A 65-year-old tea garden worker, Sukdev Ree of Assam's Hailakandi district, was declared a foreigner and served imprisonment for three years. On 3 November, Gauhati High Court found the Foreigners Tribunal's order incomplete and asked the Hailakandi foreigner's tribunal (FT) to hear the case again on 3 December, 2021. Ree died on Friday evening due to a cardiac arrest. His last wish was to prove his Indian identity which remained unfulfilled.
In December last year, 104-year-old Chandradhar Das died with a similar unfulfilled wish. Das, who migrated to India from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1956, used to say, "I won't die before I prove my identity."
Sukdev Ree was a resident of the Mohanpur village under Algapur assembly constituency in Hailakandi district. He was released from the detention camp on 26 February, last year based on a supreme court's advisory to release the inmates who have served imprisonment of two years or more.
A daily wage earner, Ree used to earn ₹110 per day whenever there was production going on in the tea estate. A case was registered against him in 2012 and he appeared before the court a few times before his arrest on 24 June 2016.
Tribunal Court declared Sukdev Ree a foreigner of post 25.03.1971 stream in an ex-parte judgement because he did not appear at the time of cross-examination on several occasions. The court said, "The petitioner failed to discharge the burden cast upon him under Section 9 of the Foreigners Act, 1946."
Recently, this order was challenged by Ree's lawyer in Gauhati High Court. Justice Kotiswar Singh and justice Malashri Nandi after hearing a petition to reopen Sukdev Ree's case on 3 November found that Ree deserved another chance to produce his documents.
They wrote to the FT Hailakandi, "Considering the nature of the case and after hearing, we are of the view that the petitioner has furnished documents before the Tribunal to claim that he is an Indian. Documents including voters lists of 1966 and 1970 in which the name of his father appeared and subsequent the voters lists of 1977 and 2005 where the name of the petitioner appeared. Accordingly, it has been submitted that the petitioner has sufficient evidence. Considering the circumstances, we are of the opinion that another opportunity may be granted to the petitioner to prove that he is an Indian citizen and not a foreigner."
"It is made clear that if the petitioner fails to appear before the foreigner's tribunal, Hailakandi on 03.12.2021, the earlier order passed by the learned foreigner's tribunal on 20.04.2016 will stand revived and the order passed by this Court today will stand vacated and law will take its course," the order further states.
Sukdev Ree's wife Sishubala expressed that at one point, her husband refused to appear before the court due to the harrasment by the lawyers.
"After getting a notice from Tribunal Court, we met a lawyer. But he kept asking for money – sometimes ₹2,000- ₹3000 or more. We took loans and paid the lawyer but after a point, we just gave up as we did not have enough money to fight the legal battle. We have kids to feed instead. We didn't realise that he'll be arrested," she said.
According to Dhonu Ree (35), the eldest son of Sukdev Ree, his father didn't want to challenge the court's order even after coming out from detention camp.
"My father lost hope when few social activists came forward. Recently, when he heard about a fresh change to prove his identity, he started preparing. He was so excited and used to say that he'll fight again. He won't leave a legacy for his kids that their father was a Bangladeshi. His dream remained unfulfilled," Dhonu said.
Dhonu also informed that they'll appear before FT-3 of Hailakandi on December 3, with all documents of Sukdev Ree, so that he becomes an Indian even after his death.
Social activist Kamal Chakraborty, who fought for Sukdev Ree's bail last year, informed that Sukdev's father's name is Dhiraj Bauri and his grandfather's name is Monu Bauri.
"When Sukdev Ree's father's name got changed from Dhiraj Bauri to Dhiraj Ree during voters list updating process, they had no clue. Someone like Sukdev Ree, who is an original inhabitant of Assam and has got nothing to do with Bangladesh, had to live as a foreigner unless he appealed at High Court."
"Supreme Court says, Tea Garden Tribes fall under Original Inhabitants of Assam category in respect to The Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and issues of National Identity Card) Rules 2003, under clause 3(3). I am surprised how the tribunal court declared Sukdev Ree a foreigner," Chakraborty added.
Sukdev Ree fell unconscious on Friday afternoon and was taken to a local government hospital. After an initial medical checkup, he was sent back home. In the evening around 6:30 pm his health deteriorated and family members called a local doctor. The doctor visited his house and declared him dead.