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Monday, October 26, 2020

Explained: Why court wants Assam detention centres set up away from jails

What are these detention centres? How many do they hold, and what is the significance of the Gauhati High Court order?

Written by Abhishek Saha , Edited by Explained Desk | Guwahati | Updated: October 11, 2020 10:32:02 am
assam detention centres, assam detention jail, assam convicted foreigners, assam nrc, nrc, assam foreigners tribunal, court on assam detention centre, assam declared foreigners, assam migrants, indian expressFile image: An under-construction detention centre in Matia, in Assam's Goalpara district. (Express photo by Abhishek Saha)

The Gauhati High Court has asked the Assam government to submit an action-taken report on steps taken to set up detention centres outside jail premises. In an order dated October 7, Justice A M B Barua said if suitable government accommodations are not available, then authorities may also rent private premises for the purpose. “Suitable” would mean that the accommodation meets the parameters mentioned in previous communications from the Union Home Ministry and a subsequent “model manual” for building detention centres.

What are these detention centres?

In Assam, which has seen waves of migration from East Bengal (later East Pakistan and now Bangladesh) over the decades, there are six detention centres for holding “convicted foreigners” and “declared foreigners”. Government sources explained that a “convicted foreigner” means a foreign national who entered India illegally and is convicted by a judicial court while a “declared foreigner” is someone who was once considered an Indian citizen per se but then declared to be a foreigners by a Foreigners’ Tribunal in Assam. “Declared foreigners” most often appeal to higher courts to prove their Indian citizenship.

According to a reply by the Home Ministry in Lok Sabha by the MHA on December 10 last year, only four “declared foreigners” have been deported to Bangladesh till date so far, while as many as 1,29,009 persons have been declared foreigners by Foreigners; Tribunals.

Also in December, former Assam CM Tarun Gogoi told The Indian Express that it was during his tenure that detention centres were first started in Assam as per the direction of the Gauhati High Court in 2008. Apart from the court order, “detention camps were started because of a suggestion by then Vajpayee government in 1998. They had issued directions to all the state governments”.

In an interaction with The Indian Express in New Delhi last year, Assam minister Himanta Biswa Sarma (BJP) had said: “The idea of detention is not ours. It is based on an order of the Gauhati High Court. As a political leader, I don’t support it… I feel their identity should be digitally recorded and they should not be allowed to claim Indian citizenship in other states. Once that is done, they should be given basic human rights.”

What led to the recent court order?

The October 7 order by Justice A M B Barua came on a batch of petitions relating to detention of people in Assam. These were filed by a team of lawyers and activists, and facilitated by Studio Nilima, a research collective. The well-known advocate Nilay Dutta argued the case.

“The provocation for this batch of petitions came at a civil society meeting to discuss the post-NRC scenario in Assam when one of the participants urged the gathering to contemplate if Assam was on its way to becoming an exhibition site of detention centres for the world to see,” Abantee Dutta, co-founder and director of Studio Nilima told The Indian Express.

Activists have often criticised the condition of Assam’s six detention centres (Goalpara, Kokrajhar, Tezpur, Jorhat, Dibrugarh, Silchar). Each one is inside a jail.

How many are held in these centres?

Last year, the Supreme Court ordered that ‘foreigners’ who have spent more than three years in Assam’s detention camps could secure conditional release on the fulfilment of certain conditions. This year in April, to prevent congestion in jails due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the SC ordered conditional release on bail of those ‘foreigners’ who had completed over two years in jail.

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As per the latest state government data, the six centres together hold 425 detainees at present. According to a Home Ministry reply in Rajya Sabha on September 21, 15 detainees at Assam’s detention centres “had died due to illness during last two years till 16.09.2020 while undergoing treatment in various hospitals of the state”.

What has the High Court ordered?

The High Court said “detention centres must be outside the jail premises” and that the state government has to “ensure that the places where they are being kept must have basic facilities of electricity, water and hygiene etc. and that there is appropriate security at these places”.

The High Court said that 10 years had gone by since a part of the jail premises in Goalpara, Kokrajhar and Silchar were declared to be detention centres. “Certainly a period of more than 10 years cannot be understood to be a temporary arrangement. Even in respect of Jorhat, Dibrugarh and Tezpur a period of 5 years is almost over which also again cannot be strictly said to be a temporary arrangement,” the order said.

“Considering the said aspect, it cannot be accepted that the respondents can still rely upon the communication dated 07.09.2018 to project the case that it would be permissible to declare a part of the jail premises to be detention centres,” the order said.

Is there any plan for detention centres away from jails?

A new detention centre — solely for the purpose of detaining ‘illegal foreigners’— is under construction in Matia of Goalpara district, around 150 km from Guwahati. It is being built as per guidelines laid down by the Centre, officials said. Moreover, there are plans to build 10 more such centres and a detailed project report was previously sent to the Centre.

The one under construction is on 20 bighas of land, nestled between farmland and forest. It is being built at a budget of over Rs 46 crore, with a capacity to house “up to 3,000 illegal foreigners”.

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The Centre had laid down guidelines in a Model Detention Centre Manual, circulated in January 2019. Among these: members of the same family would be kept at the same centre; there would be segregated accommodation for male and female detainees; and special facilities for nursing mothers.

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