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Human Rights Violations in Assam’s Detention Centres

Sumi Goswami was sent to the Matia detention centre on account of a technical error on the part of the Foreigners Tribunal. Her three-day experience at the centre exposes the inhumane treatment of detainees, irrespective of their immigration status.

Flood-prone area where people have been excluded from the NRC list and stand at the risk of detention.

‘Detainees Sharing Cells With Criminals’: Human Rights Violations in Assam’s Detention Centres

By Deepanshu Mohan, Samragnee Chakraborty, Yashovardhan Chaturvedi, Hima Trisha M., Nitya Arora, Rieshav Chakraborty and Aman Chain

20 December, 2023

The completion of construction and the commencement of operations at India’s largest detention centre, the Matia transit camp in Goalpara district earlier this year, sparked a public outcry among the people of Assam.

At the risk of detention are individuals suspected to be illegal migrants from Bangladesh, categorised as foreigners, doubtful voters and people excluded from the NRC (National Register of Citizens) list.

Due to the contentious issue of the citizenship crisis in Assam, detention centres have been operational in the state since 2010. Assam’s detention centres have consistently raised humanitarian concerns.

The right to liberty, a non-negotiable aspect of human rights, is impeded by detention and arbitrary arrest.

Furthermore, the sub-human and morally questionable treatment of the detainees within these clandestine facilities, strips them of their basic human rights.

The Centre for New Economics Studies’ Azaad Awaaz team conducted primary field interviews to unpack how these detention centres in Assam work.

This article explores how these detention centres act as ‘sites of exception’ and push individuals towards rightlessness, leaving those labelled stateless with scant rights to shield from the questionable treatment. The name of the interviewee has been changed to maintain confidentiality.

Caught in a legal void

From her own experience of statelessness, Hannah Arendt observed that the requirement for inclusion in a political community or nation-state is the predicament to guarantee even basic human rights. The denationalised, therefore, experience rightlessness as a result of statelessness.

As the fissures of globalisation resulted in states drawing boundaries, pushing huge populations towards the periphery of statelessness, the detention centres have evolved as spaces where this form of rightlessness is worst experienced, with no guarantee about the quality of the life lived.

A classroom of Forest Learning Centre (FLC) at Laimuti village, Chirang District, Assam.

According to the Refugee Convention of 1951, the member states cannot detain, expel, or return immigrants, even if they have entered without permission. Given that India is not a member state, it is not bound by the rules placed by the Convention, and hence, it has been seen taking stringent actions against the illegal migrants, through detection, detention, and deportation.

The deplorable conditions faced by detainees came to the limelight, particularly after Harsh Mander, the special monitor of the National Human Rights Commission, exposed the dire situation within the camps. The questionable treatment inflicted upon detainees is perhaps best exemplified by the case of Sumi Goswami.

Sumi Goswami was sent to the Matia detention centre on account of a technical error on the part of the Foreigners Tribunal. Despite possessing all the necessary documents, she was forced to live in the detention camp for three days, after which she was released on bail.

While recounting her time at the detention centre, she said, “Nobody would understand what I have gone through. Only I can. If you have not been to a detention camp, you will not understand what it is to live there. Never did I think I would have to experience this.”

Talking about the living conditions there, she said, “There were about 14 to 15 people within one cell, with one attached bathroom. The first day I went there, I was surprised to notice that the doors of the bathrooms are partially built, such that your face can be seen from outside. On asking an official, I realised that it was [built in that way] to restrict the inmates from committing suicides. The foul smell from the bathroom, because of the partially built doors, made it unbearable to live there, let alone eat.”

Goswami further added, “I could not sleep for two nights straight. I remained seated the whole time. Never in my life had I used the type of bed and mattress they provided me with.”

Weavers at the ant weaving centre at Rowmari, Chirang District, Assam

Despite the fact that the UNHRC guidelines state prisons should not be used for detention, the centres of Assam are sub-parts of normal jails, and hence, the declared “foreigners” are often placed within the same cells with the convicted prisoners. Sumi Goswami said, “I asked one of the inmates what she was doing there and she said she murdered her brother for land. I asked another woman the same question and she said she was arrested for smuggling drugs. How can you sleep peacefully in a room with criminals around you? Someone might come and kill you, you never know. Why are the D-voters kept with these criminals? What crime did they commit?”

Sumi sighed as she said: “When one of the inmates told me that she was living there for ten years, I was shocked. I would not be alive if I had to live there forever.”

While all detainees are compelled to live in substandard conditions, women experience even worse conditions, including complaints of sexual abuse and forced abortions, among other forms of violence. The differential experiences of women in detention will be dealt with in the next article.

A comprehensive legal framework must be established, ensuring the fair and humane treatment of detainees, irrespective of their immigration status. Resolving legal ambiguities, providing an adequate legal defence, and addressing the specific vulnerabilities of detainees are essential steps to bring detention practices in Assam in line with international human rights standards. The urgency of this task is underscored by the profound impact on the lives and well-being of those affected by the current state of detention centres in Assam.

All photographs have been taken by CNES researchers during field work in Assam.

Deepanshu Mohan is a Professor of Economics and Director, Centre for New Economics Studies (CNES), Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, O.P Jindal Global University. Samragnee Chakraborty and Hima Trisha M. are Senior Research Analysts (CNES). Yashovardhan Chaturvedi, Nitya Arora, Rieshav Chakraborty and Aman Chain are Research Assistants with CNES. The authors would like to thank Dr. Salah Punathil, Assistant Professor at the University of Hyderabad for his guidance and support.

This story by Azaad Awaaz of the Centre for New Economics Studies explores the detention centres in Assam as spaces violating human rights and disproportionately affecting migrants. These are penned down from the documented findings of a recent Azaad Awaaz edition. Click here to access the work of Azaad Awaaz, an initiative of the Centre for New Economics Studies, O.P. Jindal Global University, working on issues of social exclusion, marginalization, and discrimination experienced by vulnerable, precarious communities across India. 

© The Wire 2023

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