On October 7, the Gauhati High Court declared foreigners detention centres had to be moved out of jail premises in Assam. The court was hearing a petition asking how detention centres, used to hold persons identified as “foreigners” and awaiting deportation/ repatriation or persons waiting for their citizenship claims to be settled, should be operated.

The high court cited a 2012 Supreme Court verdict in a case concerning 37 Pakistani prisoners who had completed their sentence but could not be repatriated as their nationality had not been confirmed.

The Supreme Court had said that even though the prisoners’ nationality had not been determined, they could not be deprived of basic human rights and dignity. It had ordered that the 37 prisoners be released from jail immediately and kept at appropriate places with restricted movement, pending their deportation.

The Gauhati High Court also cited the 2014 guidelines sent out by the Ministry of Home Affairs to the states and Union Territories in compliance with the 2012 verdict, asking them to set up detention centres outside jail premises. The centres should ensure that detainees had basic amenities, a hygienic environment and space to move around in a compound, the home ministry instructed. These buildings were to have round-the-clock security; male and female detainees were to be segregated.

The home ministry said that the maintenance of such detention centres should be entrusted to the Social Welfare Department. It added that if there were no suitable buildings, or if acquiring land and constructing such centres were to take time, the state government could hire buildings for detention centres. The home ministry had also compiled a model manual for detention centres.

No temporary measure

Assam failed to comply with the Supreme Court order and the Centre’s instructions, the Gauhati High Court pointed out, as a part of the existing jail premises in Goalpara, Kokrajhar, Jorhat, Silchar, Dibrugarh and Tezpur still served as detention centres

The Assam government had argued that a 2018 notification by the Centre allows a part of jail premises to be converted into detention centres as a temporary measure if no other buildings are available. The Gauhati High Court observed that 10 years have passed since jail premises in Goalpara, Kokrajhar and Silchar were declared detention centres, which cannot be said to be a temporary arrangement. “Even in respect of Jorhat, Dibrugarh and Tezpur a period of 5 years is almost over which also again cannot be strictly said to be a temporary arrangement,” the court observed.

The High Court ordered the state government to submit an “action taken” report on steps to set up detention centre outside jail premises. The report is listed for hearing on October 16.

Assam had published a National Register of Citizens in August 2019. The stated aim of the National Register of Citizens is to separate genuine Indian citizens from undocumented immigrants living in the state. According to its terms, anyone who cannot prove that they or their ancestors entered Assam before midnight on March 24, 1971, cannot be considered a citizen.

Over 19 lakh people were excluded from the final citizens’ list. Foreigners’ Tribunals, quasi judicial bodies tasked with deciding on matters of disputed nationality, were supposed hear appeals against their exclusion. Should their claims to citizenship be rejected, they face detention.

In March, the Centre revealed there were 3,331 people in six detention centres across Assam, although several hundred have been released since then. Many of the detainees claim to be Indian citizens who were locked up because they were held suspect by Assam’s foreigner detection mechanisms or could not furnish adequate documents to prove citizenship.