The Nelamangala detention centre is functional but there are no inmates
Following directions of the Karnataka High Court, the Karnataka government hastily readied the Foreigner Detention Centre (FDC) in the outskirts of Bengaluru a month back.
The centre is meant for housing those who have illegally entered the country and for those foreigners whose visas and passports have expired.
This facility however remains unused till date, despite more than 50 under-trial prisoners of foreign origin languishing in the Parappana Agrahara Central Prison, Bengaluru, for the last three years.
The government has also identified nearly 750 overstaying visitors, who are also required to be housed in the FDC.
This is in addition to those illegal immigrants who have been released on bail, and convicted prisoners who have completed their jail term.
While the BJP government in Karnataka, which was earlier keen on setting up of the detention centre, is now mum on the purpose of the structure, activists and legal practitioners decry that there is a gross violation of human rights. They argue that under-trial illegal immigrants should not be imprisoned with local inmates.
There is also a radio silence on part of the authorities concerned on shifting of the detainees to the FDC. When pressed, they resorted to a blame game, refusing to own up responsibility over the matter.
While the Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO), Bengaluru (which functions under the Bureau of Immigrations) claims that it has nothing to do with the shifting of the detainees, the state's senior most officer said that he was ignorant of the issue.
Both pointed fingers at the Bengaluru City Police saying that it was responsible for transferring the detainees to the FDC.
When contacted, Chief Secretary TM Vijaya Bhaskar said that he was “not aware” of the matter. “You will have to ask the Police Commissioner. I don't know anything about this,” he said.
Labhu Ram, senior officer, Foreigners Regional Registration Office, Bengaluru too asked The Lede to speak to the City police in this regard. “The shifting of the detainees is handled by the City police. You have to check with them. I am not aware if there are any detainees,” he added.
Bengaluru City Police Commissioner Bhaskar Rao was thrown off guard by the stand taken by the Foreigners Regional Registration Office.
“There has to be a movement restriction order to shift the detainees. I don't have the magisterial powers to issue such an order. It is the FRRO which has to issue the order. I can only arrest a person if he/she has committed a criminal offense and then produce them before the FRRO. I have no powers to detain anybody. The Foreigners Regional Registration Office will verify the individual’s nationality and initiate the process of deportation,” he said.
The Commissioner also said that his primary duty was to keep the city safe. “The detainees are under the discretion of the judiciary. My responsibility is only to keep the city safe. The charter of duties clearly specifies that,” he added.
The City police which deported 59 illegal Bangladeshi immigrants on 22 November 2019, has written to the government seeking an urgent look into the entire deportation process. Citing that the numbers of illegal immigrants was on the rise, the police has requested the government to address the following issues on priority by bringing suitable policy guidelines.
Incidentally Rao had recently stated that there are more than three lakh illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in Karnataka and that their numbers were on the rise.
When asked if the police was taking measures to identify and arrest such a large population, Rao refrained from commenting.
In November 2019, the state government had informed the Court that it had identified 35 spaces as temporary FDCs in all districts for lodging illegal immigrants. The submission was made before Justice KN Phaneendra during the hearing of the bail petitions filed by illegal Bangladeshi immigrants Babul Khan, Taniya and others.
The Court, which has been monitoring actions initiated by the government to identify illegal immigrants and setting up of FDCs, has reserved its judgment. Concerned about the welfare of the undocumented immigrants, it had said that their human rights should not be violated. The Court is expected to pronounce a detailed judgement by the end of February this year.
Once the judgement is pronounced, the 15 illegal immigrants who have filed the petition, if granted bail, will have to be shifted to the FDC.
The FDC building in Sondekoppa, Nelamangala, around 40 km from Bengaluru, was earlier a hostel for Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST) and Other Backward Classes (OBC) students. Though it was repurposed to be used as a detention centre during the Janata Dal (Secular)-Congress regime, no work had taken place. However talks about setting up the centre picked up pace after the BJP came back to power in the state in July 2019.
The Yediyurappa government had shown eagerness to not only construct the centre, but also be the second in the country, after Assam, to implement the National Register of Citizens (NRC).
A day after Home Minister Amit Shah stated in October 2019 that NRC will be implemented across India, Karnataka Home Minister Basavaraj Bommai had said that his government wanted to set up the detention centre at the earliest as there was a huge influx of illegal immigrants, especially from Bangladesh.
The Minister had gone on to say that many of these Bangladeshi immigrants were indulging in crimes, which was making big cities like Bengaluru unsafe.
The government however made a complete U turn after Prime Minister Narendra Modi denied the existence of detention centres in the country, during his speech in New Delhi on 22 December 2019.
Bommai said that the structure in Nelamangala was not a detention centre, but a facility to lodge African nationals and other immigrants accused of crimes.
Sources in the government are now also saying that shifting of the under-trails and foreigners whose visas have expired and are out on bail to the FDC, is linked to the High Court’s judgement.
Sirajuddin Ahmed, one of the petitioning lawyers however said that the two aspects were unrelated. “The judgement has been reserved only for those who have filed the petition before the High Court seeking bail – not for the others who are under judicial custody. Not for all detainees. The detainees can be moved to the detention centre, as there is no stay or a direction by the Court that they should be kept in jail until this order is pronounced. It is a violation of Universal Declaration of Human Rights and United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child treaty. India is a party to them,” he said.
Though the government has gone on record and cited that there are a large number of illegal immigrants, the FDC can house a minimum of 15 and a maximum of 30 inmates at best.
“The Nelamangala centre is primitive in nature. If all illegal immigrants are ordered to be sent to the detention centre, this facility will not be sufficient. Even after identification of illegal immigrants, why hasn’t the police taken any steps? When the law says that every second they are in the country, they are committing an offense. This goes to show that the local bodies and the police are actually sheltering them. They are liable to be prosecuted,” added Ahmed.
Seconding Ahmed, senior advocate BT Venkatesh said that the BJP government which had tried to politicise the issue, had put the authorities in a fix, especially after the public sentiment went against the introduction of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and NRC.
“Shifting of the detainees and the Court judgement are two separate issues. They have nothing to do with each other. This is nothing but a lame excuse by the government. The political dispensation makes statements and arrests are made. Now the government is silent, which has left the authorities concerned hanging,” he said.
Venkatesh also said that there was an urgent need for a policy to rectify the many procedural loopholes. “There is no space in the state prisons. They are overcrowded. The concept of detention centres came about as the government does not want to initiate proceedings under the Foreigners’ Act because it becomes a cumbersome process. It wants to keep them in detention centres and deport them, which is fair enough. But adequate infrastructure should be provided. Unless the government takes a policy decision on handling these illegal immigrants, this issue will not be resolved. This is nothing but a gross violation of human rights,” he said.
Further, he said, “The push back system adopted to deport illegal immigrants is skewed and inhuman. The government wants to demonstrate that it will not put up with the illegal immigrant issue. But there is no compensation in the form of infrastructure. There is also no information on whether the government has effectively communicated with the Bangladesh government to take back these immigrants. There is a law in place, but there is no clear policy in place.”
Venkatesh also said that the government is not hastening the deportation process as it involved huge costs, given the sheer number of undocumented immigrants.
Lawyer Mohammed Pasha, who was the first to move the bail petition before the High Court, however feels that the government was prudent in adopting the wait and watch policy.
“This is the right move on the part of the government. It has not taken any steps to shift the detainees as it will face trouble with the court. Once the order is pronounced by the Court, the government will take steps to shift them,” he said.
Pasha however raised concerns on the adequacy of the FDC in Nelamangala. “The government has filed an affidavit before the Court stating that there are separate sleeping areas and toilet facilities for the women in the detention centre. But does not seem to be the case. The government has misled the Court. The detention centre does not have the carrying capacity to house so many detainees,” he added.
Chandra Naik, Secretary, Central Relief Committee, Social Welfare Department (SWD) and coordinator of the detention centre said that there were no plans to modify the FDC at the moment.
“We have no plans of building separate toilets or dormitories yet. Usually these things are discussed during a joint meeting with the police and other departments concerned. But no meetings have been held in the last two months,” he said.
He also said that he had not received any intimation regarding the shifting of the detainees. “So far we haven’t heard anything from the police department or the Foreigners Regional Registration Office. The facility has been ready for a month now. SWD’s job is to provide food and shelter to the detainees. It is the responsibility of the police and the FRRO to shift the immigrants. We will not know anything else until they inform us,” he said.
As officials pass the buck around at will, the plight of the detainees in the already overcrowded jails is miserable. Bengaluru’s civic body, Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) had, on January 18, razed shanties allegedly housing illegal Bangladeshi migrants.
As it later turned out, “no one” authorised the demolition and the “Bangladeshi” migrants were in fact migrants from Assam, Bihar and Odisha. The overzealous drive by the BBMP left the state government red faced.
But these actions have only heightened the fear of migrants from other states as well as Bangladeshi migrants in Bengaluru who are afraid of being targeted by the police and civic authorities.
Governments need to have a plan to handle such issues. This plan must be communicated to authorities, police as well as the public at large. Government has the responsibility to communicate the truth and not indulge in emotional hasty statements that are later taken back once the heat is on.
It is up to chief minister BS Yediyurappa and his cabinet now to work out where the buck finally stops and to tell the public why this tiny detention centre in Nelamangala has been built when it is neither enough to house the large number of illegal migrants, nor is it even being used at present.
The buck, in fact, will finally stop at the chief minister’s door.