The Supreme Court on Wednesday pulled up the Assam government for the inadequate functioning of foreigners tribunals and said it was not taking deportation of illegal migrants seriously.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, who appeared for the Assam government, told a bench of Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justices Deepak Gupta and Sanjiv Khanna that tribunals had declared over 50,000 migrants as foreigners in the last 10 years, PTI reported. Around 900 people have been detained in six detention centres across the state, he added.

The court directed Assam to file an affidavit by March 27 detailing whether the Foreigners Tribunal was functioning adequately.

The court said the fact that only around 900 people were detained though thousands were identified as foreigners was a joke, according to The Times of India. Gogoi asked: “Are the Foreigners Tribunal and the law enforcing machinery under them functioning properly?”

“This has gone too far. This has become a joke,” the court said, The Hindustan Times reported. “How seriously Assam is considering this matter is quite evident from the absence of any officer to brief you in the matter. An officer sitting here [resident commissioner] files affidavit on detention centres in Assam.”

“You must have gone through the order passed by this court in 2005 where this court has said Assam is facing the threat of external aggression,” the court added. “We would like to know what Government of India and Assam has done about it to meet this threat of external aggression.” The court added that it did not think the problem was being tackled.

The Assam government’s submission in court on Wednesday came on a January 28 order by the Supreme Court, directing the Centre and the state to submit details about detention centres in Assam. The court was hearing a petition filed by activist Harsh Mander against the detention centres. Mander had visited three Assam districts last January in his capacity as a Special Monitor for minorities and communal violence for the National Human Rights Commission. He had then submitted a report pointing out several flaws in the process to identify and incarcerate so-called foreigners in Assam. But as the committee failed to act on the report, he quit from the position.

Detention centres

Six overcrowded jails in Assam double up as detention centres, holding over 1,000 people in all. Last year, the state got sanction from the Centre to build the first standalone detention camp, capable of housing 3,000 people.

Quasi-judicial bodies Foreigners’ Tribunals determine if individuals being tried are foreigners and should be deported. Those deemed to be foreigners are transferred to detention centres. Several flaws have been identified in this process, from the brief window of time given by the border police to produce proof of citizenship to the lack of legal aid to ex-parte orders declaring individuals foreigners without even a trial.