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NRC in Assam: 16 committed suicide due to citizens' register; number of Hindus three times that of Muslims

The updating of the National Register of Citizenship for Assam has ostensibly triggered a rash of suicides, suggesting that it has become a source of tremendous stress and anxiety for segments of the state’s population. These emotions do not necessarily arise from paranoia — after all, exclusion from the National Register of Citizenship (NRC) implies revocation or denial of Indian citizenship and, perhaps, even deportation from the country.

There is no precise count of the number of people who have chosen to die than to endure the uncertainties inherent in the process of determining who is an Indian citizen. Zamser Ali, the state coordinator of the Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP), an NGO, has counted 30 NRC-linked suicides since the Modi government swept to power in May 2014.

 NRC in Assam: 16 committed suicide due to citizens register; number of Hindus three times that of Muslims

Representational image. AFP

In the statistical detailing of the scholar Prasenjit Biswas, who is the chairperson of the Barak Human Rights Protection Committee (BHRPC), as many as 32 people killed themselves over the NRC since 1 January, 2018, the day after the first draft of NRC was made public. The discrepancy between suicide figures is perhaps linked to the network that organisations have to gather information on such deaths, which are not always reported in the media.

By contrast, NRC-linked suicides reported in the media since 2015 constitute the data that the Guwahati-based independent researcher Abdul Kalam Azad has collated. From Azad’s tabulation, this writer segregated those suicides that occurred in 2018, to prepare two tables listing suicides among Hindus and Muslims, providing in each case, wherever possible, their job profile and the cause behind their precipitous decision.

Apart from NRC, the tables mention two other causes for suicide — "D-Voter" or doubtful voter and "reference case". The term D-voter categorises those whose names have been struck off the electoral rolls as their citizenship is under scrutiny. Reference case refers to inquiries initiated by the Assam Border Police into the citizenship of people. Both these have a bearing on the exclusion and inclusion of names from the NRC.

The two tables show that 16 suicides linked to the citizenship verification process took place in 2018. Of these, four victims were Muslims, and 12 were Hindus, of whom only three were non-Bengalis. Most of the suicide victims were economically underprivileged.

NRC-related suicides in Assam

NRC-related suicides in Assam

It can be argued that 16 self-inflicted deaths isn’t a high number for a state having a population of 3.29 crore. Sociologist Chandan Kumar Sharma, of Tezpur University, cautioned against linking all of them to NRC. He said, “Unless a proper study of these suicides is undertaken, we can’t categorise NRC to be their sole cause. For instance, because suicide carries stigma, it is possible that families ascribe it to NRC.”

In Assam’s context, the suicide-NRC linkage garners sympathy, and provides the local community, whether Hindu or Muslim, an opportunity to portray the updating of the national register as a callous bureaucratic process inflicting misery on the people.

Sharma said, “Around 40 lakh people were excluded from the final NRC draft. Why is it that only 16 committed suicide, a number which, come to think of it, isn’t high, even though every self-inflicted death is tragic?”

Psychologists tend to gauge a person’s propensity to commit suicide through what is called the biological-sociological-psychological evaluation. Very simply, biological refers to the person’s genetic predisposition to self-harm; sociological to whether he or she is socially integrated or alienated; and psychological to the attitudes he or she has.

“There is not a one-to-one relationship between suicide and (its purported) cause,” said Mythili Hazarika, associate professor, clinical psychology, Gauhati Medical College Hospital.

“In addition to the stress of everyday living, if a person’s existence is plunged into a crisis or their identity is threatened, then something like the NRC can become the precipitating factor for committing suicide,” she ads.

This is because exclusion from the final NRC would be an authoritative verdict against a person’s claim to citizenship. Although such a verdict can be overturned through the judicial process, the person will have to incur expenses and endure the travails typical of the Indian judicial system. With most of the 16 poor, their exclusion from the two drafts of NRC might have represented to them the doom awaiting them in the future. Their relative illiteracy could also have severely impeded them from negotiating with the complexities of NRC. Driven to desperation, they chose to die.

Did learned helplessness drive them to suicide?

Education could have played a reverse role in driving the three Hindu Bengali school teachers (see table) to commit suicide. Sharma explained, “The lower middle class people, because of their education, are acutely aware of the consequences of exclusion from NRC. It must have unsettled them. They could have also felt a sense of shame at their exclusion.” After all, exclusion from the NRC signifies exclusion from the society as well.

People wait to check their names on the National Register of Citizens (NRC) draft list at a centre in Assam's Nagaon district. Reuters

People wait to check their names on the National Register of Citizens (NRC) draft list at a centre in Assam's Nagaon district. Reuters

Yet, what is seemingly bewildering is that the 12 Hindus who committed suicide in 2018 is three times more than the four Muslims who killed themselves. This is because it has been Assam’s common sense that Muslims constitute the bulk of alleged illegal immigrants. It is they who should have found the NRC process most menacing, and therefore, ought to have accounted for the highest proportion of suicides.

The NRC bureaucracy hasn’t provided the religious composition of the 40 lakh who have been excluded from the final NRC draft. But there is a growing realisation that Hindu Bengalis constitute the largest proportion of those excluded, said Abdul Mannan, a retired professor of statistics, Gauhati University. He pointed to West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee saying that 25 lakh Hindu Bengalis don’t figure in the final NRC draft.

It is possible Banerjee is trying to stoke the anxiety of Bengalis for electoral purposes. “But then, Union Minister of State for Railways Rajen Gohain has said that 30 lakh Hindus (including Hindu Bengalis) have been excluded from the final draft,” Mannan said.

Since Gohain is an Assamese BJP leader, it is presumed, understandably so, that he has access to the NRC data. On this presumption rests Mannan’s thesis — fewer Muslims than Hindu Bengalis have committed suicide because the former does not constitute the largest group in the 40 lakh who have been excluded in the NRC final draft.

The incidence of suicide being high among Hindu Bengalis could also be because of their high expectations from the BJP, which they consider as representing their interests. With the party in power both at the Centre and in Assam, Hindu Bengalis were hoping for succour from it.

“Bengalis are suffering from the syndrome of learned helplessness,” said BHRPC’s Prasenjit Biswas.

To explain the syndrome, Biswas drew a parallel – when a monkey is kept in a cage for two-three years, it refuses to step out even when the gates are opened. Likewise, Hindu Bengalis reposed faith in the Modi government, and were convinced it will ensure their citizenship status is not imperilled.

It was to address the anxieties of the Hindu Bengalis over their citizenship status that the Narendra Modi government brought in the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, which seeks to proscribe deportation of religious minorities of Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan found in India without valid documents. But the Bill has been put on the backburner because of the hostility of Hindu Assamese to it.

“The learned helplessness (of Hindu Bengalis) is now manifesting in suicide,” Biswas said.

Learned helplessness was also spawned because of the worldview of Hindu Bengalis who fled East Pakistan at the time of Partition and, in later years, from Bangladesh because of religious persecution. Their assumption has been that India will never expel them under any circumstance. They were careless in maintaining their documents, such as migration and refugee certificates issued to them. Many of them were lackadaisical in registering themselves with the authorities.

CJP’s Zamser Ali explained, “Officials at the Foreigners Tribunals ask them why they hadn’t submitted migration certificates earlier. Those who took shelter in refugee camps were issued refugee certificates by agencies manning them. Most of them are illiterate and they are discriminated against. It is an unwritten law not to accept refugee certificates as valid documents."

Muslims understand the value of documents

By contrast, Muslims have a veritable culture of maintaining documents. Historian Arupjyoti Saikia pointed out, “This culture has been spawned because of their experiences. They have encountered political exclusion for a long time.”

File image of citizens queuing up outside NSKs in Guwahati. Reuters

File image of citizens queuing up outside NSKs in Guwahati. Reuters

Suspicion of their citizenship is an aspect of their daily life. Muslims who shift from village to city are particularly vulnerable. Consequently, it has, underscored in them the importance of preserving documents, and carrying them around wherever they go, to prove their citizenship and obviate harassment.

Decades of political exclusion of Muslims also prompted community leaders to evolve a strategy for tackling the contentious citizenship issue. “Accustomed to handling adversity for years, they believe their leaders will manage the NRC situation and create space for them,” Saikia said.

They feel there is hope for them in the future. They are consequently less likely to be driven to desperation and suicide. “Muslims also have stronger roots in villages, which offer a better network of support than what you find in cities. This too has perhaps helped them cope better with the uncertainties of NRC,” Saikia said.

The 19th Century French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, thought the rate of suicide in a society is a commentary on its integrative capacity. He identified four types of self-inflicted death, one of which is fatalistic suicide. It is triggered because of over-regulation of the society, which has individuals feel they live in oppressive conditions, without agency, and consequently denuding life of any meaning. They would rather die than live a meaningless existence.

“The suicides in Assam conform to Durkheim’s fatalistic type,” Chandan Kumar Sharma said.

"Over-regulation is represented by the state demanding a chain of documents to prove citizenship. Those who don’t have the requisite documents or whose names are missing from the final NRC draft find their identity is in question now. Linked to their identity crisis are issues of livelihood. (They face detention and expulsion if they don’t figure in the final NRC). Fatalistic suicide represents an over-regulated society into which individuals are not integrated,” says Sharma.

If the suicides in Assam haven’t yet dominated the national discourse, it is because mostly those who died were poor, unlike the middle class students who immolated themselves in 1990 against the government’s decision to provide 27 percent reservation to the Other Backward Classes in government jobs. For those committing suicide in Assam, it would seem their lives, deprived of meaning by the NRC, ended in meaningless deaths as well.

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Updated Date: Nov 04, 2018 19:58:26 IST