20, Aug 2021 | CJP Team
In July this year, we brought you the story of CJP’s mammoth effort to track down the family of Sona Khatun, a woman who had been languishing behind bars for over five years at Assam’s Kokrajhar detention camp. On August 19, we were finally able to help her get released on conditional bail.
Sona Khatun had by then spent 5 years, 11 months and 29 days behind bars. And though she had found her way to cope with her misery with a little help from her fellow inmates like Shanti Basfore, Amala Das and Doyjan Bibi, all of whom CJP has helped get released over the last few months, she still held on to a new saree and did not wear it until the day of her release.
“We shared our pain, learned to smile again together, we learned to hope,” said Sona Khatun after being released and tasting freedom after 2,190 days. “Amala, Shanti and many others who you helped get released asked me not to lose hope. They said CJP will help you. I placed my faith in you,” she said, adding, “One by one they all got released and I feared I would be left alone. But you helped me. May Allah bless you!”
Every day of each week, a formidable team of community volunteers, district volunteer motivators and lawyers—CJP’s Team Assam – is providing ready at hand paralegal guidance, counselling and actual legal aid to hundreds of individuals and families paralysed by the citizenship-driven humanitarian crisis in the state. Our boots on the ground approach has ensured that 12,00,000 persons filled their forms to enlist in the NRC (2017-2019) and over the past one year alone we have helped release 41 persons from Assam’s dreaded detention camps. Our intrepid team provides paralegal assistance to, on an average of 72-96 families each month. Our district-level, legal team works on 25 Foreigner Tribunal cases month on month. This ground level data ensures informed interventions by CJP in our Constitutional Courts, the Guwahati High Court and the Supreme Court. Such work is possible because of you, individuals all over India, who believe in this work. Our maxim, Equal Rights for All. #HelpCJPHelpAssam. Donate NOW!
In fact, when the CJP team safely dropped her back home at her natal village, we arranged for a video call between Sona Khatun and Doyjan Bibi. “They talked, but just stopped short of inviting each other, perhaps realising it might not be possible to meet again. They were threr for each other in their darkest hour and it felt like they had lost something even after getting released,” said CJP Assam state team in-charge Nanda Ghosh describing the emotional virtual union of the two women.
Brief background of the case
We found out about her last year when we were helping other detainees get released amidst the Covid pandemic. But it was difficult to locate her family as she was arrested by the border police in Kamrup, but did not have any family there. Turns out, she had left home early in life after marrying a man her family did not approve of. But her husband left her and she took up a job as a domestic help and worked in Guwahati.
On August 21, 2015, she was arrested by the Border Police of Kamrup (Metro) district of Assam in connection with FT K(M) case no. 416/2011. Unable to defend herself, she found herself behind bars at the Kokrajhar detention camp.
We tried to find her family or some information in Guwahati and in the wider Kamrup district. But we couldn’t find anyone.
CJP’s search for Sona Khatun’s family
We then expanded our search radius, moving from one village to another, from one district to another. “Our search lasted almost a year and spanned five districts: Kamrup, Goalpara, Barpeta, Dhubri and Mankachar – South Salmara. When we went to get Amala Das released from the Kokrajhar detention camp in May this year, the jailor helped us by passing on information from Sona Khatun that Ainul Moulubi, the cleric of a mosque located somewhere in Dhubri or South Salmara would be able to help locate Sona Khatun’s brothers,” says CJP Assam state team in-charge Nanda Ghosh. He was joined in this search by District Volunteer Motivator Habibul Bepari and Ashikul Ali.
The year-long search, during which we travelled 800 kilometers across five districts, was rewarded on July 14, when we finally located her brothers through Ainul Moulubi. We found them in a remote village of Choto Nichinpur, that is located in Dhubri district, along the banks of the banks of the Brahmaputra, in a region devoid of any roads. After walking for hours through inunf=dated marshes and paddy fields, we finally met Sultan Ali and Sadek Ali, both daily wage workers living hand-to-mouth, unable to take even one day off from work due to their meagre earnings.
“After she got married and moved away, she would keep in touch sporadically. But after she was arrested and sent to the detention camp, we got scared. We couldn’t help our sister because we feared the police would also drag us into the case,” says Sultan Ali, showcasing how much the fear of being declared foreigner affects even family ties in Assam. “I hope you can help her,” he pleaded with our team.
Our team examined the family’s documents and discovered that both brother’s names had been included in the final National Register of Citizens (NRC) published in 2019. We also discovered that Sona’s father’s name had been included in the 1951 NRC. After discussing the procedure for Sona Khatun’s release with Sultan and Sadek Ali, we went to find a bailor for their sister with them. No doubt finding a bailor is a difficult task, but in Sona Khatun’s case it is harder, as to visit any house in this remote part of Assam, one can only walk in the absence of any means of transport or even roads! Bepari says, “We walked through paddy fields, inundated with rain water. Sometimes through jute plantations while dodging poisonous insects that cause painful rashes with just one bite!” After walking almost 6 kms, we found one person who agreed to be her bailor.
Going the extra mile
On just July 14, 2021 – the day we found her brothers, we travelled 258 kilometers by car and then 8 kms on foot. In the preceding month, as our teams looked for Sona Khatun’s family in different districts we travelled 440 kms in Kamrup district, 174 kms in Goalpara district, 160 kms in Barpeta district and 455 kms in Dhubri district every day as we moved from one village to another looking for Sona Khatun’s family.
CJP begins procedure for Sona Khatun’s release
“We need one bailor as per the SC order. But we had a back-up bailor ready and ensured that even his documents were kept ready, so that even if the first bailor is rejected for some reason, we have another one ready,” explains Nanda Ghosh. Often bailors are rejected at the last minute due to minor discrepancies in their documents. As Sona Khatun had already suffered for over five years, we did not want to prolong her trauma by even a minute.
After that, we went on to completed formalities at the office of the Superintendent of Police (Border) in Dhubri district. Given how Sona had also lived in another district, we did not want any last-minute surprises due to jurisdiction issues. So, we also talked to them through Kamrup (Metro) Border office and Assam State Border head office. Finally, the paperwork and formalities were almost in order by August 18.
Sona Khatun’s Release Order may be read here:
“On August 19, we went to the Kokrajhar detention camp to finish the final leg of formalities and were told by a guard that upon learning about her impending release Sona Khatun had shed tears of joy. After completing some formalities with her brother, we finally set course for Bhalukmari village located in a remote area near the border of two districts: Dhubri and Mankachar – South Salmara,” explained Ghosh. Along the way we stopped for snacks as we realized in her excitement of getting released Sona Khatun had not eaten a morsel of food at the detention camp! We reached Bhalukmari in the afternoon and once against assisted by two young boys we had met on our previous visit, made the final leg of our journey on foot to her brother’s home located on the banks of the Brahmaputra, in a region devoid of any roads.
A few images of the last leg of formalities and Sona Khatun’s release from the Kokrajhar detention camp may be viewed here:
“While we walked for a bit through inundated fields, the floods had made it impossible to continue the rest of the way on foot. So, we travelled the remaining distance in a small makeshift boat called Bhura that is made from boxes used to carry fish,” said Nanda Ghosh describing yet another extraordinary journey.
Home after 16 years
Upon reaching her natal village after 16 years Sona Khatun got very emotional, especially when she saw her niece. “I was coming to see you, and now you are all grown up,” she said when informed that the girl was now a student of class 11.
Sona Khatun’s brother Sultan Ali thanked CJP saying, “We are grateful to you for helping our sister.” However, given how remote their location is, Ali fears they will find it difficult to adhere to the condition of her bail that requires periodic visits to her local police station. “It is very difficult to go to the local police station once a week. The remote location makes communication difficult. Besides, it costs around Rs 200. And if we want to arrive at the proper time, then we have to rent an autorickshaw for about Rs 1,000, which is impossible for us.” So, he prayed for arrangements to go to the local police station once a month or once in three months to help him.