He lost a year of his life when he was wrongfully declared a ‘foreigner’ in Assam

Can this carpenter from Bongaigaon make something of a second chance?

Tiptop Furniture in Assam’s Bongaigaon has seen better days. “But it’s also seen worse,” says Bimal Baidya, owner, proprietor and sole employee of the ramshackle carpenter shop for more than 30 years now.

On a May morning in 1996, back when it was in another location, it witnessed a riot between the Bodos and Adivasis. Next day, the shop was razed to the ground. But Tiptop found another life, in another location. There it witnessed a devastating flood. On that afternoon — sometime in 2002 — as the water levels rose, Baidya climbed on top of one of his chairs. “There was no sign of the rain stopping. So, I kept stacking my furniture — first a table, then an almirah,” says the 61-year-old carpenter. That night, Baidya slept on top of the almirah as the murky water swivelled threateningly all around him. “I thought I was going to die,” he says. But the night passed, the waters abated, and Tiptop moved again.

But through it all — the riots and the floods — there wasn’t a single day Baidya didn’t turn up at his shop. Each morning, his cycle would be stowed away, the shutters pulled up, and a small prayer — incense sticks clasped in his hands — recited.

Till in November 2016, four men from the Assam Police’s border force landed up at Tiptop, and whisked away its guardian. In the one year and one month that followed, all was quiet at the shop. For Baidya, till then the hard-working, friendly, tamul-chewing carpenter of Bongaigaon’s Bou Bazar, was proclaimed a foreigner — a Bangladeshi living illegally on Indian soil, whom everyone was suddenly wary of.

The notice from the Foreigners’ Tribunal (FT) — one of the many quasi-judicial bodies first set up in Assam in the early 1960s to try so-called “illegal immigrants” — had come three years back in 2013. (Official records say that, as of February 4, 2018, there were 899 such detainees in the six detention centres.) “I did not understand anything it said — just that I was a suspected Bangladeshi and that I needed the documents to prove that I wasn’t,” says Baidya. The documents were there, and so was the belief that he was in the clear. “My parents crossed the border in the early 1950s. I don’t even know which part of Bangladesh they came from. These weren’t things one ever felt the need to discuss,” he says.

Yet, in 2016, Baidya found himself in a jail in Goalpara, about 60 km from his home in Bongaigaon. “They told me that I would be out in a week,” says Baidya. But the week turned into a month, and then several more. “I can’t explain what it felt like, only someone who has been in jail will be able to,” he says.

In his 13 months of detention, Baidya lived in a hall with about a hundred inmates — murderers, thieves and dacoits, hardened criminals who had to serve sentences up to a decade. “Yet it was us, the ‘foreigners’, who were treated the worst. ‘OiBangladeshi, get out of the way’ — that’s how they would refer to us.”

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