When I met Abdul Sharif in February of this year, he was dressed in a pale white shirt and discoloured pants, sitting on a chair placed outside the transit camp that exists within the premises of the Amritsar Central Jail. A shaft of sunlight fell through the trees above, revealing the shadowy world in which he dwells. His gaunt face blanched, perhaps by 18 years of incarceration in Punjab, wore a withdrawn look. He gazed somewhere far into the impermeable distance. The jail authorities told him that I was meeting him to study the condition of Pakistanis in the Amritsar jail. As Sharif began to speak, his words were incoherent and voice anguished. He stuttered now and then, reiterating that being confined to the camp “often leads to a strain” in his head. Just the mention of his home and his eyes began to tear up. He is among those imprisoned foreigner nationals who have completed their sentences but are lodged in the transit camp until their nationalities can be ascertained. Many of these overstays or internees as they are referred to in the jail, show possible signs of mental illness.
According to the authorities at the Amritsar jail, Sharif was detained in 1997 by the Border Security Force (BSF) on charges of crossing the border and was sentenced to four months under the Foreigners Act of 1946 and section 3/34/20 of the Indian Passport Act of 1967 for not having a legitimate passport and travelling without the documents that are usually issued to non-Indians. He completed his sentence in July 1997 and was sent to the transit camp at the Amritsar jail as an internee. At the time of his arrest, he claimed to have been from Zabol province that is located at Baluchistan in Pakistan. He received consular access from Pakistan; but his Pakistani nationality could not be confirmed.
The Amritsar jail authorities told me that Sharif’s case is further complicated by the fact that he has been diagnosed with mild schizophrenia which may affect his ability to effectively communicate his antecedents to the authorities. Several years after he had finished his sentence, Sharif said that he was from the city of Zabol, Baluchistan in Iran. He also claimed that his real name was Gulam Sakhi. Sharif was provided with consular access from the High Commission of Iran; however, his Iranian nationality could not be established either. He continues to languish in the transit camp at the Amritsar jail despite completing his sentence 18 years ago. When I approached the Embassy of Iran in June for the verification of his details which I received from the jail authorities, the officials at the embassy noted that Zabol is a province in Afghanistan as well. In Afghanistan, Zabol is one of the 34 provinces situated in the south of the country. It shares a border with Balochistan in Pakistan and its population is mostly tribal. In Iran, Zabol is a city in Sistan and Baluchestan province and shares a border with Afghanistan. Soon after, towards the end of July I paid a visit to the Embassy of Afghanistan with Sharif’s details for verification. The process is underway.
According to the jail authorities in Amritsar, there are currently 42 Pakistanis in the Amritsar jail of which 25 are internees, 13 are convicts and four are under trials. Out of these 42 Pakistanis, I interviewed around 30 including some who had been declared mentally unwell. A few of them suffer from chronic depression; some have been diagnosed with schizophrenia. The rest were not in a condition to interact with me due to serious mental health issues. I tried to determine why so many of the internees suffered from such serious mental issues and if these were prior conditions or brought about by their confinement here. Despite my repeated questioning, the jail authorities were ambiguous.
Many of these internees have completed their sentences and are awaiting deportation. Naim, an internee who claims to be from Sialkot in Pakistan—a fact the authorities have not been able to confirm—hesitantly walked towards the chair to talk to me. “Naim has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and is undergoing medical treatment. However, his condition is much better now,” the internee who was seated beside him told me. As Naim began to speak, his words were unintelligible and his demeanour inhibited. Eventually, there was clarity in his voice as he spoke about his home.