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3 Suicides And An Exodus

3 Suicides And An Exodus

The exodus, as everyone knows, is from Ahmedabad and other cities and towns of Gujarat where, after a man from the Gangetic plains raped a little girl, there has been a massive upsurge against people from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, who have sought the first train, bus or truck out of the state, most of them vowing never to return even if they starve in the employment poor states of north India. A much smaller exodus has been seen in Rajasthan, for a different reason. Here, the victim and the persons fleeing the state belong to the same community.

The suicides, which no one seems to know elsewhere in India, are in Assam, along the Brahmaputra, in the regions where the foreigner is being defined, and hunted down.

With Harsh Mander, the former IAS officer of Madhya Pradesh cadre who famously quit his cushy job protesting the 2002 pogrom in Gujarat, this columnist embarked one dark voyage of painful discovery to the faraway districts, confronting some disturbing questions.

Who killed Balijan Bibi who committed suicide in Khilwapara village, district Bongaigaon, Assam this year?

Shakina Khatoon, a student of Class 5, breaks down narrating a sequence of events of which she herself knows very little. She knows her mother is dead. But Sakina has not been told her mother committed suicide. She is youngest of seven children of Balijan Bibi, who reportedly committed suicide, a victim of acute depression brought on when her husband was arrested May 2016 and sent to Goalpara jail which houses one of the notorious Detention centres in Assam set up for persons alleged to be foreigners.

This is the first case of a woman’s suicide in Assam that we in #KarwaneMohabbat have come across connected with the intersecting exercises of Doubtful Voters, the National Register of Citizens and the unofficial political, ethnic and communal campaign against Bangla-speaking Muslims in the state.

Balijan and two of her elder siblings are now alone in their house along the river Champawati in Khilwapara Part 4, in district Bongaigaon. Two of her brothers work in Guwahati as casual labourer. Their house remains half-built, it’s six rooms bereft of a roof. Their father Asbahar Ali, a labourer, was taken away to the detention centre in May 2016 as a foreigner, a Muslim Bangladeshi. His wife pawned their small one bigha field for 50,000 rupees to pay lawyers in the Supreme Court and the local courts who were trying to free her husband. As it turned out, he is still in the detention centre and was not given parole to bury his wife. Apparently at the detention centre, they do not bother about such niceties.

Balijan Bibi was a strong woman as they have to in this part of the state, hilly and riverine, and with a large family to support without her husband. She has married of a girl and two sons, but the young men also work as casual labour. The money was never enough. Two years of fighting the crazy NRC process, the repeat visits to jail and courts, the lawyers’ demand for money broke her fighting spirit.

She hanged herself and died. But, in another small house they had closer to the road. That had a roof, and beams from which to hang oneself.

Her eldest daughter, Ajiran Nissa, married and with three children comes once in a while. She was at home today to console her youngest sister, who perhaps does suspect what happened to her mother. With police and strangers and reporters hovering around, she must.    Therefore, she is inconsolable.

Pakhrugiri village of Boksa district is not the average rural landscape. It’s mixed population of Hindus and Muslims, Dalits, original inhabitants and migrants over the century make no one particular community dominate the discourse. Or be assured of immunity from the vagaries of the National Register of Citizenship (NRC).

This uncertainty drove 57-year-old Angad Sutradhar, a Dalit, to suicide just days before the 31 July 2018. Angad, a member of the region’s most low caste in the hierarchy, wasn’t sure he, his two sons and their families would get the coveted certificates. He wasn’t sure either if any of them would ever get any social benefit. With three grandchildren’s future looking dark, he hung himself from a tree in his small field, using a rope from his cowshed.

The story unfolds in short, broken, sentences. Like sobs. The father Angad Sutradhar, 55, was daily farm labourer. The  NRC  process began here on 8 July 2018 and 31 was the last date. “Legacy data” of 14 items was to be submitted. Son Jyotish had gone to NRC office in area. Because of long queues, he could not meet officer. He came home and told the family that he would send his younger brother to the NRC office next day.  Mother cooked the family dinner. Father came to cowshed, and went out.  There was some noise in pond. They thought father was having a bath. When he did not come back, they went looking in the dark. The phone torch did not work. They came back with a solar lamp from a relative. In the solar lamp’s light, they saw something hanging from tree.  It was their father. Much later they discovered the man need not have worried. He had the papers. They were in his father’s name, not his. Which was even better. It was too late.

The third was  Lal Chand Ali, 66, who hung himself on 22 May 2018, leaving behind his wife  Salaiman Nissa, 57, and two sons, one of them an ill-paid government Home Guard, the other a hawker.

The National Register of Citizens and the cleansing of the voters list of doubtful entries was meant to purge the population of illegal entrants from Bangladesh, a guarantee the Indian government had given to agitating students and political parties back in the days when Rajiv Gandhi was Prime minister. The students of Assam had then sought expulsion of “foreigners” irrespective of their religion and ethnicity. Over the years, “foreigner” came to mean any Bengali speaking person from East Bengal.  The ruling BJP has now made clear the NRC is to identify and expel Muslims.

Understandably there is panic, for the new dispensation does not bother about such niceties as records, or the fact that people travel, or that the mighty Brahmaputra floods its banks every year, wiping out villages and homes and paper documents. The panic that grew in such marginal villages as the deadline drew close often proved fatal. We documented just these three in a short trip.

An utter lack of government or voluntary counsel did not help matters. The last nail was the ad hoc personnel appointed at registration offices. They had been given arbitrary and extraordinary powers. They could decide and declare who was an original inhabitant and who was not, or who therefore was a foreigner. Once they had decided, the lucky person needed no further documents to prove he was a citizen of India and if Assam. And if he decided they were not citizens, that, for most, was the end of the story.

Three could not wait for review petitions, high court and Supreme Court writs and possible change of heart among the ruling groups.

Call it xenophobia, call it communalism, call it intolerance, it can kill.

(Published on 29th October 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 44)