Foreigners, friends: They were strangers. Then they met in jail

In Assam’s several citizenship determination processes, some narratives are lost — like that of the Gorkhas, despite a notification declaring them as Indians. And like that of Tara and Maya, now forever bound by two months together at a detention centre

It was on a July morning, outside the Foreigners’ Tribunal (FT) housed in a pleasant-looking Assam-type cottage in Golaghat, that they first met. Maya, the younger of the two, was short and fair. Tara was almost a foot taller, and frail. Maya was talkative; Tara quiet. Maya liked to sing; Tara liked to cook. But the two women had one thing in common—both had stepped out of their respective villages in Assam’s Golaghat district only once in their lives: as gabhoru (pubescent) girls to visit the Kamakhya temple in Guwahati. And, as they discovered that morning in July 2017, both were suspected foreigners, ‘D-Voters’ or ‘doubtful voters’, living illegally in India, in the eye of the law.

Weeks passed and the two would meet whenever a ‘taarikh’ or a ‘date’ with the FT got them together. Tara would be often accompanied by husband Bipul, a ‘D-Voter’ himself. Maya’s husband never came. Then, one day, Tara recalls, Maya didn’t turn up. “I thought I would never see her again,” says Tara.

A month later, the two met in jail.


Like the five other detention centres in Assam meant for foreigners, or those who had “illegally entered after 1971”, the womens’ wing in Jorhat District Jail too was packed with detainees — toddlers with nursing mothers, middle-aged women and some so old they couldn’t stand up straight.

The first night, Tara remembers crying herself to sleep, on a blanket on the floor, near a toilet. The next morning, among the hundreds of unfamiliar faces, she recognised one. “It was Maya from the FT,” says Tara. Maya, who had been in the jail for almost a month, showed her around: where to wash up, how to get to the toilets the quickest, and most importantly, whom not to anger. “The women would fight, about space, soap, beds, buckets, whatnot,” says Maya.

As Tara and she talked, often the conversation veered around to their families. “Maya would tell me about her husband who had left her, about how she sent her seven-year-old to school that morning, not knowing she would be picked up hours later,” says Tara. “And I would speak about my sons — how one had dropped out of school, how worried I was about home.”

Other days would pass in complete silence. “I would cry, she would console me. Then, she would cry, and I would console her,” says Maya. On several occasions, other suspected foreigners would pick on the meek Tara, 47, who would often fall ill. And Maya, 10 years younger, would come to the rescue. “When Maya gets angry she shouts, when I get angry, I cry,” says Tara. Soon, they became best friends, inseparable through the day, parting only at night to go sleep in their respective halls.

This article was originally published in The Indian Express in February 2019. Full article here.