The story so far: On December 24, the Union Cabinet approved an outlay of over ₹3,941.35 crore for updating the National Population Register (NPR) across the country, barring Assam. A mandatory exercise, the NPR is to be conducted between April-September 2020. The NPR, first collated in 2010, already has a database of 119 crore residents. The fresh exercise will collect data on additional parameters such as “place of birth of father and mother, last place of residence” along with details like Aadhaar (optional), voter ID, mobile phone and driving licence numbers. As in the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003, and subsequent response furnished by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) in Parliament from 2012 onwards, the NPR was the first step towards compiling the National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC) or National Register of Citizens (NRC). According to the Rules, a person’s citizenship status will be decided by local officials. No new law or rules are needed to conduct this exercise across the country. The Assam NRC, conducted under the supervision of Supreme Court, excluded at least 19 lakh out of 3.29 crore residents. There are apprehensions that people will have to dig out old documents to prove their residency in India on the lines of the exercise done in Assam. After the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 was passed on December 11, there are fears that those excluded from NPR-NRC will be sent to detention centres. The government has denied that the NPR and the NRC are linked.
What are detention centres?
The Centre has the power to deport foreign nationals staying illegally in the country under Section 3(2)(c) of The Foreigners Act, 1946. State governments have also been entrusted under Article 258(1) of the Constitution to take similar steps. In 1998, the MHA under the then Atal Bihari Vajpayee government wrote a letter to all States and Union Territories asking them to restrict the movement of convicted foreign nationals who had completed their jail sentence. The letter said that they be confined to one of the detention centres/camps, pending confirmation of their nationality from the country concerned and to ensure their physical availability at all times for expeditious repatriation/deportation as soon as the travel documents are ready. The centres are also used to hold foreigners who have been caught overstaying their visa term.
In 2009, the instructions were sent again to States, “conveying the detailed procedure to be adopted for deportation of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh”. States were asked by the MHA to set up sufficient number of detention centres where the “suspected illegal immigrants would be detained pending their deportation”. Similar letters were sent in 2012, 2014 and 2018. On January 9, 2019, a detailed manual on “model detention centres” was circulated to make a distinction between “jails and detention centres”.
The manual was prepared after a petition filed by activist Harsh Mander on September 20, 2018 in the Supreme Court of India to highlight the plight of families languishing in six detention centres in Assam where members of the families who were declared foreigners were put in camps separated from each other.
Which are the States that already have detention centres?
Delhi has one detention centre at Lampur on the outskirts. It is under the operational control of the Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO) and is maintained by the Delhi government. The ward holding Pakistanis is under the watch of the Special Branch of Delhi Police and other nationalities are under the FRRO. Both FRRO and the Delhi Police report to the MHA.
A detention centre was set up at Mapusa in Goa on February 7. Rajasthan has a detention centre located inside Central Jail in Alwar. As of now there is no separate detention centre in Punjab and foreigner detenues are kept in a segregated place at Central Jail in Amritsar. A separate detention centre is going to come up in a new jail being constructed in Goindwal Sahib in Tarn Taran district that is expected to be completed by May 2020. A detention centre on the outskirts of Karnataka’s capital Bengaluru is all set to get operational from January 1, 2020 onwards. Maharashtra identified land to build a detention centre at Nerul in Navi Mumbai. But Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray assured a delegation that it was not connected to NRC. There is a report that the plan has been scrapped.
What about West Bengal and Kerala?
West Bengal had identified two locations, at New Town in Kolkata and Bongaon in North 24 Parganas district to construct the detention centres. But on Friday Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said she will not allow any such centre in the State. Kerala, which was in the process of identifying a location to build a centre, has put it on hold.
What is happening in Assam?
The final NRC to segregate Indian citizens living in Assam from those who had illegally entered the State from Bangladesh after March 25, 1971 was published on August 31, 2019. Nearly 19 lakh people were excluded from the final list. Those who have been excluded may move Foreigners Tribunals (FTs) and can also appeal to courts if the FTs give a verdict against them. This process has not started. The Assam government wants the NRC to be repeated.
From 1985 till October this year, the FTs declared 1,29,009 people as “foreigners.” through ex parte (one sided) proceedings. A total of 4,68,905 matters were referred to the FTs during this period. Most declared foreigners ended up in the six detention camps. To handle the influx of applications following Assam’s NRC, the MHA sanctioned 1,000 additional tribunals. Presently, there are 100 FTs in Assam of which 64 were established in 2014. According to a MHA reply in Rajya Sabha on November 27, as on November 22, 2019, 988 foreigners were lodged in six detention centres in Assam. From the year 2016 up to October 13, 28 detenues died either in the detention centres or in hospitals where they were referred to, the reply said.
Former Chief Minister of Assam Tarun Gogoi said in a tweet that detention centres were first built in Assam under High Court’s orders in 2009 for detaining declared foreigners. “Subsequently, the BJP Government allotted funds of ₹46.41 crore in 2018 and supported the construction of a big centre in Goalpara ( picture ) for housing around 3,000 inmates,” the tweet said.
On May 30, the MHA amended the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order, 1964 which empowers district magistrates in all States and Union Territories to set up tribunals. Earlier such powers to constitute tribunals vested with the Central government only. The MHA later issued a clarification on June 11 that “since the FTs have been established only in Assam, and in no other State of the country, this amendment is going to be relevant only to Assam at present”.