'Declared a Foreigner’, Guwahati-Based Ex-Army Subedar Sent to Detention Centre

Mohammad Sanaullah, who served the army for 30 years, has been sent to Goalpara detention centre in Assam.

New Delhi: On May 29, Mohammad Sanaullah, a resident of Guwahati’s Satgaon area, was summoned to the office of the Superintendent of Police (SP), North Kamrup.

Barely a month ago, 57-year-old Sanaullah was appointed an assistant sub inspector (ASI) in the border police unit, housed in the office of every district SP.

“After retiring from the army as a subedar, he was looking for a job. On seeing the advertisement for SI in the state border police, he applied for it. Police verification was done by the DIG’s office and thereafter he got the job on April 24,” said Shohidul, who is married to Sonaullah’s eldest daughter Shahnaz Akhtar.

But the summons had nothing to do with his recent appointment. Instead, it was a call to surrender himself at the SP’s office in order to be taken to the Goalpara detention centre – one of the six such centres housed within the district jails of Assam that are meant for ‘declared’ foreigners.

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On May 23, the Foreigner’s Tribunal functioning in Boko in Kamrup (rural) district, about 52 km from Guwahati, declared Sanaullah a foreigner – categorised as someone who belonged to Bangladesh and entered Assam illegally after March 24, 1971 – the cut-off date for citizenship in Assam as per the Assam Accord of 1985.

The Accord was signed with the Rajiv Gandhi government by student leaders and representatives of civil society bodies and a few political parties hailing from the majority Assamese community to end the six-year-long anti-foreigner agitation in the state.

The Boko Tribunal, which has the jurisdiction of Sanaullah’s native village Kalahikash, is one of the 100 tribunals functioning in Assam, set up under the Foreigner’ Act, 1946 to sieve through cases in which the state has questioned the citizenship of lakhs of residents. 

Anomalies within the system

Several of these cases, have, however, held up the anomalies within the system due to which many Indians were reportedly declared foreigners on highly technical grounds, a point that the Supreme Court had also highlighted in some of its judgments. Scanning through Sanaullah’s written arguments in his defence at the Tribunal, the case seems to epitomise such anomalies.

One of the grounds that the tribunal took note of in deciding Sanaullah’s citizenship status was discrepancy in age mentioned in various documents he submitted to it. It said while during cross examination, Sanaullah said he joined the army in 1978, he would then be only 11-years-old, being born in 1967. It didn’t match the official papers which said he joined the army in 1987.

“If I consider it as correct date, then again the question arises in mind that why the opposite party (Sanaullah) is not enrolled in the voter list of 1986 as already by then, he had attained the age of 20 years,” the tribunal judge noted in his analysis of the case.

Gauhati high court lawyer Aman Wadud, who is going through the tribunal’s judgment to defend Sanaullah in the HC “in a day or two”, asked a pertinent question even as his client was en route to Goalpara: “How could he have it when the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 by the 61st amendment to the constitution on March 28, 1989?”

The Goalpara district jail. Credit: Abdul Ghani

The tribunal order also added that the age mentioned in the voter list of 1989 didn’t tally with the year of birth submitted to the tribunal.

“If the opposite party (Sanaullah)’s date of birth is 1967, then he should have been 22 years in 1989, not 25 years as mentioned in the voter list of 1989.” Yet another argument given against Sanaullah is that during cross-examination, while he told the judge that his father passed away in 1973, but on asked about his youngest sister’s age, he said 40. “Now the question is if his father had expired in 1973, i,e, 46 years ago, then how come the youngest sister is aged about 40 years.”  It also questioned why some of his family members’ names didn’t feature in some electoral rolls.

Last September, giving a judgment in the Sofia Khatun case, the Supreme Court dealt with mismatch of names in the electoral rolls, called it a common error and not a ground for her to be declared a foreigner and kept in detention centre. Though in Sanaullah’s documents too, there is error in is name, the Tribunal seemed to have concentrated mainly on the discrepancies in age.

The judge has also questioned hyper technicalities – though the headmaster of the school Sanaullah had attended told the tribunal that earlier documents were lost to floods, the school authorities never made a police complaint about it.

It also leaned on a report questioning his citizenship, submitted by the investigating officer of the case after allegedly recording Sanaullah’s statement. It is based on this report that he was declared a ‘D’ or ‘doubtful voter’. 

However, Sanaullah told the tribunal that the IO neither visited his house nor issued any notice to him. What is noteworthy is that even the basic information mentioned in it has errors: the occupation mentioned against Sanaullah’s name is ‘labourer’. The names of his three children are also incorrect. The height mention is also wrong.

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“The report says the IO visited him on two dates. One of those dates shows that he was in Manipur as a part of Operation Hifajat, a counter-insurgency act. So how could the IO meet him at his house?” asked Shohidul, who also represented Sanaullah in the Boko Tribunal as his lawyer.

Shohidul said Sanaullah got to know about his D-voter status after the first draft National Register of Citizens (NRC) was published in December 2017.

“On not finding his name in it, he went to the NRC Kendra, was told that there is a D against his name in the electoral rolls. So he went to the SP’s office, pushed the officers to trace his file so that the office could issue him a notice to appear before the tribunal. Perhaps his mistake to not approach his army unit; he wanted to go through the proper process as he was confident that his papers were in place, he said.

“He had served the army, which would not appoint anyone before a thorough investigation. He also was awarded an excellence certificate by Pranab Mukherjee as former president and chief of all the defence forces in 2014, due to which he was promoted from Naib Subedar to Subedar,” Shohidul said.

“My father-in-law never thought a man who served the army, and fought for the country in Kashmir most of his tenure, would have to prove that he is Indian.”