Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's claim in a speech on December 22 that no detention camps existed in India whipped up a bit of a political storm in New Delhi, triggering allegations and counter-allegations by the ruling dispensation and the opposition.
Oblivious to the political back and forth, workers are trying to finish the construction of India's biggest detention centre in Assam. Spread over 25 bighas, the detention centre, being constructed at a cost of Rs 46 crores, is located at Matia in Goalpara, 129 km from Guwahati, and will be able to house 3,000 inmates.
"We were to finish construction this month, but due to suspension of work during monsoon, we got delayed. My concern is to get the raw materials on time to finish construction soon," said Mukesh Basumatary, one of the senior workers at the site.
Modi's statement at a Delhi rally came in the context of the debate currently underway over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which seeks to fast-track grant of Indian citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis and Jains from the Muslim-majority countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Modi said, "the Congress, its friends, and some urban Naxals are spreading rumours that all Muslims will be sent to detention centres".
In Matia, Basumatary, who belongs to Assam's Karbi Anglong district, and his team are erecting housing quarters at the detention centre, which will have 15 four-storey structures, each able to house 200 inmates.
Work on the detention centre started in December. Besides the housing quarters, the facility, which is surrounded by 20-22 feet high boundary walls, will contain a staff quarter, hospital, school, an office complex, kitchen and dining and community space.
In another part of the compound, Mohammed Rafiq and his team are busy giving finishing touches to a toilet complex. There are six toilet blocks, each has 15 toilets and an equal number of bathrooms.
To cater to the construction workers and the steady stream of visitors to the facility, a couple of makeshift tea shops have sprung up nearby. Local residents are hopeful that the facility will generate employment for them.
"Since the centre has been constructed close to our village, we expect that the fourth-grade jobs would go to our youth," said Bipul Kalita, a local resident.
According to state government officials who didn't want to be quoted, construction of most of the housing quarters would be over by March; inmates of other detention centres in the state would be shifted here initially.
Plans are underway to construct 10 such detention centres in Assam, where an exercise to update the National Register of Citizens this year excluded over 1.9 million people — 6% of the state's population.
The Other Centres
Besides the one under construction, Assam has six other detention centres (at Goalpara, Kokrajhar, Jorhat, Dibrugarh, Tezpur and Silchar), set up inside district jails between 2009 and 2015 on the direction of the Gauhati high court to house those declared foreigners by the 100 foreigners tribunals (FTs) in the state—till they are deported or released.
"Detention centres were set up under order of the Gauhati HC. The Prime Minister is correct when he says that the central government hasn't constructed any detention centre," said senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader and Assam minister Himanta Biswa Sarma earlier this week.
Congress leader and former Assam CM Tarun Gogoi agrees that the detention centres inside jails were set up under HC orders during his tenure, but says Modi lied about the construction of new detention centres.
"In 2018, Narendra Modi government at Centre sanctioned 46 crores for constructing the largest detention centre at Matia in Goalpara district. Suddenly he says there is no detention centre," said Gogoi on Friday.
As per government records, from 1985 (when the Assam Accord was signed) till October 2019, nearly 129,000 people have been declared foreigners by FTs. Around 73,000 of them have gone missing and have not been deported or kept in detention.
According to Assam government records, until November 2019, a total of 988 people were lodged in the six detention centres. While 957 of them were declared foreigners, 31 were children lodged along with their mothers. Since 2016 until October 2019, 28 detainees have died.
Inmates of these centres are those who were marked D-voters (doubtful voters without proof of citizenship) in electoral rolls and those suspected to be foreigners by the state police. These people have to approach FTs to prove citizenship, failing which they are sent to detention centres.
Though 1.9 million people didn't find their names in the final NRC, they are not being kept in detention centres. They would have to approach FTs to prove citizenship and might be kept in detention centres if they fail. Assam is setting up 200 more FTs, in addition to the existing 100.
"At present, there are 366 inmates in Goalpara district jail. Of them, 184 are those who have been declared foreigners by FTs and are lodged in a different section. Since a Supreme Court order allowed conditional bail to 'declared foreigners' who have been lodged for over three years, we released 56 detainees," said AR Phukan, jail superintendent.
Life inside a detention centre
Life in a detention camp isn't easy. Mohammad Sanaullah, a retired Army veteran who spent 11 days inside one earlier this year before getting bail, agrees.
Sanaullah, who had served the Indian Army for 30 years before retiring in 2017, was declared a non-citizen by an FT on May 23 and sent to the detention camp five days later. The 52-year-old was released after he was granted interim bail by the Gauhati HC.
"Nearly 40-45 people are crammed inside one room. We had to sleep on the floor, the food was inedible and the toilets were dirty. Mornings started with one roti and stale tea without milk or sugar, for lunch there used to be stale rice, watery dal and one subzi and a similar routine was followed for dinner," he said.
"When family members come to visit, we had to talk to them from inside an iron grill while they stayed 5-6 feet away behind a fence. It was my fate that I had to spend time in detention despite being an Indian," he said.
In January, the Union home ministry issued a manual for detention centres stating that living standards inside should be in consonance with "human dignity". It stipulated that rooms should be airy, well-lit and hygienic and equipped with water, electricity and communication facilities.
It called for open spaces for detainees to move around, detention of family members in one facility, and special attention to the needs of women, nursing mothers and transgenders.
"We have tried to improve the facilities in our detention centre. Two months ago all the inmates were moved to a newly constructed building. The quality of food has improved and we haven't witnessed hunger strikes in recent months. The SC order to give conditional bail to those who have spent three years has also given hope to those lodged," said Goalpara district jail superintendent Phukan.
While life is tough for those lodged inside detention centres, their family members also have to go through difficult times. Kabita Kalita Mondal who travelled all the way from Guwahati to Goalpara on Friday along with her 10-year-old daughter to meet her husband Mrinal, who was lodged inside, says "We have no idea how my husband ended up here. My life has been shattered."
Hailing from West Bengal, Mondal, was running a grocery shop in Guwahati when his name figured as a D-voter. Following a trial, he was declared a foreigner and sent to Goalpara detention centre in August this year.