At last, the recent appeal made to the Supreme Court by the distinguished organisation Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), urging a more humane and legal approach to the complex issue of illegal foreigners in Assam, comes as a sorely missed voice of reason.
If anything, such a rudimentary message to ensure even the minimal requirements of justice for some of the worst persecuted prisoners of the world has been long overdue.
Whether the CHRI’s call helps to reduce long simmering social tensions and mass passions on the sensitive matter of identifying and eventually deporting illegal Bangladeshis from Assam, remains to be seen.
The organisation has done well to remind the highest Court as well as concerned authorities that they must ensure due legality and the observance well defined HR norms for the people currently held in detention, many of them well beyond their prescribed terms!
For the record, in six detention centres in Assam, altogether 938 people including men, women and children have been held (herded, more accurately) for some years now. These special ‘centres’ are located within the existing jails of Assam. These are all people identified as illegal Bangladeshis who must be deported after their detection, arrest and serving their prescribed jail terms, according to existing laws.
The fate of another 823 people, also declared foreigners following recent raids, hangs in the balance. The number of people pushed back to Bangladesh so far is 27,000 -- a far cry from hyped-up estimates claiming the presence of ‘millions of illegals’ in the NE?
The law says that anyone entering India without valid identity/citizenship papers after March 24,1971 is a foreigner who much be deported. There have been feeble protests over immigrants being herded in common jails along with various types of criminals. There has been no response from the authorities, nor any directives issued by special courts, the Assam police or other concerned authorities.
A team of fact finders led by prominent HR activist Mr. Harsh Mander, who has filed a PIL on the subject seeking details regarding living conditions in Assam jails, recently reported that for years, the arrested ‘non-citizens’ enjoyed no human rights apart from the provision of food and shelter!
To a man, they were too poor and ill-educated to press for their minimum rights, to respond as a pressure group or afford any kind of legal help! The majority are Bengali-speaking Muslims.
According to reports, for years they have not been allowed to do even the regular physical exercises allowed to other prisoners, nor permitted to undertake any kind of work or earn a single penny by exercising their labour -- facilities enjoyed by hardened criminals with whom they may or may not share normal space, being subjected to strict segregation at times.
Married men are not allowed to live with their wives or families. There are no facilities for educating their children either. Only in cases of serious ailments, a doctor may visit his patients, prescribing mostly simple medication.
As expected, diet and living conditions are in a word, wretched. For reasons of safety, prisoners must be back in their dank and dark cells by 6pm or so, in time for their last ’meal for the day! Jail authorities do not provide newspapers or TV sets for this category of detenus, pleading as an excuse the absence of ‘specific rules.’
No wonder, inmates of the so-called ‘Special Detention centres’ urged upon the fact-finding team to persuade the jail authorities and officials to carry out ‘immediate mass executions’ to deliver them from the ordeal of living in these conditions. Many had not been released although they had served out their prescribed jail time.
In many ways their condition has been worse than the persecuted Rohingyas of the Rakhine province of Myanmar. They at least have had help from international HR groups, local NGOs, West Asian relief agencies, the media and other quarters.
Nothing of the sort has been available to the apparently stateless prisoners languishing in these so-called centres in Assam, as their unrelieved agony drags on and on for years. No civil rights campaigner in the Northeast seems to have heard of them. Certainly, no major political party in Assam or the Northeast has uttered a single word about these forgotten, most wretched victims of the troubled political cauldron of India’s Northeast.
Fortunately for the prisoners, the CHRI is guided by a senior, much respected journalist of Assam, who has taken a keen interest to see minimal justice done. Observers find the handling of this category of illegal Bangladeshis shocking.
As a Kolkata-based HR organisation spokesman put it, ‘There are well defined procedures in all countries under the UN charter to deal with illegal immigrants, stragglers, refugees, asylum seekers, economic migrants and so on. There are special laws to deal with them, ways to secure international help and intervention. It is amazing that successive elected governments in Assam, headed by educated, enlightened leaders over the years, have not found time to pressure the Central Government into talking to Bangladesh or contacting concerned International agencies that deal with such issues.’
Only now has the Assam government announced steps to set up a new special facility (or a new high security jail)? ’Detention centre’ for such people, at a cost of Rs 47 crore which will be ready for occupation by end August this year.
The CHRI in its appeal expressed its disappointment with the apparently hard line taken by the Supreme Court’s incumbent Chief Justice, in his dealings with Assam Government officials. The latter had suggested a way to end the present impasse regarding the citizenship for such people by making them secure a security bond of Rs 5 lakh. But the CJI seemed to press for their eventual deportation instead, according to some observers.
Thereby lies another tale. Bangladesh authorities have made it clear that since their country came into existence in 1971, they will not assume any responsibility for people who might have entered into India illegally earlier, as ‘East Pakistanis’. As for the other cases referred to it, Dhaka will accept and take back only such people whom Assam/Indian authorities can satisfactorily prove to be of Bangladeshi origin.
In other words, the burden of proving that someone is/was an illegal Bangladeshi who made his/her way into India remained, as before, very much with Indian authorities! Given this background, there seems to be little likelihood of Dhaka being overly influenced by the dictates of the Delhi-based apex Indian court, no matter how urgent.
In such a context, the CHRI’s appeal to the SC not to overrule Article 21, which enshrines the right to life or to due process, for any ‘person in India’ (not necessarily a citizen!), makes much good sense.
Also, it would be just as well for all concerned authorities not to hurry unduly with the examination of appeals for inclusion in the National Register of Citizens submitted by 38 out of 40 lakhs of people whose names were left out of the final list in Assam , says the CHRI. Due diligence was a must in such matters. Far too much was at stake here, involving long term security implications for the troubled NE region and bilateral relations.