Samiran Nessa celebrated Wednesday’s Eid ul-Zuha (Bakrid) at her home in Assam’s Goalpara district as an Indian citizen.
On August 17, after years as a suspected illegal immigrant, and spending the last four months in a women’s detention camp for illegal foreigners in Kokrajhar, she was declared an Indian and freed.
Nessa, an illiterate and unmarried woman who made a living by washing dishes at roadside eateries, was declared an illegal foreigner by a Foreigners Tribunal of Goalpara in July last year in her absence. Her case came up in the tribunal after she was marked as a Doubtful or D-voter in 2005. Also Read: A feeling of homelessness
The tribunals — 100 across the state — are quasi-judicial bodies tasked to “furnish opinion on the question as to whether a person is or is not a foreigner within the meaning of Foreigners Act, 1946”. The tribunals get two kinds of cases: those against whom a reference has been made by the border wing of the Assam Police or those against whose names in the electoral rolls a D is marked. The D-Voter category was introduced in Assam in 1997 to mark out people who were unable to prove their citizenship during verification.
Nessa has in her mind a vivid snapshot of April 9. She had left home in the morning for work at a tea-stall in nearby Mornoi, where policemen identified her and took her to the local police station.
“A medical check-up was done. Then, I was sent to police in Goalpara town for taking my finger-impression and photograph and then sent off to the detention camp in Kokrajhar,” she said.
“I was numb with fear and do not remember much – but by 7 pm I was inside the camp and went to sleep,” said Nessa.
Kokrajhar camp, set up in April 2010 to shelter ‘foreigner’ women, is one of the six camps in Assam that together hold over 900 detainees.
“It is a camp for women – I have met both Muslims and Hindus. In my ward, there were over 40 women. Food, water, mosquito net were provided and a doctor comes when someone falls ill,” she said. But what tortured her was boredom. “There is nothing to do – we cannot do any work,” she said.
“We used to get up in the morning, have tea and then sit and kill time. At 10 am, we got food and again till 4 pm, we just had to talk to each other and pass time. At 4 pm, we got our final meal of the day. The door of our room would open at 7 am and up to 5 pm, we could go out into the designated space for women. There was one TV also,” she said.
Almost 3 months after she was detained, Registrar General of India released a final draft list of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which excluded over 40 lakh people in the border state of Assam, sparking fears that many of them could be detained in such camps. But top ministers in the Union and state governments reiterated that nobody would be sent to camps.
In June, social activist Harsh Mander resigned as the Special Monitor for Minorities at the National Human Rights Commission saying that no action was taken on his report on the “conditions of persons deemed to be foreigners in Assam detention camps”. In his report, Mander had mentioned that “foreigner” inmates do not have the scope of parole or waged work like other inmates.
Nessa’s younger brother, Altaf Hussain (24), a labourer, visited her in the camp four days after she was detained. “I went to Kokrajhar by bus – took around 5-6 hours. We spoke for 15 minutes. Both of us broke down. We were scared,” said Hussain.
While Nessa was in the camp, the Gauhati High Court responding to a writ petition filed on her behalf, set aside the tribunal’s order and ordered in May 2018, “.we are of the view that it would be in the interest of justice, if one more opportunity is granted to the petitioner to contest the reference on merit”. It gave a 60-day window for the conclusion of the retrial.
This time, Nessa’s advocate Abdul Latif Ahmed proved her Indian citizenship through various documents- including the voters’ list of 1966 and 1970 in Mowamari village where her father’s and grandmother’s names are mentioned and the voters’ list from 1989 to 1997 in Uzirer Char village where her own name appears alongside her parents.
Ahmed explained that Nessa’s family has a long history of migration owing to river bank erosion and losing their homes. “In 2003, the family had shifted from a village called Uzirer Char to Monakosa in Goalpara district where Nessa’s name was enrolled in the voters’ list but marked as D.” Three years ago, the family shifted to Kadamtola Gopalpur area. Nessa was born and raised in Uzirer Char area and their father died 30 years ago.
Along with Nessa, her mother Shukjan and one of her brothers Usuf Ali were also marked Doubtful in 2005, Ahmed said. “Shukjan is herself in the voters’ list of 1970. Her case is going on in the tribunal. Usuf’s case followed a similar trajectory like Samiran’s and his re-trial is also going on at FT,” he said.
Recounting her time in the detention camp, Nessa said she met women detained for 8-9 years. And she cited the case of Halima Khatun who has been under detention since 2009.
Khatun, a 43-year-old from Patia Chapori village of Nagaon district, was declared an illegal foreigner in 2008 and then in March 2009, she was lodged in Nagaon Central Jail along with her two-year-old child for over a year before being shifted to the Kokrajhar camp. Khatun, who is among the longest-serving inmates, lost her appeal against the tribunal’s order in the High Court. Over the years, her four children grew up with their father Isamuddin, a fourth-grade employee in a government school, at least 300 km away.
“When I was coming out, the women said they were happy for me. They asked me to pray for them,” said Nessa.