The Rise of the Indian Detention Regime

This is the first in a three-part series of guest posts by Paresh Hate. Paresh Hate is a PhD candidate at Centre for Comparative Politics and Political Theory, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Their work revolves around critically engaging with the discourse of ‘Bangladeshi infiltrator’ in Indian politics by looking at immigration detention and immigration law as sites of its cultivation, deployment and legitimization. Paresh is the digital editor for Migrant Solidarity Network – India and is a founding member of Hasratein: a queer collective, LGBTQIA+ resource group and political organisation based in New Delhi, India.

After the news of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam was published in 2019 and the proposal for an all-India National Register of Citizens by the Home Minister of India was announced, detention centres had finally become a part of the resistant imaginary of civil society groups and activist circles. Until then, this sensitization and recognition was limited to groups in Assam fighting for the civil liberties of people languishing in the detention centres for prolonged periods and some organisations in other metropolitan areas trying to produce data on it. With the passing of Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 and the promise of NRC, there were widespread protests across India that foregrounded the demand that detention centres must go.

While the ruling party and the opposition have continued their debates about the who and when of detention centres, much misinformation has been spread. There is now substantial information in the public domain with regard to the six detention centres in Assam. This is because of the report on the National Human Rights Commission Mission to Assam’s Detention Centres, carried out by Harsh Mander and others, which was subsequently also submitted as a petition in the Supreme Court to ameliorate the conditions of detention centres there. However, neither is immigration detention exclusive to the current fascist government employing it in some extra-judicial realm, nor are the detention centres only operational in Assam. Detention, as a strategy to govern unauthorized migrants, goes to the heart of our immigration law system and has been in place for decades.

Notwithstanding the fact that the first de facto detention centres were built in the state of Assam under High Court’s orders of 2008 for detaining declared foreigners, many confinement centres for immigrants preceded this time period. Some or the other form of such confinement centres for unauthorized migrants has been in place since at least mid-2000s and have been employed for both punitive and non-punitive purposes.

In countries of the Global South such as India, the criminalisation of irregular migration as a measure, like its other politico-legal institutions, is undoubtedly and obviously enmeshed in a history of colonialism and power that goes beyond a simplistic framing of rule of law. There are two distinct points about the trajectory of immigration control that demonstrate its relation with modern colonial history. The first is that the techniques of law that India currently employs have been cultivated during British colonialism in India itself. This is true for three of the four major acts that constitute immigration law in India. These are the Passport (Entry into India) Act (1920), the Registration of Foreigners Act (1939), and the Foreigners Act (1946). All three of them have been argued as “acts of Empire” whose original function was to regulate the migration of colonised subjects across the various colonies and Dominions and thereby restrict their ability to migrate into privileged geographies of the colonising powers.

The second point about regulation of migration is tied to post-World War 2 period and subsequent globalization, where cultures of penalty such as immigration detention travelled like other things across the world. What is now clear is that the inception of detention took place primarily during the late 19th century in the United States. Contemporary scholars are today certain that the creation of modern immigration detention begins with the normalization of regulated borders in America and the United Kingdom. Prior to this, the routine method to deal with foreigners were preventive exclusions through often racist laws that disallowed people from certain racialized communities and nations to enter the country. In cases where such foreigners were found to be residing in the nation without adequate documents, they would be expelled through measures such as deportation or push-back. The establishment of the border as a site of political control grew alongside both centralization and monopolization of power over mobility. In the late 19th century, immigrant detention was used for the first time as a legal exception treated as a temporary administrative check-point until the final decision regarding the fate of the immigrant foreigner was made. Over time, with the growing number of immigrants in the United States, detention started acting as an administrative strategy deployed for longer periods, often against racialized migrants until it became a common response during World War 1 to treat foreigners fleeing their country and foreigner soldiers. This later conflation was much more prevalent in the United Kingdom where anti-alien sentiment demanded substantive politico-legal moves to create some system to permanently control foreigners. Until then, immigration detention used was neither seen as penal nor as any form of imprisonment. Since World War 2, however, immigration detention across most countries has become a legislative policy and a permanent bureaucratic enterprise.

This period where immigration control and defining citizenship became of paramount importance was the period in which many erstwhile colonies were transitioning into sovereign nation-states. Both in Asian and African countries, but also in erstwhile colonizing metropoles which were becoming proper nation-states now, the question of the self and the other of the political community was essential and urgent. Yet, the political logic that was inherent to many of these decolonizing movements prioritized autochthony, which is to say that the original inhabitants of the land who were the natives of that region had the right to self-determine its own political future. This kind of political context necessitated, as it still does, differentiating between a foreigner and a citizen.

In Global South countries such as India, because of the political and economic conditions, this has meant the focus is on the informal movement of low-wage migrants across spatially contiguous states and within the region which is particularly vigilant–due to the suspicion generated by the history of partition–of Muslims from the neighbouring countries (particularly erstwhile East Pakistan and now Bangladesh), who are treated as “infiltrators” as far as popular psyche, dominant nationalist political ideologies, and state institutions are concerned.

One year before the independence, laws were put in place to decide the conditions under which a movement is legitimate. After the independence, the connotations of British rule were dropped while keeping the entire law as it is. With the Foreigners Act, 1946 enacted, there were provisions for punitive measures to employ in case of transgressors to this law and this penalty included detention also. The politico-legal powers of the state that legitimized detention centres are authorized under the Foreigners Act, 1946, and the Foreigners Order, 1948. Section 3(2)(e) of the Foreigners Act, 1946 states that the foreigner:

“[S]hall comply with such conditions as may be prescribed or specified— (i) requiring him to reside in a particular place; (ii) imposing any restrictions on his movements;”

In addition to this, para 11(2) of The Foreigners Order, 1948 allows the civil authority to impose restrictions on the foreigners’ movement.

While until the early 21st century, detention centres have meant makeshift spaces which are otherwise typical prisons, there has been a rise of many sites since early 2000s which are used as functional detention centres, managed by Border Security Force stations, shelter homes looked after by state governments, Foreigners Regional Registration Office sites, etc. What the criminalisation of irregular migration and use of detention as a punitive strategy since the inception of immigration law shows is that nowhere in the last hundred years at least have the detention centres been used simply as temporary administrative check-points, but instead have been an integral part of the criminal immigration (or crimmigration) system. Here, detention centres are spaces that thwart mobility and control the perceived “excessive mobility” of the unauthorized migrants by responding with total confinement and putting a stop to their movement itself.

Today as well, migrants who have been detained for immigration-related transgressions face severe legal adversities and their troubles have only increased after the NRC has been announced. With the regime in power attempting to build more detention centres qua detention centres across the country for “illegal infiltrators”, and with a relative absence of proper repatriation treaties with  neighbouring countries, the Indian immigration system is perhaps most likely to deal with migrant foreigners, among others, with detention as one of the preferred modes of penalty. While detention centres began in India as instruments peripheral to immigration control, they have now, under the current regime, transformed into a bureaucratic enterprise that is central to the state apparatus’ program of governance over Bengali-speaking, Muslim and migrant populations, and will give rise to a new detention regime that will be initiated now with the project of NRC.

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