Guwahati: Addressing the nation for the first time after widespread and violent protests following the passage of Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB) and it becoming a law, Prime Minister Nadrendra Modi recently stoked a major controversy by claiming that there are no detention centres in India.
Flagging off the campaign for Delhi assembly elections, the PM addressed a huge gathering at Ramlila Maidan, where he blamed the Congress and “educated Naxals” for spreading lies.
He said, “The Congress, its allies, and some educated Naxals in cities and urban Naxals are spreading rumours that all Muslims will be sent to detention centres. I am surpised due to this rumour that even educated people are also asking that what is this detention centre?”
Assuring Muslims of the country that they will not be detained, Prime Minister Modi said, “Koi desh ke musalmanon ko na detention centre mein bheja ja raha hai, na Hindustan main koi detention centre hai (No one is sending Muslims of this country to detention centres, nor is there any detention centre in India).”
The statement comes after the country boiled and simmered with protests and violence against Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019. This Act enables Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Sikhs, Christians and Buddhists from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh to get citizenship if they faced religious persecution and entered India before December 31, 2014.
The protests saw major clashes between students and security forces, and according to reports, a total of 5,400 people were taken in custody and 705 sent to jail. The agitation has claimed at least 18 lives across the nation till the filing of this report. Internet services in clamped and internet services were down too. Also, Section 144 of CrPC was imposed in several places.
PM Modi’s statement on detention centres stands debatable as India has not one, but six detention centres, only in Assam, for holding declared foreigners.
What is a detention centre?
Names of over 19 lakh people have been excluded from the final list of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam. Those whose names have been excluded from the final NRC can approach the foreigner’s tribunals to prove their Indian citizenship or the tribunal can declare them as foreigners. At present, Assam has six detention centres that operate out of make-shift facilities in local prisons at Goalpara, Dhibrugarh, Silchar, Tezpur, Jorhat and Kokrajhar. Kokrajhar is the only one where women are lodged. The detainees are lodged in the detention camps till they are deported to the country of their origin or are able to secure their release.
What is a D-voter?
D voters or Doubtful voters, as they are also called, these residents of Assam have been disenfranchised during electoral roll revision for their reported lack of citizenship credentials. Their cases are pending in one of 100 Foreigners’ Tribunals (FTs) across the state. Once adjudged a foreigner, a person is sent to any of the six detention camps — housed within jails — before deportation.
What is NRC?
The National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam is basically a list of Indian citizens living in the state. The citizens’ register sets out to identify foreign nationals in the state bordering Bangladesh.
The process to update the register began following a Supreme Court order in 2013, with the state’s nearly 33 million people having to prove that they were Indian nationals prior to March 24, 1971. The updated final NRC was released on August 31, with over 1.9 million applicants failing to make it to the list.
After the publication of the NRC on August 31, 2019, Union home minister Amit Shah said that Assam will have to go through the citizen’s list or the NRC again as almost all the leading organisations of the state, including the BJP have alleged that names of huge amount of immigrant nationals have been incorporated in the new NRC.
“No one from any religion should be worried. People whose names were missing from the NRC can approach tribunals and the Assam government will even provide financial help,” Shah said.
SC allows conditional release of foreigners detained
The Supreme Court in May, 2019 ordered the release of detainees who have been kept as foreigners in detention centres of Assam for more than three years after being declared illegal by foreigners’ tribunals.
A Supreme Court bench headed by the then Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justice Sanjiv Khanna, however, decided upon the release of the detained foreigners based on certain conditions.
The apex court directed the illegal immigrants to furnish a bond of Rs 1 lakh with two Indian sureties and give details of stay addresses after their release.
“Biometric of his/her iris (if possible) and all 10 fingerprints and photos shall be captured and stored in a secured database before release from the detention camps. He or she shall report once every week to the police station specified by the Foreigners Tribunal,” a statement by the apex court bench said.
It also directed the state government to place on record a detailed scheme, in consultation with the Gauhati High Court (on the administrative side), with regard to the constitution of foreigners’ tribunals, including the appointment of members, staff, etc.
“A quarterly report is to be submitted by the superintendent of police (border) to the foreigners’ tribunal regarding appearance of such released declared foreigners to the concerned police station and in case of violation of condition, the DFN will be apprehended and produced before foreigners’ tribunal,” the bench further informed.
Meanwhile, the top court also agreed upon to give more time to the state government to indicate the progress made on the diplomatic level, among others, with regard to deportation of declared foreigners and setting up of additional foreigners’ tribunals.
What official records say
As per records, Assam has six detention centres which house around 900 people. These detention centres operate out of make-shift facilities in local prisons at Goalpara, Dibrugarh, Silchar, Tezpur, Jorhat and Kokrajhar. Kokrajhar is the only one where women are lodged. The detainees are lodged in the detention camps till they are deported to the country of their origin or are able to secure their release.
On November 30, 2019, Assam minister for parliamentary affairs Chandra Mohan Patowary provided data on the number of detention centres in the state and how many declared foreigners they housed. This statement of the senior Assam minister came almost two days later Union minister of state for home affairs Nityanand Rai said in Parliament that there were 1,043 foreigners — 1,025 Bangladeshis and 18 Myanmarese — across Assam’s six detention centres. These centres are at Dibrugarh, Goalpara, Jorhat, Kokrajhar, Silchar and Tezpur.
Replying to a question, Patowary said the six centres had 988 declared foreigners till November 20 while 935 others had been released after court orders or in keeping with the Supreme Court’s directive to conditionally set free the inmates who completed three years of detention. Patowary also said 28 people died in the detention centres since 2016.
The data included expenditure of Rs 4.74 crore on the “foreigners” at the six detention centres since 2010 and an outline of the work on an exclusive detention centre at Matia in Goalpara district. This centre, estimated to cost Rs 46.51 crore, would hold some 3,000 inmates.
The detention centres are run by Assam’s home department with approval from the Ministry of home affairs. The government has sought the MHA’s clearance for up to 10 detention centres, but the clearance is pending.
Post-NRC Assam: Proposals of detention camps
Even though the state government has sent separate proposals for setting up more detention camps and foreigner tribunals (FTs) in different parts of post-NRC Assam, selection of sites, except in Goalpara, for such camps and district-wise allotment of FTs in Assam still await Centre nod.
The state government has recently sent a proposal to the Centre for construction of 10 more detention centres in Kamrup, Barpeta, Dima Hasao, Karimganj, Lakhimpur, Nalbari, Nagaon, Sonitpur and Sivasagar districts of state, each of them with a capacity to accommodate nearly 1,000 people. The cost of construction of these new detention centres is estimated to be around Rs 1,000 crore.
Names of over 19 lakh people have been excluded from the final list of the NRC in Assam. Those whose names have been excluded from the final NRC, can approach the FTs to prove their Indian citizenship or the tribunal can declare them as foreigners. At present, Assam has six detention centres that operate out of make-shift facilities in local prisons at Goalpara, Dhibrugarh, Silchar, Tezpur, Jorhat and Kokrajhar.
Kokrajhar is the only one where women are lodged. The detainees are lodged in the detention centres till they are deported to the country of their origin or are able to secure their release.
Sources in state home department informed that an exclusive detention centre is all set to come in lower Assam’s Goalpara district and construction in this regard is going on in full swing. This detention centre is being constructed with an estimated cost of Rs 45 crore and with a capacity to accommodate about 3,000 people.
“The state government has already identified the places for detention centres, however, it is yet to get approval from the government of India,” sources said.
Meanwhile, the state government with assistance from Central government is all set to make additional 200 Foreigner Tribunals (FTs) functional across all districts of the state.
Sources further revealed that a meeting was held recently between top officials of Assam government in presence of commissioner-and-secretary of state home and political department and additional director general of police, where in deputy commissioners of all districts were asked to submit their respective requirements for operational of the additional FTs.
Sources informed that approximately 67 of such FTs were proposed to come up in Kamrup (Metro), 39 in Nagaon, 31 in Jorhat, 21 in Tezpur, 20 in Silchar; 10 in Dhubri, seven in Kokrajhar; and five in Bongaigaon in the run up to the final NRC publication as decided by the state home and political department earlier.
However, the state government’s proposal in this regard to the Centre is yet to be officially announced by the government of India.
Meanwhile, the selection process for appointment of members of the additional FTs has already been completed.
At present, about 100 FTs are functional across the state. With the approval of the additional 200 FTs, the total number of such tribunals functional across the state will increase to 400 by the end of this year.
Earlier, Assam government, ahead of the final publication of NRC, had requested the Centre for setting up 1,000 FTs across state to handle cases of exclusions, but the Union ministry of home affairs (MHA) had approved for establishing a total 400 additional FTs, of which 200 are planned to be set up in the first and the remaining in the second phase.
Congress hits back at Modi
Immediately after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s claim that there are no detention centres in India, the Congress immediately hit back at Modi and said, “Does PM Modi believe Indians can’t do a simple Google search to fact-check his lies? The detention centres are extremely real and will continue to grow as long as this government is in power.”
It also attached three news reports quoting MoS Rai on the number of deaths in detention centres across Assam.
Earlier last month, replying to Trinamul Congress MP Santanu Sen, MoS Rai told the Upper House of Parliament that 28 people had died but there were adequate medical facilities for the detainees. “No one died because of any pressure or any fear, they died because of illness. And for any illness related to the patient, there were doctors and treatment facilities made available,” Rai told Parliament.
Human rights activist Harsh Mander and detention centres
Human rights activist Harsh Mander, who had visited the detention camps in Assam as an National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) special monitor in January 2018, attributed several reasons that make detainees fear the worst.
Mander had quit when NHRC failed to act on his findings and released his 39-page report in the public domain, in which he held the state responsible for failing to distinguish between ordinary prisoners and detainees.
Highlighting the mental health of the detainees which could have implications of their physical health, Mander said that they are separated from their families for months, and years sometimes. They can’t work and neither do they have access to any recreational activities. Furthermore, there is no provision for a parole in such cases as these detainees have entered the country illegally.
New detention centre at Goalapara, Assam
Sources in state home department informed that an exclusive detention centre is all set to come in lower Assam’s Goalpara district and construction in this regard is going on in full swing. This detention centre is being constructed with an estimated cost of about Rs 46 crore and has the capacity to accommodate about 3,000 people.
The detention centre at Goalpara will house 15 four-storey buildings — 13 for men and two for women. It is also reported that almost 65-70 per cent of the work has been completed. It will be built at a cost of around Rs 46 crore, with a capacity to hold 3,000 detained that people who were declared as immigrants. All facilities like schools, community hall, electricity, etc, will be available here. The deadline for completion of work here is scheduled on December 31, 2019, but this might extend to a couple of more months.
News of this massive detention centre came after the final draft list of National Register of Citizens was published on August 31 this year. It found that of the 3.3 crore people who submitted their document for verification, around 19 lakh people ineligible of citizenship.
According to reports, the Goalpara detention camp is being built over an area of 2.5 hectare, seven times the size of a football field and has red painted boundary walls. The camp has separate living area for men and for women and was to be completed earlier this year.
Not just this, Assam government had sent a proposal to the Centre for construction of 10 more detention centres in Kamrup, Barpeta, Dima Hasao, Karimganj, Lakhimpur, Nalbari, Nagaon, Sonitpur and Sivasagar districts of state. These camps were to be built to accommodate nearly 1,000 people each. The cost of construction of these new detention centres is estimated to be around Rs 1,000 crore.
In a desperate bid to stoke down the controversy, Assam finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma while addressing the media on social media scrutiny during the CAA protest said, “Assam detention centres are constructed in tune with the order of Gauhati High Court,” not that of the Centre.
Laden with confusing facts
Prime Minsiter Narendra Modi, known to be an orator, messed up more than once during his Ramlila Maidan speech. He said, “I want to tell the 130 crore citizens of India that since my government has come to power, since 2014, there has been no discussion on NRC anywhere. Only after the Supreme Court’s order, this exercise was done for Assam.”
However, very recently, Union home minister Amit Shah in Parliament said, NRC will be implemented across the country and all infiltrators (will be) identified and expelled before 2024 polls.
It was also posted by the saffron party on Twitter, but due to outrage, the statement about NRC was taken down.