A day in the life of suspected ‘foreigners’ in Assam

‘He said mai, I said baba, we both just cried.’ Tears flow, hope strains, and separated by bars, family members and inmates cling on to gifts pushed through a grille.

On a Monday morning at the Kokrajhar District Jail, paper and patience are both in paucity. “We don’t provide paper,” snaps the jailor across a grille. The crowd gathered on the other side — young mothers and toddlers, bent old men, newly married women — look on helplessly. A thin lone figure extricates himself from the din, and walks away. Rahman has travelled 300-odd km already, and 3 more to buy paper doesn’t make much of a difference. He has taken a bus, a train, and another bus to get here. He has carried three heavy bags filled with an assortment of things: bananas, apples, salt, tamul-paan, soap, oil, the Assamese traditional gamusa, and even a sari. But he hasn’t carried paper. He didn’t know he had to.

Over the three-and-a-half years he has been visiting the Kokrajhar jail, the rules keep changing. “Earlier we just needed to sign or put our thumb impression,” Rahman says, holding a sheaf of paper he just bought from the market. “Now they want us to write an application stating why we have come here. Why have I come? Is it not obvious?”

Standing a few feet away from the crowd around the jailor, he takes out a pen to write his application, but he doesn’t know where to start. Rahman is literate, but inside the small enclosure, the people who surround him are not. Many are silently weeping. Many are just silent. Ali, 28, however, likes to while away time — often it is hours before he gets to see his sister who is inside — by making conversation. “D niki (Is it D)?” he asks Rahman. Rahman nods.

‘D’ is perhaps the only letter of the English alphabet the small group recognises. In Assam, ‘D’ means you’re a dubious/doubtful voter — at the risk of losing your citizenship. It also means that unless you prove otherwise, you can be put into any of the detention centres, housed in six district jails, across the state. Like Ali’s sister was, two months ago. And Rahman’s mother-in-law, three years ago.

The detention centre in Kokrajhar jail came up in 2012, along with the one in Silchar. The others are in Goalpara, Tezpur, Dibrugarh and Jorhat. In these are lodged men, women and children, allegedly “foreigners” who crossed over from Bangladesh into India after 1971, sharing space with those accused in or convicted of all kinds of crime, including murder.

The condition inside these detention centres has been described as “a gross violation of human rights” by the few civil society members allowed inside. In January 2018, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) sought an “independent report”, as part of which a team visited two of these jails. Activist Harsh Mander, who led the team, later resigned from the office of special monitor saying the NHRC had blocked all queries on the lack of action on their 39-page report, which talked of “a situation of grave and extensive human distress and suffering” in the centres.

This article was originally published in The Indian Express in August 2018. Full article here.