Other States

Held as ‘Bangladeshi’, Assam villager returns as ‘Indian’ after 3 years

Rehat Ali and his son Lukman Ali.   | Photo Credit: The Hindu

Moments before he left the Goalpara Central Jail in western Assam on May 7, Rehat Ali had promised the jail superintendent he would not say anything bad about his “home” of more than three years.

The jail doubles as a detention centre — one of six in Assam — for people declared foreigners by a quasi-judicial Foreigners’ Tribunal (FT). The State has 100 such tribunals that adjudicate the Foreigners’ Act of 1946 to decide the fate of people suspected to be Bangladeshi by the Assam Police’s border wing, formed in 1962 to initially prevent infiltration of Pakistani nationals.

“I gave him my word,” said Mr. Ali. “But it is better to be dead than live there like a laash [corpse],” he added.

Having dropped out of primary school almost 60 years ago, Mr. Ali had such a poor knowledge of numbers that he never noticed that his voter ID showed him to be a 55-year-old, which was at odds with the “66” that he orally submitted as his age to the tribunal in 2015. The “discrepancy” in age was a key reason that led the FT at the nearest town Hajo, about 35 km west of Guwahati, to doubt his citizenship.

He could also not recall the date when his father Muniruddin had shifted from Bagnapota, 20 km away in Nalbari district, because the village was facing erosion by the Brahmaputra. And his name was recorded variously as ‘Rehat Ali’ and ‘Rehaja Ali’ in different documents.

But life in captivity taught him to count his days unlike four other inmates, who died of depression during his stay. “How can I forget the number of days I was deemed a Bangladeshi? They killed the Indian in me every day for 1,197 days before I walked to freedom,” he said.

What kept him going was his conviction that he would come out of dozakh (hell) because his sister, Mannbahar Bibi, whose case as a suspected ‘foreigner’ had been examined by the FT around the same time, had been promptly declared an ‘Indian’ based on the same set of documents that he had provided.

The documents, the Gauhati High Court found in ordering Mr. Ali’s release on May 3, showed his grandfather Goni Sheikh possessed a land deed at Bagnapota, dating back to 1947.

More sad than happy

Almost everyone in Khopanikuchi turned up to welcome Mr. Ali back home. But for the man who had just won back his freedom, the overwhelming feeling was one of sadness rather than happiness.

His wife, who went into delirium after he was taken away and has been unstable since, barely recognised him. “My sons never told me they had to mortgage our land, sell eight cows and a commercial vehicle to spend ₹7 lakh for my case,” he said, his voice tinged with grief.

More painful for him is the haplessness of the detention camp inmates he left behind. “They come in my dreams, begging me to pray for their death. Zehirul Islam, Noor Mohammed, Satya Sadhu, Abdul Samad... in detention for seven, eight years and too poor to get out,” he said.

“I feel for the 25 men who were put in the detention camp the day I was released. How can they fit in five rooms, that are overcrowded with 70-80 people in each?” he wondered.

He was unaware that the Supreme Court had just recently ruled that ‘illegal immigrants’ held at detention centres for more than three years could be released on the execution of two sureties of ₹1 lakh each by an Indian citizen, and after authorities had recorded the detenu’s biometrics and fingerprints for storing in a secure database.

A fortnight ago, the apex court had rebuked the Assam government for suggesting the release of such people after serving five years in a detention camp, on a surety of ₹5 lakh.

A village worried

At least three others in Khopanikuchi have what the villagers call the ‘Bangladeshi case’ against them. The local FT declared Barhan Ali and Badar Ali — both in their late 60s — as foreigners. While the physically impaired Barhan is absconding, Badar was granted a ‘stay’ against his detention by a court.

“I fail to understand how my eldest son became a Bangladeshi when three other sons and I have been included in the National Register of Citizens (NRC) on the basis of the 1951 register,” Atakjan, Barhan’s 90-year-old mother said.

“My elder brother, Dewan Hasan Ali, retired as the headmaster of the local government school. But the same documents that established his citizenship made me a foreigner,” Badar Ali said, apprehensive that the police would come knocking any day to take him away.

“Here, it’s a case of who will be next,” said Ekabbar Ali, whose sister Anowar Khatun was declared a foreigner six months ago. “Our papers just don’t matter.”

Rahet Ali hopes the NRC, to be finalised by July 31, would put an end to the ordeal many in Assam undergo because of the ‘Bangladeshi’ tag. “My NRC application was put on hold. I hope it is not too late for me, an Indian-turned-Bangladeshi-turned-Indian, to be included,” he wryly observed.

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Printable version | Dec 1, 2021 4:00:09 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/held-as-bangladeshi-assam-villager-returns-as-indian-after-3-years/article27105162.ece

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