In November of 2017, a series of arrests were made by the Swarupnagar Police Station officials in 24 Parganas(North) West Bengal, India. The first of its kind was that of Ms. Reena Akhtar, later followed by three other women (Ms.Taslima Begum, Ms.Beuti Begum, and Ms. Masuma Begum), and this includes even one who was accompanied by her eight year old daughter. The reason for the arrests being that they were Bangladeshi women who were found illegally on Indian territory. Since the arrests, they have been put in detention in pursuance of a Court order.
They were implicated under the Foreigners Act, 1946 the legislation that deals with matters regarding foreigners present on Indian territory. The mentioned Section deals with the penalties for contravention of the provisions of the Foreigners Act. Furthermore, Section 14 A (b) of the Act mentions that anyone who,
‘enters into or stays in any area in India without the valid documents required for such entry or for such stay, as the case may be, under the provisions of any order made under this Act or any direction given in pursuance thereof, shall be punished….’
Though the women may not have had valid documents to show their legal presence in the country, there is a process to be followed before they are sent to prison. This was explained clearly in the Ministry of Home Affairs’ Office Memorandum No. 15011/6/2009-ATC (Advisory) of 2009. It stated that,
“It is seen that in general, the foreign victims of human trafficking are found without valid passport or visa. If, after investigation, the woman or child is found to be a victim, she should not be prosecuted under the Foreigners Act. If the investigation reveals that she did not come to India or did not indulge in crime out of her own free will, the State Government / UT Administration may not file a charge sheet against the victim. If the charge sheet has already been filed under the Foreigners Act and other relevant laws of the land, steps may be taken to withdraw the case from prosecution so far as the victim is concerned. Immediate action may be taken to furnish the details of such victims to the Ministry of External Affairs (Consular Division), Patiala House, New Delhi so as to ensure that the person concerned is repatriated to the country of her origin through diplomatic channels.”
It further states that,
During the interim period, pending repatriation, the victim may be taken care of in an appropriate children’s home, or “Ujjawala” home or appropriate shelter home either of the State Government concerned or of any NGO aided by the Government of India / State Government.
This was a step taken to combat the rampant human trafficking, especially across India’s Eastern border, and to make sure that innocent victims are not unduly punished. In this case, the mentioned advisory note was not heeded to by the authorities, who did not allow for due procedure and investigation into the ground realities of these women. It should be the first priority of the authorities who apprehended them, to ask if these women or children were forced to cross the border due to forced or unknown trafficking. In the case of these Bangladeshi women, they were sent to correctional homes as under-trial prisoners by the Additional Chief Judicial Magistrate Court, Basirhat, without gathering the necessary facts through a proper investigation.
Throughout this ordeal, MASUM, AHRC’s partner organisation which is fighting to protect the human rights of citizens and non-citizens alike, wrote to the National Human Rights Commission on multiple of occasions but to no avail. They argued that there cannot be arbitrary imposition of punishment without following the due process of law.
In a repeated attempt, on the 31st of January, the exasperated MASUM, once again appealed to the NHRC, along with all the other concerned authorities, to seek justice. They asked for the following demands to be met – that the whole matter should be investigated by a neutral investigating authority, and such authority must conduct the inquiry in compliance with the advisory notice issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India (No. 14051/14/2011-F.VI) on the 1st of May 2012. Further, the women under question must be kept in a shelter home, and after such an inquiry, they must be repatriated to their own country. The prosecution launched against them must be withdrawn.
These demands will help start a chain reaction. In recent times, foreign trafficked persons have a hard time voicing out their concerns. Once they are recognised as victims, they also have a tough time getting back to their home country because of procedural delays or ongoing trials.
The AHRC stands with MASUM in its bid to find relief for these aggrieved women in a country foreign to them. Measures taken must be in accordance with the instructions of the Government of India, and the women must be given a chance to be heard through a fair investigation and trial. It is hoped that the National Human Rights Commission, and other concerned authorities, shall act soon to bring a resolution in the matter.