Since the beginning of this year, two persons have died in Assam’s detention camps for illegal foreigners. Documents accessed by The Indian Express show both as residents of the state before the cut-off date of March 24, 1971, under the Citizenship Act, 1955. Families say they were unable to present this before the Foreigners’ Tribunals or courts due to wrong legal advice.
According to his post-mortem report, Subrata Dey (37), who was lodged for two months at the Goalpara detention camp, died on May 26 due to a heart ailment. Mohammad Jabbar Ali (70), who was lodged for around three years in the Tezpur detention camp, died on the night of October 4 following old age-related health problems, police claim. There are over 900 ‘suspected’ foreigners currently at the six detention camps in Assam, in Goalpara, Kokrajhar, Tezpur, Jorhat, Dibrugarh and Silchar. Their cases are being heard and decided at the 100 Foreigners’ Tribunals (FTs) across the state.
A certified copy of the 1951 National Register of Citizens (NRC) of Assam — which the state is seeking to update now — shows eight members of the Dey family registered at House No. 63, Salmara Bazaar village, Dhubri district. In the NRC, Subrata’s father Krishnapada Dey is registered as a 10-year-old boy.
Krishnapada’s father Monoranjan Dey and mother Makhan Bala Dey also appear in the 1966 state voters’ list. The family migrated to Goalpara district in the late 1980s. Similarly, Ali’s parents Sutko Sheikh and Santa Nessa have their names in the electoral rolls of 1966 and 1994, while Ali himself figures in the 1994 voters’ list. Also, a 2004 election document shows Santa Nessa as the head of the household and lists Jabbar Ali as her son.
Incidentally, earlier this year, Ali’s son Johar Ali (33), who was considered a ‘doubtful voter’, received clearance as an Indian citizen on the basis of the1966 document of his grandparents. In the case of both Dey and Ali, the orders by FTs declaring them “illegal foreigners” ex-parte, in 2011 and 2007 respectively, record that they had failed to appear before the tribunal on multiple dates.
Ali’s order says that he “acknowledged receipt of the notice of the Tribunal” but took no step to prove he was an Indian national. “He even did not appear before this Tribunal even not to adduce any oral evidence to prove himself as not foreigner,” the order adds.
Following the FT order, Ali was arrested in 2015. He pleaded before the Gauhati High Court that he be given another opportunity to prove his Indian citizenship but was not able to provide any concrete reason for his non-appearance before the FT in 2007.
“Had my father got a chance, he could have proved that he was an Indian citizen,” says Johar Ali.
In case of Dey, the first FT notice was served on April 6, 2009. When he didn’t come, the tribunal gave another date two months later, but Dey again failed to turn up then and at the next successive seven dates, though his written statement was submitted to the FT by his advocate. The FT order declaring him “illegal foreigner” termed his absence as “deliberate, willful, gross negligence”.
It also noted that while photocopies of Dey’s parents’ name in the electoral rolls of 1966 and 1985, and his primary school certificate, were presented to the FT, “the original papers were not produced… nor the respondent came forward to prove his own case”.
Seven years after the order, Dey was arrested in March. The lawyer in Goalpara whom the family approached never filed a petition in the HC. Even as the family appointed a lawyer in Guwahati for the case, Dey passed away.
Dey’s brother Bishnu Dey says, “Subrata missed the dates before the FT because of two reasons — first, he used to often travel out of town for work, and second, our lawyer promised us that he would take care of everything and there was no question of any arrest.”
He adds, “We don’t know why the lawyer failed to guide us properly. But people say if a case is dragged to the HC, the lawyer can charge more money. He even kept the original documents for a long time, promising us that he would appeal.”
Ali’s family says they too were misled. “From 2007 to 2015, my father was not arrested, so he was not worried. The lawyer, who is now dead, did not inform us of the consequences. When he was about to be arrested, we petitioned the HC through a Guwahati-based lawyer. But we were not given a second chance,” says Johar Ali.
Two Guwahati-based advocates, one well-versed with Ali’s case and another with Dey’s, told The Indian Express that had the two been heard properly, multiple evidence could have been presented to prove their Indian citizenship.
“The poor and illiterate are more vulnerable to being cheated. Sadly, many genuine citizens are being declared foreigners because of unethical practices of some lawyers,” says Aman Wadud, who has represented several alleged foreigners in FTs and the HC.