Mohammad Sanaullah walked out of the detention centre in Assam’s Goalpara on June 8. But the day this Indian Army ex-subedar will never forget is May 29 — when he walked into the centre, carrying the tag of an “illegal foreigner”.
“Entering through the prison gate, I cried and cried. I asked myself what sin have I committed that after serving my motherland for three decades, including at the LoC in Kupwara, I am being detained like a foreigner,” he told The Indian Express at his residence in Guwahati’s Satgaon after being granted interim bail by the Gauhati High Court.
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“I have served for 30 years in the Army. I have been posted in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Delhi, Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir, Andhra Pradesh, Assam and Manipur. I have defended my country standing bravely at the border. I love my country. I am an Indian and I am sure justice will be done in my case,” he said.
Sanaullah (52), retired as a subedar with the Corps of Electronics and Mechanical Engineers (EME) in August 2017. He had joined the Army on May 21, 1987, and in 2014, was awarded the President’s Certificate for his promotion to the rank of a “Junior Commissioned Officer in the Regular Army in the Rank of Naib Subedar”.
After his retirement, Sanaullah joined the Border wing of Assam Police as a sub-inspector in Kamrup (Rural) district after clearing the qualification tests.
However, after investigating him as a suspected illegal foreigner in 2008-09, the Border wing lodged a “reference” case against him at a Foreigners’ Tribunal (FT). On May 23, Sanaullah lost the case. Six days later, he was taken to the detention centre in Goalpara district.
The FTs — 100 across the state — are quasi-judicial bodies 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”.
“After my retirement, I was looking for opportunities to continue serving my state and my country. I got selected to the Border wing and took the job. The officers who arrested me were my senior colleagues. They followed the procedure as required after an FT order,” he said.
“On May 28 evening, I was called by a DSP to North Guwahati police station. I had an apprehension that it could be related to my detention as per the procedure. At the station, I had to sit through the night, without a place to sleep. Next day, around 7 pm, I entered the detention centre in Goalpara. The prison cell where I was kept there had probably 40-odd people. They gave me two blankets, a mosquito-net and a plate and a glass,” he says.
The bail order says Sanaullah has to furnish a bond of Rs 20,000 with two local sureties. The order states that Sanaullah’s biometrics — iris and fingerprints — and photograph should be obtained prior to his release. It also prohibits Sanaullah from moving out of th territorial jurisdiction of Kamrup (Rural) and Kamrup (Metro) districts.
There are six detention camps in Assam — housed in jails at Goalpara, Kokrajhar, Tezpur, Jorhat, Dibrugarh and Silchar — and they hold 1000-odd “illegal foreigners”. Many of those lodged in these centres have challenged the FT orders in courts.
“My heart broke during my interactions with fellow detainees — most of them have never been to school and are very poor. Some of them have spent eight-nine years in detention. One person from Nalbari district, around 65 years old, has spent over nine years. Most of them were telling me how they had been declared as ‘foreigners’ due to errors in the spelling of their names and discrepancies in age in certain documents,” says Sanaullah.
“The families of many of these detainees do not have the funds to contest the FT order in high court. Some of the families have stopped visiting because even travelling from a far off district to the centre in Goalpara requires money. I met some young men, in the age group of 18-30, who have been declared ‘foreigners’ but there is no question on the Indian citizenship of their parents and siblings,” he says.
Last month, the Supreme Court allowed the conditional release of persons lodged at detention centres for being “illegal foreigners” in Assam.
The apex court ordered that such detainees who have completed more than three years may be released after they furnish a bond with two sureties of Rs 1 lakh each of Indian citizens, submit details of address of stay after release and provide biometric details in a secured database. They should also report once every week to the police station specified by the FT.
“If they come out and work, maybe they will earn a small amount, say Rs 200 per day. But they will be able to live with their family and probably have meals together,” says Sanaullah.
The Gauhati High Court has issued notices to the Union of India, government of Assam, NRC authorities, the Election Commission of India and a former Assam police officer Chandramal Das in the case challenging the FT order against Sanaullah.
The basis of the “reference” to the FT was an interrogation investigation report by Das, the then sub-inspector of the Border wing of the Assam police, against Sanaullah in 2008-09.
However, the three witnesses named in that report Amjad Ali, Mohammad Kuran Ali and Mohammad Sobahan Ali — all residents of Kalahikash village in Kamrup district from where Sanaullah hails — lodged an FIR against Das last this week saying that it was fictitious.
They said their names were included without their permission, and that their signatures were faked. Moreover, the family and lawyers of Sanaullah pointed out multiple anomalies in Sanaullah’s purported confession, attached in the investigation report, and alleged it was completely fabricated.
“The interrogation report was completely fictitious. I had never met the police officer Das. On the dates of the supposed interrogation mentioned by Das, I was serving in Operation Hifazat (a counter-insurgency action) in Manipur,” says Sanaullah.