Jorhat jail
Central Jail Jorhat-cum-foreigners' detention camp. Image credit - jorhat.gov.in

For the last week or so, the state has been in the grip of a tragic incident. 65-year-old Dulal Paul was a resident of Dhekiajuli’s Alisinga village. In 2017, he was declared a foreigner by a Foreigners’ Tribunal in Sonitpur and was sent to the Detention Centre at Tezpur.

Paul, as reported, was suffering from a mental condition and was taken regularly to the Tezpur mental hospital for check ups. In October, his condition deteriorated and he was shifted to Guwahati Medical College & Hospital (GMCH). And on October 12, Paul breathed his last in the hospital.

While the detention centre officials tried to hand over Dulal Paul’s body to his family, they took a staunch stand and denied to accept and cremate his body. Their demand was a simple one– as he was declared a foreigner, send him to his country of origin.

And if the officials were keen on handing over the body, then they should first declare him Indian. This saw strong reaction from across the state. This tragic incident drove home the fact that many Indians are wrongly declared as foreigners and left to languish in detention centres. It also saw solidarity across caste, community and organisations demanding an immediate stop to harassment of Indians in the name of finding foreigners.

According to Dulal Paul’s family, they have land documents from 1965 but even then he was declared a foreigner. The family spent more than two lakhs to get the case disposed but even then they were not spared. Paul’s family was one of the 19 lakhs left out of the final NRC published on August 31.

For Dulal Paul, it seems in death he was considered to belong to this country and his body was to be handed to his family. What a tragedy that this subtle acceptance of his Indianness was no reason of celebration! But Dulal Paul was neither the first and sadly will not be the last victim of this inhuman practice of detaining people for mere inconsistencies or suspicion.

Responding to a question of opposition in July, 2019 the State parliamentary affairs minister Chandra Mohan Patowary on behalf of the CM stated that till now 25 people declared foreigners have died in detention centres. He further stated that such bodies are never handed over to Bangladesh because in death, the person’s citizenship becomes less relevant!

Almost 11 thousand people are languishing in the six detention centres in Assam. There they live in inhuman conditions and are treated as under trial. They are denied the basic rights given to regular prisoners. It needs to be noted that most such cases are actually declared ex-parte.

The person is not even heard. These are mostly poor, illiterate people who are heavily dependent on their lawyers. Often left destitute after paying legal fees, they are also misled by these lawyers. Their absence in hearings is taken as evident of the fact that they don’t have documents to prove their citizenship.

If one looks at other cases, the pattern is almost same. According to a report in the Scroll.in, in 2011, Sahida Bibi of Dhubri’s Rowa village was declared foreigner in an ex-parte judgement. She has just given birth to twins and they were all lodged into jail.

Detention centres are no place to bring up children. One of her sons had respiratory complications and while only 45 days old, he died. When the FT Court was directed by the Gauhati High Court to inspect Sahida’s case again, it was found that she had ample document to prove her citizenship.

Her father Insan Ali’s name was there in the 1951 NRC and in subsequent electoral rolls. After ten months, Sahida Bibi was declared Indian and she was free. But the death of a child left a bitter void inside her.

In another tragic case, 84-year-old Shashi Mohan Sarkar, who was unwell and barely mobile, was declared a foreigner by an FT Court in Chirang in 2017. Due to his old age he could not attend all his hearings and was declared a foreigner in an ex-parte judgement.

His son did manage to get hold of authentic documents. But before he could get his father released, he was slapped with a notice of being a foreigner. Struggling to make ends meet, he sold his land and hired a lawyer for himself. And amidst all this his old ailing father died in 2018. While he was declared Indian, his father was not.

We are yet to forget Madhubala Mondol breaking down after she languished in the detention centre for three years for being mistaken as Madhubala Das. We continue to be haunted by the spectre of 102- year-old Chakradhar Das, lying on the FT’s verandah waiting to get rid of the D voter tag. Chakradhar Das was born much before the three countries came into being – but he had no home to belong to.

We also remember the despair that the deaths of Subrata De, Amrit Das and others left behind. We have been shamed by images of detention centre detainees being handcuffed to hospital beds while getting medical treatments. One Biplab Roy of Udalguri lamented to this author that his father died with the stain of D voter and now his mother is struggling with the same. Such is the situation that his mother is on the verge of losing mental stability because of this.

Detention centre inmates are robbed of the minimum dignity even in their deaths. They struggle to belong to this country in life and they are accepted only in death. While the National Human Rights Commission registered a suo moto case and the local officials also declared a magisterial enquiry into the cause of death of Dulal Paul, what needs to be enquired is why people are detained on the basis of ex parte judgements.

Why speedy disposal of cases should overtake justice? Why minor inconsistencies which are often the mistakes of enumerators should lead to people being declared foreigners in their own country? Why Sanaullah, Mohd Ajmal and other army officials were declared foreigners in the country which they were serving? Why poor rickshaw pullers are picked up and their hand prints, finger prints are recorded without any reason and then they are served notice of being suspicious individuals?

The death of Dulal Paul should not go in vain. It should raise these questions and force the establishment to take a relook at the people lodged in jail not for any crime but for not having proper documentation. In a country where lack of education, awareness continues to be rampant, this obsession with documents seems like a crude joke. Dulal Paul’s tragic death should force the authority to take a more humane approach to this entire issue.

Parvin Sultana

Parvin Sultana is an assistant professor in Pramathesh Barua College, Gauripur. She can be reached at: parvin.jnu@gmail.com

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