This article is written by Robin Kumar Thakur of Chanakya National University, Patna.
The very mention of detention centres sends chills down one’s spine, by making the horrific memories of the holocaust afresh as detention camps were the foundation stone of the pillars of the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. Detention centres are meant to house the illegal immigrants, refugees for a short term, before the state machinery decides their fate to deport or give refuge in the country. But the detention centres throughout its history and even now mingers of state-sponsored oppression.
The world which was still outraging over the pictures of children being separated from their families at the detention centres at the US-Mexico border and the plight of the Uyghur Muslims in the detention centres of China, when the completion of NRC in Assam brought the detention centres of India into the limelight.
PURPOSE OF DETENTION CENTRES IN INDIA
The purpose of detention centres in India was also to house the illegal immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers and stateless persons as a temporary measure before a permanent solution could be achieved. The very purpose of detention centres in India, particularly in Assam was to stop the heavy influx of Bangladeshi migrants into India. The religious persecutions in Bangladesh, the Bangladesh war of independence and the huge economic disparity along with a highly porous border contributed to this illegal migration. The encroachment of the resources by the migrants did not go well with the locals.
The locals headed by the All Assam Student Union (AASU) and All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP) started a movement against these migrants. This led to the signing of Assam accords between the movement leaders and the Indian Government in which the government agreed to identify and deport all the illegal migrants from the state.
The heavy influx of migrants had changed the political, religious, cultural and social demographic of the land. To protect the cultural, religious, cultural and social demographic of the state the detention centres were established in India, particularly in Assam with the primary aim to curtail the liberties of illegal immigrants and other people of similar stature. Detention centres came in handy to avoid the mixing of illegal immigrants with the local population. The government could easily deport them back to their country from the detention centres. It also restricted their movement and their usher encroachment into Indian territory.
THE LEGALITY OF DETENTION CENTRES IN INDIA
The detention centres in India have a legal stamp on them and this legal stamp has been acknowledged by the judiciary of India. The Foreigners Act, 1946 empowers the central government to put restrictions on the movement of foreigners in India. Section 3(2)(e) and Para 11(2) of the Foreigners’ Act, 1946 authorize the operation of detention centres in India.
The powers of restricting and deportation of foreigners are further strengthened by the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920 which empowers the central government to deport any foreign national who had entered into the country without a proper passport or other travel documents. These powers are entrusted to the state governments under Article 258(1) and to the union territories under Article 259. It was only after the Guwahati High Courts order in the case, State of Assam vs Moslem Mondal, the state government of Assam started to build the detention centres.
LIFE IN THE DETENTION CENTRES
The living conditions inside the detention camps can only be understood through the words of its inmates. Kaddus Miya, a former inmate at the Goalpara detention centre recounted his experiences,“Sometimes 60 to 70 people were crammed into one room like a herd of cattle. After 5 pm, there was no one to listen to our plight,” he said. According to him, the detention centre officials planted three or four convicted criminals in each cell to discipline the detainee”
Adam Ali, an inmate at the Goalpara detention centre from December 2016 to April 2020 recounts that the cells had not been provided with toilets. He said that in the absence of the toilets the detainees were escorted by guards elsewhere and sometimes the older detainees even soiled in their own clothes or bed.
Mohammad Sanaullah, a retired Army veteran, had spent 11 days in a detention centre. On recounting his experience, he stated,“Nearly 40-45 people are crammed inside one room. We had to sleep on the floor, the food was inedible, and the toilets were dirty. Mornings started with one roti and stale tea without milk or sugar; for lunch, there used to be stale rice, watery dal and one sabzi, and a similar routine was followed for dinner. When family members came to visit, we had to talk to them from inside an iron grill while they stayed 5-6 feet away behind a fence. It was my fate that I had to spend time in detention despite being an Indian.”
These instances are witness to the inhumane conditions in the detention centres. Despite the assurance by the government that the detention centres were not devoid of any facilities necessary to carry one’s life with dignity, these things did not exist on the ground. Even the basic facilities like food and toilet were not even ensured at the centres.
INFRINGEMENT OF HUMAN RIGHTS
Throughout its history, detention centres had been a ripe ground for human rights violations and state oppression. The Human rights at the detention centres are infringed in the following ways:
There exists no prospect of the eventful freedom of the detainees from incarceration as there is an absence of any formal agreement between India and Bangladesh for deportation of these detainees. In absence of such an agreement, there exists a strong possibility that they would spend the rest of their lives in the detention camps.
Detention Even After Completion Of Jail Term
Many detainees who had completed their terms remained inmates if the detention camps because of bureaucratic tangles and delays between India and their respective countries
No Rights And Entitlements
No legal regime indicates the rights and entitlements of the detainees. Currently, they are governed according to the Assam Jail Manual but the authorities even deny them the benefits of parole, waged work etc.
Process Flaws And Lack Of Legal Defence
The majority of the inmates were deemed to be foreigners by the ex parte order of the tribunals in which most of them lacked any legal representation. Many inmates also did not receive any notice from the tribunal because of them being migrant workers or a variety of reasons.
Vulnerability Of Separated Children
The children of the detainees can only remain with them till the age of six in the detention camps. After the children have achieved the age of six, they are declared Indian but their parents remain foreigners. In such cases, the government does not take responsibility for the children and they are left to be taken care of by distant family members and the community. It makes them more vulnerable to human atrocities like human trafficking and child labour.
Separation Of Families And Difficulties In Meeting Family Members
Men, women and children aged above 6 years are separated from their families, which further compounds their distress. Since men and women are detained separately and lack permissions or paroles to meet each other they are not able to see their loved ones’ faces for years. Also, the detainees are not allowed legally to communicate in any way to their families even through phone calls.
THE NRC CONNECTION WITH THE DETENTION CENTRES
One of the poll promises of the BJP in the 2019 Loksabha elections was the implementation of nationwide NRC. It has been voiced again and again by the Home Minister of India, though after widespread protests the government had taken to the backfoot and denied its implementation. But the NRC of Assam had already raised eyebrows.
The NRC in Assam had left out 19,06,657 from the register. These people had been declared as foreigners. But there were also many discrepancies while carrying out NRC like the relatives of the former President of India Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed were left out of the register of citizens. There were numerous instances in which people who had already served in the Indian army were declared as foreigners.
The mixture of CAA and NRC also makes the situation more complicated. The CAA ensures that the Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, ains and Christians will get citizenship after just 6 years of residing in India. The CAA deliberately leaves out Muslims. If NRC is implemented, the Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains will easily get citizenship according to the CAA, but the Muslims are likely to be on the receiving end who may be deported or sent to the detention camps. If NRC was to be implemented in India one cannot ignore the possibility of millions of people who failed to prove their citizenship due to illiteracy, little or no legal representation will land in the detention centres.
The detention centres in India are against the values of the Indian constitution which ensures basic human rights even for foreigners under Article 19 (A). The subhuman conditions in the detention centres are in contrast with the soul of India.
The refusal of basic human rights in the detention camps and the curtailment of their liberties diminishes the image of India as a pioneer of ensuring human rights. The conditions of the detention camps should be improved so that the inmates can live there with dignity.
State of Assam v. Moslem Mondal, 2013 (1) GLT(FB) 809 (India)
Abdul Kalam Azad and Wahida Parveez, Graveyards of the Living Dead: Former inmates on Life in Assam Detention Centres. (20 february 2021) https://thewire.in/author/abdul-kalam-azad-wahida-parveez
Curated by Shivanshika Samaddar of National Law University Delhi.