June 27, 2020
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Twenty-six Deaths In Assam's Detention Centres Magnify Fallacy Of NRC Exercise, But Who Cares

Human rights campaigners say the errors in the National Register of Citizens have caused trauma of epic proportions. Is the Citizenship Amendment Bill the solution?

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Twenty-six Deaths In Assam's Detention Centres Magnify Fallacy Of NRC Exercise, But Who Cares
Assam Tangle
People protest the death of Dulal Chandra Paul.
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Twenty-six Deaths In Assam's Detention Centres Magnify Fallacy Of NRC Exercise, But Who Cares
  • Name: Dulal Chandra Paul
  • Age: 65
  • Died: October 13, 2019
  • Nationality: Unknown

The industrious farmer was born and brought up in Assam—just like his father Rajendra Paul. The family in a village near the central Assam town of Tezpur couldn’t be more emphatic and steadfast in asserting their antecedent. Yet, when Dulal Paul died at Gauhati Medical College and Hospital on October 13, he was a stateless person—declared a foreigner staying illegally in India and thrown into a detention centre. His three sons—aged 28, 25 and 14—face similar uncertainties or fate. Their names have been left out of the updated National Register of Citizens (NRC), considered by many in Assam and elsewhere as the holy grail of all efforts to detect foreigners staying illegally in the state. Paul’s wife is safe—she is an Indian, her name features on the all-important NRC list.

The old man’s death would have been a mere footnote in the state’s long history of attempts to tackle undocumented immigration from Bangladesh, a country sharing a long and porous border with Assam. But his wasn’t a one-off, lonely death. At least 25 so-called “Bangladeshis” died in detention after foreigner tribunals—those quasi-judicial agencies adjudicating such cases in Assam—sealed their fate, proclaiming them non-Indian. Then again, cases abound of tribunals sending suspects to any of the six detention centres in Assam and courts freeing these men and women later when they successfully prove their citizenship—Indian. The trauma of living the life of a prisoner stalks them throughout. Does anybody care? Hardly.

The tribunals err and the mistakes are far too many to be ignored, human rights campaigners allege. Anger, anxiety, exasperation, suspicion et al follow every time such cases are reported. Paul’s relatives were engulfed in similar emotions and they couldn’t be faulted for refusing to accept his body and insisting the government send it to Bangladesh. It was only after chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal assured the family of legal assistance to fight his case that they performed the last rites—nine days after his death.

Paul’s nephew Sadhan put the family’s feelings—a mix of anger and pain—into perspective. “When he was alive, he was treated a foreigner and kept locked in a detention centre. After his death, the authorities forced us to accept the body of a foreigner,” he says. The sarcasm and bitterness was not lost. “What does it mean? When he was alive, he was a foreigner and he becomes an Indian in death?”

The shifting line—like the sand bars of the Brahmaputra and Barak—over who is a foreigner and who’s not has become the rallying point of families that have their dear ones in detention centres, or dead already in those hellholes, where food is scarce and basic amenities almost non-existent. At least 26 people have died in the six detention centres in Assam since 2011, as per government records.

A detention centre coming up at Goalpara.

The deaths prick public consciousness, but the subject that pushed these people to their untimely end—foreigner versus khilonjiya or native—is highly emotive in Assam. It captures votes. No doubt, political parties have waded in. Badaruddin Ajmal, the All India United Democratic Front chief, called the deaths inhuman and tragic, and asked the government to initiate steps for a solution. “This is injustice. When a person is declared a foreigner or a Bangladeshi, he or she should be sent to Bangladesh. People are kept in detention centres like animals,” Ajmal says.

The SC has asked the Assam government to release ‘declared foreigners’ languishing in detention centres for over three years.

The opposition Congress, which ruled the state for 15 years nonstop until the BJP uprooted it in 2016, blamed the Sonowal government for the casualties. Assam unit Congress general secretary Apurba Kumar Bhattacharya says: “The BJP came to power with the promise to protect Hindu Bengalis, but what is the reality?” He alleges that “a sympathetic humanistic approach” was missing in the state government’s policy towards detection of illegal foreigners even after Paul’s death. The Congress leader advises the chief minister, who has the home department on his watch, to “rise above petty politics and settle the issue”.

Government records show 1,145 “foreigners” were lodged in detention centres. Of them, 335 are eligible for release in accordance with a Supreme Court order that directs the Assam government to set free “declared foreigners” detained for more than three years. But there’s a catch. The detainees would have to submit two sureties of Rs 1 lakh each, besides a verifiable address, in return for their freedom. That’s quite steep for most detainees—mostly from lower middle class families.

What has angered human rights activists and opposition parties alike is the construction of another detention centre near Goalpara. This one has space for 3,000 people. The government plans to set up 10 more.

It was in Goalpara, in March last year, that Subrata Dey—a 36-year-old making a living selling tea from a small sack, and feeding a family of five—was detained by police and sent to a detention centre. Dey died of a cardiac arrest in May, wife Kamini Dey says. “We don’t understand the complications. We have been living here for ages. Our forefathers have their names in the NRC of 1951. Still, my husband was declared a foreigner and detained. After his death, the jail authorities brought his body and forced us to perform the last rites.” She wells up.

The widowed mother of two insists that a clerical error—a typo—sent her husband to death. His name was apparently typed wrongly on documents; Subodh Dey, instead of Subrata Dey. And Subodh was the one the authorities were looking for. “They promised to resolve the issue, but no one has helped us. It’s been a year now. No one comes to help the poor,” Kamini states her resignation as she stares at another challenge. She must appear before a foreigner tribunal and clear her name. “I have spent Rs 25,000 already and now I got a second notice. The advocate says Rs 35,000 will be needed to get my name cleared,” she says. And one might ask how could money buy someone citizenship? It does and that’s another story.

That an inattentive typist’s fingers can ruin someone’s life is, perhaps, best exemplified in Assam. “Most of the people, irrespective of religion, kept in detention centres are victims of clerical mistakes. We want the government to review the entire process. And whoever found to be Indian should immediately be released,” insists Azizur Rahman, an advisor to the All Assam Minority Students’ Union (AAMSU). It’s bigger and more influential counterpart, the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), wants the government to make its stand clear on the deaths. AASU general secretary Lurinjyoti Gogoi says: “The government should come up with a policy as per the Constitution.”

For its part, the BJP government asserts that the matter is sub judice, but the “harassment” will end once the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) becomes a law. State cabinet minister Parimal Suklabaidya says: “Once CAB comes, these problems will not be there anymore. I sincerely hope Dulal Chandra Paul’s sacrifice will be the last.” The CAB endorses citizenship to non-Muslim immigrants who have faced religious persecution in three neighbouring countries and have entered India before December 31, 2014. That’s another hot potato waiting to be peeled.

By Abdul Gani in Guwahati

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