It all started with a rally by Narendra Modi on December 22. Kicking off the BJP’s campaign for the Delhi election, Modi took a series of jibes at the “Congress and their allies, along with a few Urban Naxals”, accusing them of spreading rumours about “all Muslims being sent to detention centres”. Neither had any Indian Muslim been sent to a detention centre, nor did such a centre exist, he told a crowd of his supporters in Ramlila Maidan.
Since then, the Congress and the BJP have been slinging claims and counterclaims at each other. While Rahul Gandhi tweeted a video of an underconstruction detention centre in Assam, BJP’s spokespersons flashed old documents linking the Congress to the state’s detention centres. Former Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi of the Congress took the debate back to 1998 to show its genesis lay in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government.
Currently, there are six detention centres in Assam, functioning out of district jails in Goalpara, Kokrajhar, Tezpur, Jorhat, Dibrugarh, and Silchar. Goalpara is getting a new detention camp as well. In another corner of the country, a detention centre is nearing completion in Karnataka.
For setting up these centres, notorious being arbitrary and uninhabitable, can either the Congress or the BJP disown responsibility? Several experts on the subject do not think so.
Aman Wadud, a lawyer at the Gauhati High Court, noted that the first notification to establish detention centres was issued to all states and union territories in 1998 by the Vajpayee government. “The Congress-led government upheld this view and issued a fresh notification in 2009. Following this, three detention centres were created within existing district jails in Assam,” he added.
Wadud pointed out that contrary to its rhetoric now, the Congress has defended detention centres in the past. When the BJP government in Assam early this year proposed to release “foreigners” who had completed a certain period of time in detention centres, Assam Congress chief Ripun Bora lashed out at them. “The Assam Congress termed the move unconstitutional and even demanded dismissal of the Sonowal government,” Wadud said, citing a newspaper report. “How could they be such hypocrites to now shy away from any accountability?”
In their defence, Congress leaders such as Tarun Gogoi have repeatedly cited “high court’s orders” as their reason for establishing detention centres in Assam.
Pradyut Bordoloi, Lok Sabha MP and former Congress minister in Assam, echoed the view. “Justice Biplab Kumar Sarma of Gauhati High Court instructed us to do so in his order in a case in 2008. We had to abide by the court’s order,” he claimed.
Sarma, who has since retired, himself isn’t convinced by this argument, however. Noting that the case referred to by Bordoloi was Sarabari Begum vs the State of Assam, Sarma said, “My judgement was against the backdrop of a large number of illegal foreigners simply vanishing from public gaze after being detected. So, I instructed the state government to come up with a mechanism whereby all such persons could be kept under certain restrictions like other criminals, so that they wouldn’t be able to roam around freely. The concept of detention centres, as it panned out later, was not on my mind then.”
While six detention camps in Assam came up when the Congress was in power, new centres are being built in different parts of the country under the BJP’s watch. “The centre near Goalpara in Assam, under construction and the country’s largest, was approved by the union home ministry and allotted nearly Rs 47 crore in July last year,” Wadud pointed out. “Moreover, there is a manual that was issued in January this year empowering all state governments and union territories to build detention centres even without permission from the home ministry.”
A page from the manual released by the Narendra Modi government in January.
Bordoloi had the same complaint. “There was a legal compulsion in our time for setting up these centers,” he said. “But the Modi government has directed the construction of detention centers in different parts of the country on its own initiative.”
The Communist Party of India (Marxist) similarly questioned the prime minister’s claim and called it a lie. In a statement released on December 23, it pointed out that the central government had told the Karnataka High Court on November 28, “We have written to all state governments in 2014 and sent a follow-up letter in 2018 to have detention centres to house foreign nationals illegally staying in India.”
While the BJP and the Congress continue slinging mud, the detention centers they both helped establish are taking a heavy human toll. On November 27, Minister of State for Home Nityanand Rai told the Rajya Sabha that as many as 988 “foreigners” were being held in Assam’s six detention centres, and that 28 detainees had died so far. Reports in the past have highlighted that many of those lodged in such centres were rounded up on flimsy grounds.
Wadud, who has worked on the cases of a number of detainees in Assam, questioned the rationale and functioning of the detention camps. “There have been very random orders where one person got declared an illegal foreigner but the rest of his family remained Indian citizens,” he alleged. “At the end of the day, what you’re doing is sending your own citizens in detention.”