Mapping Developments: A follow-up to the Detention Chapter from the Securing Citizenship Report

Khush Aalam Singh is a third-year law student pursuing the B.A. (LL.B.) program at Jindal Global Law School. He is a Student Fellow at Centre for Public Interest Law, JGLS, where he is currently assisting research interventions on questions of citizenship and statelessness. Khush is one of the authors of  Securing Citizenship: India’s legal obligations to precarious citizens and stateless persons, released in November 2020.

The Securing Citizenship report is divided into three chapters – Status, Detention and Socio-Economic Rights. Each chapter addresses the international law obligations of India vis-à-vis precarious citizens and stateless persons. As authors of the Detention chapter, real-time developments posed a challenge for us. We had to be mindful of the news and the overall argument the report sought to advance. This article is an attempt to engage with major developments since September 2020 which did not make the final text. As such, it endeavours to expand the conversation around issues at the nexus of statelessness, precarious citizens, and detention pending deportation.

A development of significance is the Gauhati High Court’s order (dated 7th October) in the case of Santhanu Borthakur v. Union of India and Ors. (W.P. (Crl.)/2/2020). In this criminal writ petition, the court observed that persons declared as foreigners shall be kept in detention centres outside of prisons. The court also observed that earmarking a specific area in jail premises as a detention centre is not in accordance with Supreme Court guidelines. These guidelines stem from its judgement in the case of Bhim Singh v. Union of India (2012).

Furthermore, the Santhanu Borthakur order refers to communications by the Central Government specifying that detention centres need to be set up outside jail premises. These communications included a recommendation that the state consider hiring private buildings for the purpose of keeping detainees while the detention centres are under construction. While the order does not declare the detention of foreigners inside prisons as outrightly illegal, it directed the state authorities to place a status report showing measures taken to set up detention centres. This status report is likely to be placed before the court at the next hearing of the matter.

The Court’s observations relating to the detention of ‘foreigners’ inside prisons complement a key concern that we flag in the report. The nature of confinement for persons declared as foreigners is materially different from that of convicts or undertrials. As per the Assam Government White Paper of 2012, the detention of declared foreigners is ‘administrative’ in nature. In other words, the detention of such persons takes place for deporting them to their country of origin and is not necessarily a criminal penalty. However, the intent of deporting is illusory as low rates of deportation show that removing such persons to their purported country of origin is not an option. This is because Indian citizens in Assam whose citizenship status is precarious are detained under the guise of ‘foreigner’. Stateless persons may also be detained as ‘foreigners’ without a nationality. These persons are kept along with undertrials and convicts without any proper system of distinguishing between these categories. This has worrisome consequences such as discrimination by jail officials, overcrowding of prisons, physical and mental health concerns as well as shortage of rations.

Therefore, the Court’s observations are welcome to the extent that they are consonant with international law on administrative detention pending deportation. However, we are yet to see a judicial pronouncement that explicitly sets out the premise that stateless persons and precarious citizens cannot be detained. Such a pronouncement must be foregrounded in the language of rights and should leave no scope for ambiguity. The Supreme Court orders allowing the release of detainees are examples of this ambiguity, as has been mentioned in the report. This is because the Court employs a language bereft of any reference to rights. The overriding imperatives prompting the orders seem to be administrative convenience or public health. This becomes an issue as these orders do not recognize the rights of precarious citizens and stateless persons.

After the Supreme Court relaxed the conditions required for release of detainees earlier last year (W.P. (C) 1/2020 (Supreme Court)), the Gauhati High Court initiated a suo motu writ petition (W.P. (C) (Suo Motu) 1/2020) to oversee the process. The orders record the release status of detainees and the number of detainees released. According to the last order dated 17September 2020, 349 eligible detainees had been released from detention. The data provided in the order does not specify whether this figure is across all detention centres or from a specific detention centre. None of the orders have a breakdown of the numbers from each detention centre. Instead, there is a lumpsum figure as was submitted by the state counsel. This is yet another reflection of the ambiguity surrounding numbers from Assam, making it difficult to have a clear idea of the situation. Furthermore, the numbers do not mean that there are no persons in detention at present. As of those eligible, about 13 detainees have not yet been released due to non-fulfilment of bail conditions. It is unknown whether persons who have not yet completed two years in detention are still inside these detention centres. Additionally, no details have emerged about the conditions inside these detention centres – especially given the COVID-19 situation.

Outside of Assam, the Karnataka High Court also made observations about the detention of illegal migrants/foreigners. In Babul Khan and Anr. v. State of Karnataka and Anr., Justice Phaneendra observed that persons found to have violated the Foreigners Act, 1946 do not have the right to move around freely “as if they are the citizens of the country”. Furthermore, the court reiterated that persons declared as foreigners shall be detained pending deportation. The order does recognize some aspects that we have sought to highlight in the report. The court affirms that children in detention are particularly vulnerable, along with women, therefore their rights have to be protected. The court relied on the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child (1959) as well as the Supreme Court guidelines in R.D. Upadhyaya v. State of AP. These guidelines enshrine the right of the child to education, food, recreation, medical care, etc. Further, the court cited the Juvenile Justice Act (2015) and the Rules to show that these rights have a firm grounding without reference to the nationality of a child.

While the observations with respect to children complement our arguments, there are many concerns when it comes to the nature of detention in such cases. As Securing Citizenship argues, stateless persons and precarious citizens cannot be detained for deportation. Such persons have a right to immediate release if they are presently detained. In the case of stateless persons, they cannot be removed to any country, since no country considers them as its citizens. Precarious citizens, on the other hand, are Indian citizens by virtue of their ‘genuine link’ to this country. When both stateless persons and precarious citizens are deemed ‘foreigners’ before the law, their confinement inside detention centres is arbitrary and violates domestic and international law. The lack of a periodic review mechanism by a judicial body further aggravates the issue. This is particularly disappointing as courts have recognized statelessness as a situation to be avoided. Yet, courts and policy-makers have paid inadequate attention to the nexus between statelessness, precarious citizenship and detention pending deportation.

There is a dire need for a well-drafted and well-thought out policy that addresses these issues substantively. Through our intervention, we have attempted to highlight areas of concern with the existing policies and how they neglect these categories of persons. The impact of detention without substantive and procedural safeguards continues to be disproportionate. As we argue in the report, principles of international law need to be kept in mind while addressing these issues, with an overarching emphasis on human rights. To ensure this, the fundamental rights contained in the Constitution can provide a strong basis. Furthermore, detention should be used as a measure of last resort. The state shall exhaust all possible lesser-restrictive options before deciding to detain someone. Our paramount concern remains the situation of stateless persons and precarious citizens in detention centres, particularly in Assam. We sincerely hope that our intervention finds consideration and concrete expression through policy reform.

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.

“I’m too hungry to think of the Pandemic”: An Interview with Iftikar Hussain Siddique from Assam

Iftikar Hussain Siddique is a paralegal in Assam doing his part in ameliorating the conditions of those whose names are excluded from the NRC. This interview seeks to unearth the on-ground realities of Assam as it withstands floods, a pandemic and an identity crisis begotten by the NRC process. Mr. Siddique recounts his encounters and stories highlighting the condition of Assam at the juncture of this confluence of issues. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Aarushi Mittal: Thank you for agreeing to speak to us. Can you tell us a little bit about your work, and how you came to be working as a paralegal?

Iftikar Hussain Siddique: My work includes helping those who are excluded from the NRC List. My aim is to help those from our community who fall within the weaker section of the society. In my initial years, I tried to ensure a healthy and hygienic environment for children. It was around this time that I started helping D-voters in getting their case through along with advocates. Essentially, I assist people in filling up the forms that need to be submitted. Since a sizable proportion of the population is uneducated, they need some sort of help in filling these forms and understanding what they entail. 

Since these are uneducated people, they don’t know where their thumb impression needs to be put or if one needs to be put at all. They tend to ask around for help from shop owners. They don’t know anything which is written in the form. This is where my role begins. Further, I also help them in checking if their name is on the list. My friends and I assist them in formulating their claims to citizenship. We were guided by lawyer Aman Wadud in this regard. This is how we tried to help people on the grassroot level. We prepare them for hearings by explaining what all needed to be said and what documents had to be submitted. 

Sometimes the biometric machines do not function, so we collected data on which places need a functioning biometric machine to ensure that procedure was not stopped. It is important to submit certain documents, while others are often ruled to be redundant. For instance, many people had submitted their Panchayat documents which were not accepted by the courts as valid proof of citizenship. So, we tried to help them collate a different set of documents which could be submitted. 

AM: It has been one year since the final list of the NRC was released. Rejection slips stating the reasons for exclusion were supposed to have been issued to excluded persons, allowing them to file appeals. However, no rejection slip has been issued so far. What has been the impact of this delay on people?

IHS: A very funny yet very astounding impact of this has been with respect to marriages. People now ask whether the name of the prospective bride or groom is on the NRC and whether there has been any adjudication to that effect. There is no other standard. People who have returned from detention camps, their children are in most detriment. This is a major trouble. Halima Khatoon’s daughter is being rejected simply because her mother was declared a foreigner. This is reasoned by claiming there are chances of a legal appeal, and that they would have to pay for these cases by selling lands. 

On our part, we tried to help 2000+ families by providing them ration. It is absolutely imperative at this point in time when floods have wiped out fields and the pandemic has taken away work that such provisions be undertaken. People don’t have ration cards or any other means to procure a day’s meal. Many people in the detention camps do not have ration cards. While the government provided Rs.1000 to families, that is barely adequate. Jabeda Khatoon, who had submitted almost 15 documents and was still declared foreigner, had her entire house destroyed as a result of a cyclone. Aman sir tried to help out by contributing some money to fix her house. She was extremely sick and yet she couldn’t go to a hospital because of her status as a foreigner. We tried to get in touch with a few organizations to help her. With a family with no source of income, the cyclone, pandemic, and NRC impacted her greatly. 

In this one river island, there was almost 5 feet of water. The people would survive on barely any meals.  There had been waterlogging for almost 2 months. We were able to help on the first day of Eid. This was a situation which existed across the spectrum. There was once a huge population among 52 households built of concrete, the floods barely spared a few. These people definitely get impacted. The delay creates trouble in that sense. 

AM: Assam has faced the twin blows of COVID-19 and floods.You personally have been involved in a lot of relief work in lower Assam. In your observations, how has this situation impacted persons left out of the NRC? Has there been any government aid? 

IHS: The first lockdown was of 21 days. Those who left their houses were beaten up. Further, there was no sale of food grains. Social distancing is a luxury, one which no one can afford. People can’t leave homes, and even if they do, they don’t have a market for their grains since people aren’t leaving homes. Before COVID, hunger was enough of a concern. The pandemic was not a concern for poor people, hunger was. People would say that they were too hungry to think of COVID. 

Another issue is the weakened health conditions of those in the detention camps. This is exacerbated with the onset of the pandemic.  One by the name of Rajkumar was a daily wager and was travelling to work, he was not aware of the imposition of the lockdown. The police ended up beating him up badly for flouting the lockdown rules. Daily wagers are severely impacted. 

The government is only concerned with testing for people who are COVID-19 positive. The political parties come door to door to spread their agenda. They advertise schemes. The Health Minister himself does not wear a mask. The BJP representatives are flouting the norms of social distancing left and right. In furtherance of the elections which were slated to happen, too many meetings are held and there is no social distancing or use of masks. 

Guwahati has some restrictions, but these are being flouted by political parties. People don’t trust the hospitals. They just buy medicines and stay home. I believe that Modi and Trump both would simply use the pandemic as an excuse for inefficient functioning. So, they are causing COVID to worsen to bolster their excuses. People have tried to reduce their expenditure on subsidiary items like clothing or going out. The poor Muslim people have been targeted specifically and deemed to be the cause of the spread. They are making a disease communal. While the doctors are cooperative, the media has portrayed a communal image. 

The masks are not provided, the government should be distributing masks. The hospitals are not good, doctors are not treating patients properly. Those who are positive are caught and after two days they are released. No containment zone is being made. The people who are positive are not being treated adequately. Hygiene again is a luxury – when a person cannot afford food, how are they to buy sanitizers. The government spends so much money on ancillary things like prizes to state toppers – this is not the time to make such promises. You need these funds to fight COVID. The NGOs must be employed in this regard too. People don’t have soaps to take a bath, hand washing is not possible. The pandemic is for the rich to worry about. 

AM: We know that persons declared foreigners by the Foreigners Tribunals are being detained in detention camps. What are the conditions within these camps? There is a stand-alone detention camp coming up in Goalpara–what is the status of that camp? How have local communities near the construction site reacted to the presence of the detention centre?

IHS: Jails had quite a few cases since they have people coming from outside. If one person is positive then all would be positive: jails were sealed and people testing positive were removed. The Supreme Court ordered that those who had been in the camps for over 2 years be released. As a result of the same, less than 50% people were released. 

However, now those who leave the camps, they will have to go to the police stations. This has caused a spike in the number of COVID-19 cases in Police stations. Those with COVID-19 still have to travel once a week. One person, who had to walk to a police station for almost 2 hours, had COVID. I asked him to inform the officers as him going to the station would not be safe for the police station in any way. The police asked him to come next week. There is no proper system in place. These people should not be asked to traverse to these stations at a time like this for a few months. Public transport is not functioning, police stations are far off and women cannot cycle to these stations. People need to walk for hours on end and be exposed to the risk of contracting a deadly disease. There is a need for intervention to that effect. 

As for Foreigners Tribunals, they are not currently functioning. The Buksa District Tribunal, however, has sent multiple notices. People do not have money, and these notices are released. Now they need to pay lawyers for this. People cannot fight these cases. They say that they’d rather have poison than exist like this. I cannot sleep listening to these stories. I do not know how I would tackle these situations. One person goes through multiple trials and tribulations with reference to their identity as an Indian. I’ve stopped asking people because it disheartens me so much. 

The detention camp in Goalpara had stopped construction initially and now it has begun again recently. Those who are excluded are really suffering. People keep asking me questions on how to ensure citizenship. They wake me up at 5 AM asking me how to go about this. I tell them that once the process begins again, I will help. The process of scanning documents has recently begun, they have started curating speaking orders. However, official documents still remain inaccessible.  

It’s great for government teachers, the lockdown, they can work at home. The poor people however are in too much pain. This one person had no money whatsoever and we gave him some money. We tried to give some food to people — however so many people came that we had to call the police to calm the crowd. People require food. If you give food to one person, multiple people come for it. Parents ask for food for their children. This one time, I gave one packet of biscuit to this one child and he ran off. It made me cry. His mother kept weeping outside my house. She was a widow. She couldn’t reconcile with the reality that had befallen her. 

AM: Have the FTs been functioning during the pandemic? If yes, do you think adequate measures are being taken to make sure that people are able to receive a fair trial?. Are cases dismissed hurriedly given that there was a pandemic or is the pandemic being used as an excuse to deny due process?

IHS: The advocates have lost a lot of money as a result of this lockdown. They used to earn a lot of money in these proceedings. What will happen is that they will now increase their charges for the case. This would further deprive people of the justice that they deserve. People will receive lesser money for their assets due to the lockdown. There might be people who are witness to some cases. If they are casualties to the pandemic, someone loses their chance at citizenship. People might not be able to come. People are not able to procure documents. It takes about 15 days to get documents, this is effectively delayed. People need to apply for certified copies. If these offices do not have officers however, they cannot procure such certified documents. The District Collector’s offices cannot be approached by outside people. How are they to fight cases?

The 6th citizen concept has become the talk of the town recently as a result of Clause 6 of the Assam Accord. People will be deprived of political rights, rights to buy land, or get jobs. In 1950, many places were really backward, they were not consulted in the first consensus. They remain unnamed. This would be highly unfair. It is a really bad situation. The 200 members appointed for the FT aren’t doing anything, they are just being paid taxpayers’ money. The staff that has been appointed to operate computers and all are not being paid salaries since March. They need to cover costs on their own. The system is not at all effective or people friendly. The reverification is also being discussed. People are being harassed. It’s a politically motivated system of harassment. Nobody knows how the government plans to tackle this. It eludes everyone, it’s only politics.

Aarushi Mittal is a 3rd year law student at West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences. She is a research volunteer with Parichay.

Interview with Aman Wadud

Aman Wadud is a practicing lawyer in Assam, where he provides ground-level legal services and support to those who are at risk of being stripped of their citizenship status, owing to the National Register of Citizens (‘NRC’) process. He appears before the Guwahati High Court and the Foreigners Tribunals in Assam, and has also argued before the Supreme Court of India. His voice has been crucial in highlighting the ethnic and religious prejudices in the adjudication of citizenship in Assam. Apart from his litigation practice, Aman was heavily involved in the NRC process which involved travelling across Assam to spread awareness about the Court-monitored NRC. He has recently received the Fulbright-Nehru Master’s Fellowship for 2021-22, and hopes to continue to build on his work through this opportunity. In this interview, we discuss his work, citizenship adjudication in Assam, and the recent petition regarding the release of detainees in light of COVID-19.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Devashri Mishra: I hope to discuss themes and questions which derive from your previous interviews, public appearances, talks delivered in colleges, your engagement with Parichay, and your work. But before any of that, congratulations on receiving the Fulbright-Nehru Master’s Fellowship for 2021-22! Can you tell us about what inspired you to apply for the Fellowship and how you believe it aligns with your work? 

Aman Wadud: Thank you so much for inviting me to do this. 

Earlier this year I was in the United States, where I was invited to speak at the Harvard India Conference at the Harvard Kennedy School. I was also invited to Harvard Law School, Columbia Law School, Yale Law School, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I met a lot of professors, scholars, lawyers, and I ended my trip with testifying before the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom Hearing on Citizenship Laws and Religious Freedom, where I was a witness. Through this trip, I realized that an advanced degree in the United States will help my cause, widen my perspective and enrich my knowledge on International Human Rights Law, and comparative constitutional law. I want to understand how citizenship is defined in different constitutional settings and the application of citizenship laws. The jus soli concept came into being in the United States through the 14th Amendment in 1868, almost 150 years ago. The law has not changed till now, and anyone born in the US is a citizen by birth. Although when our republic was founded, citizenship was granted on the basis of the principle of jus soli citizenship, this slowly got diluted into the principle of jus sanguinis. This was still further diluted in the  Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2003 and now, both parents are required to be Indian citizens. Since my work is centred around citizenship law, and I work before the Foreigners Tribunals (FTs), and High Court, I think that an LL.M. with a focus on human rights and comparative constitutional law will benefit my cause. Apart from my litigation, I’m also involved in advocacy work on statelessness. Around 135,000 people have already been declared to be foreigners in Assam and have been rendered stateless, along with their family members. Considering that most of my cases are pro bono, this prestigious Fellowship will allow me to study as it covers all basic expenses and will additionally provide me a small stipend. The network that I will build through this Fellowship will help me with my work as well. 

DM: Absolutely, and I think we’re all eager to see how your work carries forward after your stint in the US! We were extremely happy to hear this news here at Parichay, and we’re certain you’ve been getting similarly warm reactions from everywhere. There have been a few articles and social media reactions which indicate that you’re one of the first North-East Indians to receive this Fellowship – is this true? 

AW: Actually, I’m only the second North East Indian to receive this Fellowship in international legal studies, the first was Babloo Loitongbam from Manipur who received this Fellowship in 2004, sixteen years ago! In this category of legal studies, I’m the first from Assam. In terms of the response I’ve received, I’m overwhelmed. Look, to apply for this Fellowship, you need 3 years of experience, and I’ve had 10 years of experience and I’m deeply involved with the cause of fighting citizenship cases. I must have the blessings of a lot of people that I get so much love for my work. Over the years, because of the citizenship cause becoming a movement, I have received many calls and emails, inviting me to speak at several events. That’s probably why people relate with me, and maybe even because I use my Twitter handle quite effectively in furthering my cause. We have to keep in mind that no one was speaking for the cause of citizenship, and it only became fancy to do so only when the NRC list was released, and again when the CAA protests broke out on a national level. Before that, no one spoke about it. I have been working on this since 2014, and continuously speaking about it, possibly that is why people are emotionally related to me. In Assam, I think people know me because cases of the disadvantaged are referred to me from almost every sub-division of the state, and I’ve fought all these cases. These cases have taken me to many places in Assam, and I also travel for meetings and legal awareness, and for training lawyers here. That way, I know a lot of people and a lot of people know me! I’ve been working sincerely, and working really hard, and so by the grace of God, that may be why many are able to relate with me. I’m overwhelmed by the love and wishes I’ve received over the last few days!

DM: What you said about the rise in the debate around citizenship post the NRC coming about, and more so when the CAA was passed, is a very visible development, even in academic circles in law schools. The conversation around citizenship caught on significantly at the national level only recently, and it seems to be on an exponential rise. How do you think this development is seen by those living this reality everyday?

AW: In law schools, people have started taking interest in this. I’ve spoken to professors who admit that they used to skip the citizenship provisions while teaching constitutional law, and would skip to other chapters. Most of them did this because it seemed unimportant at the time. But now, it has become a practical, and important aspect of constitutional law, even in teaching, and it is no longer something we can take for granted. Perhaps they thought it could never be questioned but finally, we know that there can be a process where everyone may have to prove their citizenship. And that is probably why the interest has increased. I wish people had taken cognizance of what is happening in Assam, which has been happening for a long time. If you go to Economic and Political Weekly you will find articles on Assam, otherwise hardly there was any writing, however, several scholars such as Anupama Roy, who are authorities in the field, have written a lot on the subject. But it has remained a relatively minor field in academics, and before the NRC or CAA debates, a citizenship issue was not considered fancy enough to discuss. 

It is regrettable that people did not give adequate attention to the citizenship crisis in Assam, possibly many lives could have been saved if they had. As you know, detention centers in Assam started in 2009, around 10 years ago, where people were being detained indefinitely. Finally, in 2018, Mr. Harsh Mander filed a petition before the Supreme Court, which reduced the period of detention to three years and it brought an end to indefinite detention. Thirty people have died in the last three years. If enough interest had been given to these issues by professors, academics, and students, possibly it would have made a huge difference to this number. But, I’m happy people are finally paying attention.

DM: To go back a little to your mention of your trip to the US earlier this year – particularly your witness testimony during the Hearings at the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. You spoke about how marginalised groups are adversely affected by the citizenship determination process, especially because many of them do not have documents. Can you tell us a little more about why marginalised groups struggle to provide documentary evidence of their citizenship?

AW: The nature of proving citizenship is such that it is entirely dependent on documentation. Because there is a prolonged problem of citizenship in Assam, the Bengali Muslim community, especially, has always been very careful about documentation. 

Firstly, the primary document is the Voter List, but since most people accused of being ‘illegal migrants’ are illiterate, there are often anomalies in the names in the Voter List. There are inconsistencies in titles especially for Muslims, the father could have the title Ali, while the son’s title is Ahmad, but this is not a concern for Muslims. But for Hindus, the title remains constant, except for women whose title changes upon marriage. So the Voter List has anomalies with age and name. 

Secondly, there is a huge problem of erosion in Assam. Every year, around 800 hectares of mainland is eroded by the Brahmaputra and Barak rivers. People become homeless and shift from one place to another, and they have to record their name to the village they move to. So, there is a different Voter List for their original home, and a different one in the village they have shifted to. For example, if the person’s name is Amjad Ali, the Tribunal may say that the Amjad Ali names on both Voter Lists are different and some other Amjad Ali has been picked up, especially if there is a difference in name and age which happens often owing to typographical or clerical errors. This causes a lot of problems for people who migrate, as the Tribunal is given more reason to doubt the veracity of the evidence. 

It is not only erosion, but because these are poor people, they do migrate for their livelihood, although this group constitutes a lesser number of people and those affected by river erosion are much more.

Thirdly, women are another vulnerable group in this context. Women get married early in Assam since the minimum age is 18 years now (earlier it was 21 years). They vote only after marriage because of being married at around the age of 18 itself, and they do so in their matrimonial home and not in their parental home. This is true for almost every woman who is accused of being an ‘illegal migrant’ in my experience, I have hardly come across any woman whose name is recorded with her parents on the Voter List. Thus, a woman’s name is usually recorded with the husband in the Voter List. This is how women lose the most important document to prove their citizenship, as the voter list is a public document which is not required to be proved by the issuing authority. So, a brother who comes to depose as a defense witness, can prove his citizenship as defense witness because of being able to prove a relationship with their father, but the sister is not able to do so, whose citizenship  is being questioned as she does not have documents to prove it. This is the most important problem here in documentation for proving citizenship. Apart from Voter List, a woman can rely on Gaon Panchayat certificates, school certificates, nikah namahs – which are all private documents. There are also jamabandi certificates which can be relied upon but those are rare since these are poor people, who do not generally part with their land, and especially not to give to their daughters or sisters. This is a big problem in every society, that women do not receive land. If they do, land documents are reliable documents , but need to be proved by the issuing authority. The bottom line is that if their names are not on the Voter List with parents, it is difficult to prove citizenship before the Tribunals. If a seasoned lawyer is approached with a woman’s case, they will immediately say it’s a bad case, or refuse to take the case. This is bad, and of course they should not do this, but they also think that this will be a difficult case so they refuse because of the absence of documentary evidence. They could rely on the deposition of relatives, under Section 50 of the Evidence Act, but in practice , this does not happen because oral evidence is hardly relied upon by the Tribunal. Even if the father himself comes to testify, the Tribunal says that oral evidence is not enough to prove citizenship. Now, with NRC, children’s documentation is also weak as a result, and I fear that they may become yet another vulnerable group in citizenship cases.

DM: So when those accused of being ‘illegal migrants’ are ‘declared foreigners’, they are taken to detention centres, which you mentioned earlier. You recently approached the Supreme Court (‘SC’) in a plea to release persons ‘declared foreigners’, under the Foreigners’ Act, 1946, from the detention centres in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. What are your thoughts on the role of the SC in releasing people stuck in detention centres throughout the COVID-19 lockdown? Was the Supreme Court’s decision and the administrative response as you and your team expected when you filed before the Court?

AW: The SC in regard to detention and citizenship matters, is not as sympathetic as it should be. We filed our petition because the Court had already taken up a suo moto case with regard to decongesting the prisons in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. We felt that since detention centres are located in prisons, detainees should be released on the same basis as prisoners being released to decongest prisons. So we filed this petition praying that all detainees should be released unconditionally, without the earlier conditions imposed by the Court, i.e, completion of three years in detention, and requirement to submit two sureties of INR 1 Lakh each upon release, and appearance before police station every week. Since these are very harsh conditions, we argued that being a ‘declared foreigner’ should not attract such penal consequences. Persons are purportedly detained for the purpose of deportation only, but since March 13, 2013, which is when the formal deportation procedure began, only four ‘declared foreigners’ have been deported as per the Assamese Government’s affidavit before the Supreme Court. So if they cannot be deported, why detain them? Thus we prayed that these conditions be done away with, and that everyone be released in wake of the Coronavirus Pandemic.

The Hon’ble Supreme Court was pleased to reduce the detention period from three to two years, and reduce the financial bond to be furnished to INR 5000. This is a welcome Order, and 350 people have already been released. People like Minara Begum, who was detained in 2010, could not be released earlier because of the onerous requirements of the financial bond to be furnished by sureties in the 2019 Order which reduced the detention period to three years. When the requirements were reduced this year, a lot of people came forward with INR 5000 and detainees could be released. When Minara Begum was detained in 2010, her daughter was only 15 days old, she grew up in the detention centre with her. Their release and numerous others’ release was secured because of the Hon’ble Supreme Court’s order in our petition. But, I very humbly disagree with the Order in the sense that I think it is unreasonable to even detain people for two years if there is no scope for deportation which is the stated purpose of detention. Persons released after three or two years, with the surety, still have to appear before the police station. Everyone can be asked to meet this condition of appearing before the police station. Surety can be taken to meet this requirement, and instead, the surety requiring these huge financial bonds can be dispensed with, and I am certain many will come forward to give surety as well. As I said, in the last three years, 30 people have died in the detention centres which anyway have pathetic conditions. Detainees are forced to live there without having committed any crime, which takes a huge toll and they are under huge mental trauma. I agree that it is a favourable decision and I bow down to the decision of the Hon’ble Supreme Court, but I had hoped the entire system of detention would be dispensed with. I would have been happy if each and everyone had been released. 

DM: In a recent interview, you spoke about the pressure on bureaucratic and judicial officials to manufacture foreigners where none exist. This raises a larger question of how the determination of citizenship should ideally take place. What are some of the best practices/legal principles that we should incorporate into our system, and are there jurisdictions which we can look to for guidance?

AW: Firstly, I wonder if there is even a citizenship determination process in other countries which is comparable to the way it is determined in India. I’ve researched a lot, but there is no process that can match the way it is done here. 

Secondly, the basic problem is that while all tribunals in India are set up under a legislation, Foreigners Tribunals are set up under an Executive Order. The foundation itself is wrong. In the 1964 Order too, there is a requirement for members to have judicial experience which has slowly been relaxed, and altogether dispensed with. Initially, lawyers with 10 years of experience were appointed, then in 2019 lawyers with 7 years of experience were appointed. I’ve come across several recent appointees who only enrolled as lawyers 7 year ago and many of them have not even been practicing lawyers. Many appointed to the Tribunal do not have adequate experience to deal with the most important right in the Constitution – citizenship rights. 

Citizenship is the most important constitutional right, and as it is often called, and it indeed is, the ‘right to have rights’. If you take away citizenship, you don’t have any rights. Although the Constitution of India states that Article 14 and 21 are applicable to everyone, in practicality this is not true. For eg — ‘declared foreigners’,  do not have any rights despite this constitutional guarantee. They are stripped of all possible rights to live a normal life. If you look at the composition of the Tribunals, it is easy to understand the problem, many members do not even know how to write an opinion, they are not familiar with fair trial procedures, principles of natural justice or the basic principles of the Evidence Act. Although the Hon’ble Gauhati High Court selects them, they are the appointees of the Home Department of the Government of Assam. In 2017, there were remarks in the performance appraisal reviews of these members, which said their performance was unsatisfactory only because they could not declare more people as foreigners. If members declare more people as Indian, then their performance is considered unsatisfactory. All Tribunal members are on a contractual basis of two years, and those selected in 2019 are on a contract of 1 year. Thus, maintaining a job through renewal by the Government requires that the rate of declared foreigners be high, because the Government is engaged in vendetta politics and they are hell bent to prove more people as foreigners. The report by Arunabh Saikia on Scroll where Tribunal members refer to citizenship as ‘wickets’ and how many ‘wickets’ each has taken — that’s how casually they look at it, and that’s how many members decide cases as well. 

Recently, in the Dhubri district of Assam, they replaced all the Muslim government pleaders with non-Muslim government pleaders. There should at least be some pretense of following due process, or of being fair, but the Government is brazen. There should be some representation, especially in Dhubri district where Muslims are the single-largest majority but they have all been replaced. It is clear that the government wants this process to work in a way that does not meet the standard of a fair trial. I can say this with full responsibility and conviction, that this process does not meet the fair trial standard. The investigative process makes a mockery of the guarantees in the Constitution because a fair investigation is part of the right to a fair trial. When I speak of the investigative process, I become speechless because there is no investigation to speak of, and anyone can be picked up randomly and be accused of being an ‘illegal migrant’. For example, my client Mohammad Sanaullah, who is an ex-army veteran who served the country for 30 years, who was in Manipur in a counter-insurgency operation, Hifazat, when the forged ‘confessional statement’ of  him of being an ‘illegal migrant’ was signed. Hifazat means security, and when he was securing his country, he was accused of being an illegal migrant by the Assam Border Police. I shudder at the thought. This is why I really wish that the academics, scholars, and law schools, who have taken so much interest in the citizenship issue now, had done so earlier. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, and because people did not speak up when injustice was happening in Assam, it is haunting us all over the country. Every person who believes in the rule of law, and the theory of justice, must speak out against the gross injustice happening in Assam. This is not what the founders of India envisaged, and our Constitution says that all are equal before the law, and that the rule of law is supreme. These kangaroo courts should not exist because they do not follow due process. As a responsible citizen, I feel very sorry that no one did enough to raise their voices. 

DM: It is of note though that while the rest of the country, and the world, did not pay attention to the issue in Assam keenly, you and other lawyers have continued this fight at the FTs there. As a young lawyer, what has been your experience working in the FTs? Within the community of lawyers, how has your experience with the Bar Association, and others litigating before the FTs panned out? Did you have a mentor to guide you in this process?

AW: With regard to upholding the Indian Constitution, and inspiring me to become a human rights lawyer, I had two mentors. Firstly, Mr. Prashant Bhushan with whom I interned in the SC in my fifth year, in January 2010. In 2014, I met Mr. Harsh Mander as well. Both of them mentored me in that sense. But my inspiration to litigate in the field of citizenship specifically is owed to the fact that I’ve been accused of being a Bangladeshi myself, by my batchmate in secondary school. While studying law, I initially wanted to appear for UPSC, but I realized I would lose my voice. I wanted to speak out about what was happening. I realized I needed to tell the stories of how people of Indian soil are accused of being illegal migrants in their own motherland. They are abused and massacred in the name of being illegal migrants. Although we elect MPs and MLAs, they don’t speak about these issues. Our leaders and representatives should speak, because they have social and physical security, unlike me. I’m faced with threats to my life and my career but I continue to speak because I cannot compromise on what I believe. That’s why I gave up my dream of writing the UPSC exam, because I want to speak the truth and tell my stories. The day I stop speaking the truth, I will not be able to live with dignity. And it’s not just about my dignity, but the right of the persecuted and marginalized and voiceless people  to live with dignity, that is what keeps me going. It is a right that predates the Constitution. It is an inherent right, the Constitution and the Hon’ble Supreme Court through various judgements only confirmed the right to live with dignity. Any person born in any country, whether Stateless or legal or illegal, possesses rights to live with dignity (The word ‘illegal migrant’ itself is wrong, but it is the language of the Citizenship Act, which is why I’m using this term.)

Several lawyers have fought these cases, but it was just a case for most of them, and not a cause. In 2014, I started fighting these cases and I realized that most of the people who approached me were rickshaw pullers or thela walas who could not pay my fees. I realized that I belong to a privileged background, so I was not after money but the core of it was that I empathize with them. Empathy, not sympathy, because I saw myself in their position, because I know I could be one of them. When I was in secondary school, a friend called me ‘Bangladeshi’ so if instead of him, it had been the Border Police, they would have referred my case to Tribunal and I would be standing in the FT defending my citizenship. I saw myself in their place and I started doing this pro bono. In 2016, someone from my nani’s (maternal grandmother) place who knew that I practiced in the Supreme Court approached me. Moinal Molla had been detained for two and a half years by then, because of an ex parte order declaring him to be a foreigner. Both of his parents were declared Indians by the same FT. His writ petition and review petition were dismissed by the High Court and they had no money to go to the Supreme Court. 

We had a small group of friends then, and I told them that this was a good opportunity to help someone and simultaneously get the word out about detention centres in Assam, and the arbitrary process of FTs by which one can be declared foreigner ex parte. In 2014, the issue was an elephant in the room in Assam which no one wanted to talk about, and outside Assam, no one knew. It was, and still is, a taboo to appear for the defense in these cases at the FTs or HC, they think they will get branded in a certain way, sadly. One of my friends told me that she will give her zakat money, and another friend also came forward. Eventually, we landed up in the SC, and we briefed Mr. Raju Ramachandran about the case. The case got remanded to the FT in Barpeta, Assam, where I appeared 11 times and fought his case fully pro bono. He was declared an Indian and released after 2 years, 11 months and 29 days of detention. This story got out when notice was issued for the SLP by the SC, and eventually when he was released, it made big news! There have been subsequent cases of Mihir Biswas, Kismat Ali, Ashraf Ali, Mohd. Azmal Haque, and Sanaullah, which I fought and tried to publicise to bring the focus the issue deserves. At least people are talking about it, even jurists like Faizan Mustafa are writing about the FTs being kangaroo courts, and rightly so. Constitutional experts and jurists are speaking about this now, and I wish it had happened sooner. The blame also does lie on the civil society in Assam, which could not tell the world what is happening, and we had to start it. 

DM: There is often this narrative around the NRC, that there is political consensus on the need for this exercise, but its implementation has alienated people. Is it true that this consensus exists and if yes, could it have been done in a way that could have been fair and independent? 

AW: There was no such consensus about NRC from all groups of people – why should everyone’s citizenship be scrutinized? But then the SC ordered that the 1951 NRC should be updated in Assam, and since it was the Hon’ble Supreme Court’s order, we took it very positively. We thought that if at all there should be scrutiny, a Court-monitored process would be better than merely an Executive process. We wanted closure – how long will one group of people accuse another group of being illegal migrants? We thought that this issue must end; every election is fought only on this issue. In 2016, BJP fought and won the election only on this migrant issue. Hence, the Bengali Hindus and the Muslims took part in the process very actively. Plenty of lawyers, civil rights activists, and organisations travelled all across Assam to create legal awareness about how to fill up the form. I was also one of the privileged people who got to travel all over Assam, particularly the minority dominated areas, and I told the people I met, in each and every meeting, that this is a Court-monitored process so they should have faith in the Supreme Court of India. I assured them it would be a free and fair NRC, but the process turned out to be very harsh. There were several rounds of scrutiny, but people thought that “This is the last time going through this process, after this, do not accuse and abuse us as foreigners, let there be closure!” 

The Supreme Court quoted Shri Prakash Jaiswal’s statement before the Parliament about ‘5 millions illegal migrants’. Although, Shri Prakash Jaiswal himself withdrew that comment, this withdrawal was not recorded and the SC recorded only his first statement. After the process, only 1.9 million people were excluded. We found that many relatives, including my own cousins, were excluded from the NRC, which is how these numbers reached 1.9 million. But, in an Economic Times report, NRC authorities say that apparently names included in the NRC were deleted later on. In June, the NRC authorities issued another order for rectifying the Order which excluded people. What can be more outrageous than this? After excluding people from citizenship in an Order, they turned around to say that there are anomalies in that Order! Citizenship is not a petty thing. After the NRC list was out, when 1.9 million were excluded, the supporters of NRC began speaking against it. 

Today, we say – notify the NRC, and confirm it. There were 3.29 million people who applied for it, and 1.9 million have been excluded, so the others should receive the national identity card. That is the requirement under the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003. More than one year later, nothing has happened. Within a week, excluded people were supposed to receive rejection orders so that they could appear before the FT. The Guwahati HC selected 200 people to be appointed to the FTs in 2019 as I mentioned earlier, who are taking salaries of around INR 85,000 without doing any work, through taxpayers’ money. There is no issuance of notice because the very people who advocated the NRC found that their propaganda did not match the reality because allegedly there is ‘less exclusion’ so they do not accept this NRC. Now, the Home Minister says there will be another NRC in Assam, and the BJP government in Assam also says that they will scrap the NRC to hold another round of NRC, recently they stated they want re-verification. INR 1600 Crores were spent only by the Government in this exercise, which involved 55,000 Government employees, and these costs do not even include the costs incurred by the common people travelling across the State. People went through a lot of harassment during the process, and some even committed suicide for fear of losing their citizenship. How can you ask people again to produce documents in the name of re-verification? This would be a betrayal of the faith which people reposed in the Supreme Court when the Court ordered that the government update the NRC.

Devashri Mishra is a fifth-year B.A. LL.B. (Hons.) student at West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata. She is a member of the Parichay Blog Team.