Halima Khatoon’s life turned into a nightmare when she was put in a detention centre in Assam after being declared a ‘foreigner from Bangladesh’, a charge she continues to strongly contest

| Sadiq Naqvi

In Patia Chapari village, a short distance from the mighty Brahmaputra river in Nagaon district of central Assam, the Isamuddin household was once a cheerful one. It all changed on March 9, 2009, when Isamuddin’s wife Halima Khatoon visited the office of the superintendent of police in Nagaon, a 40-minute journey from her village, to inquire about her ‘Bidekhi’ (foreigner) case.

After that sunny March afternoon, 40-year-old Khatoon returned home or “desh”, as she calls it, only on December 26, 2019 — after spending almost 11 years in a detention centre when she was declared a foreigner from neighbouring Bangladesh, a charge she continues to vehemently contest even today.

Khatoon said her head was spinning, and she was trembling like a leaf, as she walked out of the detention centre housed in Kokrajhar jail, one of the six in the state almost 350 km away from Patia Chapari.

Isamuddin, who got married to Khatoon in 1994, died in December 2018, succumbing to cancer, leaving behind 10 children. In Patia Chapari, Isamuddin’s family is popular for giving away a bigha (1,000 sq yards) of land for a government school in the 1980s. Isamuddin worked as a guard in the same school, across the road from his bamboo-and-tin roofed house.

Khatoon is the only ‘foreigner’ in the family. Isamuddin was an Indian citizen like rest of her family members in Sonaibera village, where she claims she was born, less than five km away.

In an interview with Mirror, Khatoon animatedly recounts how she pleaded in front of the SP on March 9, 2009. “I kept saying I am not a Bangladeshi… My parents are from here, from Sonaibera,” she says. “My husband has his land pattas. He was also a government servant. I have even voted in the past.”

Khatoon was bundled into a car and taken to the Sadar Thana in Nagaon. “I spent the night there and the next day they sent me to the Central Jail in Nagaon,” Khatoon says. A few days later, her youngest son Bulbul Islam, then barely one-and-a-half years old, joined her in jail.

With sunken eyes and head covered with a saffron dupatta, Khatoon, who looks much older than she is, has just arrived home from the police station in neighbouring Dhing, where she has to present herself every week. “I just went and signed some papers,” Khatoon says.

She was released based on the order of a Supreme Court bench headed by the then chief justice Ranjan Gogoi, in May 2019, which stated, declared foreigners who have spent three years or more in detention, should be conditionally released. They were required to give two sureties of Rs 1 lakh each, submit their biometrics, and have to report to the nearest police station every week, among other conditions. Failure to abide by these could mean a journey back to the detention centre.

Khatoon’s woes began with a notice, which asked her to appear before the Foreigners’ Tribunal (FT) in Nagaon on December 27, 2007. The notice meant she has been marked as a suspected illegal immigrant, either by the Border Organisation, a specialised unit of the Assam Police which detects suspected illegal immigrants, or Election Commission of India officials, who carry out surveys to detect illegal foreigners. Based on these findings, the Border Organisation initiates inquiries against persons that they deem as having illegally crossed over from neighbouring Bangladesh.

This process to detect illegal aliens precedes the update of National Register of Citizens exercise in the state. In the past, in many instances, these inquiries are initiated even without the officials visiting the spot, as Halima’s family claims. Mohammad Sanaullah, a retired honourary captain with the Indian Army who was declared a foreigner and sent to a detention camp in May 2019, claimed he was not even present and was away on duty in Manipur when border personnel initiated an inquiry, marking him a suspected illegal immigrant. The inquiry report describes him as a labourer who came to India for a “better life” through a “secret route”.

These suspected illegal immigrants have to appear before the FT, a quasijudicial body, where they have to prove that they are Indian citizens. Failing to appear before the tribunal could lead to being locked up for years in a detention centre, as Khatoon realised.

Assam has 100 FTs, and additional 200 — to deal with the inevitable rush of NRC appeals by the over 1.9 million people that were excluded in the list published on August 31, 2019 — are still in limbo over the confusion of fate of the NRC list. Like Khatoon and other declared foreigners, the 1.9 million out of NRC, too, risk becoming virtually stateless if they are not able to prove their citizenship.

Almost 13 years after the tribunal’s notices, Khatoon accepts not appearing for hearings at the FT was a big mistake. Isamuddin, seeing how she was busy bringing up children, offered to go to the tribunal for her. A couple of visits later, he, too, stopped going, leading to the ex parte order and subsequently her detention in 2009.

Two years later, in 2011, she and Bulbul Islam were shifted from Central Jail, Nagaon to the jail in Kokrajhar, which was declared a temporary detention centre in 2010 to house women declared foreigners. “It was as big as my house,” Khatoon describes the dormitory in the Kokrajhar jail. “It must have been 40 feet in length.” She points to the length of the small living room, with a small sofa and a single bed and her big bedroom, which also doubles as a store room with a single, old bed in a corner.

Inside the detention centre, the officials would refer to her and others not by names but as “DFN” (declared foreign nationals). “DFN means a foreigner like me,” Khatoon laughs, as she jokes about how she does not even know where Bangladesh is. “I don’t even know how big Nagaon is. My life has been limited to travel between Sonaibera and Patia Chapari,” she says.

Forty inmates lived in the dormitory and shared one toilet. The bhaat (rice) was bad. The tea, which was served, was too black for her taste. She would eat biscuits or other provisions, which her family members would bring every few months when they visited her.

Her son, Bulbul Islam, who was with her till he turned seven, was mistreated by other inmates, she says. “There were NDB militants. They would bully him even if he touched a flower,” she says, referring to the undertrials who are in jail for allegedly being members of the banned National Democratic Front of Bodoland, a militant outfit whose factions recently laid down arms following a pact with the government of India. Islam and a few other children would go to school flanked by two cops.

Khatoon got to know about the death of her husband two months after the actual date, when her father visited her. “I requested the jailer to let me make a phone call to the family. He refused,” she says. “How can they put a woman in jail for such a minor mistake?”

According to an official of the Assam Police, at least 175 declared foreigners have been released on bail based on the Supreme Court orders. Many have, so far, struggled to fulfil the bail conditions. The government in 2019 had said that 335 persons were eligible for release based on the orders. While Border Organisation claims that they initiate deportation proceedings as soon as a declared foreigner is apprehended, its record is abysmal and only four declared foreigners have so far been deported to Bangladesh as per a government affidavit filed last year.

Activist Harsh Mander, who originally filed the petition, had pleaded that a person’s incarceration for a lifetime was anti-constitutional. As many as 29 people lodged in detention centres have either died there or in hospitals where they were taken for treatment, according to government records.

In October, after the death of one Dulal Paul and his family’s refusal to accept his body till he was declared an Indian citizen, the state government appointed a committee, headed by a deputy inspector general of police, to review the conditions in the detention centres. According to an official associated with the committee, it has submitted a report on January 29 based on several parameters, including health, living conditions and legal aid status. The official did not share the contents of the report.

In December, 2019, the Centre told Parliament that 289 foreigners have been detained in 2019, signalling there is no rethink on doing away with the detention centres. In Matia in Goalpara district of lower Assam, a 20-bigha piece of land encircled by 20-feet-high walls painted red, is where Assam’s first exclusive detention centre is under construction. Four watch towers stand tall at the four corners of the complex. Inside, the centre will house a primary school and hospital,15 four-storey buildings for detainees and a separate water supply system with a capacity of over 50,000 litres.

Officials have said that those placed in the six detention centres would be shifted to this one when it’s complete even as they claim that those out of NRC will not be detained. The construction of the detention centre is likely to be completed this year. The detention centre has the capacity to hold 3,000 inmates.

Meanwhile, Patia Chapari, a village of around 3,400 persons, mostly Muslims of Bengali origin, has changed a lot since Khatoon was taken away in 2009. “People have bigger houses now,” she says. For Khatoon’s family, the 11 years have been harrowing. “The government has destroyed not just me but the future of my children,” she says. Khatoon points to her 20-year-old son Rabbul Islam who had to leave studies after Class 10 and go to Kerala, where he erects tents for a living.

“There is no money left. The family did not get any pension since my father died. He would earn Rs 30,000 a month,” says Rabbul, who is visiting to meet his mother. The family spent a fortune on Isamuddin’s treatment and Khatoon’s legal expenses, as the Guwahati High Court twice rejected her petition for release. Her father Abul Kasem claims that he, too, sold a part of his land in Sonaibera to pay for her legal expenses.

The children are hoping that the family can start receiving a pension, now that Khatoon is out. “We have already submitted an application for a PAN card. Next, we will try for an Aadhar card,” says Muksidul Islam, one of her sons. Khatoon, however, is not so sure that any of this will happen.

Halima Khatoon, 40, with her son Bulbul Islam, 13, who was with her in the detention centre till he turned seven

A view of the country’s largest detention centre for illegal immigrants which is currently under construction in the Matia area of Goalpara district in Assam

A drawing of the detention centre under construction in Assam

Halima Khatoon’s residence in Patia Chapari village, Nagaon district, Assam