A view of the Supreme Court in New Delhi.(HT File Photo)
A view of the Supreme Court in New Delhi.(HT File Photo)

Assam playing with us: Supreme Court on missing foreigners

The court was hearing a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by activist Harsh Mander that highlighted the plight of people lodged in detention centres. These migrants have not been sent back to their native countries despite being declared as illegal residents in Assam.
By HT Correspondent | Hindustan Times, New Delhi
UPDATED ON APR 02, 2019 12:00 AM IST

The Supreme Court on Monday pulled up the Assam government over inadequacies in measures to curb illegal immigrants following the state’s submission that about 70,000 people from Bangladesh have merged with the local population in the region.

The apex court said it refrained from “passing any coercive order” against the Assam chief secretary and asked him to appear at next hearing on April 8. The court’s rebuke came after the state government said thousands of illegal immigrants declared foreigners by its Foreigners Tribunals are untraceable.

“No amount of disappearance or non-cooperation will solve this problem. Assam government is playing around with this court. Your affidavits are an exercise in futility. You are just dragging the matter,” Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi told solicitor general Tushar Mehta after reading out the state and Centre’s affidavit that detailed steps to trace illegal immigrants. “You [Assam government] are saying that the declared foreigners have gone untraceable. How do you intend to identify them and deport them?” the bench, headed by CJI Gogoi and comprising justices Deepak Gupta and Sanjiv Khanna, told Mehta, who was representing the state government. Mehta said the state was doing its best to handle the situation, to which the CJI said: “If this is the best a government can do, then permit us to invoke our jurisdiction under the Constitution. Do not defend the indefensible.”

The court was hearing a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by activist Harsh Mander that highlighted the plight of people lodged in detention centres. These migrants have not been sent back to their native countries despite being declared as illegal residents in Assam.

The state government told the court that 91,609 people have been declared as illegal foreigners by tribunals and out of them, 72,486 have been absconding and around 900 people are in lodged in the centres.

“You have given the figure as to how many have been declared foreigners and how many are there in the [detention] centre. Where are the rest?” the bench said, adding that this question was the reason it wanted the chief secretary to appear. The bench told Mehta that it had asked the top officer to remain present and asked: “Who exempted him from personal appearance? We will issue contempt notice”.

The apex court had expressed concern over thousands of illegal migrants being kept in detention centres for years in Assam without being repatriated or deported to their countries of origin. On January 28, the apex court had asked the Centre and the state to provide details of the functional centres in Assam and foreigners detained in them during the last 10 years.

“The chief secretary needs to tell us what has the state done to improve the living conditions at these detention centres, how would they be sent back and what is being done to trace those who have merged?” the CJI said.

The court also referred to the Centre’s “push back policy” on migrants. “Without even knowing the country of origin, you were pushing them back to Bangladesh. Suddenly Assam has become so wise,” the CJI asked Mehta, who admitted that till 2013, migrants were pushed back. “Most of them are from Bangladesh,” Mehta said.

On March 13, the Supreme Court had asked the state government to file a detailed affidavit in the matter. It pulled up the Centre and the Assam government over the functioning of Foreigners Tribunals and the problem of “external aggression” faced by the state due to influx of illegal migrants.

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