In January 2020, I travelled 200km from Guwahati to Kheluapara to meet Ajbahar Ali, who was released from the Goalpara detention centre on conditional bail after three years of incarceration.
Travelling from Guwahati, I crossed the Brahmaputra over the Naranarayan Setu, which connects Goalpara and Bongaigaon districts of western Assam. Through the mist, one could see the scenic stretches of sand banks and hills converge with the mighty river. We crossed the town of Jogighopa before entering the Muslim-majority rural localities. The narrow road snaked through paddy fields, ponds and brick kilns.
Ali, a man in his fifties, sported a white goatee on his otherwise clean-shaven face and had an Assamese gamusa tied on his head. Though out of prison, he said he did not feel like a free man. He was still a ‘foreigner’. ‘I have to appear at the local police station once a week,’ he said. His appeal against the FT and high court orders was pending at the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court’s order on Harsh Mander’s petition mitigated the pain of being lodged in jail, where living conditions were questionable, without having committed any actual crime. But such a conditional release did not erase what Momiron Nessa described as the ‘foreigner stamp’. The release brought no legal succour to their citizenship status. Ali and Nessa … and hundreds like them … continue to be stateless.
‘There was a case against me. They said I was a “foreigner” and so they arrested me,’ Ali, a poor farmer who tilled other people’s lands in the picturesque village of Kheluapara told me. ‘But I am an Indian. They just did not accept that I am an Indian.’
In 2007, the Border wing of the police filed three cases against Ajbahar Ali at an FT in Bongaigaon alleging that he was a ‘foreigner’ who had entered Assam illegally after 24 March 1971. In two of these cases, Ali was declared an ‘illegal foreigner’.
The family insists that Ali’s father, Tomejuddin Sheikh, and grandfather, Manuddin Sheikh, are listed in the 1951 NRC: Tomejuddin is listed as a twenty-eight-year-old. In the electoral roll of 1966, Tomejuddin is listed as son of Manuddin. Ali himself has been listed in several electoral rolls. But Ali could not argue these facts at the FT because he never appeared before it, and the order was ex parte. ‘We had received multiple notices, but Baba never went. We did not know what it was all about, neither were we properly advised by anyone,’ Ali’s eldest son Moinul Hoque told me.
On 16 May 2016, Ali was arrested and put in the detention camp for ‘illegal foreigners’ in Goalpara, and that was just the beginning of the family’s sufferings. That summer afternoon, nervous and his heart beating fast, Moinul Hoque had rushed to the office of the superintendent of police of Bongaigaon upon hearing that his father was being put into a jeep and taken to Goalpara.
‘I was on my motorcycle. My father had gifted it to me some time ago,’ he said. ‘I saw the police jeep with my father in it and sped behind it. I honked, tried to overtake it—all in an effort to make them stop for a bit so I could speak to my father one last time.’
The family decided to contest the FT order at the Gauhati High Court, ending up spending roughly Rs 40,000 in the process. ‘We mortgaged our land in the village and borrowed money,’ Hoque said, ‘only to lose the case.’ The high court, in its order dated 6 September 2016, upheld the FT order that Ali was a foreigner and the member was justified in proceeding in his absence.
Hoque and his mother Balijan Bibi, then in her early forties, decided to file an appeal at the Supreme Court. ‘We could not just sit idle and see Baba wrongfully put into a detention camp,’ Hoque said. But the impending financial burden distressed Bibi.
On 23 September, a few weeks after the High Court order, Hoque travelled to Guwahati on a public bus to meet a lawyer and prepare for the next appeal. By the time he wrapped up the meeting it was late evening. Still, he chose to travel back to the village the same night to tell his mother what had happened and to discuss how to organize the money they would need. He reached Kheluapara at around 3 a.m. and called out to his mother, who was sleeping in the thatched hut next to his. ‘She did not come out to meet me but responded from inside that there was some rice for me.’
‘I was drowsy the next morning and was lying down,’ Hoque said. ‘It was around 7 a.m. and my mother had not woken up yet. Curious, my younger brother peeped into her hut.’
He saw his mother hanging from the roof.
When his brother screamed, Hoque jumped out of his bed and ran towards Bibi’s hut. ‘I unknotted the rope and hugged Ma. I realized she was still breathing.’
The villagers called for an ambulance and some relatives set off with a semi-conscious Bibi for the civil hospital in Bongaigaon town. Hoque, meanwhile, borrowed money from neighbours and relatives — not for his father’s legal battle, but for his critical mother’s treatment.
Doctors at Bongaigaon referred the patient to the Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed Medical College and Hospital at Barpeta, around 70km away. Hoque reached Barpeta with the money, only to hear that Bibi had been further referred to Guwahati. ‘Barely had the ambulance travelled 1km out of the Barpeta hospital that Ma succumbed to her injuries,’ Hoque recalled.
In Assam, when the poor, illiterate and marginalized are investigated as suspected ‘illegal foreigners’, it opens a veritable Pandora’s Box for these families. A case at the FT places an enormous financial burden on the suspected ‘foreigner’ in the form of fees to lawyers, some of whom are neglectful and exploitative, and money to middle-men, who assure gullible villagers that they can make the investigations somehow go away.
Mofizuddin Miya, a man in is forties, a fish-seller in Guwahati, explained to me how one is susceptible to falling prey to the deceitful tactics of fraudsters who had made the citizenship issues of ordinary people in Assam a money-making venture.
Arrested in 2017 for being a ‘declared foreigner’, Mofiz’s father Feddus Miya was lodged in the Goalpara dentition camp. He is out on bail now.
Mofiz claimed his family is ‘genuinely Indian’ and that he would leave no stone unturned to prove it. His father’s name as a one-year-old was in the 1951 NRC and his grandfather Madhu Miya’s name was there as a thirty-year-old, Mofiz told me. Although Feddus Miya claims his father’s name is Madhu Miya, the police case against him names his father as Kandu Miya.
Mofiz’s entire family—including his ten-year-old son Mizanur Hoque—who drew their papers from Mofizuddin’s lineage, is out of the final NRC.
‘After father was arrested, my mother sought advice from relatives in our village of Tarabari in Barpeta. One of them suggested that there was this person, someone who ran a small private school in a neighbouring village, who helped people stuck in such positions,’ Mofiz told me. Mofiz and his mother went and met this middleman, who demanded Rs 1.15 lakh. ‘He asked us to get the money and hand him all original documents of the family. He promised to hire a lawyer and file the case in the high court,’ said Mofiz.
‘By selling fish I earn, say, Rs 10,000 in a good month. Arranging Rs 1.15 lakh was a tremendous task for me. Onek koshter kaaj (It was a very painful task),’ Mofiz told me, describing how he mortgaged his mother’s wedding jewellery and took a loan from a close friend. But weeks passed and Mofiz realized there was no progress in his case.
Mofiz does not name the person who cheated him of his money but says that people in the village often refer to him as a ‘dalal’ with contacts. ‘He kept on saying “in a few days” again and again,’ Mofiz said. Finally, one day Mofiz and a few neighbours went up to this ‘dalal’ and asked him to return the money because he had not even been able to file an appeal in the high court. Pressed by Mofiz, the man agreed to pay up more than half the amount, around Rs 81,000.
‘In the next few days, I found another lawyer. This lawyer now wanted Rs 80,000. I told them that I am a poor fish-seller who already lost around Rs 35,000. It would be difficult for me, I told the lawyer,’ Mofiz told me.
The lawyer agreed to take an advance of Rs 30,000 and began work to secure Feddus Miya’s citizenship, on the condition that Mofiz would pay the remaining amount later.
‘From the FT to the high court to arrangements for the Supreme Court, we have spent around Rs 4 lakh,’ Moinul Hoque told me. ‘All our land—we had one bigha here and three bighas by the river—has either been sold off or mortgaged. I am making ends meet by working as a daily-wage mason. It is difficult for us to survive and sustain the family. The worry about the financial burden of father’s case led mother to take her own life.’
I asked Ali about his dead wife, apologizing that it must be a difficult question for him.
‘She was worried about me,’ Ali said in accented Bengali, his voice breaking, ‘worried about money, and that is why she killed herself.’
‘Her brain did not work,’ he said after a pause, looking away.
As the interview with the family ended and I got up to leave, Hoque said, ‘This “bideshi case” (foreigner case) has broken our backs.’
‘We have lost everything, dada, including our mother.’
‘Ma,’ he added, ‘just could not suffer this zulm.’
Abhishek Saha’s book No Land’s People: The Untold Story of Assam’s NRC crisis can be purchased on Amazon by clicking here.