Fear of being classed a ‘foreigner’ spurring suicides in Assam

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A man looks for his name on the first draft of the National Register of Citizens in Guwahati in the Indian state of Assam on January 1, 2018. Around 13 million people in Assam woke up to uncertainty on that day after the release of an official registry with names of only 19m of the state's over 32 million residents. Photo: AFP

The fear of being listed as a “doubtful voter” – common in border villages in the state of Assam in northeast India – has led at least five people to take their own lives this year. These individuals chose death rather than be put on the controversial ‘D-list’ and face the risk of losing one’s identity or being declared stateless.

“Doubtful voters” are individuals either declared as non-citizens by the Foreigners Tribunal or people who have cases pending with the tribunal. They have no right to vote and are not included in the National Register of Citizens, a final draft of which will be published on July 30.

The Supreme Court monitors the process of updating the register to identify illegal migrants in Assam. Officials working on the register have to ascertain the citizenship of people who live in Assam based on each person’s ability to prove residency in the state on or before 21 March 1971. People excluded from the register risk being classified as illegal immigrants in Assam, which has seen migration from Bangladesh since the early 20th century.

Causing suicides

When Gopal Das, 65, who lived in Nisilamari village, was found dead on June 12 in jungle near his house, locals knew the reason — his distress at being rated a ‘D voter’ drove him to consume poison the previous night. Local police confirmed that Das had committed suicide.

Despite having documents to establish genuine Indian citizenship, including his name on the 1966 voter list, he was barred from voting in 2016. ”When we enquired with the [Foreigners’] Tribunal, they only said that a notice had been issued to us. The lawyer took 300 rupees (US$4.35) to respond to the notice, but kept it himself,” said Ganesh Das, the man’s son. “At the third hearing, the lawyer and magistrate asked us to find someone to stand bail as there was a chance of our being arrested. They also told us, alternatively, to pay Rs 15,000 to avoid getting detained,” he alleged.

Soon after Das’s daughter Shefali, 29, also got a ”foreigner” notice, which filled him with dread and drove him to take his own life. His family filed a first information report (FIR) at Tangla, the nearest police station, alleging that the judge and lawyer had taken bribes.

Abhijit Gaurav, Additional Superintendent of Police at Tangla, said: “His [Das’s] neighbors said his suicide was due to ‘D-list’ related distress. We are investigating and cannot comment now.”

Sankar Das, general secretary of Nikhil Bharatiya Bengali Yuva-Satra Federation in Udalguri district, said the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government had failed to solve such problems. Many people listed as ‘Doubtful voters’ have proper documents but with minor anomalies such as spelling mistakes, he said. “Most of them are poor and illiterate, and easily cheated by lawyers.”

Poor bearing brunt of verification process

The process of verifying a person’s identity can involve many legal complications and even break a family economically. It has forced many poor and illiterate people to opt out of the long-winded process.

On March 23, in Shatagaon village in Barpeta district, Lalson Ali hanged himself at home after being classed as a ‘D’ voter. “He seemed worried in his last days; we suspect someone said something to him. He was fearful even though he had voter ID, a PAN [Permanent Account Number] card and legacy data of our grandparents,” his son Mukkedesh Ali said.

Some have said the investigation process by Border Police is suspect and that they allegedly pick names at random from the list of voters.

Sankar Das expressed grief over the suicides. ”We feel some people or communities are being targeted and harassed in the name of the National Register of Citizens. Not only is the government looking away, it is also hesitant to address these issues,” he said.

The identification process has haunted citizens in Assam for years. In 1997, the Election Commission of India began to scrutinize the list of voters to try to segregate citizens from non-citizens in the state. The letter ‘D’ was marked against those whose documents were inadequate to pass verification by officers specially appointed for the purpose.

The damning ‘D’ can be removed from the voters’ list if the Foreigners’ Tribunal declares that these individuals are Indian citizens after a trial. The Election Commission sends ‘D’ cases to the Superintendent of Border Police in respective districts, who refer them to the Foreigners’ Tribunal.

Citizens fearful about lack of legacy data

Suicides allegedly caused by people being listed as “Doubtful Voters” have been reported from districts across Assam since the first draft of registered citizens came out last year. And this review of people’s status is something that even Indians who have migrated to Assam from other states cannot avoid.

On April 11, Sahimoon Bibi, the wife of Khairul Islam, used her sari to hang herself. Bibi’s father migrated to Assam from Bihar with his six children, but the family has no citizenship documents. Family members said that Bibi’s failure to obtain legacy data caused her to lose her mind. Now, her five siblings and their families are also under immense pressure to prove they are Indian citizens.

There are other examples from recent months: Ratan Rai, a government employee with the Inland Water Transport department, hung himself in Pandu’s No 4 Colony. His family said he couldn’t produce all the papers required, and feared that his name might not be in the final draft. Anwar Hussain, of Goalpara’s Bahmura, was suspected to have consumed poison after his daughter Jahanara Khatun was served a notice for re-verification of documents.

Often, people who cannot read or write believe rumors that they might be sent to Bangladesh if their names are not found on the citizens’ registry. A psychosis has set in among the poor and uneducated, as many have lost or not kept important identity documents.

Asked about an awareness campaign taken up by the government, one official said: “A campaign is going on but only about filing claims and objections in the prescribed format before the Local Registrar of Citizens Registration. Notice will be issued to every person to substantiate claims.”

But these campaigns have failed to reach many people.

Most ‘doubtful’ cases found to be genuine Indians

Activists have questioned the process of identifying some individuals as ‘doubtful’, alleging that some people are simply framed. The white paper on foreigners suggests that only 12,913 people out of 45,456 cases between 2006 and July 2012 were found to be foreigners. That means some 75% were assessed to be genuine Indians. In the period up to 2016, some 621,688 people were branded as ‘doubtful voters’. And in February 2017, Assam’s parliamentary affairs minister Chandra Mohan Patowary said that 444,189 people were referred to the Tribunal to assess their status.

Panic later spread after National Register of Citizens coordinator Prateek Hajela revealed that 50,000 people listed as ‘doubtful’ and declared foreigners would be left off the final draft. On May 2 this year, the NRC office instructed the Superintendent of Border Police to exclude brothers, sisters and family members of declared foreigners from the final list. That means over 2 million people could face citizenship strife, Aman Wadud, a lawyer at Gauhati High Court, said.

With the second and final list due in a couple of weeks, the government has done little to calm fears that people could lose their rights and status if they are declared non-citizens.

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