The year that was: Detention camps, healthcare crisis, violation of Constitution! CJP looks back at campaign progress in UP's Purvanchal region and Assam

08, Jul 2021 | CJP Team

Working as a single unit, organisations like Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP), the All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP), and the Delhi Solidarity Group (DSG) have closely observed the state of Covid-19 crisis in India and the government’s attitude towards it. Over the last four to five weeks, the groups examined the situation from political, economic, medical perspectives. On July 3, 2021, CJP volunteers from Uttar Pradesh and Assam held a virtual meet to discuss the challenges faced and progress made over the last year.

CJP secretary Teesta Setalvad moderated this virtual meet where CJP’s on-ground team members from UP’s Purvanchal region and Assam shared their experience conducting humanitarian aid work during the Covid-19 pandemic. The Assam team also discussed the legal training arranged for local concerned citizens by CJP, as we strongly believe in looking at constitutional rights and oppression, from a legal point of view.

“We believe in democratic processes and in strengthening them, be it paralegal, outside court or any other,” said Setalvad.

CJP’s campaign in Purvanchal, UP

Purvanchal Coordinator Dr. Muniza Khan spoke about the state of the weaver, labour and minority communities in the region. Following the June 14, 2020 meeting, the team focused on three issues of labour migration, weaver community’s condition and the prevalence of political oppression. This year again labour migration remained an issue because people once again moved to cities for work. However, while labourers have been in difficult situations during the pandemic, weavers in the region have been suffering from demonetisation in 2016. GST also affected their sales.

As a part of CJP’s Covid-relief efforts, we are providing medical kits to people in villages and towns of Uttar Pradesh’s deeply impoverished Purvanchal region. Currently, CJP offers two kits: a Family Kit containing soap, masks and paracetamol strips, and a Mohallah Kit with an oximeter, thermometer, and other things for community centres. The Purvanchal Weaving Industry Fact-finding initiative aims to produce a report that will become a powerful analytical and advocacy tool further leading to programmatic grassroot initiatives to battle discrimination and division. Please Donate Now to help CJP reach more such communities across India.

As many as 17 CJP members carried out a survey between October and November in 11 mohallahs of Varanasi, Mau, Mubarakpur, and Gorakhpur districts. These regions included OBC, Dalit and other marginalised communities. The survey showed that weavers are in a more vulnerable situation than what is let on in the media. Most people cannot even afford a one-time meal and subsist on roti and chutney. Many artisans sold their machines at Rs. 60,000 to Rs. 70,000. Other people sold blood to keep their families alive. CJP workers attempted to provide at least a month of financial relief for these families.

Alongside relief work, the team also intervened in internal scuffles within Jaunpur’s Dalit localities to keep them from escalating. Similarly, volunteers observed many incidents where arguments between children, or relating to Muslim localities, were needlessly given a communal colour. While Dr. Khan alleged this could be due to be the influence of the approaching assembly election, Team CJP encouraged Muslim women to speak out against the police oppression and demand that they be left in peace. CJP’s sister organisation SabrangIndia has covered many incidents where Muslim women were verbally abused during unwarranted raids by police.

Further, the team observed extremes where at times people disregarded their religious differences and looked out for each other. For example, a weaver woman who noticed a child worker was not even paid her dues, loaned her money with no expectation of refund. She reasoned that women look out for each other here irrespective of faith. In other instances, Hindu-Muslim relations worsened following the Tablighi Jamaat incident. Khan talked about one locality in Medanipur that tried to create a barricade to block Muslims.

The situation worsened for weavers, who are starting to depart from their traditional work and are opening tea stalls or snack shops. It is noteworthy that women’s earnings suffered during this time. Some people died by suicide while other postponed weddings. There were incidents of domestic violence, and also cases where women were sent to their parent’s homes because the breadwinner could not provide food for them.

Another artisan group that worked on the crowns for actors playing deities in local plays told CJP that 100 percent of its people were in debt and had sold their belongings for whatever prices they were offered.

CJP’s Covid-relief campaign

Our Purvanchal team distributed mohallah and family kits to provide basic medical supplies including oximeters, etc. The kits included CJP pamphlets to provide correct information to people about Covid confused by fake news and rumours. The team met many people who thanked Team CJP for the relief provided. After talking to them, the team also provided sanitary pads and cloth masks in its kit.

Similarly, the team has begun work on recording the exact number of deaths caused by Covid-19. Dr. Khan said that initial talks with crematorium workers revealed that even they were unaware of the exact number of deaths in the last month or so.

The regional team intends to start a Right to Health campaign alongside teachers and frontline workers to raise awareness about health rights and the impact of the pandemic.

Confronting the Citizenship Crisis amidst Covid in Assam

Over the last year, CJP succeeded in helping 41 people get released on conditional bail from detention camps in Assam. However, despite these efforts, the citizenship crisis still remains a huge cause of concern. Even during the Covid-19 pandemic, people were more concerned about their citizenship, said community volunteers. Even farmers that comprised about 70 percent of the population, were more worried about citizenship than their farming rights.

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!

CJP community worker Habibul Bepari explained that the root cause of this is how people are named as doubtful voters (D-voter), a practice by the Election Commission that was started in 1997 and continues to this day. At the time, 2.3 lakh people were listed as D-voters, although till 2021, there is no official reasoning for it. Nonetheless, based on this “doubt” as many as 1.13 people were designated D-voters.

In terms of citizenship, this means that people designated D-voters, have to prove their citizenship before Foreigners’ Tribunals (FT). Bepari said it is a bitter truth that most of those facing such trials are from marginalised sections of society and impoverished backgrounds. “They have to pay Rs. 5,000-10,000 just to talk to lawyers. Most of them are daily wage workers. Their case does not come to a conclusion even after a year,” said Bepari.

A local group had promised to collect the data of those designated D-voters, who possessed the proper documents for citizenship. This compiled data was supposed to be sent to the State Secretariat for verification. However, Bepari said such a survey never happened. Now CJP’s Assam team is trying to collect this data, but faces difficulties because daily wage workers work during the day and other family members are reluctant to talk to strangers.

CJP’s Assam State Team In-charge, Nanda Ghosh, explained how eviction was among people’s biggest fears for this reason. “Eviction means changing the village which means updating Voter ID. In such cases, people fear being designated as D-voters” said Ghosh. “For areas with large populations from the minority community, CJP means emotional, financial and legal help. These legal processes are what scare people the most,” Ghosh explained.

He also talked about the difficulties in helping an individual get released from a detention camp. For this, a bailer is required who can vouch for the imprisoned person and possesses the required documents for the procedure. Further, there should be no variation of name spellings in all documents that the bailer presents.

In the Kokrajhar camp, people have not been released for years. It is difficult for the team to meet its inmates. However, on meeting, the people there only demand that they get to leave the “hell-like place.” Team CJP later played a video showing the state of detainees.

Regarding Covid-relief, Community Worker Papiya Das said the team distributed CJP booklets and vaccination booklets to promote immunisation. “The main problem is slot booking. Where one centre requires 500 vaccines, they get only 100 to 150 vaccines. Some people don’t even have a phone to register so CJP workers do the booking for them,” said Das.

Like Purvanchal, the Assam team of CJP also gave medical kits to every house they visited to help people check oxygen level and temperature. One village near the Indo-Bhutan border reported many of its people were hungry for days. CJP offered relief to them along with the people who were recently evicted.

Das also talked about people’s distrust regarding documents although volunteers offer help. This is important because after release from camps, people have to approach police stations. CJP helps with the same. At times, people are unable to approach the station due to health issues. At such times, CJP talks to police officials and arranges for personnel to visit people’s houses instead.

The latest National Register of Citizens (NRC) excluded over 19 lakh people, leading to fear and anxiety among people. In some cases, people died by suicide. Other times, children said they were bullied in school and told that the police will take them away to detention camps.

Community worker Zesmin Sultana, who helped with document collection for FT procedures said transportation is another difficulty. “In many areas people are forced to walk,” she shared. There is also a shortage of thermometers and oximeters in certain areas, adding Covid concerns to existing anxiety.

Regardless, CJP workers continue to raise awareness about citizenship and constitutional rights. CJP has spearheaded several significant legal petitions. These include one that asks that children not be sent to detention camps. It also says that the state must provide free and competent legal aid to people defending their citizenship before FTs, given how 19 lakh people are facing an uncertain future.

After the meeting, senior trade unionist Comrade D Thankappan praised the CJP team for its work and strategy. He said, “We are at a point where initiative to lead needs to start now. We have to figure out how to make campaigns national. Minority sections are being attacked be it health or communal tactics.” AIUFWP secretary Roma Malik appreciated CJP’s continued efforts and agreed that the “unconstitutional” detention camps must be condemned.


COVID awareness and Medical Relief for Purvanchal continues

CJP’s relief kits reach families across Purvanchal

Beauty and the bumbling Beast of Bureaucracy

CJP’s work still going strong in Assam


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