Kolkata, Feb 14, 2020: Zubaida Begum’s tears have dried up. The 75-year-old resident of Kolkata’s Ghulam Rasool Masjid Lane near Park Circus has been waiting in hope for her son’s release from a detention centre in Assam’s Goalpara. In captivity since July 14, 2017 after being left out of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), Zubaida’s son, 54-year-old Asgar Ali, is suffering from acute depression, his family says, and told his nephew Zishan Ali that he cannot face the humiliation any more of being branded a “doubtful voter”, News18 reported.
In one of the small rooms in their dingy home, Asgar’s 80-year-old ailing father Sheikh Moral, who had changed his name to Mohammad Jarif, was lying in bed. He is too weak to speak and cannot walk properly. The family says his last wish is to see his son before he dies.
Now, for Zubaida and Jarif, the only hope is a Supreme Court order that says anyone held for more than three years at any NRC detention centre in Assam will be released.
Asgar was put behind bars on July 14, 2017 and, as per the apex court’s order, he is expected to be freed around that date this year.
The Assam NRC is a list of people who had to prove that they came to India by March 24, 1971, a day before neighbouring Bangladesh separated from Pakistan and became an independent country. The Supreme Court mandated and monitored exercise was carried out in the state with close to 19 lakh people being left out from the final list released last year. But following widespread criticism, including from some BJP leaders as lakhs of Hindus were also excluded, the central government has indicated that the process will be repeated in the state along with the rest of the country.
In the 1980s, Asgar went to Guwahati from Kolkata to work as a carpenter. Over the years, he managed to set up a sofa repairing and manufacturing unit in the city’s Islampur area.
In 2005, his nephew Zishan lost his father and moved to Guwahati to work with him.
Their hopes of coming out of an acute financial crisis, so Asgar could bear the expenses of his two brothers and four sisters, were shattered after he received a phone call in 2014 from Assam police. At the time, he and Zishan had come to Kolkata to attend a wedding.
Asgar was scared and when he went back to Guwahati, he was told that he was a doubtful voter, or D-voter, a category of Assam residents who are disenfranchised by the government on the account of their alleged lack of proper citizenship credentials. Asgar fought the case legally but he gave up before the system and was sent to the detention camp after an Assam foreigners’ tribunal deemed him a foreigner.
“Ask them to shoot me. I think it’s better to die rather than living in this hell. What is my fault? I am Indian and they put me behind bars. Zishan, please take care of my son because they are not going to release me.” The family says these were Asgar’s words to Zishan on January 20, 2020, from a distance of about five feet as they stood on either side of some barbed wire fencing.
Zishan, who stays in Islampur and frequently meets Asgar at the Goalpara detention centre, said, “He is like my father and I have decided to stay back in Guwahati till his release. Last month, I met him. He was extremely depressed. He told me that it’s better to be shot dead rather than living in the detention camp. He is losing patience and is mentally devastated. I am worried about his health. Our only hope is our lawyer, Aman Wadud sir. He is representing our case before the Gauhati high court. I got his reference from the relative of an inmate at the detention camp. Now we are waiting for July 14, 2020 for his (Asgar’s) release.”
When asked what the main reason was behind the detention, Zishan said the family had provided all the documents pertaining to Asgar, and his family members, including his father and mother. “But our documentation was rejected by the court. Later, we came to know that Asgar’s father’s name was Sheikh Moral but later he changed it to Mohammad Jarif. We have also presented his name-change affidavit before the court. But the court observed that we failed to provide any documents which say that Mohammad Jarif and Sheikh Moral were the same person.” he said.
“Then we presented Asgar’s father’s voter ID card which was issued in 1966. Then, the court observed that the electoral rolls of 1966 was issued by one Subodh Chandra Das, assistant director, state archives, higher education department of West Bengal. Asgar’s father’s voter ID card was also not entertained by the court, observing that director of state archives cannot be the custodian of electoral rolls (only custodian is the electoral registration officer) of assembly constituencies in West Bengal.”
Asgar’s brother Arshad, who makes women’s handbags said, the family has been living in a state of devastation since 2017. “Our family has been living in Kolkata for several decades and my brother is branded a ‘foreigner’. What kind of law is this? My brother is an Indian in Kolkata, but he was termed a foreigner in Assam. We are hopeful that he will be released in July this year.”
In a text message, Asgar’s lawyer Aman Wadud, said, “Asgar Ali will be out of detention by July 14, 2020 as per SC order, which said those detained for three years should be released. Although, he will have to live the rest of his life as ‘stateless’ person despite his entire family and ancestors being Indian citizens.”