This is the second 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.
As argued in the first part of this series, immigration detention is neither a recent development nor limited to Assam. It has been part of the punitive mechanism set up by immigration law, particularly Section 3(2)(e) of the Foreigners Act, 1946 and para 11(2) of The Foreigners Order, 1948, since its inception.
Recent detention centres are mandated under Amit Shah’s Model Detention Manual 2019, which was released on 9 January 2019, according to which one detention camp should exist in one the city or district where a major immigration check post is located and every member of a family should be housed in the same detention centre.
However, immigration detention has a long history in India, and such sites of detention are to be found all over the country. The immigrant foreigner population in detention centres in India is convicted under one or more of the four acts pertaining to immigration law, i.e. 1) The Foreigners Act, 1946; 2) the Registration of Foreigners Act, 1939; 3) the Passport Act, 1967; and 4) the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920.
While the case of Assam detention centres clearly shows that there are plenty of Indian citizens, particularly Bengali-speaking individuals, who end up in detention centres, the state maintains these sites for unauthorized immigrants. I use the term ‘unauthorized’ for two reasons: first, to problematize ascribing legality onto humans on the move and to attempt to destigmatize the ideological connotations associated with illegality; second, to point out that many who are stuck in the detention regime possess documents of some kind but are insufficient by state’s evidentiary standards to prove their “undetainability”. In this sense, ‘unauthorized’ refers to individuals without official permission to enter a nation-state, because they are marked racially, religiously, gender-wise, class-wise, or due to the bureaucratic and administrative protocols which disallow them to be seen as legitimate candidates for permission to enter or claim citizenship.
Until early 2000s, the population that was accused and convicted in immigration matters was kept in prisons that operated as makeshift spaces for detaining “illegal immigrants” who violated the clauses of the immigration law and may have additionally committed a crime under India’s penal laws. This practice continues even today in most parts of the country.
According to the Prison Statistics India 2019 Manual of National Crime Records Bureau, as of 31st December 2019, there are total 5608 foreign prisoners in India, out of which around 2171 are convicts, 2979 are undertrials, 40 are detenues (mostly in Jammu and Kashmir and Delhi), and 418 are held as other kind of prisoners. Out of these, the highest number is that of Bangladeshis who constitute around 2513 of these prisoners. Estimates of foreigners and non-citizens omit child detainees in juvenile homes and those held at other quasi-correctional state institutions such as the Reception Centres outside the prison system. Bengali-speaking population is also the most precarious group facing penalties under immigration law and are under threat due to the National Register of Citizens.
As of now, there are different detention centres across the country which function for punitive and non-punitive purposes managed by state government correctional homes, shelter homes, Border Security Force camps, and sites of Foreigners Regional Registration Office.
The first de facto detention centres were built in the state of Assam under High Court’s orders of 2008 for detaining declared foreigners. In July 2009, the Revenue Minister Bhumidhar Barman of Assam had informed the state assembly that two detention camps would be set up to hold illegal immigrants at Mancachar and Mahisashan. By 2010, three such detention camps had begun at Goalpara, Silchar and Kokrajhar. In the next few years, three more detention camps had started functioning at Tezpur, Jorhat and Dibrugarh.
Currently, under the Model Detention Manual 2019, the current biggest detention centre meant for illegal immigrants is being built in Goalpara district’s Matia which shall house at least 3000 inmates.
In Delhi, there are three publicly known locations where immigrants are detained. Two of them are managed by the Department of Social Welfare of Government of Delhi. One of them is located at Nirmal Chaaya in West Delhi which holds immigrant women and another is at Lampur Complex in North Delhi which holds immigrant men. This population includes trafficked women, irregular economic migrants, and refugees. The third one is at Shahzada Bagh and is managed by Foreigners Regional Registration Office in West Delhi and exclusively holds Bangladeshi unauthorized immigrants.
According to the data of Global Detention Project, a Geneva-based human rights organisation, the union territory of Delhi has had five other detention centres which are not publicly known. These are 1) Human Resources Department Cell at Hauz Khas which was in use at least till 2005 housing adult unauthorized immigrant men; 2) a detention site at Daryaganj which was in use at least till 2005, housing adult unauthorized immigrant men; 3) Alipur Road detention house managed by Foreigners Regional Registration Office which was in use at least till 2008; 4) Daya Basti Ren Basera which was in use at least till 2005 housing adult unauthorized immigrant men; and 5) Old Delhi Seva Kutir which was in use at least till 2005 housing adult unauthorized immigrant men. The current status of these five sites is unknown.
Punjab currently houses unauthorized immigrants at Central Jail, Amritsar. These are individuals who are declared foreigners.
Rajasthan holds unauthorized immigrants on jail premises in Alwar. These are individuals who are declared foreigners.
One detention centre in Gujarat is located at Bhuj. Another one which was at least in use till 2009 was located at a Special Operations Group (SOG) Office which was a criminal police station in Ahmedabad that housed both immigrant men, women and accompanied minors.
Goa has had a detention centre since early 2019 where it houses convicted immigrants who are declared foreigners. It is located at Mapusa sub-jail in North Goa.
In Tamil Nadu, an intermediate camp has been made that used to earlier be a women’s prison in the city of Trichy. At present, it houses around 60 foreigners, most of whom are Sri Lankans. The site is guarded by Tamil Nadu Special Police commandos and is handled by the state revenue department. Because it is the revenue department that manages this site, the nature of the site also differs. In the case of Tamil Nadu, it means that the location is maintained to supervise offenders who are neither under the usual restrictions of probation nor fully incarcerated because all the detenues are undertrials and are allowed to meet family members. Many of these detenues also await deportation.
West Bengal maintains its own correctional homes at different locations segregated on the basis of gender. There has also been a Border Security Force camp which was last documented to be in use in 2005. Earlier, the West Bengal government had also agreed to build new detention centres at New Town and Bongaon but these plans have been halted recently.
Bihar has a military camp, which according to the sources of Global Detention Project, that houses unauthorized immigrants. It was at least in use until 2005.
Under the Model Detention Manual 2019, Karnataka has opened its first detention centre at Nelamangala Taluk, Banglore which will be administered by the state Social Welfare Department.
Under the Model Detention Manual 2019, Maharashtra was to set up its first detention centre in Nerul, Navi Mumbai which was an erstwhile women’s shelter home run by the local police station. But since the change of the state government and the clash between Shiv Sena and Bharatiya Janata Party, the plans have been put on halt.
Uttar Pradesh was supposed to have its first detention centre in Ghaziabad’s Nandgram at an erstwhile SC/ST hostel whose plans were cancelled after protests. Since the state government is ruled by the same party in power in the central government, it is very likely that another location will be soon selected for starting a detention centre in the state.
Usually, when one files an RTI application with the Ministry of Home Affairs (Foreigners Division) to find out details about these detention centres in the country, the Central Public Information Officer responds that this information is not centrally maintained. In many cases of RTI application, a copy of the RTI application is transferred to the Central Public Information Officer of the Bureau of Immigration for providing any details they have. However, the Bureau of Immigration responds and has a precedent of responding that they are exempted from the Second Schedule of the RTI Act, 2005 as a body from providing information that has the importance of national security. There is hardly any legal provision available to know more about these detention centres since the central government has the power to regulate access to the places in India where internees or persons on parole are detained or restricted under Section 4(4) of the Foreigners Act, 1946. This was confirmed by a personal RTI that I had made and keeping a track of the results of other similar RTIs.
Under UNHCR guidelines, detention cannot be used arbitrarily, and any decision to detain must be based on an assessment of the individual’s particular circumstances. This is hardly followed by authorities in India and routine flouting of due process is commonplace. Secondly, according to UNHCR guideline 4.3, detention can be used to protect public order, public health, and national security. However, as is clear from Indian state’s official narrative premised on securitization, almost all unauthorized and undocumented immigration constitutes “infiltration” and the polititicians consistently have called it a threat to India’s national security which can be used to justify indefinite detention for foreigners, particularly for those coming from Bengali or Bangladeshi backgrounds.
All of this proves the absolute lack of transparency in the matter of immigration detention centres in India. While harrowing tales are common in case of American immigration system or European Union’s gated community with regards to immigrants, there is little knowledge of countries in the Global South, including India. Such lack of transparency only adds to this effect where the public due to its lack of information fails to make a significant intervention in the question of justice and due process when it pertains to immigrants.