With no one around to help her understand the implications of the notice, Bishaka missed 37 hearings in her case.
For Bishaka Bala Das, her citizenship wasn’t something she ever thought she would have to safeguard. She made her living doing domestic chores in other’s houses while both of her sons laboured in other states in the country to make ends meet. Their father had passed away at an early age.
In managing their day-to-day survival, they hardly knew what was happening in the state, why notices were being issued to people and what needed to be done. Bishaka lived alone, unable to read or write, which is why when the notice came for her from the Foreigners Tribunal, she was neither aware of the notices nor equipped to understand how to respond. Her sons were also unaware of the notices being served to their mother.
With no one around to help her understand the implications of the notice, Bishaka missed 37 hearings in her case. Finally, the Tribunal declared her a foreigner in her absence, through what is known as an ex parte order. Bishaka was arrested immediately and jailed in the detention centre at Kokrajhar in 2015.
The Need For Information and Legal Aid
Responding to a question asked by Shashi Tharoor, a Member of Parliament, the Minister of State for Home Affairs said around 64,000 people in Assam had been declared foreigners by the Foreigners Tribunals in their absence. In cases like Bishaka’s and many others, the process fails to empathize with those who have not received any formal education, are often exploited by lawyers who charge exorbitant fees but do little or are unable to make multiple appearances in the Tribunals that are situated far away from where they currently reside, due to debilitating poverty.
These hearings and subsequent opinions deprive people from defending their case and therefore strip many who may have a legitimate claim to Indian citizenship. Without proper information systems and legal aid that engage with citizens on the process, ex parte opinions can be seen as a method to exclude, especially the poor and the marginalized.
The Crime of Poverty
Bishaka’s sons immediately came back once they heard about their mother.They hired a lawyer and appealed to the Gauhati High Court. In the High Court, Bishaka submitted various documents including the voter’s list of 1966 and 1970 with the name of her father to prove her citizenship. But the case was dismissed because the court held her recurrent absence in the Tribunal proceedings against her, overlooking the reasons for such absence.
Her elder son, Dulal Das said that he was quite unhappy with their lawyer.
“He has taken Rs. 90,000 from us but we haven’t heard from him since on the status of the case. My mother has spent more than 3 years in jail,” he said.
The sons go to meet their aging mother once or twice each month to find her more miserable than before. “The food is really bad there. She’s quite aged now and her eyes are also very weak. Like this, she will die in 2-3 years.”
Recently, the Supreme Court of India ordered for the release of all those declared foreigners by the Tribunals and kept in detention beyond a period of three years on bail. The Court, however made it contingent on executing a bond with two sureties of 1 lakh rupees each, besides submitting their biometric data, iris and fingerprints.
But Bishaka, who has been in detention for more than 3 years, doesn’t have the money to buy her freedom or her citizenship again.