The daunting appearance of 10-feet high walls, barbed wires and overlooking watchtowers in two corners of the compound gives the detention centre built in Sondekoppa in Nelamangala, around 40 km from Bengaluru, the appearance of a jail.
But authorities tasked with managing the centre are quick to claim that despite its appearance, it is not a jail. “It is a movement restriction centre. Any foreigner without travel documents, including passport or visa, will be sent here and their movement will be restricted,” an official from the Bureau of Immigration says.
The detention centre, work on which started during the JD(S)-Congress regime is yet to be opened, and will be used to detain illegal immigrants found staying in Bengaluru. State Home Minister Basavaraj Bommai confirmed that the department is collecting information on illegal immigrants and that the National Register of Citizens (NRC), first implemented in Assam, is being studied with a view of implementing it in Karnataka.
“We (government) have started the preliminary exercise to prepare the ground to introduce NRC in Karnataka by collecting necessary information (about illegal immigrants). After this, we’ll discuss it with Union Home Minister Amit Shah and take a final call in a week or two,” Basavaraj Bommai said on Thursday.
Bommai’s statement on Thursday hints at an exercise in Bengaluru to identify illegal immigrants. It is unclear if all identified illegal immigrants will be detained in the facility in Nelamangala, but according to the Bureau of Immigration at least few of them will be detained there on a case-by-case basis.
The building in Nelamangala was originally built as a hostel in 1992 for SC/ST and Other Backward Classes (OBC) students but after the strength of the students housed in the hostel continuously decreased, it was eventually shut down in 2008. The building was re-purposed to be used as a detention centre last year.
The hostel building was retained, while two watchtowers on either corner and a security room at the entrance were constructed. Barbed wires run atop the compound walls on all four sides.
In the main building, there are six rooms where illegal immigrants will be housed, along with a common kitchen and a common bathroom. Inside one of the rooms, stacks of kitchen supplies like utensils, utilities like beds and buckets, are kept. “They were kept recently and we were told that this facility is opening soon though this time it is not a hostel,” says the caretaker of a Karnataka Electricity Board (KEB) substation that is adjoining the centre.
The guidelines for the use of the centre are yet to be determined. It is not known whether detainees will be allowed to freely use their phone, if they will be allowed visits by family members or if medical or mental health help will be available. The first hurdle for authorities is to determine who can be detained in this facility. The building will be used for the next five years by the Home Department and the Foreigner Regional Registration Offices (FRRO) under the Bureau of Immigration, which are in the process of compiling a preliminary list of illegal immigrants.
Sources told TNM that the list includes around 800 people from as many as 20 countries who do not have proper travel documents.
The NRC has been a contentious issue for long; those left out of the list could possibly be rendered stateless, unless the country from which the ‘foreigners’ are originally said to be from accepts them to be citizens. As per the NRC, those who are required to prove their citizenship have to show that their ancestors are Indians, and also have to prove their relationship to their ancestors as well.
In Assam, all residents were asked to produce documents proving that they or their families lived in India before March 24, 1971, and in the final list published more than 19 lakh residents were excluded. These residents will now face Foreigner Tribunals (FT) and be housed in detention centres. Home Minister Amit Shah declared that this exercise will be implemented in other parts of the country as well. Previously, BJP leaders PC Mohan and Arvind Limbavali had discussed measures to drive out illegal immigrants, specifically Bengali Muslims, in their constituencies in Bengaluru.
Three categories of people are declared foreigners by the Bureau of Immigration. This includes those registered with the office and whose visa or passport have expired, those who are not registered with the office and have overstayed in Bengaluru after arriving on a different visa like a tourist visa, and those foreigners involved in criminal cases and facing deportation after court proceedings are completed.
“If a foreigner is in judicial custody, then they will not be detained at the detention centre. This centre will be used to detain foreigners facing deportation after court proceedings have been completed. There is usually a period of time in which documents like passport, etc. are arranged and in this period, they will be detained at the centre,” adds an official from the Bureau of Immigration.
Sources in the Bureau of Immigration stated that the highest number of illegal immigrants in Bengaluru are from African countries, who are found overstaying in the city. Members of the city’s African community say that implementing a rule like this is welcome but also add that it should not be used to crack down on African nationals in the city.
“There are genuine cases in which people from our community are found without documents and are involved in criminal activities but it is not just Africans who are involved in criminal activities. Africans are being targeted over other nationalities, like those from European countries. A rule like this will affect us. It should be implemented in a balanced manner,” says a student from an African country studying in Bengaluru, who did not wish to be identified.
Political leaders from both BJP and Congress have also claimed repeatedly that there are a large number of Bengalis, mostly Muslims, from neighbouring Bangladesh working in Bengaluru. Many Bengali Muslims are working in various daily-wage sectors in Bengaluru, particularly in the city’s waste recycling network. They mostly reside in shanty settlements in the city’s outskirts and they now fear that their status of residing in the city they consider home is now down to the finer details of paperwork.
“I know this is nothing but a ploy to plot people against people and hatred for Muslims. I know what has happened in Assam, where many people have been left out even though they are very much Indians. They want to create fear among people,” says a migrant worker from West Bengal’s Murshidabad district, who now works for an online services aggregator company after working as a construction labourer in the city.
“We all know what happened in Assam and if it is implemented here it is a cause for fear for all. There will be unnecessary panic for us although there is no such development here,” says another migrant worker from West Bengal’s Nadia district who now works as a bus driver in the city.
In spite of the fears over the implementation of an NRC-like exercise in Bengaluru, the state government is set to hold further meetings and discuss the information collected by the Home Department and the FRRO about illegal immigrants staying in the city.
The detention centre, 40 km from the city, is ready to be opened and it appears there is little resistance, political or otherwise, to the state and central government’s plans of identifying and detaining illegal immigrants living in the city.
“We will first start with Bengaluru and we are wary of genuine and practical problems of foreigners in the city so we will be keeping this in mind while implementing the rules against illegal immigrants,” says the official from the Bureau of Immigration.