Imagine getting trapped in a foreign land for six years after a jail sentence of mere three months and then finally returning home, only to find one's wife remarried, property sold off and no one to lend a helping hand in rebuilding the shattered life. The plot looks fit for a fiction bestseller, but for 47-year-old Bangladeshi national Mohammad Bilal, it's the harsh reality of life.
System-ingrained delays and unfounded confusion over his nationality meant that even after Bilal, who also goes by the name Bilal Miah, completed his sentence in the Amritsar Central Jail on charges of not possessing travel documents, the Indian establishment kept tossing the matter of his release between Pakistan and Bangladesh.
After a human rights lawyer came to his rescue, and Bangladesh too acknowledged that he was indeed its citizen, he was released on May 24.
But that was the end of what can now be termed the relatively less painful part of his tale. Worse was waiting for him in his village Ikram in Habiganj district of Bangladesh.
As his friend Iftakaar Hussain acted as an interpreter over the phone, Bilal told HT, "When I reached my village, my life came crashing down as I learnt that even my wife had betrayed me and got remarried, thinking that I'll never be released from jail. Even my property has been sold off." He said that he would now have to depend on his relatives and friends because of his worsening health.
Bilal was arrested in Amritsar on October 19, 2005, and eventually jailed for three months under the Foreigners Act. He completed his sentence on March 10, 2006, but could not be released as Punjab police labelled him a Pakistani, even though his friend Iftakaar managed to send copies of his Bangladeshi nationality certificate, passport and visa documents. The Indian ministry of home affairs still kept writing to Pakistan, asking for confirmation of Bilal's nationality. The acknowledgement never came.
Iftakaar then approached advocate Ranjan Lakhanpal, chairman of the NGO World Human Rights Council, who took up the matter in the Punjab and Haryana high court.
On the court's direction, the Amritsar district and sessions judge said that Bilal was a Bangladeshi and not a Pakistani. Although he had gone to Pakistan from Bangladesh to earn his livelihood, he did not find any good means there and went to Iran. From Iran he went back to Pakistan and then he returned to Bangladesh, after which he came to India in search of work, said the judge's report.
Finally, in a March 6 communiqué addressed to the Indian ministry of external affairs, the high commission for Bangladesh in New Delhi informed, "Bilal Miah came to India with a valid visa and was apprehended while visiting a nearby place of his hotel in Amritsar for not having travel document in his possession, although he had a passport with valid visa kept in his hotel. Thereafter, he was convicted and imprisoned for three months but still he has been kept confined in Amritsar jail."
It was on the high court's April 24 directions that Bilal was released from the transit camp of Amritsar jail a month later.