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Now a Critic, Justice Madan B Lokur Sped up India's First Detention Centre in Assam

File photo of Justice Madan B Lokur.

File photo of Justice Madan B Lokur.

The judge, while heading the bench on a suo motu petition on prison reforms, had specifically dealt with the issue of detention centres, including the one in Assam but he did not then flag the concerns being pointed now.

New Delhi: Retired Supreme Court judge Madan B Lokur is one of the foremost voices from the judiciary to speak out against the new citizenship law and on the rights of illegal migrants.

It would, however, be interesting to note that it was no other than Justice Lokur himself who had last year expedited the process of setting up a mass detention centre in Assam’s Goalpara.

In the midst of all the hullabaloo around construction of the detention centre in Goalpara, it is pertinent to recall that Justice Lokur, in a series of orders in 2018, had asked the state government to speed up building this hub.

The judge, while heading the bench on a suo motu petition on prison reforms, had specifically dealt with the issue of detention centres, including the one in Assam. And he did not then flag the concerns being pointed now.

An order passed by Justice Lokur’s bench on September 12, 2018, stated: “We are not at all surprised that not a single State has set up detention centre/holding centre/camp. Unfortunately, this includes the State of Assam, which has a very large number of illegal immigrants/foreign nationals. Be that as it may, we expect the State of Assam, particularly to expedite the construction of detention centre since the amount of Rs 46.51 crores has been sanctioned by the Union of India.”

On this date, the Assam government had informed the top court about earmarking Goalpara for a detention centre. The judge recorded this statement and added in his order: “We expect the State of Assam to ensure that the construction is carried out at the earliest.”

“We have also requested learned Additional Solicitor General (Mr Tushar Mehta) to explore the possibility of converting the earlier jail premises in Guwahati into a detention centre,” Justice Lokur’s bench had further said in its order while asking the Assam government to ensure basic human rights to those detained.

Justice Lokur, till this point, seems to have no quarrels with the criteria of detention and no question was asked.

On September 20, 2018, this bench was made aware about 1,000 persons having been detained as illegal migrants in Goalpara jail. The bench asked for an affidavit on steps taken and the timeline to complete the detention centre.

On being apprised by the amicus curiae on inadequate medical facilities and living conditions in these centres, Justice Lokur had also directed the state to file its affidavit on these aspects, while asking the Centre to ready a detention manual within two months. However, neither the Centre nor the Assam government was questioned about the manner of detention.

On October 31, 2018, Justice Lokur noted in his order about construction of a standalone detention centre at Matia in Goalpara with a capacity of 3,000 inmates, and sought “the broad details of the tender as well as time for construction”. The bench also took on record submissions regarding reunion of detenue families and other amenities in the detention centres, including the one at Goalpara.

Justice Lokur’s bench, on November 2, 2018, again recorded in its order that the new detention centre in Goalpara is expected to be completed with Pre-Fab Technology by August 31, 2019. “We expect the State of Assam to adhere to the timeline, more particularly since the executing agency is the Assam Police Housing Corporation Ltd,” his bench had then directed.

Justice Lokur, who retired in December 2018, has now become a voice often cited on controversies surrounding the amended citizenship law and confinement of illegal migrants and suspected foreigners in the detention centres.

Presently a non-resident judge of the Supreme Court of Fiji, Justice Lokur is also a member of the human rights’ body, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI).

CHRI recently criticised the apex court’s remark on the detention of ‘foreigners’ in Assam while pointing out that lakhs detected as suspected foreigners are in limbo, for they may become stateless.

In a statement signed by Justice Lokur in May this year, CHRI had also lamented that accounts from Assam indicate “arbitrariness and not rule of law” is often used to define those who came post 1971 from Bangladesh — of whatever religious denomination — and those who are Indian nationals.

It is thus intriguing to note that when Justice Lokur was a serving judge before whom the issues of illegal migrants and detention centres had come up, he did not raise any of these concerns about criteria of those who were being detained as suspected foreigners or illegal migrants. He, as a matter of fact, sped up construction of detention centres, in particular the one at Goalpara.

The retired judge indeed tried to ensure basic rights for the detenues but none of his orders sought to inquire about how these people were being detained. No order by his bench castigated the Assam or the central governments over the issue of detention of illegal migrants.

The former judge of the apex court is on record with his statements and interviews on the Citizenship Amendment Act and illegal migrants. Perhaps, it should have been equally important for Justice Lokur to recount it was his bench that paved way for India's first detention centre in Assam.