Bijoy Tanti, a labourer of the same tea garden told Sabrangindia. When the news of this suicide spread in the tea garden, all labourers came out against this illegal harassment by the NRC authority. Then police arrived and took stock of the situation.

Such incidents are rapidly increasing all over the state of Assam. A vast majority of the four million persons excluded from the draft are under deep mental and physical stress. If greater sensitivity is not shown and if these discrepancies within the NRC and 3D processes are not resolved, there is the possibility of the numbers of such deaths increasing. The CJP team, involved in the NRC work are counselling, advising vast sections with limited resources.

It is time for all humanitarian and human rights groups to come out, assist and counsel the persecuted population to prevent such tragedies from recurring.

[courtesy :]

Vol. 51, No.27, Jan 6 - 12, 2019