Guest post by Arijit Sen, independent journalist and a former fellow at the Reuters Institute, University of Oxford; and Leah Verghese, legal researcher and an alumnus of SIPA, Columbia. They worked on the Amnesty International briefing on detention centres in Assam. This post is the fourth instalment of the Border Criminologies Themed Week on Citizenship, Identity and Belongingness: Narratives from India, organised by Rimple Mehta.

The government of the Indian state of Assam plans to set-up ten detention centres in addition to the existing six situated inside jails to incarcerate ‘foreigners’.  The ‘hunt’ for ‘foreigners’ has been going on in Assam for many years but the process is in the spotlight in lieu of the recent protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 (CAA).  The paranoia about illegal immigration has reached a fevered pitch in and outside the state. Elected representatives in the Indian states of Karnataka and Manipur expressed the desire to carry out similar exercises in their states. Ministry of Home Affairs of India has directed states to build detention centres in every city or district which has a major immigration post. In this post we discuss detention centres in Assam and the process that marks individuals as foreigners.

Detention Centres: ‘Human beings treated worse than animals’

The conditions in detention centres in Assam are horrific. They are located within prisons where there is no separation between detainees and convicts. Detainees are kept in crowded cells where they are unable to sleep out of anxiety and stress. Some of them are unaware about why they are being treated as criminals. Assamese activist Akhil Gogoi (at present in preventive detention for participating in protests against the CAA) reported that human beings are treated worse than animals inside these centres.

The treatment of detainees follows the pattern of stigmatization faced by people suspected to be foreigners in Assam for decades. The state witnessed a movement between 1979 and 1985, demanding the expulsion of Bangladeshis residing in Assam, from India. The government of India promised to deport Bangladeshis who had entered after 25 March 1971 under the Assam Accord signed in 1985. The anti-foreigner sentiment fomented over decades has normalized the usage of dehumanising terms such as ‘termites’ for Bangladeshis. “Bangladeshi” and “Miya” (Miya means ‘gentleman’ in Urdu but is used as a slur for Bengali speaking Muslims in Assam) have become standard slurs for anyone who is seen to not ‘belong’.

“I can’t tell you how awfully I was treated. I can’t talk about these things or relive all that. It still feels too real,” Rahima Bibi broke down while recalling her time in a detention centre.  Kismat Ali, another Indian citizen picked up on suspicion of being a foreigner and eventually declared an Indian by the Supreme Court, asked, if there was a way to get back the two and half years of his life he spent incarcerated. Fear and uncertainty loomed as they awaited an uncertain future within these overcrowded detention centres. At least 28 inmates have died inside in the last three years, according to official figures. 

“There was no space, we had to live on top of each other. Ashraf (another inmate) and I slept next to the bathroom. It was dirty, we couldn’t get any sleep. You’d get around 2-2.5 feet space to be in. We weren’t allowed to take more space. We were threatened. The convicts get much bigger beds. At that time, we were all put together – we shared space with convicts, all mixed. Each day the numbers kept increasing. It was very hot, there was a fan, but still. There was no space or peace,” said Kismat.

Representation of women inside a detention centre in Assam, Illustrator: Priya Kuriyan.

Foreigners Tribunals: Arbitrary and biased

The frenzied search for foreigners in Assam has picked up momentum with the establishment of the Foreigners Tribunals in 2005. There are 100 Foreigners Tribunals across the state which decide if persons brought before them are foreigners or not. The burden of proof in these proceedings is on the person suspected to be a foreigner. They have to provide documentary evidence to prove their Indian citizenship. Clerical errors such as differing spellings in different documents or contradictions between answers given in cross-examinations and what is written in the documents are treated with suspicion and lead to people being declared foreigners. Since the burden of proof is on person accused of being a foreigner, police investigations are often lax.

The process followed by the Foreigners Tribunals is arbitrary and weighted against the person accused of being a foreigner despite the fact that what is at stake is citizenship, the most fundamental of rights. If a Foreigners Tribunal determines that a person is a foreigner, it usually orders for the person to be kept in a detention centre and then deported. As on December 2019, 970 people were detained in six detention centres across Assam for being ‘foreigners’.

There is no statutory limit on the period of or periodic review of detention. This kind of uncertainty can impact a person’s mental health. Some detainees remain in custody for months, even years without access to work or parole. The Supreme Court has provided some reprieve in its order of May 10, 2019, directing the state government to conditionally release detainees who have been in detention for three years or more, subject to a monetary guarantee.

Detention has become the default punishment for those declared as foreigners in Assam. This is despite the fact that the Foreigners Act, 1946 provides for non-custodial alternatives like imposing restrictions of movements, requiring the person to check in with authorities periodically, and prohibiting the person from associating with certain people or engaging in certain activities. The government of Assam in its ‘White Paper on Foreigners Issue’ published in 20 October 2012 gave its seal of approval for the use of detention for those declared as foreigners to restrict their movements and to ensure that they “do not perform the act of vanishing.”

Interplay of Erosion of Rights, Humiliation and Erasure of Citizenship

Children of detainees grow up with their mothers inside prison. There is no counselling available for them. Some go to school but continue to live in prison-like conditions. While girls were allowed to stay with their mothers till they reach adulthood, boys were kept in the detention centres till the age of six years. After the age of six boys were released into the care of family or anyone who is willing to take care of them. Although this takes them out of the confines of the prison, often there is no one willing to take responsibility for them. Many detainees suffer from mental and physical health issues associated with the conditions of their detention. Healthcare services are inadequate, and there are barely any avenues for recreation.

Detainees, as we were told, were treated as ‘criminals’ by most jail security guards. One former detainee said, “The women used to cry a lot. They also went hungry, the chai pani (food and drink) was not enough. There was immense sadness. The women were brought so far away from their homes. They weren’t allowed to be given things from outside. Women weren’t even allowed many visitors.”

Bina Rani Saha who was in the Kokrajhar detention centre for two years told us, “We were surrounded by walls. Not even a cat or dog could enter. I remember there were a lot of people. We slept on the floor on blankets. All of us in rows next to one another". Rashminara Begum was sent to a detention centre in an advanced state of pregnancy. She gave birth while in detention.

Unlike convicts, detainees do not get work inside prison nor are they eligible for parole. Since the prison manual does not apply to detainees, they are in a limbo and are subject to various unwritten rules created by the prison authorities. Within these detention centres, detainees face an interplay of erosion of rights, humiliation and erasure of citizenship in sub-human conditions. The detention of ‘foreigners’ in this manner contravenes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 and Article 21 of the Indian Constitution

A relative of a woman inside a detention centre stated: “Every single time when I go to visit her, they ask me who I am and who do I want to see. They call her then. Then we talk about things like how she is doing and what is she eating. She keeps asking when we’ll come and take her away from there and that staying there is very difficult, there is a lot of hardship and she feels sick. She cries a lot. She has fever, vomiting, loss of appetite. The food they give there is very bare and bland – plain rice and dal.”

The treatment of ‘suspected foreigners’ in Assam echoes philosopher Hannah Arendt’s description of refugees being transformed from homeless to stateless to being rightless and to being considered, “the scum of the earth.” This now seems to be the fate of many ‘suspected foreigners’ in India.

*Names of participants have not been changed as they agreed to be identified and have also taken part in public panel discussions on detention centres.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Sen, A. and Verghese, L. (2020). Weaponising Citizenship in India. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2020/02/weaponising (Accessed [date])