02, Aug 2021 | CJP Team
During our work, upholding and defending the rights of our fellow Indians in Assam, we came across many instances of unlettered housewives, even elderly women, being victimised by a document-dependent system that fails to take into account ground realities in rural India. 73-year-old Parbati Das was thrown into a detention camp because she had no acceptable documentary evidence of being her parents’ daughter!
“They called me Bangladeshi and sent me to jail. I was born here in India on land owned by my father. I have never been to Bangladesh and don’t know anything about that country,” says the woman who was forced to spend three years behind bars at the Kokrajhar detention camp.
Over the last three years, Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) has had the opportunity to help several of our fellow Indians in Assam. We have helped them navigate the complex process of having their names included in the National Register of Citizens (NRC), first via document collection and form filling, and then by guiding them through the Claims and Objections process. CJP has also helped eligible inmates get released from Assam’s detention camps and continues to support many of the most impoverished families by providing them food rations. As you take a deep dive into the trials and tribulations of some such people, remember, we have been able to help them only because of your continued support. Please donate now, so we can help more of our fellow Indians in Assam.
The fault in her stars
Toothless and gray-haired, this harmless granny was deemed an “infiltrator” or an “illegal Bangladeshi migrant” by the Assam Border Police who referred her case to a Foreigners’ Tribunal (FT) in Dhubri in September 2005. The power given to the Assam border police under the colonial Foreigners Act is so arbitrary that there is no logic and reasoning behind who may be selected for such a notice! Parbati missed the first few hearings, but made it to the FT on July 2, 2008 and submitted her documents. She missed a few other subsequent hearings but her submissions included a copy of her father’s ration card from 1949 and a copy of her father’s name in the electoral rolls of 1970. This should have, if a logical and humane process were in place, ended the matter once and for all.
The Gaon Panchayat secretary had also issued her a link certificate (Gaon Burah certificate) which was also presented to build Parbati’s case. Yet, Parbati was declared foreigner as she could not prove her linkage to her father. Why? There was a simple discrepancy in her grandfather’s name on two different documents. The FT, instead of recognising the perennially fallible process of documentation, pronounced that her father Sharat Chandra Das was not in reality her father but her ‘projected father’! ‘Projected father’ is a bizarre term developed over the years by Assam’s FTs. The FT also ruled that the Gaon Burah certificates were unreliable and that they do not establish Parbati’s link to her projected father. She was declared a foreigner and sent to the Kokrajhar detention camp. Tragically, she was also denied bail by the Gauhati High Court.
Systemic exclusion of the underprivileged
Herein lies a systemic problem. The entire process of defending one’s citizenship is based on one’s ability to produce documentary evidence and proving the authenticity of the documents. As if placing the burden of proof on the person against whom a reference has been made isn’t unfair enough (even in criminal cases such as murder and dacoity, the burden of proof is on the prosecution, not the defendant), some documents are considered “strong”, while others are deemed “weak documents” and therefore seen as unreliable by FTs. India has a vastly diverse population, with the ‘document’ itself being the privilege of a relative few.
Injustice and intersectionality
All of these are elements of a system of exclusion, because in rural India, most people are born in their homes, delivered with the help of local mid-wives, and not in proper hospitals or health centres. Then there is the question of lack of opportunity to get an education.
Even when schools are available and affordable, there is gender-based discrimination, where families often prioritise the education of the male child, with girls rarely sent to school and often married off shortly after they hit puberty… their fate pre-determined by a society that only sees them as daughters, wives and mothers whose identities are defined by other people, mostly men, in their lives.
Such women don’t have a birth certificate, let alone a school leaving certificate, and often get their names included in the electoral rolls after they get married and move to their marital homes, by which times their names have changed. Thus, they often have no documents linking them to their birth families.
Ideally, a certificate by the Secretary of the Village Panchayat (locally called the Gaon Burah) should be enough as it states the name of the woman in question along with that of her parents and their address and then informs of a change in her address due to marriage and states the name of the husband. Parbati Das had one Gaon Burah certificate from her natal village and another from her marital village. These may be viewed below:
Given how the Panchayat system has legal validity in India, with local body elections also coming under the purview of the Election Commission, these two certificates should have been enough to allay concerns over the discrepancy in her grandfather’s name. She also submitted a record of her father’s name in the electoral rolls, but given how the Gaon Burah Certificates were deemed unreliable and therefore inadmissible, her father was dubbed her “projected father”.
CJP steps in
CJP has been working to help secure the release of detention camp inmates who have completed the requisite amount of time behind bars in line with two Supreme Court orders that allow for their conditional release.
The first order passed in May 2019 had stipulated that those inmates who had spent three years in a detention camp could be released if they produced two sureties of Rs 1 lakh each. Another SC order issued on April 13, 2020, in wake of the Covid-19 pandemic reduced the amount of time served to 2 years and surety amount to just Rs 5,000/-.
We first came across Parbati Das’s case in June 2019. At that time, CJP was leading a delegation of eminent lawyers and journalists to Assam to take stock of ground realities. Our team met Parbati’s son Biswanath who is a rickshaw driver. He broke down as he told us that her health was deteriorating in the detention camp and he pleaded with us to help with her release saying, “I don’t want her to die in captivity. I want her to be comfortable and loved amidst her family, in her home.” The family belongs to a Scheduled Caste and is extremely economically weak.
The CJP team immediately swung into action. At first, we had tried to get her released by filing a review petition against the Gauhati High Court order. Then after she had completed three years behind bars and became eligible for conditional release, we got to work finding sureties to secure her bail.
But there were many hurdles in getting sureties. Many people were reluctant. Even when we found people willing to help, the authorities would often reject their application due to different reasons. Sometimes the legacy data was missing, sometimes there was a discrepancy in the way the names were spelt in different documents, sometimes land patta was missing and sometimes there was a problem with the voter ID.
CJP Team member Nanda Ghosh and Pranay Tarafdar played a key role in securing the release often running from the Mandal department of the Circle Office to the Sub Divisional Office (Civil) to make sure that the documents of the sureties were properly authenticated. These included the Jamabandi document (proof of land ownership), land valuation document and the tax clearance document.
Ghosh recalls, “In most cases it would take three to four months. But in Parbati Das’s case it took us nine months. This is because we had managed to arrange for sureties once before, but they were rejected at the last minute by the authorities. So, we had to get new sureties and start the entire process from the scratch once again.” CJP’s legal team comprising Advocate Dewan Abdur Rahim, Advocate Jahera Khatun and Advocate Prity Karmakar, also played a key role in securing Parbati Das’s release.
But the CJP team’s persistence paid off, and finally on April 22, 2021 we were able to complete all formalities and Parbati Das was released along with eight others. Speaking of her ordeal in the camp Parbati says, “My senses had stopped working in there. I missed home.”
Describing the conditions in the camp Parbati said, “There was one room with walls on all sides and one door. They’d give us a rice meal and tea. They didn’t give us blankets at first and then when they did, they were prickly and worn out.”
She also told the CJP team that despite being back at home she had serious concerns about her livelihood. She also has concerns because her son suffers from a developmental disability. CJP is now trying to help the family find a sustainable source of income so that they are not forced to go hungry.
In fact, in July 2021, CJP team delivered food rations to Parbati Das. We are aware of the family’s economic weakness and also that our commitment towards the people we help does not end with getting them released from detention camps.
Help fix a broken system
This poor old woman’s ordeal begs the question, what kind of danger did this gray-haired toothless granny pose to anyone? Even if the right-wing supremacist forces peddle the “ghuspethia” or “infiltrator” narrative, are we going to suspect women like Parbati Das of terrorism now, or are we the terrorists striking fear in the hearts of frail old women… forcing them to live, rot away and die in detention camps?
But all is not lost. It was the support of our readers and donors that has helped us get people like Parbati Das released from detention camps, and it is because of you that we have been able to maintain our unwavering commitment to our fellow Indians in Assam. To help CJP continue to help people like Parbati Das, please Donate Now!