'We are afraid that one day, we will bring his dead body bac'k home

Biswa Kalyan Purkayastha | Aug 5, 2018 | 6 min read

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Suggestion: I know it can be difficult to talk to the man. But a small paragraph would've been nice. Maybe, describing how he interacts with others or what does he do during the hearings. (Please add this)

(TALKING ABOUT HIS JOURNY IN DETENTION CAMP, CHANDRADHAR DAS (IN A SHAKY VOICE) SAID, "IT IS TRUE THAT I WAS IN JAIL BUT THE OFFICERS AND INMATES TREATED WELL WITH ME. THE JUDGE USED TO CALL ME 'SADHU BABA' DURING HEARING. OTHER OFFICERS TOO CALL ME WITH THAT NAME. BUT THE ROOM IN JAIL IS NOT GOOD FOR A OLD MAN LIKE ME. I NEED HELP TO GO TO TOILET, I NEED SUPPORT IN TAKING FOOD TOO, NOBODY IN JAIL CAN HELP ME. I PRAY TO GOD, NEVER SEND A OLD MAN IN JAIL, I HOPE I DIE BEFORE GOING THERE AGAIN.")

Cachar: Chandradhar Das, the “suspected foreigner” in Assam’s Cachar district, has seen it all. After spending nearly three months in a detention camp earlier this year, the 102-year-old man has now been asked to appear before the Foreigners Tribunal on August 14 to prove his citizenship, yet again.

“It is unfair that he is being forced to travel so much when the judiciary knows that my father has valid documents to prove his identity. I am afraid we may lose him one of these days,” says Das’s daughter, Niyoti Roy, adding that the centenarian should not be treated like this. “His health deteriorates every time we come back from court, mostly due to the pressure of the journey.” Roy, who is separated from her husband, and her brother Gouranga take care of their ailing father, while Gouranga's wife and children live nearby in the same village.

On January 2, Das, a resident of Borai Basti under Dholai constituency in the Amraghat area, was declared a foreigner by an ex parte judgment of the tribunal when he could not appear before the court due to his frail health.

He was put in the detention camp on March 31 after he failed to follow to appear before the tribunal court and furnish the required documents to prove his Indian citizenship. However, his family claims Das has the necessary documents — including a 1966 citizenship card.

The old man spent nearly three months in the detention camp inside Silchar Central Jail before being moved to Silchar Medical College owing to his deteriorating health conditions. Though he was later granted bail on humanitarian grounds, Das was asked to appear before a tribunal court at least "six to seven times", says Roy. The nearly 40-km journey to the court becomes more arduous for the old man and his family due to the miserable condition of roads.

Das’s daughter feels it is inhumane to call an ailing old man repeatedly. “In FT-6, where the case is undergoing, there is no government lawyer. The member (judge) keeps taking leaves and as a result, we suffer. My father is not healthy enough to travel 80 kilometers twice a month or more. We are not financially strong enough to book a car for him every time. So, we have to resort to public transport to reach the court in Silchar,” she says explaining their ordeal.

“My father is not able to speak well now but he was a fighter throughout his life. He left Bangladesh, then East Pakistan, in mid-1950’s due to the continuous threat in the country from the majority community. He was a vendor there and was not allowed to continue his work,” reveals Roy. “He entered India through Tripura and started working as daily wage laborer in Teliamura area in the state. He got married and my elder brother was born there but soon local indigenous militants started creating problems for him. They burnt our house and threatened to kill our family members. My father thought Barak Valley would be a safer place as it is one of the few Bengali-dominated areas in Northeast.”

Roy recalls how the family lived in the Amraghat peacefully for over four decades. “We were never served the D-voter notice or have our identities questioned. My parents voted in all the elections and so did we,” she says adding that the family submitted the necessary documents when the process for National Register of Citizens (NRC) began. However, earlier this year they were sent a notice by the Foreigner’s Tribunal.

“The court ordered my father to appear before the tribunal and prove his identity. My father wanted to but his health condition didn’t allow him. My mother Adorini Das, who is around 80-year-old, is also bedridden and we failed to realise that ignoring court’s order may lead to his arrest,” says Roy, highlighting the plight of several others in Assam who are yet to understand all the legal aspects of the NRC process.

"India is a country where we consider humanity to be the biggest law. My centenarian father is a loyal Indian citizen and has no criminal record against him. How can he be taken from his home in this old age and pushed behind bars?” questions Roy. The exasperation in her voice is hard to miss. “We saw our father being arrested in an age when one needs medical assistance.

Be it ministers, officials or other influential people, the family knocked on everybody’s doors to get help for their father. “In the end, we appealed to the Deputy Commissioner of our district, Dr. S Lakshmanan, to grant bail to my father on humanitarian grounds,” says Roy. Their fight, however, is not over.

“They are aware that my father is ill. Yet they say that there is no other option and he has to come to FT-6 till the case is resolved. We don’t want to disobey the judicial system and so we convince our father to travel on every date. But we are afraid that one day, we will bring his dead body back home. Now, even I want him to go. At least, this humiliation will stop,” says Roy while fighting back tears.

Several Barak Valley-based organisations — including Unconditional Citizenship Demand Forum (UCDF) — came forward to support the family. “We cannot decide whether Das is an Indian or an illegal migrant. But he is a 102-year-old sick man who doesn’t deserve such humiliation,” says Kamal Chakraborty, a UCDF member. He claims many from the economically weaker sections are serving imprisonment in such detention camps across Assam after being declared ex parte foreigner as they cannot engage lawyers. “Some of them get legal support from government organisations but many are still left out. Unfortunately, our system shows less humanity towards the suspected and declared foreigners.”

Das’s lawyer Soumen Choudhury believes that August 14 will be the final appearance and the court will give its verdict in the favour of Das. “We are optimistic that he will be freed from charges of D-voter on that day. He has suffered a lot but the court is dealing with the matter more from a humanitarian perspective.”

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