In the villages surrounding Amrit Das’s home in Assam’s Barpeta Road town, everyone knows of him. That the man who sold sabzi-roti from a cart had a “bideshi case” on him. That he was in jail. And that he died in jail.
Sometimes, 51-year-old Hindi teacher Manjuri Bhowmick from neighbouring Khoitabari village fears she will meet the same fate as the 67-year-old. Bhowmick was declared a D-Voter (Doubtful Voter) in 1997. “My children say maybe I will be taken to a detention camp. Before that, I better run off to Bengal,” she says, with a dry laugh.
Amrit’s neighbour Dipali Saha, 60, fears for her “D-voter husband”.
In the Sorbhog Assembly constituency that falls under the Kokrajhar Lok Sabha seat, there are roughly 7,000 D-Voters, the highest number across 126 Assembly segments in Assam.
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In the run-up to the April 23 voting, no big politician has mentioned Amrit’s death. Only the Bharatiya Gana Parishad, which caters to primarily Bengali Hindus, and is contesting for the first time (it had fought Assembly polls in 2016), has mentioned the issue a few times.
Among the 983 in detention camps across the state, there have been only three recorded deaths so far, two of them of Bengali Hindus.
While civil society and activists have been questioning this silence, Amrit’s family is resigned. All they want are “shanti” and “respect”, says Boloram, 31, Amrit’s elder son.
While the entire family is out of the NRC, their names are on the 2019 electoral roles and, on April 23, Boloram, brother Krishna, their wives, and their mother Mohanbala, will vote at the local polling booth.
They haven’t decided who for though — the family says they have not heard of the BJP government’s proposed Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, that seeks to protect Hindu migrants like Amrit whose citizenship is under question. “These laws don’t matter to people like us,” says Krishna. “It does not matter to us if it’s the Congress or BJP. Or if our road is fixed. Will any of that bring our father back?”
Like they had been doing for two years since Amrit was detained, on March 20, Krishna had boarded a bus for the Goalpara District Jail, 90 km away, to meet him. It was a month since the family had last seen Amrit.
But seeing his father was a shock, Krishna says. Amrit, visibly thinner, told him across the grille, “Why does it hurt so much?” For the past six months, Amrit had been complaining of a chest pain so severe he couldn’t breathe, he adds. With no answer, Krishna, a 29-year-old carpenter, says he tried to distract Amrit by “talking about home”.
A little over two weeks later, on the night of April 6, Amrit died at a civil hospital in Goalpara. “We got to know only the next morning,” says Krishna.
Amrit had been detained in Goalpara district jail, his case referred to the Barpeta Foreigners Tribunal by Border Police. The family laments he died without coming to know just why. Just a few weeks ago, they realised it could be down to an age inconsistency between their grandfather and father. Their grandfather Birendra Das Chandra appears on the NRC 1951 as a 36-year-old man, but on the voters’ list of 1965 as 26. It on this basis that the High Court order upheld the FT order on March 20: if Birendra was indeed 26 in in 1965, he would be 13 in 1952, when Amrit was born.
The family claims to have approached BJP state president and Sorbhog MLA Ranjit Dass for help, but add that the lawyer Dass put them in touch with, ended up swindling them.
Dass, however, says he was never approached by Amrit. He adds, “We can help but we politicians are not above the law either. We can’t help when someone has already been declared a foreigner. It is for this reason that we are pushing for the citizenship Bill.”
However, with Amrit’s Bengali Hindu community in a minority in these parts — unlike Assam’s Barak Valley — they don’t see any hope of the BJP’s promise to revive the Bill coming to anything. “The Bill is a naatok (drama), and Bengali Hindus scapegoats,” says Arun Roy of the Bengali United Forum of Assam. “Do deaths of Bengali Hindus find any mention in any manifestoes?”
To this, MLA Dass argues that mentioning the death would be “a violation of the Model Code of Conduct”. “We will be charged with polarising Hindu votes.”
In Kokrajhar Lok Sabha constituency, lies an Assembly segment with the highest number of D-voters. But with Bengali Hindus in a minority in these parts, they don’t put much hope by the BJP’s Bill promise.
In the past year, conditions at detention centres has drawn criticism. On May 26, 2018, 38-year-old Subrata Dey had died at the Goalpara detention centre, and in October 2018, 65-year-old Jabbar Ali, had died in Tezpur. “That puts the count of custodial deaths at three,” says activist Abdul Kalam Azad.
Officials, however, contest Amrit’s death being classified as custodial death. “He died not in jail, but in hospital, because he fell sick. This was a natural death,” says Goalpara SP Sushanta Biswa Sarma. Sarma’s brother is the BJP’s Northeast face Himanta Biswa Sarma.
Mohanbala, Amrit’s wife, who never managed to visit her husband through his two years in jail, has a counter to this. If her husband hadn’t gone to jail, he wouldn’t have fallen ill, and if he hadn’t fallen ill, he wouldn’t have died, she argues.
Noting that they cremated him 2 km from their home, Krishna says, “If Baba was not a Hindustani, why did the government allow us to cremate him in India?”