18, Jun 2021 | CJP Team
CJP’s Assam team has not wavered from its path in the first six months of 2021, despite the Covid-19 pandemic and successive bouts of extreme weather. Our persistence has led to the release of eight people: four men and four women from various detention camps in the state. Alongside this, we also continued distributing relief supplies including ration and medical kits to some of the neediest and most marginalised people in the state.
Release of detainees
Here are the people who were reunited with their families so far this year because of CJP’s efforts.
|Name||Detention Camp||Date of Release|
|Banesa Bibi||Kokrajhar||Feb 4, 2021|
|Abdul Sheikh||Goalpara||April 30, 2021|
|Gopal Mandal||Goalpara||April 30, 2021|
|Amala Das||Kokrajhar||May 13, 2021|
|Joykrishna Paul||Goalpara||May 17, 2021|
|Adhir Chandra Sarkar||Goalpara||May 17, 2021|
|Doyjan Bibi||Kokrajhar||May 28, 2021|
|Shanti Basfore||Kokrajhar||June 4, 2021|
CJP has been diligently documenting and also attempting to alleviate the citizenship related humanitarian crisis in Assam since 2017. In all, a total of 41 people have been released from Assam’s detention camps due to CJP’s intervention since we got involved.
Details of the step-by-step procedure we follow to help release detainees on conditional bail may be read here.
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.
Challenges faced by Team CJP
This year, the Gauhati High Court enabled the release of detainees on conditional bail to decongest detention camps amidst Covid-19, by reducing the number of sureties required to just one. This coupled with the fact that the Supreme Court had already reduced the surety amount to Rs 5,000/- enabled more eligible detainees to apply for release on conditional bail.
But Team CJP faced two major challenges this year:
- The new, more virulent surge in Covid-19 infections
- Extreme weather conditions like cyclones, floods and heavy rains
Because of Covid, many government offices were shut or operated for limited number of hours each day. As it is, getting bailors is difficult. But Covid related restrictions made it difficult for us to get bailors’ documents verified by government authorities. This, in turn, led to delays in getting people released.
CJP Assam State In-charge gives one such example where it took us nearly a month to help Shanti Basfore get released. “The first time there was a minor discrepancy in the bailors’ documents, so they were rejected. Then came the Gauhati High Court order that relaxed conditions for bail and now only one bailor was required. But when we found one, his land taxes had not been cleared for a long time, and government offices were shut due to Covid. So, the new bailor was also rejected. Finally, we found a bailor with all his documents and tax clearance in order, but because of these delays the total process took 29 days,” explains Ghosh.
In many cases, the detainees hail from far flung villages. But at CJP, we understand that our responsibility does not end with just securing their release. We also ensure that the detainee and bailor are sent ack to their village after completion of all formalities. For this we organise transportation and follow all Covid appropriate behaviour and protocols. Often our own team members reach home way past midnight. Take the case of what the team had to endure when getting Doyjan Bibi released.
“I left home early in the morning on May 28, to go to the Dhubri SP (B) office as the 160-kilometer journey requires me to cross three districts,” says Ghosh. “Then CJP office Driver cum Camera person Ashikul Ali also brought Dhubri DVM Habibul Bepari from his home in Bidyardauri village (part iii) that falls under Agomoni police station of Dhubri District, which is distance about 43 kms from the SP (B) office),” he adds. After completing formalities at the Border Police office, it was time to take Doyjaan Bibi from the Kokrajhar Detention Camp to her home.
“CJP’s car was standing by and it was 3:30 P.M. But the police escort part couldn’t arrange a car for over two hours. At 4 P.M we left for Kokrajhar jail cum detention camp. It was a race against time as according to the protocol no one can be released from jail after 5 P.M,” said Ghosh. We were finally able to secure Doyjan Bibi’s release and dropped her to her village. We let her rest, but then our team faced the predicament of returning home as the Lockdown protocol prevented any transportation at night, and it was already 10 P.M. CJP State Team Member Papiya Das then arranged for our team to stay overnight at her father’s home in Gouripur, located around 25 kilometers from Doyjan Bibi’s village.
Then there were many instances when we encountered heavy rains during travel.
CJP’s petition before Gauhati High Court
In March this year we filed a petition before the Gauhati High Court seeking directions to the state to formulate effective and robust modalities for legal aid for people who have been excluded from the final National Register of Citizens (NRC) published in August 2019. These people will now be required to defend their citizenship before Foreigners’ Tribunals (FT) and since a large section of them hail from economically backward and marginalized communities, they would have no option but to rely on free legal aid provided by state and district legal aid authorities.
CJP secretary Teesta Setalvad explains, “CJP’s primary focus is to ensure legal, Constitutional and fundamental rights of all Indians, particularly those from the most marginalised sections, are defended. Advanced human rights jurisprudence, developed by India’s constitutional courts recognises the right to quality, substantive legal aid as an extension of Article 21, right to life and Article 14, right to equality before the law.”
Setalvad further says, “This meticulously and thoroughly researched legal initiative by CJP, is a step forward towards alleviating the massive humanitarian crisis that has made life a living trauma for the people of Assam.”
CJP has played an integral role in providing paralegal and legal assistance to those excluded from the National Register of Citizens (NRC), to help them gather requisite documents that will make their case for citizenship stronger before the Tribunals. CJP’s Assam Team’s continuous on-ground efforts included responding to distress calls from remote areas, on a daily basis. It is through this three-and-a-half-year effort, the team noticed that there was a lack of concerted efforts being made by the state government for providing legal aid to those excluded from NRC, as directed by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA).
In early 2020, CJP petitioned the Guwahati High Court (previously Gauhati HC) on the issue with three families of those excluded. Senior counsel Mihir Desai assisted by Advocate Mrinmoy Dutta appeared in the matter. The petition was withdrawn after the Hon’ble High Court opined that this was a fit case for a public interest litigation. Read more here.
From April 2020 to November 2020, the organisation was involved in detailed correspondence and representations to both the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) and the Assam State Legal Services Authority (ASLSA). Though the Assam state administration announced that legal aid will be provided by the state, we feared that they did not have adequate personnel, proper training and infrastructure for the same.
We had also conducted our own survey of personnel, infrastructure and other facilities at District Legal Services Authority (DSLA) offices in 10 Assam districts and discovered that not only were Assam DSLAs woefully understaffed, their staff was under-trained to handle FT cases. Read more here.
On the other burning issue of persons being unilaterally declared ‘D Voters” (by officials of the Election Commission, a practice in operation since 1997) and ‘Suspected Foreigners’ by the Assam Border Police, CJP’s Team Assam has been pro-active since 2020, This part of the work will also resume in full strength once the restrictions posed by the pandemic are relaxed.
According to official figures, apart from the 19 lakh (1.9 million) people and their families disenfranchised by exclusion from the NRC, another 2.2 million are similarly excluded from citizenship and its benefits because their cases are pending before Foreigners’ Tribunals (PFT) as they have been designated ‘D Voters’ or ‘Suspected Foreigners’, or because they have been ‘Declared Foreigners’ by FTs. A staggering 69 per cent of those disenfranchised are women.
Memorandum against FT notices stuck on electricity poles
In April this year, CJP’s Assam team discovered many notices by Foreigners’ Tribunals (FT) pasted on electricity poles in Bongaigaon in Assam. Our team discovered such notices in different parts of Bongaigaon city, including Babupara, Boubajar, Ghoshpara and North Bongaigaon. Most of the notices that were posted on various electricity posts were in the name of women. In some places, the writings on the notices were erased or became obscure and unreadable due to rain. We also found some notices without names and addresses were also pasted on electricity posts.
This is a clear violation of procedure laid down explicitly by the Foreigners (Tribunal) Order of 1964. Therefore, CJP approached the Deputy Commissioner (Bongaigaon), Principal Secretary to the Government of Assam and Superintendent of Police (Border) with a memorandum to take cognisance of such instances. In our memorandum, we brought to the attention of the authorities that pasting such notices out in the open, in public places is absolutely illegal.
Our memorandum reads, “There is no provision for pasting of the notice anywhere. Such a course is not permitted in any nature of judicial proceedings. Assuming that the authorities discovered that the proceedee was not present at the address where they attempted to serve notice, they should have as per procedure, stuck the notice on the outer door or some other conspicuous part of the house in which the proceedee ordinarily resides or last resided or reportedly resided or personally worked for gain or carries on business. But the notices were neither stuck on the outer door or any conspicuous part of the house, but on electricity poles that are public property and stand alongside roadways.”
CJP has urged the authorities to take necessary action against the serving body and set up an enquiry into this matter to find out how many such notices were served without following due procedure under the Foreigners (Tribunal) Order, 1964.
In addition to this, it has also urged that a “public declaration made that any notice served under the Foreigners (Tribunal) Order, 1964 without following due procedure laid down therein, shall not be considered valid and will not trigger the 120-day period for the proceedee to appear before the FT to prove his/her citizenship or for that matter any proceedings under the Foreigners Act, 1946.”
Read more here.
Hearings by Foreigners Tribunals are scheduled to resume by June 21 or so. This will resume its own set of challenges to the CJP’s Team Assam: paralegal counseling after collation of documents, answering of FT notices and preparing written statements, all of which remain a challenge given the still present restrictions of movements given the Lockdown.
Covid relief work and memorandum for collective action
CJP understands that in order to serve our fellow Indians in Assam, we must also attempt to help them overcome their most pressing and immediate concerns. There was none greater than Covid and everything that came with it.
We sent medical kits to CJP District Volunteer Motivators that contained thermometers, oximeters, sanitisers and paracetamol tablets. We ensured our team checked their own temperature and oxygen levels regularly before heading out into the wider population to ensure that we acted responsibly and did our part to prevent the spread of the disease.
We have also been distributing Home Isolation booklets that help people identify symptoms of Covid-19, manage their disease and recover at home. So far over 1,000 such booklets have been distributed in over 30 villages across five districts so far. These are: Dhubri, Goalpara, Chirang, Darang and Bongaigaon. We share these booklets with youth, people who can read as well as village heads.
We partnered with local organisations to expand our outreach. We have been conducting door-to-door awareness campaigns in association with Prayas Oikatan. We check people’s temperature and blood oxygen levels.
“While there is basic awareness in urban and semi urban areas, as one heads into villages, people are often unlettered and awareness levels are extremely low,” says Papiya Das, Office In-charge and translator, CJP Assam team. “In many villages, we came across people who were hesitant to take vaccines because of widespread misinformation and fake news,” she says.
But we not only advised them on the benefits of taking the anti-Covid vaccine, but also booked their appointments online. Booking appointments is often a huge hurdle for people who are either unlettered or do not have access to the internet, and CJP is helping them overcome this digital divide.
Additionally, in association with organisations like Forum for Social Harmony, Axom Mojdur Union, Minorities Democratic Youth Students’ Federation, different cultural groups, intellectuals and social workers, we are raising several Covid related concerns as part of a joint memorandum. Some of our demands include:
- Central and state governments to take responsibility for vaccination for all citizens
- Distribution of thermometers and oximeters to everyone in home isolation.
- A monthly allowance of INR 7,500 for everyone without a job and those who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic.
- To stop NRC reverification to prevent further panic among people already dealing with the Covid crisis.