Goalpara, Assam: Soon after Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that there were no detention centres in the country, Naresh Koch, a detainee in the Goalpara detention centre in Assam, breathed his last at the Guwahati Medical College and Hospital.

Naresh passed away on January 5. He became the 29th person to have died while being at a detention centre in the state since 2014. The state has six detention centres housed inside district jails, while a central-government funded exclusive centre is being constructed in Goalpara’s Matia area.

Three days after his death, I visited his family at his home, located close to the well known Archeological Survey of India protected historical site, Surya Pahar, in the state’s Goalpara district. I have been meeting the families of those who have been kept in detention centres, those who have died by suicides out of fear of being sent to detention camps, those who have been excluded from the National Register of Citizens (NRC), those who have been facing litigations at the foreigners’ tribunals, etc. on a regular basis. All the stories are living testimonies of institutionalised brutalities, of sheer injustice. However, Naresh Koch’s story is one of the most disturbing stories I have encountered so far.

Naresh Koch belongs to the indigenous Koch tribe of Assam. His son and his brother were included in the final NRC released last year. He is neither a Muslim of Bengali origin nor a Bengali Hindu and doesn’t belong to any of the other communities which are widely perceived to belong to the category of people who could have migrated from Bangladesh. Naresh developed hypertension during the two years he spent in the Goalpara detention centre, suffered a stroke and finally died at the Gauhati Medical College.

Naresh and his second wife Jinu, who belongs to the Garo tribe from Meghalaya, used to work at a fish farm, a few kilometres away from his home. Two years ago, at the end of a hard day’s work, Naresh went to a country liquor shop on the main road to have a drink. His wife said local police picked him up from there. They later learnt that, as per the police records, he had been named a ‘declared foreigner’ by a tribunal.

There have been several reports about how the citizenship of people in the state, particularly the poor, is being contested by various governmental agencies including the election commission, the border unit of the Assam Police, and through the update process of the NRC. Reports also indicate that the foreigners’ tribunal members are under pressure to declare as many persons as foreigners to save their contractual jobs. Naresh’s story comes across as no different. 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.

The Koch dynasty once, under the reign of glorious kings like Nara Narayan and general Chilarai, spanned across various parts of Assam and Bengal.

Naresh was a ‘Declared Foreign National’ (DFN), an abbreviation which implies rightlessness. According to Jinu, she and his son Babulal (from his first wife) didn’t know about this and Naresh’s detention for a few days. A couple of days after Naresh had been picked up, they heard, from some villagers, that Naresh was sent to the detention centre. Forget the costs of fighting Naresh’s case in the higher courts, the family couldn’t even manage to amass one hundred rupees to cover the expenses for transportation to visit him in the detention centre.

Due to Naresh’s arrest, Jinu soon lost her job at the fish farm, as well as the pending wages. Babulal occasionally worked as manual worker, which became the only source of income for the family. Naresh continued to remain in detention.

Jinu at her house’s courtyard. Photo: Shakil Ahmed

Two years passed by. Suddenly, this in December 2019, a police team visited Jinu and requested her to leave immediately for the Goalpara Hospital to see her husband. She was told that he was seriously ill. Since Jinu didn’t have a penny in the house, the police team gave her Rs 100 so that she could rush to the hospital. However, before she could reach the hospital, her husband was shifted to the Gauhati Medical College, about 150 km from her home.

This time, the local police gave Jinu Rs 1,000 and sent her to Guwahati. An uneducated tribal woman from Khardang village on Assam-Meghalaya border, Jinu had never visited Guwahati before; she couldn’t even speak Assamese fluently. “I somehow reached the hospital but found him paralysed. I had not seen or spoken to him in the last two years. I wanted to speak to him. He tried speaking to me, but couldn’t,” Jinu related. The stroke had paralysed his tongue as well.

Jinu spent the next 13 days at the hospital and looked after Naresh while two policemen guarded them day and night.

On January 5, Naresh breathed his last. The police brought his body to his village from where he had been detained as a ‘declared’ foreign national. While he was alive the state treated him as a ‘foreigner’, his wife and son were separated from him. But death had finally brought them together.

Jinu said that the police cremated him that night itself in the presence of a group of five or six people and left immediately after the cremation.

When I had reached Naresh Koch’s home, it was getting dark. I found Jinu at the courtyard. The sound of the Azaan was coming from a nearby mosque. I noticed the green light from the government-subsidized electric metre attached an exterior wall of the house twinkling. Jinu entered her Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana funded house. I presumed she had gone in to turn on the light. Instead, she came out with a kerosene lamp. Even though she had a free electricity connection from the government, she didn’t have enough money to buy even a bulb.

Jinu said that after Naresh’s death, she had nothing to eat at home. She had to resort to begging and collected two hundred rupees to buy rice, potato and green chillies. Her biggest challenge now is to repay the seven hundred rupees she borrowed to cover the cost of firewood used in Naresh’s funeral.

How many more will suffer such a fate if a nationwide NRC is to be carried out?

Actually, Naresh Koch didn’t belong to any community – not even to his own Koch community. Even though Naresh was a Hindu, he doesn’t belong to the BJP even though its government at the Centre has brought in a law to protect Hindus from neighbouring countries. Naresh didn’t belong to the hegemonic Assamese chauvinism which has been opposing the BJP government’s move in order to protect the indigenous communities of Assam.

The empty courtyard of his house echoed Hannah Arendt’s words on ‘The Calamity of the Rightless’:

“but that they no longer belong to any community whatsoever. Their plight is not that they are not equal before the law but that no law exists for them; not that they are oppressed but that nobody wants even to oppress them. Only in the last stage of a rather lengthy process is their right to live threatened; only if they remain perfectly ‘superfluous’, if nobody can be found to ‘claim’ them, may their lives be in danger.”

This story first appeared in The Wire on January 12, 2020 here.