A People Persecuted: Citizens Targeted as Illegal Migrants
GUWAHATI: It is a Monday morning, 10am. A throng of people gather outside a court in Assam’s capital of Guwahati. Their solemn faces express anxiety and unease. All stand accused of being illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
The judge is late and I get to hear some of the victims’ stories. I say victims because these people are not immigrants, but Indian citizens. They have the misfortune of being Bengal origin Muslims or ‘NaAsamiyas’ who have long been scapegoated by the Assamese political machinery. Much like Myanmar’s Rohingyas, these people are now being disowned by their state.
Aman Wadud is an advocate who runs a legal aid charity and represents these persecuted people. “Most of the people here have documents dating back to independence. But the police don’t care. Despite seeing the relevant papers they still file charge sheets, accusing them of being ‘suspected illegal immigrants.’ If they lose their case, they will be sent to detention camps with little hope of ever getting out.”
“It’s clear that the state is deliberately harassing these people. The ‘evidence’ police allege simply doesn’t exist. That’s why 96% of accused are found to be Indian citizens.”
A source close to the prison service who wished to remain anonymous, told us that “there are hundreds of Indian citizens who have been wrongly convicted. The vast majority are here because of administrative errors. Very few will ever see freedom again.” The errors she spoke of can be as simple as a misspelt name.
“Most of these people are illiterate and they cannot spell their names. If the names on their documents are spelt differently, this can be used against them. Thus the difference between ‘Monirul’ and Munirul’ can make the difference between freedom and imprisonment”
Many of those who are not imprisoned are simply struck off the voter list. Since 1997 successive governments have labelled hundreds of thousands of NaAsamiyas as ‘doubtful voters’. Without citing any evidence and without trial, the authorities erase their citizenship. They are now trying to round them up and place them in detention centres.
Timir Choudhury was born in the Indian state of West Bengal and moved to Assam for business. From a brown envelope he withdrew a bundle of documents. He showed me his name on the voter lists of West Bengal and Assam, he showed me his voter ID and his birth certificate. Despite this evidence the police continue to assert that he is an illegal Bangladeshi.
He told us that he had been arrested by police and transferred to a detention centre, where he stayed for two days.
“My previous lawyer was a crook” he alleged. “Because of him I was sent to the detention centre. Fortunately I was able to get a new lawyer and appeal the case. If I am not acquitted this time I may spend the rest of my life in that camp.”
Wadud tells me that many of the advocates who represent these people are in league with the police. “When the police file charges against people they often recommend a lawyer. These so called advocates extort these people. They don’t give proper legal advice. Sometimes they actively pervert justice. Many people are languishing in detention camps because of these bogus lawyers.”
“The camp was horrible” Choudhury said. “There were three hundred people, mostly poor Bengal origin Indians. Many had been in there for years. We were forced to sleep on the floor with no mattresses or blankets. It was so cramped we only had a foot and a half of space each.”
“It’s a well known fact that the police top brass pressure their officers to find, or in reality create, illegal Bangladeshis” says Dr Hafiz Ahmed, President of the Jhai Foundation which supports NaAsamiyas. “They prey on the poor and the uneducated because they are powerless and know no better.”
A police officer who wished to remain anonymous confirmed this. “I was told from above to find two Bangladeshis a month. If I didn’t I would lose my job. What was I to do?”
The truth is, illegal immigration into Assam is a chimera. A fiction that political parties have long cultivated. With no Bangladeshis to be found, police officers like him are forced to allege that Bengal origin NaAsamiyas, whose families have lived in Assam for more than a century, are Bangladeshi.
The law these suspected illegal immigrants are tried under is the colonial Foreigners Act. “The problem with this act is that the onus is on the accused to prove his innocence. Under this act people are assumed guilty until proven innocent. This runs contrary to sense and justice,” explained Wadud.
“If the accused fail to turn up to the Tribunal, they are declared guilty without trial. If the police find them, they will be arrested and imprisoned without ever seeing a courtroom.”
“The majority of the people accused are poor and illiterate. They either do not understand the court order, or they cannot afford to go to court. Because of this, hundreds of people are unfairly imprisoned or are forced into hiding.” These people’s lives are written off. They are disowned by their own state. “It really is a case of locking them up and throwing away the key.”
The fiction of NaAsamiyas as illegal Bangladeshis was engendered by the All Assam Student’s Union who used it to foster communal tensions. This led to the violent Assam Movement which swept them to power in 1985. During that time, pogroms against NaAsamiyas occurred with an almost circadian regularity. The perpetrators continue to be shielded by impunity.
While most of these pogroms have now stopped, massacres continue to be perpetrated in certain pockets, particularly in western Assam.
Wadud is currently representing the victims of a 2014 massacre in the village of Khagrabari. “One afternoon a group of 40 assailants went on a killing spree. Many of the murderers were forest guards who used government weapons. Those who were not shot were either burnt alive in their homes or drowned as they were forced into the river. In just 40 minutes, 38 people, including 20 children were murdered.”
“The perpetrators were sure of their impunity. Many were well known to their victims and didn’t even wear a balaclava.”
“After public outrage, the state government agreed to pass the case to the National Investigation Agency. However, the state took 81 days to hand over the case. In the meantime they destroyed most of the evidence.”
Impunity has long been a tool of the sectarian state. When certain sections of the population are deliberately vilified and consistently deprived of justice, a climate of terror unfolds.
And the state is also the main beneficiary. The scapegoating of NaAsamiyas and the inculcation of chauvinist sentiment has fuelled communalism and propelled generations of high caste chauvinists to power. These politicians have struck electoral gold by stirring the pot of communal discontent. After all, every politician needs a good scapegoat.
Meanwhile the NaAsamiyas wait for justice. Justice for the murdered and massacred. Justice for the imprisoned and forgotten. Justice for the parents of massacred children, and the kids born to persecution. Justice for India, the country of broken promises.
[Some names have been changed to ensure anonymity]