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.
At the Kokrajhar jail, a small board near the desk of the jailor, visible behind the bars that separate family members from the inmates, states that of the 417 inmates at the prison, 149 are ‘Declared Foreign Nationals (DFNs)’, 13 ‘DFN’ children, nine ‘Actual Bangladeshis (ABs)’ and two ‘AB’ children. “It is always crowded like this,” the jailor, who doesn’t want to be identified, says, breaking off to tell the crowd to disperse from front of the bars. “They just do not want to leave. We feel bad too.”
The jostling visitors are supposed to wait their turn at a “waiting room” — a ramshackle structure, open to the elements. However, impatient, grief-ridden, and tired from hours of travel, they often hang around at the “meeting point”, which is right where the jailor sits.
The visitors can meet the inmates between 10 am and 4 pm from Monday to Saturday. No prior appointment is needed.
On either side of the meeting point are corridors dotted with tiny windows. Here a more private audience is granted to those accused of “bigger crimes” such as murder. The DFNs and their families have to make do with the crowded common area, where multiple conversations happen in parallel and bags stuffed with things such as food, oil, soap are passed through the narrow grille.
After nearly two-and-a-half hours of waiting, Rahman finally gets to meet his mother-in-law, Khatun. The moment the 56-year-old sees him, she breaks down. As he hands over the bags he has got, a sobbing Khatun keeps referring to her father Kaffir Uddin’s voter list document from 1966 — clearly hoping that is her ticket to freedom.
What Khatun doesn’t know is that she might be in “indefinite detention”. In 2015, a Foreigners’ Tribunal had declared Khatun, her husband Ayub and their two daughters “declared foreigners”. The case went to the Gauhati High Court, and finally, to the Supreme Court, where their plea was dismissed. So, for all practical purposes, Khatun and 61-year-old Ayub, who is at the Tezpur jail detention centre, are stuck in custody forever. Their daughters haven’t been picked up yet, but live in that fear — hence it is Rahman who comes to visit Khatun and Ayub, in turns.
Rahman says that when he married their elder daughter in 2003, she was not a ‘suspected Bangladeshi’. “In 2005, her family received their first notice. Since 2015, when her parents were picked up, our lives have changed,” he says. The 30-year-old, who earns a living selling ginger in the hills of Karbi Anglong, recently built a “heavy tin door” at the entrance of their two-room home in No. 1 Barpayak Village, Nellie, in Morigaon district. “Before that, my wife would refuse to sleep in the house, she would sleep in different homes,” says Rahman. “She hasn’t seen her parents since the day they were picked up as she is too scared to visit.”
In all these three years, it is only once that she has talked to her father. Rahman’s wife, back at their home in Morigaon, adds. “He was taken to the Guwahati Medical College for treatment. My husband put him on the line. He said ‘mai’ and I said ‘baba’, and we both just cried,” she says. Her son, 4, runs around, before ducking under their bed, from where he shouts, “Bring my naani back, will you?”
At the Kokrajhar jail meeting point, the grandmother, who can’t stop sobbing, manages to tell Rahman she does not want any such updates on her family, before picking up two woolly mufflers she has knitted inside the jail, and pushing them across the bars.
Within the jail premises, the DFNs are housed in separate quarters, surrounded by high walls. Inside, the hundreds of women are packed in a small space and sleep on bare floors. Talking about her time inside, 27-year-old Morjina Bibi, who spent eight months in the detention centre after being picked up in a case of mistaken identity, and came out in August 2017, says she can never forget the food they had: a cup of red tea (Assam tea, without milk) and a “thin” roti in the morning, followed by meals at 10.30 am and 4.30 pm. “I went a whole month without eating. The rice had bits of coal. Often, I would pick out the potatoes from the subzi, mash them with mustard oil given by my family and eat that.”
For Bimal Baidya, who spent 13 months at the Goalpara jail detention centre, the worst part was being kept with hardcore criminals. “They would jeer at us. The security guards would say ‘Tohot Bangladeshi ghuri ja (You Bangladeshi, go back)’.” Last December, when Baidya, 60, was declared “Indian” by the courts and walked free, he came home to find that his wife had died months ago.
While stressing that the condition of the prison does not fall under the jurisdiction of police but the Prison Department, Kokrajhar SP Rajen Singh says, “These people have been declared illegal foreigners after a judicial process. If some think they are not ‘hardened’ criminals, it is up to them. Also, they live according to the terms and conditions set by the Prison Department.”
As per official records, as of February 4, 2018, there were 899 detainees in the six detention centres — 727 ‘declared’ and 172 ‘convicted’ of being Bangladeshis. A new dedicated centre is being built in Goalpara, with the capacity to house 3,000.
The Tezpur jail where Rahman’s father-in-law Ayub is housed has the highest numbers in a detention centre, 268. Rahman makes his way here two days after the visit to the Kokrajhar jail, again bearing three bags, filled with fruits, and this time also carrying reams of paper.
Near him stands a man with his two children, “Indians” waiting for their “Bangladeshi” mother to appear. When she comes to the window, the husband can’t bear to look and turns around and sobs into a pillar.
Four hours later, Ayub, a soft-spoken 61-year-old, appears at the grille, and he and Rahman get down to business immediately. They talk of documents, lawyers and money. “It’s the same conversation — it starts matter-of-fact and ends in tears, every time,” says Rahman later.
This time, however, Ayub had one new piece of information. A few weeks back he suddenly remembered the name of his high school teacher. “If you go to my school, and ask for ‘Rupraam Sir’, he will have my school certificate,” he told Rahman. “Don’t forget, ‘Rupraam’. Say it to yourself many times so you don’t forget it. Maybe this is the certificate that will save us.”
Rahman nods, but he knows better.
Full names in the story not given to protect identities.