New Delhi: Released on bail from a detention centre in Assam Saturday, where he was lodged after being declared a ‘foreigner’, retired army man Mohammad Sanaullah said he had “many difficult postings during his service in the army for several years but nothing prepared him for life in a detention camp”.
“I have served in difficult places such as Imphal in Manipur and Kupwara in Kashmir. But nothing prepared me for life in a detention camp. They call it a centre but it is a prison. Even years of serving in dangerous places and living under difficult circumstances could not prepare me for these 10-odd days at the camp,” he told ThePrint over phone.
Sanaullah, 52, retired as a subedar with the Corps of Electronics and Mechanical Engineers (EME) in August 2017.
He was declared an ‘illegal immigrant’ by a Foreigners Tribunal in the state and sent to a detention camp in Assam’s Goalpara on 28 May. Sanaullah’s arrest had sparked a national outrage and the Gauhati High Court finally granted him interim bail last week.
Sanaullah, who joined the force in May 1987, describes the detention centre as an “anxiety-causing cave”.
“We started our day with a prayer – allah tero naam, ishwar tero naam – had breakfast that consisted of rotis that were hard and tea made badly. The quality of all meals was very poor. We were around 40-45 people in one room and post 4 pm we would be locked in. One bathroom was shared between all of us,” he said.
Seems like the condition of detention centres is the same across the state — pitiable living conditions housing anxious and worried inmates.
Sanaullah said he had realised that there was an inquiry against him — initiated in 2008 — and in 2018 his name did not appear in the National Register of Citizens (NRC).
“Even a murder convict knows when he will get out of jail. Everyone knows the number of years that he or she will have to serve for a particular crime. But those in detention centres have no idea when they will be let off or what their fate holds. These centres are like anxiety-causing caves,” he added.
Sanaullah also recalled how tales of those he had met inside the camp would often “move him to tears”.
“People have been lodged inside camps for years and they are all genuine citizens, not foreigners. Most are inside mainly due to technical errors in official documents,” he added.
Not giving up hope
The retired subedar, however, said he never gave up hope.
“I am an Indian and will remain so. I have 100 per cent faith in our courts that I will get justice,” Sanaullah added.
While the names of his older brother and nephews have appeared in the NRC list, his entire family — including two daughters and a son — has not.
“When I joined the army, all verification was done. This included authorities visiting my school and getting everything verified. How did I suddenly become a foreigner then?” he asked.
Sanaullah’s case highlights the anomalies within the system that identifies ‘illegal immigrants’ in Assam. The state is updating the NRC, a Supreme Court-monitored exercise that aims to identify migrants who had entered the country illegally after 1971.
A long-standing demand in the state, the NRC process was also part of the 1985 Assam Accord. Worried that they would be deprived of their limited resources, the ethnic Assamese has harboured a deep resentment for the ‘bidexi‘ (outsider) in the state.
“The NRC process is a very good thing. It definitely should happen. But we need to ensure that all Indians find their names in the list and no foreigner’s name is included,” Sanaullah further said.
This former army man is, however, unlikely to get relief anytime soon. “I hope no Indian has to go through the experience that I had been to,” Sanaullah said.
“I may be out on bail now, but how can I be happy? How can anyone who has spent time in a detention centre, accused of being an illegal immigrant, be happy?” he asked.