Morigaon, Assam: Junaki Begum, 55, has lost all hopes of getting her husband back home. She has sold everything; she has even leased out her last source of income -- a small areca nut garden -- to fight for the release of her husband, Gul Mohammad, who has been languishing at the detention centre meant for illegal immigrants in Tezpur town of Assam's Sonitpur district since 2017.
This is despite Mohammad, 68, possessing all valid documents to prove his citizenship, including a voter ID card. He had even voted in the 2014 general elections, before casting his ballot once again in the Assam state assembly elections two years later in 2016.
Incidentally, Mohammad was a former classmate of Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, ex-chief minister of Assam and former president of the powerful All Assam Students’ Union who spearheaded the Assam Agitation in the 1980s.
As per family members, Mohammad and Mahanta studied together at the Kuwarital Higher Secondary School in Nagaon, from where the former Asom Gana Parishad leader cleared his High School Leaving Certificate (HSLC) examination in 1971.
This is not the first time Mohammad has been lodged at a detention centre.
Declared an illegal migrant in 2012, he was lodged at the detention centre in Goalpara in lower Assam. After about a year and a half, the border police "pushed him back" to "no man’s land" along the India-Bangladesh border. He stayed there for 15 days before managing to come back home to Assam.
Life takes an ugly turn
Mohammad was born in Koliabar in Nagaon district. He was just a year old when the first National Register of Citizens (NRC) was prepared in 1951. His legacy code in the legacy data was 280-0042-6277. His father, Lal Mohammad, who was 35 years old then, bears the legacy code 280-0042-6274, as per data available.
Mohammad worked as a contractor and was part of the building process of the Jagiroad Paper Mill factory under the Hindustan Paper Corporation Limited. He also worked as an employee of the Assam Cooperative Jute Mills Limited in Nagaon.
Following his marriage in 1983, Mohammad settled at Borkhal village in Morigaon district and, accordingly, tried to shift his name in the electoral roll there from the one at his native village in Dalgaon village of Nagaon district. However, the Foreigners Tribunal (FT) 1 in Marigaon district declared him a foreigner in 2007.
“All relevant documents, including submission of his school certificates, his father’s name in the 1956 voter list, etc, failed to convince the government officials concerned in the FTs to prove his nationality,” said Junaki Begum.
Recalling the day when the police arrested Mohammad in 2012, Junaki Begum said, “Around 6 in the morning, police officials surrounded our house. I heard the then VDP (Village Defence Party) secretary’s voice while knocking at the door. When I opened the door, the police party stormed into the room where he was sleeping and took him away before I could do anything.”
She said that within five minutes after the police had left her home, she rushed to the Nellie police station, which was not more than 800 m from their house.
“From there, without any delay, they took him to the Morigaon SP's office. The SP told me that nothing can be done now. From the SP's office, he was sent to the Manikpur jail where he was kept for two months before being sent to the Goalpara detention centre,” she added.
No end to miseries
Separated from her husband, Junaki Begum got a call from a police officer in 2013. The officer told her that Mohammad was sent off to the no-man’s land along the Indo-Bangladesh border.
However, he managed to sneak back into India soon thereafter.
Following his return from Bangladesh, Mohammad exercised his franchise from his original village, Dalgaon in Koliabar, in the general elections in 2014 and later the state assembly polls in 2016.
However, in February 2017, the border police arrested him again and put him in the detention centre in Tezpur.
Once said to be 'well-off', Mohammad's family members now run a small road-side dhaba at Nellie in Nagaon district.
“My father is an Indian citizen in one district of Assam, while he has been declared a foreigner in another,” said Gulbahar Begum, who could hardly hold back her tears as she recalled her childhood days when her father would carry her around on his shoulder.
Gulbahar, 27, is Mohammad's third daughter. She runs the dhaba located along National Highway 37 along with her husband.
Junaki Begum had her own side of the story to share. Born and brought up at Borkhal village, where the family later settled, she married Gul Mohammad in 1983.
Following her marriage to Mohammad, allegedly a foreigner, she was also served a D-voter notice. Fortunately, Junaki Begum was able to show her land records from Morigaon district, after which she was declared back an Indian citizen by the foreigners’ tribunal.
However, despite proving her nationality, neither Junaki nor her daughter, Gulbahar, featured in the final draft of the NRC which was published on July 30 last year.
Bursting in anger, Gulbahar said, “My name was in the first NRC draft, but now, in the second list, my name is not there. The authorities concerned have said that my name has been omitted from the NRC because I am a daughter of a declared foreigner. But you can see that my mother is an Indian citizen.”
The D-voter system
The concept of D-voter or doubtful voter, a category of voters who are perceived as illegal migrants in Assam, was introduced in 1997 to weed out illegal immigrants, especially from Bangladesh.
The Assam government had said in February last year that 2,44,144 voters were marked as doubtful voters, of which, 1,31,034 cases were ‘disposed of’. Replying to a question on the floor of the Assam Assembly in February last year, state parliamentary minister Chandra Mohan Patowary said: “So far, 29,663 declared foreigners were pushed back and 75 were deported to Bangladesh.”
“There are two ways of accusing people of being illegal migrant,” said Aman Wadud, a Guwahati-based lawyer who has been instrumental in fighting ‘arbitrary’ voter cases.
“One is through the border police which have their presence in all police stations. The other is through the Election Commission. In both the cases, there is no investigation involved whatsoever. Almost with every D-voter, either their parents are Indians or other family members are Indian citizens. In a family, mostly one person is a doubtful voter, which is a very interesting trend,” he said, accusing the Election Commission officials of randomly marking people as D-voters.
Apart from the above mentioned official procedures to mark someone as D-voter, the border police also take cognizance if someone complains about stranger/s. Cases referred by Election Commission cannot be disposed of just after inquiry. The accused has to go to the respective FT and prove his/her nationality. The border police mark someone a doubtful citizen if they do not find official documents at the person’s disposal. However, both the procedures remain opaque.
After marking someone a D-voter, the Electoral Registration Officer (ERO) sends the cases to the SP border branch of the respective districts, which then sends the cases to the FTs. The FTs then send a notice to the D-voter. However in many instances, these notices never reach the accused and if a person goes to the FT then, in most cases, ‘opinion’ is delivered cherry-picking minor anomalies.
Speaking about anomalies in documents, Wadud said, “There are normal inconsistencies in documents, like age, names, etc. One very common aspect of most of the D-voters is that they are financially poor and illiterate, so there are anomalies in documents. Even well-educated people can have anomalies in documents.”
Referring to Gul Mohammad’s case, Wadud said: “When Bangladesh is accepting its citizens, then why should the border police leave him in no man’s land zone? The lawyer said, “On July 29, 52 Bangladeshi nationals were deported. They were deported because Bangladesh confirmed their nationality and that is how deportation happens. The country of origin has to accept the nationality of the person then the person can be deported. Now, when a person is declared as foreigner by FTs, that person is hardly deported, because Bangladesh will never confirm their nationality.”
The workings of FTs are viewed with suspicion as many in the state, who are dealing with cases of D-voters, say the entire process is mostly against the natural law.
As of December 2018, there are 100 FTs across Assam which were formed as per the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act 1983 to hear cases of illegal infiltrators in Assam. Of these 100 FTs, 64 tribunals were set up in 2015 to expedite the process of weeding out illegal migrants. According to the Assam Accord, anyone who entered the state after March 24, 1971 is considered as an illegal migrant.
These FTs are quasi-judicial bodies which continue to exist though the parent law, IM(DT) Act, was abolished by the SC in 2005. After hearing a case, if the FT finds someone as illegal migrants, then that person is sent to one of the six detention centres located in Tezpur, Goalpara, Jorhat, Silchar, Kokrajhar and Dibrugarh.
Death the only way out?
Like Gul Mohammad, about 1,000 people are lodged in the overcrowded detention centres housed inside jail premises. Only death can free them from confinement.
In 2018, at least two cases of death at detention centres were confirmed by state authorities. Subrata Dey, a 37-year-old resident died at the Goalpara detention centre on May 26 last year.
In another case, 70-year-old Mohammad Jabbar Ali died at the Tezpur detention centre on the night of October 4. He was lodged at the detention centre for three years.