13, Jun 2018 | Deborah Grey
This story is a part of our series on people in Assam who have been declared foreigners after an allegedly flawed and arbitrary process of determining citizenship. Even as the final list of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) is all set to be disclosed on June 30, 2018, thousands of people have had their citizenship stripped on account of minor discrepancies in paperwork. Many such stateless people are languishing in detention centres pending deportation to Bangladesh, while some are on the run. Here’s the story of Rashminara Begum who was arrested and placed in a detention centre even while she was pregnant.
Nazifa Yasmin is just about a year old. She is toddling about her home in Goalpara in Assam feeling a bit restless. She is unable to sit still, and just as she is about to step on important paperwork and identity documents, her mother Rashminara Begum scoops her up, puts her on her lap and lovingly says, “She is lucky for me. I got out of prison because she came into this world!”
CJP condemns the actions of a heartless state that separates a mother from her children and throws a pregnant woman in jail. We also condemn the arbitrary nature of the procedure involved in declaring a person a foreigner. To learn more about our campaign in Assam, please read and sign our petition here and support our efforts.
In 2016, Rashminara was served notice stating she was to present herself before a Foreigners Tribunal (FT) as she was a suspected Bangladeshi. She submitted all documents necessary and was shocked when the FT ruled that she was a Bangladeshi. The ruling was based on an error in her date of birth. Two different school leaving certificates gave two different dates of birth. The village where Rashminara grew up had been washed away by the Brahmaputra along with her school in the 2004 flood. She lost all her family’s documents from the pre-Independence days, including a certificate saying that her grandfather was a freedom fighter and Congress leader. She had no way to get additional documents to prove that the discrepancy in the date of birth was just a clerical error by the school authorities. She was promptly moved to the Kokrajhar Detention Camp in North Assam on November 9, 2016.
“I was three months pregnant and prison was no place for a woman in my condition. I begged and pleaded, but the cops dragged me away,” she says, recalling the horror. She has three other daughters. “My daughter Moriom was just about 4 years old. She was so traumatised that even if she sees a policeman today she hides under the bed, terrified that they will drag her away the way they took me away,” she says, looking at Moriom who is unwilling to budge from her father Monirul’s side.
As no separate detentions centres were constructed, they operate out of local jails in six places in Assam: Kokrajhar (where women are lodged), Goalpara, Tezpur, Silchar, Dhibrugarh and Jorhat. “The front part of the prison complex houses the male criminals and the back portion is for women who have been convicted of crimes as serious as murder,” says Rashminara. “136 of us so-called foreigners and even some doubtful voters were packed together. It was overcrowded,” she recalls, adding, “Also, they did not keep the criminals and foreigners separate, so those women often bullied and terrorised us. I lived with 4 murderers!”
“I got two meals a day and there was a prison doctor. But a pregnant woman needs so much more. The food was barely edible but I had to eat as there was a little life growing inside me,” she says. “We were also not allowed to gather in large group and talk. Her husband and other daughters visited her in prison and while they were not allowed to give her cooked food, they provided her with fresh clothes, soaps and dry food like fruit whenever they could. They were never allowed to give her more than Rs. 500. This was not just a princely sum, but also noteworthy, because unlike the criminal inmates, Declared Foreigners (DF) are not allowed to work and earn a living in prison. Meanwhile, she also appealed against the FT’s ruling in the Guwahati High Court.
“My pregnancy advanced and I was taken to the Kokrajhar R&D Hospital to deliver my baby in May 2017. I stayed there for a month after the delivery and then a local politician pulled some strings to keep me out of the detention centre,” she says. Rashminara was given a three-month reprieve by the Guwahati High Court to nurse her newborn. Meanwhile, the leader of the opposition party intervened and filed a petition on her behalf, praying that the court take into account her special circumstances. Finally, the Supreme Court ordered that Rashminara could stay at home until the final judgment in her case.
Manirul, who works as a tailor, is happy to have the mother of his children back. “When she was gone, I was running from pillar to post trying to get her out. Her mother helped with the kids. Now my wife and I can spend time with our children,” he says sitting flanked by two of his daughters.
“My grandfather fought for Independence. My brother Zakir Hussain has a government job. How can I be a foreigner,” asks a perplexed Rashminara even as little Nazifa Yasmin now gives strong hints that she is hungry. As we leave a mother peacefully breastfeeding her baby, the cruelty of an administration that sent her to a detention camp and held her captive while she was pregnant is not lost upon us. Moriom manages to leave her father’s side and comes out to wave us goodbye. We wonder if her scars will heal with time or if she will always be afraid of policemen and hide under the bed.