"Someone Sitting In Delhi Is Filing Affidavits In Respect Of Detention Centres In Assam!":CJI [Courtroom Exchange]
The Supreme Court on Wednesday required the state of Assam to satisfy the court that its Foreigner Tribunals are functioning efficiently and that the adjudications are carried on in accordance with the well-established principles of law.
The bench headed by Chief Justice was hearing a PIL filed by activist Harsh Mander through advocate Prashant Bhushan on the plight of foreigners in detention centres. The plea alleges that they were kept in detention indefinitely just because they were not Indians and were treated as "illegal aliens".
The state government has been directed to reveal the number of persons declared as foreigners by the Tribunals ever since their reconstitution in 2005, the number of persons held in custody in detention centres and the number of persons sent back to their countries of origin. The state shall also inform the court of the number of tribunals operating within its territory, whether this number is adequate, and the anticipation as to necessity either immediate or in the near future.
At the outset, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, for the state of Assam, informed the court that a joint meeting of the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Ministry of External Affairs, the state of Assam and the Bureau of Immigration was recently convened at which two classes of immigrants have been agreed upon for the purpose of deportation-
"Those who have come with passports or other travel documents but have overstayed. There is no difficulty in deportation there because we know where they came from (on being asked by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, the number of these persons was pegged at 153)...the others are the illegal immigrants (of which around 822 are lodged in detention centres, he submitted on being probed by the Chief Justice)"
"What is the total number of immigrants?", inquired Chief Justice Gogoi. "In thousands", replied the SG.
"In the last ten years, how many have been referred to the Foreigners' Tribunals?", the Chief Justice wanted to know. Mr. Mehta quoted a figure of around 58,000.
"A person referred to the Tribunal cannot be detained till the adjudication. Our experience is that when a reference is made, they either submit to the jurisdiction of the Tribunal or abscond and merge with the general public. This is because if my name is referred to the Tribunal, there are certain curbs on my liberty, like I cannot leave a particular area...this is why the numbers of declared foreigners and of those detained in the centres are at a variance...", explained the SG.
"How many Tribunals are there?", questioned the Chief Justice. "100", responded Mr. Mehta.
"Are you sure?", asked the judge, with the SG replying in the affirmative. "Where do you get this figure of 100? Who is giving you instructions?", the Chief Justice shot at him. "The Advocate General", said Mr. Mehta. "And who gives them the details?" - "The Home Department"
"Then we shall have the Home Department here! This has gone too far! This has become a joke! We are not even told that this is the total number of foreigners who have been detected! You say they mingle with the public and are not traceable, so there must be an ex-parte order? Against 60000 cases, you have 800 people (in detention centres)?!...How long are these cases pending?...How are these people manning the Tribunals? How are they are doing this job? Who are the Presiding Officers- How many are advocates, how many are retired judicial officers?...How many tribunals are felt necessary by the state?", Chief Justice Gogoi reprimanded.
As the SG sought to assure the bench that serious steps will be taken, the Chief Justice showed no signs of relenting- "No! Get your Chief Secretary and your Home Secretary here tomorrow! We will talk to them!"
When Mr. Mehta insisted on first speaking with the state officials himself, the judge declined, "No! Far too many opportunities have been given!
If the state is facing threat of external aggression, we would like to know what the centre and the Assam government have done!"
"You are committed to bringing a five-star detention centre later? Do that! The existing centres are housing 900 people as against the so many who have been declared foreigners? Why are there not thousands? And If there were to be so many, (in view of the sub-human conditions that infest the centres even now), where will you be?...How your law and order machinery is functioning is what we are on right now? How seriously the government of Assam is working on this matter despite the failure of officers to answer questions of this court! Someone sitting in Delhi is filing affidavits in respect of the detention centres in Assam!"
Initially, the bench required the SG to seek instructions from the state government by 2 PM on Wednesday itself. When Mr. Mehta pleaded that 2 would be early, Chief Justice Gogoi rebuked,
"Give us early indications. You had a meeting with the Chief Secretary? He should have told you there! He is the highest functionary in the state!"
On the SG's repeated requests, the matter was ultimately posted for March 27, with the personal presence of the Chief and Home Secretaries not being insisted on for now.
Advocate Prashant Bhushan, appearing for petitioner activist Harsh Mander, had contended that with Bangladesh refusing to acknowledge these people, they cannot be deported-
"They have been given no legal aid. They are kept detained for 15-20 years, deprived of even the most basic rights! They cannot even speak with their family members! As per Your Lordships' own declaration, Article 21 applies to non-citizens also! They cannot be detained because there could not be an agreement with any foreign government. Then they must be declared as stateless persons. The Delhi High Court has said that if one is identified as being stateless, they can't be in detention! Then they must be given a long-term visa!"