MATIA (GOALPARA): Namita Hajong is scared at the sight of a 20-ft walled structure as it could well be her address in the near future. She – along with over 250 other daily wage labourers – slog for hours together, to build what could just turn into her own concentration centre.
The structure is a detention camp for the illegal immigrants. It is being built at Matia in Lower Assam’s Goalpara district. Once completed, the facility can house 3,000 inmates at a time.
The 29-year-old Namita, a widow from adjacent Paschim Matia village, has been left out of the National Register of Citizens (NRC).
She fears that she may be among the camp’s would-be inmates.
“I am scared at its sight,” she tells this newspaper visualizing herself behind the high wall. Several others like Ajanta Hajong, Saraswati Hajong, Mamata Hajong and Pratima Biswas of the same village fear they will end up being “jailed” at the facility that they have been part of its construction.
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In Assam, over a 1,000 people have already experienced the horrors of being detained in claustrophobic chambers of Central Jails reminiscent of German “Ghettos”. However, unlike in Germany, there is no physical violence here. The existing six detention camps in Assam are separate cells in district jails but the same jail manual is followed for illegal immigrants.
Namita is a Hajong, a community that has its settlement in parts of Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura. Around 50 Hajongs are working as daily wage labourers at the detention camp. Nearly half of them, mostly women, were excluded from the NRC.
“You can say I am digging my own grave. But what do I do? I am a widow and I have to earn to be able to take care of my nine-year-old daughter,” Namita told this newspaper.
“Except me, my parents, siblings and all members in my husband’s family got included in the NRC. If I am detained, what will happen to my daughter?” the woman, visibly tense, wondered.
Born in Dobapara village in the district, she lives with her in-laws. The NRC authorities had called her twice for re-verification of her documents. She claimed she had proven with documentary evidence the stay of her parents in the country from before March 24, 1971, which is the NRC cut-off date, and her linkage to them.
“They said the documents were alright. I was shocked when I learnt I had been excluded,” she said. She is drawing solace from the fact that over 19 lakh people have been left out of the NRC. She wonders how the government is going to keep so many people in detention.
The Paschim Matia village has around 600 households with a population of around 3,000. Apart from Hajongs, Garos and Bengalis also live here. The village boasts of its four sons who work as teachers in government schools.
The rest of the male members eke out a living either by working as daily wage labourers, slogging in shops, hotels and restaurants or selling firewood. In most families, one or two members missed the NRC bus.
Dilip Hajong, a local, said he had heard from his grandfather that the Hajongs were settled here by the government. “I was born here. My father too was born here. However, I don’t know exactly when this village was established. I heard the Hajongs started settling down here from 1964 but I don’t have any idea where they had come from,” he said.
At the five-member house of 40-year-old Saraswati Hajong, she is the only person to be left out of the NRC. At her parental home, her mother and two sisters also figured in the list.
“I was called twice by NRC authorities. Following re-verification, they said there were some clerical errors in my documents but they asked me not to worry,” Saraswati said.
“We are poor and if we are to run from pillar to post to fight our case, where will we get the money? Why was my name not included when everyone in my family is on the list,” she asked.
She said when the government had brought her forefathers to the village, a certain document was issued.
“I had submitted that document while applying for the NRC. It was written in English and I, being illiterate, don’t have any idea of its content but some people told me it was a proof that we were settled here by the government,” Saraswati said.
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Ajanta Hajong, 35, met with a similar fate. “I was born in this village. How can I be a Bangladeshi?” she asked.
“The jail is being constructed. If I am dumped here, my two daughters and only son will suffer,” she said with tears bedewing her cheeks.
Like Ajanta, Pratima Biswas (30), a Bengali woman from neighbouring Bongaigaon district who migrated to the village following her marriage, is the only member in her family to be excluded.
“We demand the government include us in the NRC. When lakhs of people, including illegal immigrants, got included, why not us? This is an erroneous NRC,” Pratima, a mother of three children, claimed.“I was born in Assam and grew up here. How can I be a Bangladeshi? Where do you find the Bangladeshis in Assam? Those came are dead,” she claimed.
One will mistake her as a Hajong.
She wears traditional Hajong attire and speaks the language of the community fluently. She earns Rs 250 a day by working as a daily wage labourer at the detention camp.
“When I leave the construction site every evening, I wonder if I will be kept here someday,” she said.
Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland now worried
The states of Mizoram, Nagaland and Manipur are apprehensive that after the publishing of the final National Register of Citizens list in Assam, a huge influx of unregistered immigrants shall attempt to move to their states for sanctuary.
Most states in the Northeast are protected by inner line permit. Manipur and Mizoram have passed legislations that bar non-residents from settling in the states.
- The country’s standalone and largest detention camp is surrounded by rubber plantations and brick kilns.
- The work on the complex started in November last year and is expected to be completed by the first quarter of 2020.
- The hitherto little known Matia has suddenly become famous, thanks to the detention camp.
- Some locals said they had seen foreigners for the first time early this month. Their reference was to foreign journalists who had visited the detention camp following the publication of final list of the NRC on August 31.
- A section of the locals welcomed the camp saying it will ensure job opportunities for the village youth in hotels and commercial establishments that will come up.
- A near four-hour drive will take one to Matia from Guwahati if one takes the shortcut from Dudhnoi but the road is narrow and bumpy at places.
- The other road to reach the site traverses via Goalpara which is the longer route and lies 30 km west
- of the site.
SON TO MOTHER: WILL YOU BE TAKEN TO JAIL?
Six-year-old Surajit often asks his mother Mamata Hajong (26) if she will be taken to the “jail”. Mamata is among those left out of the NRC.
“My son often asks me and my wife if she will be taken to this jail. I tell him God is with us and so, there is no reason to panic. He has come to know that people missing out on the NRC will be lodged here,” the child’s father Amit Hajong said.
“From day 1, I have seen this camp growing up. Its growth has also increased my fear. Every night at home, I shudder with fear thinking what will happen to my two kids if I am detained,” Mamata said.
In November 2018, some strangers started arriving at the site. They cleared the jungle and took the measurement for days together. The locals were confused but Amit saw a business in it.
“One day, I noticed some people swarming at the site. They were measuring the land. Just days later, I saw a group of labourers reaching the site with CGI sheets, bamboos etc. That was followed by the flow of construction materials. I thought a school or an industry is coming up. I wasted no time and opened this shop,” Amit said.
His is a bamboo-make “hotel” just outside the camp. It serves tea, biscuits, chapatti, cigarettes, gutka etc.
The customers are mostly workers of the detention camp.
They are Bengali-speaking Muslims. It is ostensibly for fear that they claimed all of them and their family members got included in the NRC.
Abdul Malik, one of them, said while he was earning a livelihood by working here, the thought that the camp will house people, many of whom possibly genuine Indians, troubled him.
“Surely, what I am doing is not for a good cause but then I have to earn money to support my family,” the 25-year-old from Dhubri district said.