Dulal Chandra Paul, a 65-year-old farmer and a detainee, was from Alisinga area of Dhekiajuli sub-division under Sonitpur district of Assam. Paul was declared ‘illegal foreigner’ by the Tezpur Foreigners Tribunals (FT) on October 11, 2017, and was sent to Tezpur jail, which is a detention camp. He was mentally unstable and as his health condition deteriorated, he was taken to Gauhati Medical College and Hospital (GMCH) where he died on October 13, 2019. Paul’s family has claimed that they were not informed about his acute illness.
Falu Das (70), a fisherman from Chatamari village, in the Barkhetri area of Nalbari district, was under incarceration in the Goalpara detention camp, after the FT declared him an ‘illegal foreigner” in July 2017. Das fell severely sick and was admitted in Goalpara Civil Hospital on October 11. As his condition worsened, he was referred to the GMC on October 13, where he passed away on October 24.
Paul and Das are among the 27 people who have died while under custody in various detention camps across Assam. Most of these cases went unnoticed by the people in general and the media in particular. Paul’s death caught public attention after his family refused to accept his body until he was declared an Indian citizen. Their concerns were simple and clear: ‘If Paul is a Bangladeshi, send his mortal remains to Bangladesh. Why are you handing it to us?’
Paul spent two year in the detention camp before his death. This at a time when his siblings and kinfolk have made it into the National Register of Citizens (NRC). Paul and his three sons were excluded from this exclusionary register. Paul’s family demanded that he be declared an Indian before they accept his body. Paul’s body remained in the GMCH morgue for 10 days, during which the family threatened to commit suicide if the State turned a deaf ear to its plea. This prompted the Assam Chief Minister to intervene and it was only then that the family accepted the body and the funeral was conducted. The government promised to extend legal help in claiming his citizenship.
The events were similar with Das’ family as well. The neglect towards Paul, Das and others like them seem to be too small a concern for a big nation like India. Rather than attending to these small yet important issues, the government seems to have left it to the decisions of the FT, which after all is a controversial, quasi-judicial body.
At present Assam has six detention centres housing 1,100 people. These centres are a reflection of the humanitarian crisis the state is facing. In addition to these six detention centres, one huge camp is coming up in Goalpara, which can house 3,000 people at a time. As per reports, the government is planning to construct 10 more such sites. The detention centres have locked up people in an unhealthy environment where they are reported to have been denied adequate healthcare, food and other necessities. This presents a depressing environment for children to grow.
Human rights activist Harsh Mander, as the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) special monitor, filed an elaborate report to the commission on the inhuman condition, “human distress and suffering” prevailing in Assam’s detention camps. The NHRC paid no heed to the report, which prompted Mander to resign. Later he approached the Supreme Court and the apex court ordered the state government to take necessary action, but the government remained heedless to the directives of the SC.
At present Assam has a coalition government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with the support of Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and Bodoland People’s Front (BPF). In the recently-concluded bypolls too, the ruling BJP performed well by winning three out of four seats. These seats are Ratabari (SC), Sonari and Rangapara. The Congress, continuing its slide in the state, lost a seat to the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), thus reducing its tally in the assembly from 25 to 24.
The BJP might hold the mandate of the people; but the question is whether it can uphold and protect the rights of marginalised people in Assam.
Nazimuddin Siddique is an Assam-based researcher. Views are personal.