“If they continue to stay like this, they will die,” a 52-year-old man said, referring to the plight of the people currently held in the six detention centres in Assam. He had been held in one of the detention centres in 2019 but is currently out on bail, and spoke to me on the condition of anonymity. With the COVID-19 pandemic holding the world hostage, and 29 confirmed cases and one death reported in Assam as of 12 April, concerns have emerged about a potential outbreak in the state’s detention centres. On 13 April, the Supreme Court will hear an application seeking the release of individuals who have been declared foreigners, which notes that a “detention camp is an ideal breeding ground for the virus.”
The application has been filed by the Justice and Liberty Initiative, an Assam-based non-profit providing legal support to individuals facing proceedings before the state’s Foreigners Tribunals. In Assam, amid an exercise to update the state’s National Register of Citizens, a list of its Indian residents, hundreds of individuals had to submit themselves to a quasi-judicial determination of their Indian citizenship by the tribunals. The individuals whom the tribunals declare as foreigners are detained at the detention centres. According to a response given by the home ministry in the Rajya Sabha, there were 802 individuals held in Assam’s detention centres as of 6 March 2020.
According to the former detainee, who was held at the Goalpara detention centre before he was released on bail, the centre could hold around forty people in one room. “It is like a jail,” the former detainee told me. “Only two feet is allotted to each person.” The former detainee recounted that the living conditions were very poor with stale food, unhygienic quarters and poor sanitation practices. “All forty people in a room share one urinal and it created a bad odour through the night,” the former detainee said. “Doctors come to check on us but they are inexperienced and can only treat headache or stomach ache.”
The JLI’s application was filed in a suo-moto petition taken up by the Supreme Court about the potential for a COVID-19 outbreak among the inmates across India’s prisons. On 16 March, the apex court passed an order noting that “the bitter truth is that our prisons are overcrowded” and that there was a “high risk of transmission of COVID-19 virus to the prison inmates.” On the next date of hearing, a week later, the court directed all states and union territories to form a “High Powered Committee … to determine which class of prisoners can be released on parole or interim bail” to avoid spreading the infection. “Looking into the possible threat of transmission and fatal consequences, it is necessary that the prisons must ensure maximum possible distancing among the prisoners including undertrials,” the court observed.
Following the directive, in end March, the Assam government released 722 undertrial prisoners. The six detention centres in Assam are cordoned-off portions of the state’s district jails that hold the declared foreigners. On 18 March, the home ministry submitted in Rajya Sabha that 26 people had died in Assam’s detention centres since 2017, and less than three weeks later, a 60-year-old woman died in the Kokrajhar centre. In its application, the JLI submitted, “The Applicant organization prays that similar benefit of release be also extended to persons “declared to be foreigners” facing perpetual detention in the State of Assam. Being ‘human beings’ they have a minimum basic right to live and to not die of COVID-19 in the precincts of a prison merely by virtue of being confined in close human contact i.e. a negation of social distancing.”