Why Bobbydul is not in school

Abdul Kalam Azad | Updated on December 27, 2019

Fear and loathing: In the last few years, at least 28 detainees have died in detention centres. Many others committed suicide fearing that they’d be detained   -  THE HINDU/ RITU RAJ KONWAR

The stories of people in Assam’s detention camps are harrowing — mothers separated from children, wives from husbands

Mamiran Nessa is back home, but lives in constant fear. Released a little over a week ago from a detention centre in Assam’s Kokrajhar, the 40-year-old mother of two can’t forget her 10 years in detention.

Pregnant when she was forcibly taken to the centre, she lost her foetus in its eighth month. Her husband fell into depression and died four years ago.

Her elder son Muktar Hussain, now 17, could meet her only thrice during those 10 years; her younger son, Mijanur, just once. “When I first saw my mother after six years, I didn’t recognise her,” Mijanur says.

Nessa does not know how to rebuild her life. Her house was washed away in a flood, while her parents sold their land to fund her legal fight. She is still being seen as an “illegal Bangladeshi”, and has to report to the police every week. “Since I am not allowed to go outside the jurisdiction of the police station, I can’t even go out in search of a job,” she says.

The stories of people in detention camps across Assam are harrowing. In January 2018, I was part of a National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) mission set up to study the condition of the detention centres. The mission was led by activist Harsh Mander, the then special monitor of the NHRC. The mission prepared a detailed report and submitted it to the NHRC, which took no cognisance of it. In June last year, Mander resigned from the Commission and filed a petition about the centres in the Supreme Court (SC) of India.

Based on the petition, the SC in May this year ordered the government to release detainees who had spent more than three years in such centres. According to the media, over 300 detainees have spent more than three years in different centres across Assam, and many even 10 years. The government, however, has identified 56 detainees for release.

Assam has been at the centre of a violent storm over the presence of Bangladeshi nationals said to have crossed over illegally over the years. The border unit of the Assam Police and the Election Commission of India have identified over half a million people as “suspected foreigners” and referred their names to foreigners tribunals — quasi-judicial courts that determine a person’s citizenship, according to data released by the state government in the state Assembly. The tribunals have declared more than 1.17 lakh people “foreigners”.

In 2009, the Gauhati High Court ruled that those declared foreign nationals by the tribunals be kept in detention centres until sent back to their country. The then Congress-led Assam government created two detention centres within jail premises — one in Goalpara for males, and the other in Kokrajhar for females. Later, four more detention centres were set up in Dibrugarh, Silchar, Tezpur and Jorhat jails. The government says that they are illegal migrants who have no papers; human rights activists hold that many of the detainees are Indian citizens.

Assam’s BJP government, with financial support from the Centre, is constructing a detention centre in Goalpara district in western Assam. Ten more detention centres are on the anvil. According to reports, the number of foreigners tribunals is also being increased from the current 100 to 1,000.

In the old centres, created within jail premises, the detainees are kept in dormitories, sometimes 35-40 to a room. Half-open toilets are attached to the dormitories, leading to a foul stench throughout the day and the fear of disease.

In the last few years, at least 28 detainees have died at these centres. Many others committed suicide fearing that they’d be detained. As of now, more than 1,000 people are in these camps. There are hundreds of cases of mothers separated from their children, husbands from wives.

Over the last two weeks, I met some of those who had been released. Besides Nessa, I also met Sabiya Khatun (45), a resident of Shimlabari village in Bongaigaon district of western Assam. She was released from the Kokrajhar detention centre after four years. She was freed under the SC’s order, on two surety bonds of ₹1 lakh each and on the condition that she would not go beyond the jurisdiction of her police station and appear at the designated police station once every week.

Falling apart: Sabiya Khatun’s family collapsed while she was at a detention centre   -  SHAKIL AHMED


She has enough documents to prove that she is Sabiya Khatun. But a tribunal had declared her a foreigner because the panchayat secretary, who provided a certificate to prove her parental linkage, failed to appear before it to testify that he had issued the certificate.

“I am ill and my feet shake when I walk,” says Khatun, seated at the back of her 16-year-old son’s cycle. “But we can’t afford to hire a vehicle, and I am afraid of being sent back to detention.”

The officer in charge of the border unit says she will have to appear before it every Monday without fail, even if unwell. If she doesn’t she may be sent back to detention centre, he tells me.

Khatun recalls how her family collapsed while she was detained. Her husband, she says, was a healthy and cheerful man before she was taken away. “The neighbours say that after that, he stopped plying his rickshaw, stayed home almost all day and would suddenly cry out aloud,” she says.

Her family members and villagers requested the border police to allow her to meet her husband when he was critically ill. She was denied permission. His health deteriorated, and the money for his treatment, she rues, went in the court case for her release. He died, and their children dropped out of school and started doing manual work. She was not given permission to see her husband’s body, she adds.

It is not just physical detention that is destroying families; the fear of detention is wreaking havoc, too. Last year, I met a 10-year-old boy called Bobbydul Islam in Dumerguri village, about 40 km from the Bongaigaon district headquarters. I counselled the boy’s father about the need to educate him, and ensured his admission in a government school.

Last month, I went to the village to meet members of a bereaved family. The head of the family had committed suicide because his name did not figure in the final National Register of Citizens of Assam and he feared that he would be locked up in a detention centre. When my colleague, rights activist Suman Das, took me to Bobbydul’s house, I realised it was his father — with whom I had shared the dream of educating Bobbydul — who had committed suicide.

“He thought he would be arrested and sent to detention. He thought about his own fear but not about who would look after our children,” his wife says.

Bobbydul has dropped out of school again.

Abdul Kalam Azad is a human rights researcher

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Published on December 27, 2019
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