First of its Kind Detention Camp in Assam for ‘Noncitizens’

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Shajid Khan

AMIDST the hullabaloo over fate of 19 lakh people excluded from the National Register of Citizens (NRC), the state of Assam is going to have its first and one of its kind standalone detention camp in Matia of the Goalpara district. The detention camp will house those declared “noncitizens” or “foreigners” by foreigners’ tribunals (FTs).

After being excluded from the NRC list, these ill-fated people will face an uphill task to prove their citizenship again to get entry into NRC. Most of them could end up in these detention camps set up for them. At present, Assam has six detention centres within the premises of jails. The one coming up at Goalpara is 30 km west of Goalpara town and 129 km west from state capital Guwahati.

Located at a nondescript village of Matia, the camp is spread across 10 acres land surrounded by rubber plantations. The area has a number of brick industries which provide livelihood to most of the locals. The facility built at an estimated cost of about Rs 46 crore started on the first legs of 2019 is likely to be completed by the end of this year and will be functional in first quarter of 2020.

“At least 300 workers are engaged in the project as it will be the first standalone detention camp with a capacity to accommodate at least 3,000 detainees,” said Sopial Hoque, 33, a worker engaged in building washroom. He says there will be, at least, 150 Indian-type toilets.

He informed that the camp will have all the civic amenities such as living quarters, meeting hall etc. Moinal Hoque, 24, and Aminur Ali, 20, who too work here, say they have been given December 2019 deadline for completion of the project by the builders.

Another worker Rijadul Islam, 27, engaged in building an Assam-type roofed school said there will be a couple of rooms in a 500 square feet area. “There will be a hospital with five rooms attached to the camp outside the 30 feet high brick coloured walls,” said Noor Kasim, 26.

Another female worker and a mother, Ruma Barman, 26, carrying bricks on her head hails from a neighboring village, says the village folks are happy that the government has chosen the area for the purpose as the village people have some sort of livelihood as markets will come up in the area.

Another woman worker, Najina Hazang, 33, said, “We are happy that we are employed here. While a woman worker gets Rs 250 as daily wage, men get Rs 300.

An 88-year-old professor, Uttam Chandra Sarma, retired from Goalpara College, defended the NRC as a much-needed welcome move. He said it being the first of its kind project in India it is bound to have challenges for the authorities and the technical glitches that surfaced.

He called the NRC as a ‘raksha kabach‘ (protective shield) for the indigenous people of Assam. On being asked if he is happy over the move of Union government to set up a detention camp in Goalpara, he said the detention camps must have been far away from human habitation.

The octogenarian recounted the ordeal of one of his student, an indigenous Assamese speaking Muslim who married a Bengali Muslim. She had to run from pillar to post to prove her citizenship in a local FI. He had given his testimony to prove her citizenship as he knew her since her childhood.

He conceded that there are some genuine citizens who faced undue harassment in the process, but asserted that there should not be general assumption that all Hindus or people with indigenous surnames are Indians as there are people with Barman as surname in Chittagong Hills Tract (CHT) of Bangladesh.

Eighty-year-old Shaheb Ali, a villager from Nalduba in Goalpara district, sporting a skull cap and a long beard, said, “We are not worried or scared of the detention camp being set up in the district. Genuine citizens have nothing to worry about.

A youth who runs a grocery shop in Durgapur locality of the Goalpara town, Mobidul Islam, 33, a father, pointed out that Goalpara though has people of diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds; majority of the population is Muslim. Everyone in my locality supports the NRC since it is being carried out under the supervision of the Supreme Court of India. He said no genuine citizen should unduly worry. But the government must provide proper facilities to detainees in the camp.

Devi Singh Sangma, a Christian from Goalpara town who has served in the Assam Police and is retired, found his wife Runu D. Sangma’s name missing in last draft of the NRC as his father-in-law, Manik Chandra Das, married a Garo woman Hanish D. Sangma and it was beyond the comprehension of the NRC authorities that in a matriarchal society of Meghalaya children adopt mother’s surname. But he is confident that his wife’s name will come up in the final list. Sangma says the Christian families which are no less than 80 of the town are not unduly worried over the NRC as they are born and brought up here and have ancestry rooted in Assam.

Niren Chandra Paul, 45, who runs a roadside hotel, says the Bengali Hindus and Bengali Muslims have faced lot of harassment in the entire NRC process and apprehends that even many genuine citizens can be excluded in the final list of NRC. Recalling the visit of Narendra Modi to Barak Valley in 2014, he said, “The Prime Minister had promised that the detention camps will be removed. But they are still there.” He lamented that people, including the elderly, were living in “inhuman conditions” in these camps.

Regretting lack of basic facilities at these detention camps, Assam Congress leader Pradyut Bordoloi, said, “Being poor and illiterate,” he said “most of them did not know that they had to physically appear before the foreigners’ tribunals when summoned. Since they did not turn up at the FTs, they were declared foreigners by ex parte judgments.”

Many human rights activists too have raised the demand for basic facilities of detainees in the detention camps.

The Centre had earlier told the Supreme Court that 938 people were detained in six detention centres in Assam and 823 of them have been declared foreigners by the tribunals. It also said the tribunals had declared 52,000 as foreigners, but the Centre has deported only 162.

In 2014, the Centre had asked all states to set up at least one ‘detention centre/holding centre/camps’ to detain “illegal immigrants” and foreign nationals awaiting deportation/or repatriation after completion of sentence due to non-confirmation of nationality”. The objective was to separate declared foreigners from criminals in jails.

Recently, the Supreme Court set the detention period of foreigners at three years. After completion of this period, those in detention would be eligible for bail after furnishing a surety bond of Rs 1 lakh each from two Indian citizens along with their proposed residential address and biometric details.

The Centre has also formulated a manual under which the detention centre will have a help desk for the detainees to contact mission, embassy or consulate officials or their families, a skills development centre and a crèche for children, but all within the premises with high-level security.

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Shajid Khan is an independent journalist and law student based in Assam.

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