Detention centres

Maharashtra move for a detention centre for illegal immigrants

Print edition : October 11, 2019

Tenements along Reay Road in Mumbai where migrant workers live. Photo: Emmanuel Yogini

Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

Maharashtra will have in Navi Mumbai a detention centre for illegal immigrants if reports on a State government plan are true.

IN early September, a local daily in Mumbai reported the Maharashtra government’s plan to create a detention centre for illegal immigrants in Navi Mumbai. The State Home Department has reportedly written to the City Industrial and Development Corporation (CIDCO) seeking a 1.2 hectare plot of land in Nerul to build a facility to temporarily house them. According to the report, the land identified has a structure from which a non-governmental organisation working with destitute women operates. If the report is right, Maharashtra will be one of among the first few States to build a detention centre for illegal immigrants. Migrants make up a large percentage of the workforce in Mumbai as the city has historically drawn migrants to it like a magnet. The process that will be adopted to identify illegal immigrants is not clear, but there are reports that some areas that have a predominant population of minority communities would be asked to gather the residents’ domicile documents for verification. 

There was total silence on the part of the Devendra Fadnavis-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government on the report. Although other dailies carried versions of the report, none of them could get an official clarification on the information. This correspondent made repeated attempts to contact government officials and police officers without success. 

The report that appeared in the local daily reads: “The Government of Maharashtra, Principal Secretary (special), Home, Amitabh Gupta, said the process to identify the land for a detention centre was started in July, when the Union government sent instructions to all State governments in this regard.” 

Apparently, the “2019 Model Detention Manual”, which was distributed to all State governments, says detention centres must be created in cities and States that are major immigration check posts. The manual stipulates that the centres must be equipped with all amenities to house illegal immigrants until they are deported. (The report quotes the officials as saying that there are a “large number of illegal immigrants, especially Bangladeshis,” in the city.)

Soon after the news of the proposal to create the detention centre came out, senior Inspector General of Police Brijesh Singh told reporters: “Seeking land for the detention centre has no link with the NRC [National Register of Citizens]. It is an old proposal moved by the Mumbai Police as they want it for the illegal passport cases under which the offender has to be detained until the individual’s status is decided.” 

An informed source said when foreigners were arrested for staying in the country illegally, they usually posted bail and vanished. He said this was usually the case with African nationals who were in the drug trade. Mumbai has been dealing with this nuisance for several years. “If we have a facility which is not a jail, we can detain them so they do not carry on their activities,” he said. This explanation would have sounded valid had the news of the creation of detention centres not come close on the heels of the NRC list exercise. Besides, the 2019 Model Detention Manual has been circulated, so civil rights activists believe that the Maharashtra government’s move in identifying the land had to do with the Centre’s latest plans and was not an old “proposal”.

We need to understand on what legal basis a detention centre is allowed. Has there been a legislative process for such a move, asks Teesta Setalvad, secretary of the Citizens for Justice and Peace, an organisation that works with minority communities. If they are using the Foreigners Act, 1946, to do this, Section 3 (ii) G of the Act says foreigners can be arrested, detained or confined. However, nowhere does it mention detention centres. “We have done research on the Assam detention centres and spoken to relatives of people who are housed in those centres. The conditions in those places are inhuman. It is shocking that the opposition is not protesting this plan,” Teesta Setalvad said. It is unclear if the manual makes it compulsory for States to create detention centres. 

According to a lawyer, the Union government controls the movement of foreigners. It needs to clarify how this comes under the States’ jurisdiction. 

Who are these immigrants that the Government of Maharashtra is targeting? The largest population of illegal immigrants, according to various reports, are Bangladeshis. According to the data of Census 2001, an estimated three million people of Bangladeshi origin are in India. For decades, lakhs of people have crossed India’s porous borders and reached Mumbai and other cities. Mumbai is a big attraction for those seeking employment in view of the availability of daily wage work in the unorganised sector which does not demand personal identification of workers. 

Some pockets in the city are reportedly Bangladeshi ghettos. The Reay Road slums, Bengalipura in Wadala and Rafiqnagar in Chembur are some such areas. However, a visit to Reay Road along with a local social worker proved fruitless. The residents categorically stated that they were from West Bengal and had official papers to prove it. Even if they are Bangladeshis, they must be third or fourth generation immigrants and have completely assimilated into the city. Those who had come recently would have secured Aadhar cards or PAN cards quite easily as such valid identities can be obtained easily in this city, the social worker said. 

As the “immigrants” have integrated themselves into Mumbai, it is difficult to get estimates on how many “illegal” immigrants live in the city. However, from time to time the police issue statements about the number of persons deported. For instance, a police source said in 2018, that the Crime Investigation Department returned 15 men to Bangladesh. Bangladeshis and Bengalis are in much demand in the embroidery and jewellery sectors. A large number of women from Bangladesh have been lured into the sex trade. A report by Prerna, a voluntary organisation working in the red light area of the city, says half the 215 children in their creche have Bengali-speaking mothers. They believe many of the women are of Bangladeshi origin. 

Recently, Arvind Sawant, Member of Parliament from Mumbai and Union Minister for Heavy Industries and Public Enterprise, told the media: “The NRC was much needed in Assam to solve the problems of the original inhabitants of the region. That is why we supported the NRC move by the government and we want a similar exercise to be held in Mumbai to drive out Bangladeshis living here once the process is over in Assam.” The Minister explained that the matter was one of national security as increasing illegal immigration would lead to an increase in crime.

This is not the first time that the BJP and its ally, the Shiv Sena, have targeted Bangladeshis. Calls for sending them “home” have come up from time to time for more than two decades. It is always Bengali Muslims who are at the receiving end of these threats. In 1998, a deportation drive by the BJP to send back illegal immigrants in Mumbai to Bangladesh ended violently when the train on which the detainees were travelling was attacked by a group of Left activists at Uluberia station in West Bengal. The BJP had to call off its mission. In 2008, the Centre brought up the issue and the State government once again made an attempt to drive out Bangladeshis. 

In 2012, a war memorial was damaged in Mumbai’s fort area and a group of supposedly Bangladeshi men were held responsible. There were a few incidents of communal violence in some parts of the city largely instigated by local Shiv Sainiks. Once again the city tried to deport families from the Bengali colonies. From time to time, the police make statements that the Bangladeshi communities harbour terrorists or assist in creating sleeper cells. But so far not a single person of Bangladesh origin has been indicted for terrorism.

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