Goalpara, India – In October last year, day-wage labourer Duryadhan Das was out looking for work in Sitamari village when his phone rang. He was instructed to come to Guwahati Medical College in the capital of India’s northeastern state of Assam, where his father, 70-year-old Falu Das, had been admitted due to a “deteriorating health condition”.
Five days after the call, on October 24, 2019, Falu would go on to become the 28th inmate of Goalpara detention centre to die under unexplained circumstances.
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“We did not know he was unwell. He had been in the hospital for five days before they contacted us. The Indian government killed my husband,” Korbula Das, his wife of 30 years, told Al Jazeera.
Falu, a Hindu of Bengali origin, was placed in detention in Goalpara district in July 2017 after failing to prove his citizenship to the quasi-judicial “Foreigners’ Tribunal” (FT). There are 100 FTs that decide the citizenship of people suspected of being foreign or “doubtful” citizens – a concept introduced in 1997.
More than 1,000 people have been languishing in six detention centres in the state, where immigration has dominated politics since hundreds of thousands of refugees poured into Assam during Bangladesh’s liberation war in 1971.
The northeastern border state has also had a border police force of more than 4,000 officers since the early 1960s, tasked with “detecting and deporting” people coming in from neighbouring Bangladesh, branded as “foreigners”.
In August 2019, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) – a Supreme Court-monitored bureaucratic citizenship exercise – was published, excluding Falu and nearly two million people of Bengali origin. They have essentially been rendered stateless.
‘Send his body to Bangladesh then’
Falu’s family refused to accept his body, angry his life had been taken by a bureaucratic exercise that has torn countless families apart.
No one should suffer the way my family has suffered. I still do not know how my father died. We don't have the death certificate or a post-mortem report.
“We showed them every valid document in his name and yet, he was declared a foreigner. If he was indeed a foreigner, then his body should be sent to Bangladesh. The Indian government jailed him, believing that belonged to that country,” said Bhagu Das, Falu’s younger son, still seething with anger.
“My father spent his last two years in jail for failing to establish any relationship to Indian citizens in court. How come they now believe we are family when it is time to cremate him?”
Falu left behind a wife and six children, four daughters and two sons, their spouses and children. Eleven of them – his wife, two sons, their wives and six grandchildren – live together in Sitamari where they are one of the poorer families.
Their two small huts near a temple are sparsely furnished – some kitchen utensils, plastic chairs, charpoys (rope beds) and their most precious possessions, government documents kept in a worn polythene bag.
Duryadhan, 30, carefully pulled out the documents – all he has left of their father’s life: a voter identification card, a letter from Falu’s bank and two letters from the Office of the Deputy Commissioner of Nalbari, the first informing them of his father’s illness, the second telling them he was dead.
Indian state is under obligation, under both Indian and international law, to conduct a transparent inquiry if someone dies in custody.
Promises of job and housing
The days following Falu’s death were a blur and a media circus, the family recalled. Nalbari district officials and local members of the governing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were pressuring the family to receive Falu’s body while activists and leaders of the opposition Congress party pulled them the other way – advising the family to not accept his body until he was declared an Indian national.
Duryadhan said BJP leaders had offered him monetary compensation, jobs and housing in return for his family ending their protest and receiving Falu’s body.
He and his brother were caught between the two forces – with no jobs, no savings, no money for funeral expenses, and no citizenship. “Only my mother and two elder sisters’ names are in the final NRC. My brother, two sisters and I are not on the list,” Duryadhan told Al Jazeera.
Nearly five months after his father’s death, none of the BJP promises have materialised, nor has citizenship.
Deadly protests erupted in Assam after the national BJP government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) on December 11 last year, fast-tracking the naturalisation process for non-Muslims from three neighbouring countries, including Bangladesh.
Under the provisions of the CAA, Muslims of Bengali origin, who are among the 1.9 million people left off the NRC, will not be allowed naturalisation – a move critics say goes against the country’s secular constitution.
But many Assamese have decried the law, saying all immigrants, irrespective of their faith, should be deported.
“The BJP leaders told us that we did not need to protest for citizenship. When CAA is implemented, our names will be automatically in the list because we are Hindus,” Duryadhan said.
Death under mysterious circumstances
Since last October, three so-called foreigners – Dulal Paul, Falu Das, and Nareshwar Koch – have died under mysterious circumstances in Assam’s detention camps. The details of their stories are interchangeable, all are equally disturbing.
My father spent his last two years in jail for failing to establish any relationship to Indian citizens in court.
All three families told Al Jazeera they were pressured to accept the bodies of their loved ones. In all three cases, the families were not given the medical records clarifying the cause of death.
Dulal, 65, died two weeks before Falu, on October 13 last year. His son Ashok narrates an eerily familiar story. He got a call in October and a notice from the top district officer informing the family of Dulal’s admission to Guwahati Medical College due to his “deteriorating health”.
The 65-year-old had been in Tezpur detention camp since 2017.
Dulal’s family said local politicians coerced them into accepting the body. “They offered me a job, the local BJP MLA Ganesh Limbu, offered financial assistance for the family, if we stopped the protest,” recalled Ashok.
“No one should suffer the way my family has suffered. I still do not know how my father died. We don’t have the death certificate or a post-mortem report. I will fight for my father’s right to be declared an Indian [as long as] I am alive,” he told Al Jazeera. All of Dulal’s three sons have been excluded from the NRC list.
Local BJP leader Narayan Deka, who was in touch with Falu’s family, and BJP legislator Ganesh Kumar Limbu, who was in touch with Dulal’s family, did not respond to emails and phone calls. Similarly, BJP National Spokesperson Nalin Kohli had not responded to emails and phone calls at the time of publication.
Soon after it happened, Ashok told Amnesty International that his father’s death was under very suspicious circumstances. “I was called by the jail authorities saying that my father was ill and was taken to hospital. I went to Tezpur hospital to find he wasn’t there. Then I went to the district jail, where the jailer for the very first time asked me to come and sit inside,” Ashok told Amnesty.
“He told me, ‘don’t raise any alarm with the civil society bodies but your father’s health condition had deteriorated very badly so we’ve sent him to Guwahati, where the government will take care of his hospital expenses’. That’s when I got suspicious.”
When Ashok reached the hospital in Guwahati, he saw his father lying on the floor. “There was no one to give him water and no one was attending to him. He told me to take him home or else he’ll end up dead inside the jail,” he told Amnesty.
Foreigners Tribunals ‘wreaking havoc’
Dulal’s family initially refused to accept the body but after the intervention of the governing party, including the chief minister’s office, they held the funeral after 10 days.
Rights organisations have criticised authorities on the treatment of people in detention centres.
“Indian state is under obligation, under both Indian and international law, to conduct a transparent inquiry if someone dies in custody. The government must order a postmortem report and share it with the family,” said Dr Mohsin Alam Bhat, executive director of the Centre for Public Interest Law, who was part of a mission from National Human Right Commission (NHRC) that visited the detention camps to review living conditions inside.
“Persons under detention continue to enjoy the right to life, and dignity, and the right against cruel and inhuman treatment, under the Indian constitution and international human rights law,” Dr Mohsin told Al Jazeera.
On January 5, Naresh Koch – an Indigenous Koch tribe of Assam – died in a detention centre in Goalpara.
Koch was neither a Muslim of Bengali origin, nor a Bengali Hindu, the two groups widely perceived to belong to the category of people suspected to be undocumented immigrants.
“He was declared a foreigner despite the fact that he and his ancestors did not have a connection with any foreign country other than the soil of Assam,” Abdul Kalam Azad, a human rights researcher who met the family immediately after Koch’s death, told Al Jazeera.
He was picked up from a shop in 2017 in Kamrup district and it was days before his wife Jini knew where he was. “We found out eventually but did not have money to visit him in the prison in Goalpara,” she said.
Two years later, in December 2019, Jini was told her husband had been admitted to the Guwahati Medical College after his health deteriorated. By the time she reached the hospital, Koch had suffered a stroke, which left him paralysed. She took care of him for the next two weeks with policemen standing guard.
“How come the foreigners become Indian, when they are about to die?” she asked, sitting in her courtyard in the Bongaigaon village on a January evening.
Jini’s family has also not received the medical records, post-mortem report, and death certificate explaining the circumstances of Koch’s death.
In a report titled Designed to Exclude, Amnesty International criticised the Foreigners Tribunals for “wreaking havoc in Assam by arbitrarily denying people their citizenship”.
The report went on to argue that foreign tribunals were a violation of international laws, which maintain that states carry the burden of proving citizenship, as opposed to the current situation in which the onus of proving one’s citizenship is on the individual.
All three families said they were pressured to cremate their loved ones after initially refusing to receive their bodies. The promises that politicians made to them – of jobs, cash and housing – however, are yet to be fulfilled.
No one followed-through on the promises, they told Al Jazeera.