This new year a sad news has shaken the people of Barak Valley, the southern part of North East Indian state of Assam comprising of Cachar, Karimganj and Hailakandi districts. Mr Hanif Khan, young man of about 37 years of age, committed suicide hours after first part of the draft of National Register of Citizens (NRC), which is in the process of being updated in Assam was published at midnight on 31 December 2017. The draft did not have his name as he feared. He was terrified that he lost his citizenship and as a result he would be sent to jail and would be subjected to torture and other cruel and inhuman treatment. All the local vernacular media as well as a section of the national media reported the incident. There is an atmosphere of fear and terror.
After learning from the media reports, Barak Human Rights Protection Committee (BHRPC) decided to visit the family and gather first hand information of the incident and accordingly a team led by Dr Prasenjit Biswas and comprised of Mr Oliullah Laskar, Mr Raju Barbhuiya and Ms Taniya Laskar went to late Mr. Hanif Khan’s house on 6 January 2018. The team talked with the wife of the deceased, their children, other family members and neighbors and gathered information as follows:
Mr Hanif Khan was a man of about 37 years. Neighbors said he was law abiding citizen and very mild and gentle in his manners. He had in his family his wife Ms Ruksa Khan, their three sons and a foster daughter. He used to serve as a hired driver to a family.
The illegal immigration issue has been a long standing, vexatious and a burning political issue in Assam for several decades. In 1983 near about 3000 people were massacred in Nellie area of present day Morigaon district. In the following three decades the people of Assam have come across many shifts in the political as well as social paradigms. Recently after Supreme Court’s directions, almost all the political parties and pressure groups agreed upon a correct and error-free NRC. But the process followed by the government to publish the same made most of the common people concerned. The modalities prescribed by the authorities required the citizens to submit a prescribed application form with specified documents issued before 1971 showing their or their ancestors’ citizenship and having link with the said ancestors in case the applicants did not have the pre 1971 documents due to being born later.
Later the modalities got modified and a family tree was required to be submitted by the applicants. Family tree was a documentation of the extended family giving names of all cousins and their family members. The authorities again sought to change the rules and declared that certificate issued by Panchayat (local civic body) secretaries as earlier prescribed would not considered valid. However, the intervention of the Supreme Court retained the validity of such certificates. The admissibility of the pre 1971 documents submitted as proof of citizenship and/or link documents were made subject to the verification of the records of the issuing authorities. The authorities would also conduct physical verification of the applicant citizens and their families in many cases. This made the people, irrespective of ethnicity and religious identity, enraged. People came out in the street and held protests in many places all over the state. Questions were raised as to how the authorities got the power to ask the citizens to prove their citizenship by producing documents. In a petition the Supreme Court directed the authorities to exempt the “original inhabitants” of the state from this rigorous test of citizenship. But the term was nowhere defined and no criteria were given to determine the originality of inhabitation. This created deep apprehension of racial discrimination and arbitrary procedure of updation of NRC among the people of Barak valley.
There has always been a perception among the people of Barak valley that they have been being discriminated by the linguistically aggressive politics of Brahmaputra valley of the state. In 1960 a bill was passed by the Assam state legislature making the Assamese language as the official language of the entire state of Assam including Barak valley. People came out in protest in unprecedented large numbers. During those protests, 11 people were killed in Silchar Railway Station on 19 May 1961. The government was forced to amend the bill and to make Bengali the official language for Barak valley. Ever since the 11 martyrs have been revered by the people and the 19th May observed as Language Martyrs Day in Barak valley every year. This perception of discrimination has again been reinforced by the supply of a Bengali application form with clearly visible Assamese linguistic influence.
There is also another phenomenon known as D-voters. Citizens’ names are arbitrarily tagged with D (dubious or doubtful) in electoral rolls. Their cases are referred to the Foreigners’ Tribunal. In Tribunal such a person has to prove his citizenship. The burden of proof is put on the suspect. In many cases the Tribunals declare such people foreigners based on minor discrepancy and spelling errors in the names of ancestors or the suspect, as the case may be, in pre-1966 documents. Moreover, in many cases notice are not served properly and the tribunals pass decision ex parte. Most of the people don’t have wherewithal to take recourse to higher courts. After the declaration as a foreigner by the Tribunal, police pick the persons up and put them in detention camps which are in fact regular jails. In the absence of a deportation treaty with Bangladesh or any other supposed country of nationality of the persons concerned, they are kept in jails with other convicted criminals for indefinite period. The reports of such midnight knocks are regularly published in newspapers.
Though it is not yet clear what will be the policy for the people whose names are not included in final NRC, to people it is a question between whether they would be sent to the dreaded detention camps directly or through tribunals.
The resultant apprehension of discrimination and fear of losing citizenship that gripped the people of Barak valley also got to Mr Hanif Khan. He was in a constant fear of losing his citizenship. Moreover, in Assam, there are incessant reports in newspapers related to arrest and detention of person belonging to the lower income-strata by the police, after the Foreigners’ Tribunals declare them as the foreigner. Moreover, recently nearly 45000 police personals and 50 army troops were deployed in different “sensitive areas” of the state. This was in addition to fact that the area was declared as part of “disturbed area” under the Armed Forces (Special Power) Act, 1958. This draconian law empowers even the non-commissioned members of the armed forces to use force even to the extent of killing against anyone who is suspected to have breached or about to breach law and order. The Act also bars the court to take cognizance of any case against the armed forces without sanction from the government of India. All this went to create an environment of reign of terror and an eerie silence among the people. Mr Hanif Khan got more terrified that pushed him to take such an irreversible step to end his life.
Mr Hanif Khan submitted NRC application in due time. A copy of the application is with the BHRPC. The application appears to be according to the prescribed rules. He established his citizenship with the prescribed documents beyond doubt. He claimed the inclusion of his and his family members’ name in the NRC on the basis of voters list of 1971. He had shown his linkage with his father late Mr. Raj Mohammad Khan and mother late Ms Sahera Khan through voter list of 1971. He submitted the school certificates of the children to establish linkage with himself. His wife Ruksa Khan’s inclusion is claimed on the basis of linkage with her parents Mr. Rahim Khan and Afushi Bibi through the same voter list of 1971.
Ms Ruksa Khan told the BHRPC team that since the time the verification process of NRC began Mr Hanif Khan was in a constant fear of police torture in case he loses his citizenship. As day of the publication of the first of draft NRC neared, he often hid himself if any police van passed through the high way near his house. Three months ago when he was still in his job he went to a place around 15 kilometres away from his house known as Udharbond. There he found an army vehicle behind his vehicle and he started running instantly and came to his house crossing 15 kilometres of distance right on his foot. Learning this, his employer released him temporarily from his service. Since then he stayed in his house and watched televisions for news and read newspapers and otherwise also tried to collect information about the NRC updation process. He would go on asking everyone about the rules and modalities of NRC and consequences of non-inclusion of his name. He was very concerned about the minor discrepancy regarding his age in one of the voters-list. The neighbours tried to allay his fears by telling him what they knew. But that did not seem to have assured him. His wife tried to take him to the doctor but he didn’t agree. She then asked help of the neighbours and had planned to take him to the hospital forcibly if necessary. But before that he went on missing since 7 pm on Sunday, 31st December 2017 the day when the draft NRC was going to be published. Ms. Raksha Khan stated that at irst she thought he came to watch news on tv but when he did not come back after midnight she started to search for him and was unable to find him thourghout the night. She first saw the body around 6.50 am next morning. Police officials reached the spot around 8.30 am and sent the body to Silchar Medical College and Hospital for post-mortem.
According to Mr Toibur Rehman, one of the neighbour present there, Hanif Khan was perfectly healthy and a well- mannered man. And never had any serious quarrel with anyone. But since the NRC updation process began he appeared to be very worried about it. He also added that another person in the locality namely Mr. Nur Jamal Laskar was also showing similar symptoms and he was under treatment and in strict care of the neighbours. Mr Tapu Das one of the member of the local Panchayat also confirmed the same information. On being asked he said that the NRC process is totally carried on by the Seva Kendras and local Panchayat was never involved in it and he was never informed about the modalities or any other thing. The Panchayat only carries out the duty of issuing Gaon Panchayat Certificates to those who apply for it.
It is to be noted here that this is not the only incident of NRC related suicide. Before that on 6 December 2017, a man aged about 56 years named Mr Akram Uddin Barbhuiya of New Ramnagar area in Cachar district ended his life by hanging himself on the ceiling of his own room. He was also reported to have been worried over inclusion of his name in the updated NRC. .According to his family members he also went on asking everyone about the procedure adopted in updating NRC and NRC related documents were laying in the floor of the room where he hanged himself. Even two days before that, on 3 December 2017, another man Mr Anwar Hussain, a resident of Bahmura, of Goalpara district also committed suicide for the same reaon under the similar circumstances. According to newspapers reports, Anwar Hussain’s daughter Jahabnara Khatun was served with a notice for verification of the documents submitted for inclusion of her name in theNRC. Following that notice he was much tensed and in a constant fear that his daughter’s citizenship could be taken away.
The BHRPC believes that Mr.Hanif Khan was a victim of a clumsy, erroneous and arbitrary procedure of updation of NRC adopted by the state couple with the xenophobic rhetoric of politicians including members of the council of ministers. The state machinery failed to take the citizens in confidence that they are not going to be discriminated or not going to be victims of any kind of arbitrariness.
BHRPC filed a complaint at the National Human Rights Commission praying for:
An interim compensation to the next of kin of the deceased pending the disposal of the case.
A compensation of Rs. 10 lakh to the next of kin of the deceased.
and for conducting a study of the procedure of updation of NRC in Assam and to make recommendations so that human rights of the people are not violated in the process.