Firdous Ali, 69, a farmer from Assam’s Barpeta district, has been lodged in a detention camp for illegal foreigners in Assam since June 2016. His son Mofizuddin Miya, 40, a fish- seller in Guwahati, is struggling to find a lawyer who would appeal the case in Gauhati High Court at a nominal rate – Mofizuddin claims to have found his father’s name in the National Register of Citizens (NRC) of 1951.
While that appeal in HC may progress, the recent Supreme Court ruling on conditional release of people detained for being “illegal foreigners” in Assam has brought a ray hope for the family.
Last week, the Supreme Court ordered that detainees who have completed more than three years may be released on furnishing a bond with two sureties of Rs 1 lakh each of Indian citizens, as also giving details of address of stay after release and providing biometric details in a secured database. The court also said that upon release, they have to report once a week at the police station specified by Foreigners’ Tribunal (FT).
Mofizuddin claimed: “We own some land in our village. We can sell part of it to get Rs 1 lakh and complete the formalities of conditional release. We are genuine Indians. Since my grandfather died young and the documents got misplaced, my father could not produce them when he was accused of being a foreigner. I have now got the copy of the 1951 NRC.” There are six detention camps in Assam – housed in jails in Goalpara, Kokrajhar, Tezpur, Jorhat, Dibrugarh and Silchar – and they hold nearly 900 “illegal foreigners”. Firdous is detained in Goalpara.
The FTs – there are 100 across the state – are quasi-judicial organisations meant to “furnish opinion on the question as to whether a person is or is not a foreigner within the meaning of Foreigner’s Act, 1946”.
In an affidavit submitted to the Supreme Court earlier this year, the Assam government stated that 1,03,764 people had been declared foreigners by FTs as of August 31, 2018, and that 823 such people are in the six detention camps.
Many detainees and their lawyers claimed that they are Indians but were unable to prove it due to weak legal representation at the FTs, or because of “minor errors” such as spelling of names of forefathers in documents.
On Sunday, Basudev Biswas, 58, lodged in Tezpur detention camp since 2015, died. He was suffering from asthma. Last month, Amrit Das, 67, died in Goalpara detention camp after complaining of chest pain. He was detained in 2017.
Abu Bakkar Siddiq, in his early-30s, is nearing three years at Jorhat detention camp – he was detained in November 2016. Dhubri-based advocate Masud Zaman said Siddiq has “all necessary documents” but got declared as an “illegal foreigner” due to spelling mistakes in his forefather’s name in documents. He said Siddiq has lost appeals against the FT order at both High Court and the Supreme Court.
“All I want is my husband to be released. I work as a domestic help and earn very little. We have three little children to take care of,” Siddiq’s wife Rohima Khatun said.
Lawyer Zaman said, “Furnishing the surety and appearing before the police every week can cause problem for many of these people, but overall this is a good step. At least these people will be able to stay with their families.”
On June 23, 2015, Bishaka Bala Das (in her mid-60s) was arrested for being an illegal foreigner and was lodged in Kokrajhar camp. She lost an appeal at Gauhati HC and has now appealed the top court, claiming that she is an Indian citizen, born in West Bengal and having grown up in what is today Assam’s Chirang district. Das’s son Badal was also a suspected foreigner but was declared an Indian citizen by the same FT which held his mother a foreigner, in an order dated March 3, 2016.
Advocate Shaizuddin Ahmed of Gauhati HC, to whom the family came for help after they lost the appeal in HC, said, “After Das completes the three-year period, she will be eligible for conditional release. But to furnish a bond of Rs 1 lakh will not be easy. Most of those in detention camps are financially weak – their relatives work as labourers or farmers, or as daily-wage workers.”