On the blindingly bright afternoon of February 27, a woman arrived at a small shop amid farmlands and sal and rubber plantations in Lower Assam’s Goalpara district and gave the person manning it Rs 20. In return, he filled up a photocopied form and thrust it in her hand.
Clutching it, Asiya Khatun proceeded to her destination, a few hundred metres away. She showed the piece of paper to the policemen at the entrance of the facility. It was the first of the three walls protecting the facility – it stood at around six feet, and was mounted with barbed wire fencing, CCTVs, and watchtowers.
The guards examined the form. It contained her husband’s name – Abul Kalam – and the address of their home by the Brahmaputra in a picturesque village called Ishwarjari in neighboring Bongaigaon district.
They let her pass, but seized the treat of paan-tamul (areca nut and betel leaf) she had got for her husband. Only dry items like puffed or beaten rice were allowed, the guard said.
Beyond it was a room where Kalam would shortly arrive. Khatun was not allowed inside. They would have to talk through the grills of a window – as they had on two occasions in the past.
After waiting for a couple of minutes outside the window, she saw Kalam approach, accompanied by a policeman. He was dressed in a maroon kurta and a lungi. A gamosa – the traditional Assamese hand-woven red-and-white towel – was wrapped around his neck.
When they saw each other, both broke down.
“Kiba koira hoileu amar a enthika bair koro,” Kalam said, sobbing. “Get me out of here somehow.”
A ‘transit camp’
Since February 9, Kalam, a 54-year-old daily-wage farm labourer, had been lodged in a hall that lay beyond two more gigantic walls: one 14 feet and the other 20 feet high.
This hall which he shared with 45 other people was part of the Matia “transit camp” – India’s largest detention centre for “illegal migrants”.
Spread over a sprawling 25 bighas or 15.475 acres of land, it was sanctioned by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led central government in 2018 at a cost of Rs 46.51 crore. Designed as a cluster of 17 four-storied buildings – 15 for detainees and the other two for wardens – it is supposed to house 3,000 inmates at full capacity.
The Matia transit camp was, to a large extent, built anticipating the deluge of people who would be rejected from the National Register of Citizens, a list of Indian citizens in Assam that was compiled in 2019 after several rounds of documentary and physical verification…