About six months ago, Nyuti Das remembers her father Chandrahar Das bending over her brother’s phone, his one good eye — and the rest of him — completely absorbed by a video of a speech of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Then he looked at Nyuti and said, smiling: “Modi aamar bhogowan (Modi is my god)… He will solve everything. The citizenship law is here. We will all become Indian.”
On Sunday evening, Chandrahar, 104, suffering from a heart disease, who had spent three months in a detention camp for “foreigners” in Assam two years ago, died in his son’s run-down cottage in Boraibasti in Assam’s Cachar district — still a “foreigner”.
Speaking on the phone from her home 30 km from Silchar, in Assam’s Hindu Bengali dominated-Barak Valley, Nyuti remembers the mild annoyance she felt every time her father expressed such a hope. Or went to the porch of their home, looked across the road at Modi’s poster, folded his hands in namaskar, and bowed his head. “The law has come, it has been nearly a year, but what has ‘God’ done?” she would ask him.
Breaking down, Nyuti adds, “All he wanted was to die an Indian… And we tried, we ran from court to court, from advocates to social workers, submitted all the papers. And just like that, he’s gone. We are still ‘foreigners’ in the eyes of the law. The Act (Citizenship Amendment Act) did nothing for us.”
The Modi government has repeatedly emphasised that the CAA is meant to give citizenship to people like Das, largely Hindu persecuted minorities in their countries of residence, who migrated to India. While the Act has widespread support in the Barak Valley, it is opposed by other parts of Assam, who fear that the grant of citizenship rights to “outsiders” would change the essential nature of the state.
With the Assam Assembly elections drawing near, the BJP has started talking of the CAA again. However, as in the case of Das, the change has largely remained on paper, with even rules of the Act yet to be framed.
Former Silchar Congress MP Sushmita Dev, who visited Das’s family on Monday, says the Act is just a “tool”. “It’s a means to an end. And the end is polarising the Hindu Bengali vote. Even if the CAA was in effect, it doesn’t assure citizenship to anybody. Why has the BJP not helped any of the Hindu Bengalis who are still in detention?”
Sitting Silchar BJP MP Dr Rajdeep Roy claims the process has got delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. “I offer my condolences to the bereaved family, what has happened is very unfortunate, but this pandemic is not in my hands… I too hoped that the rules and regulation with regard to the CAA would have been framed by now.”
He understands the anxiety of the Hindu Bengali community, Roy adds. “I belong to the same group, my grandfather migrated from erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) to India.”
Das would tell his children often how he crossed from East Pakistan to Tripura because of the killings there. “This was in the 1950s or ’60s,” says son Gouranga Das. While how Das made his way to Assam is unclear, Gouranga says it was a tough journey, with his father earning his living selling moori (puffed rice) ladoos.
Then, one day in March 2018, some officials came to their home, took Das away and put him in a detention centre for foreigners in Silchar District Jail. “We had received a few notices but couldn’t make it to the hearings for numerous reasons, the main being that my father was old and ill,” says Gourango.
Das was granted bail in June 2018, but the family’s case is still on in court, his children appearing for hearings. “There was a problem with the authenticity of the certificate of registration from Tripura,” says his advocate, Souman Choudhry, on the delay, adding that Das’s children would still have to prove their citizenship.
Das’s family barely understands the legal jargon, only that the label of foreigners continues.
In his last few months, Das had slipped into deep dementia, the family says. At one level, it was a relief. “He would eat, sleep and rarely talk. When he did, he would talk about how his case would be solved because the Modi government would help him. We did not have the heart to tell him that it had not moved at all,” Nyuti says.
Das was cremated on Sunday night with only his family in attendance. Gourango fears only worse is ahead. “My father was old and hence the case was covered by the media. But now that he is gone, will anyone care to tell our story?”
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