01, May 2020 | CJP Team
48-year-old Zubeida Khatoon was just about coming to terms with her husband’s death when the police picked her up and produced her before a Foreigners’ Tribunal (FT). When the FT rejected the documents she submitted and sent her to a detention camp, Zubeida didn’t expect anyone to help her out of her misery.
She only had a seven-year-old son who she was forced to leave behind, and she didn’t expect anyone to come looking for her. Indeed, she remained ‘untraceable’ for five years. But on April 29, Zubeida Khatoon walked out of the Jorhat Detention Camp after CJP helped her get conditional bail in line with a Supreme Court order for release of people who have completed the requisite number of years in captivity.
“Who are you? Why did you help me,” she kept asking the CJP team after she was released.
Now that the final NRC has been published, and 19,06,657 people have been excluded from the final list, CJP’s campaign has become even more focused. Our objective now, is to help these excluded people defend their citizenship before Foreigners’ Tribunals. We are also helping secure the release of detention camp inmates as per the Supreme Court order on their conditional release. For this we have already started conducting a series of workshops to train paralegals to assist people at FTs. We will also be publishing a multi-media training manual containing simplified aspects of legal procedure, evidentiary rules, and judicial precedents that will ensure the appeals filed against the NRC exclusions in the FTs are comprehensive and sound, both in fact and in law. This will assist our paralegals, lawyers and the wider community in Assam to negotiate this tortuous process. For this we need your continued support. Please donate now to help us help Assam.
Zubeida was born to Faizuddin Ali in Manipurtup village in Nagaon District of Assam. She was the youngest of three daughters. Her two other sisters are named Asiya Bibi and Rahela Khatoon. When she came of age, Zubeida was married off to one Nikhat Ali, a hand-cart puller whose family originally hailed from Bihar, but was settled in Chaparmukh village, also in Nagaon District. The couple lived there for five to six years, but economic hardship forced Nikhat Ali to migrate to Mariani in Jorhat District, very close to the state border with Nagaland. Two years later Zubeida also joined her husband and supplemented his income from pushing a hand-cart, with money she made as a daily wager and housemaid.
But then Nikhat passed away, leaving behind Zubeida with their minor child Asikul Islam. Three months later the Jorhat Police picked up Zubeida in a reference case i.e the Border Police made a reference of Suspected Foreigner against her. She was produced before the Jorhat FT but could not afford legal representation. Despite showing whatever documents she could, Zubeida was declared foreigner and sent to the Kokrajhar detention camp where she spent four years before being transferred to the Jorhat detention camp.
“All this time, no one came to meet me. I felt alienated, lonely and abandoned. I lost all hope,” recalls Zubeida.
CJP steps in
But in 2018, Zubeida’s son managed to contact Rafiqul Islam, a member of CJP’s team of paralegal volunteers working to help secure the release of detention camp inmates. That’s when Rafiqul Islam and Bulbul Hussain, another CJP community volunteer, approached Faruk Ahmed, CJP’s Volunteer Motivator who has been working in the districts of Nagaon and Morigaon, for help. But oddly enough, there was no record of any woman named Zubeida Khatoon from Manipurtup village in any detention camp!
Zamser Ali, who heads CJP’s Assam state team himself went looking for Zubeida and says, “I went to four detention camps in Goalpara, Kokrajar, Jorhat and Tezpur, but there was no record of Zubeida. It was as if she had vanished into thin air!”
Zubeida remained untraceable for the five years that she was in detention. It was only a week ago when the Jorhat Police issued a letter for her release given how she had completed more than enough time in a detention camp to be released on conditional bail. Manipurtup village falls under the Roha police station, but police personnel were flummoxed when they were unable to find any record of Zubeida. However, Chaparmukh also falls under the jurisdiction of the same police station and they were able to find records of a Zubeida Khatoon from Chaparmukh being lodged in Jorhat detention camp.
Zubeida is found
That’s when the confusion got cleared. Zubeida originally hailed from Manipurtup, but had moved to Chaparmukh after marriage. Married women from socio-econoically backward communities struggle with documentation in Assam. As a result of this more than fifty percent of the people who were excluded from the National Register of Citizens (NRC) published on August 31, 2019 in Assam, were married women. They have no birth records as they are born at home instead of a hospital or nursing home. They have no school leaving certificates as a vast majority of them are never sent to school. By the time they are old enough to be registered to vote, they have already been married and have moved to the village of their husbands.
Do people without families have no hope?
But Zubeida’s troubles were far from over. When CJP tried to secure her release, the team was told that since no relative of Zubeida has put in the application, the process could not proceed. This suggests that if a person does not have any living family members or any relative who is interested to secure their release, they are condemned to rot away in a detention camp till they die!
A ray of hope
But that’s when Rafiqul Islam revealed that he was the grandson of Asiya Bibi, Zubeida Khatoon’s eldest sister. This helped put in motion the process for securing Zubeida’s bail.
Faruk Ahmed says, “We convinced two good Samaritans Subed Ali and Maohar Ali, both from Manipurtup village, to stand as sureties and began working on documentation formalities.” Then Faruk Ahmed, Rafiqul Islam and Bulbul Hussain then worked day and night to ensure that all documents were collected and verified by appropriate authorities. “The work was challenging as it was taking place during the holy month of Ramzan when the devoted do not partake in any food items during the fasting period between sunrise and sunset. But we were constantly aware of how Zubeida Khatoon had suffered so much more than we could ever imagine, and we dedicated ourselves to ensuring her release.”
Finally, on April 29, the CJP team organized two vehicles to take everyone to the office of the Superintendent of Police in Jorhat where the last leg of formalities were completed and at 6:30 PM, Zubeida Khatun was released. CJP’s main office in Mumbai made sure that all resources including vehicles and money were made available to the on-ground team in Assam at short notice so that the bail process could go through without a hitch.
Zubeida, after her release
“When I stepped out and saw people waiting for me with vehicles, I got a little scared. I wondered who were these people? Where were they going to take me,” recalls Zubeida. It was only when Rafiqul Islam identified himself as Asiya Bibi’s grandson did Zubeida feel confident and comforted.
“Truth is I was so devoid of hope that when the jailer told me I was to be released, at first I thought he was joking. When I realized he was telling the truth, I collapsed due to shock,” she says still coming to terms with her release.
After her release Zubeida was taken to live with her other sister Rahela Khatoon. Rahela is unemployed and begs for a living. This is why, an uncertain economic future looms over both sisters. Bulbul Hussain is now trying to organize a small piece of land for Zubeida upon which she can build a house to live in. CJP is trying to help recently released detention camp inmates find a sustainable source of livelihood. We believe our duty does not end with just helping inmates secure bail. Indeed, the campaign in Assam that began with the idea of helping our fellow Indians defend their citizenship, has now turned into helping them avoid starvation, particularly in wake of the nationwide lockdown in wake of the coronavirus outbreak.
“I don’t know why you helped a woman who you don’t know,” Zubeida told the CJP Team, “But I will offer ‘dua’ for you during every namaaz and pray to Allah to bless you,” she said barely able to contain her emotions.
This is CJP’s true reward.