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The making of “illegal” citizens and detention camps in India

by Prateeti The following piece is a part of Progressive City's Planning for Decarceral Spaces for Collective Action series, which addresses how planners and activists can actively engage in designing, creating policies, and/or advocating for the creation of decarceral spaces which promote safety, reduce harm, and are accessible.

A 2019 protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (Bill) in Guwahati. Photo by Dr. Vikramjit Kakati.

As an ethno-nationalist project, Hindutva aims to create Hindu Rashtra—a Hindu nation— through the exclusion of other ethnicities in India. India’s right wing political mainstream demonstrates its support of this ideological project in a number of ways: through its support of the Sangh Parivar, a paramilitary umbrella of Hindutva groups,  by building a Ram Temple in Ayodhya on the site of a destroyed mosque, and through the abrogation of Article 370, which gave the Muslim-majority region of Jammu and Kashmir rights to a constitution. This movement, which shares many parallels with fascism, has helped to normalize violence against Muslims in India. 

Mahuya Bandopadhay writes about how the rise of carceral culture in the Global South, and in particular India, is driven by the crackdown on Muslim citizens. A key example is India’s 2019 Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which fast-tracks immigration for persecuted Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Parsis and Sikhs from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, but specifically excludes Muslims. The implementation of a National Populations Register (NPR), which collects individuals’ migration information, has also been criticized as targeting Muslims and forcing “doubtful citizens” to prove they are Indian. In the state of Assam, the implementation of a National Register of Citizens (NRC), which requires residents prove their arrival prior to the independence of Bangladesh, has left nearly 1.9 million stateless. The use of sedition laws and unjust arrests, such as those by Delhi police during peaceful protests and movie screenings, has been referred to by Bandopadhay as “carceral spillovers.” This concept allows for an understanding of carceral spaces as more than just formal prisons. Indeed, university spaces, arbitrary detention camps, and bulldozer culture (such as the extrajudicial demolition of Muslims’ homes) can also facilitate carceral dehumanization.  

Similarly, India’s lack of formal policy relating to refugees has carceral implications that are amplified by the current administration’s anti-Muslim sentiment. Because the 1946 Foreigners Act considers all non-citizens—including refugees—to be illegal migrants, certain refugee groups receive a more carceral treatment in line with dominant religious biases. For example, tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslim refugees live in slum-like camps in New Delhi and have been referred to as “termites” by the president of the ruling  Bharatiya Janata Party, who has sought their detention and deportation. Those deemed non-citizens according to the Foreigners Act—either refugees or those excluded from population registries—are subject to “Foreigners Tribunals,” which often involve poorly conducted investigations and have made 64,000 stateless in absentia. Those deemed to be illegal foreigners by these tribunals are sent to overcrowded and unsanitary detention centres.  Indeed, such centres operate as heterotopic spaces, to use Foucault’s term, in that they fix ‘deviant’ populations in spaces that are detached from the open and quotidian life of dominant groups, as ‘othered’ sites relative to the ‘norm’ or mainstream. The conditions in these detention centres is especially concerning as the recently amended Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, which seeks to limit the social and political influence of foreign-funded groups in India, has significantly curtailed the ability of human rights organizations such as Amnesty International to operate in the country. 

While there have been studies on open prison spaces in India, there remains much work to do on the carceral impacts of laws such as the recent Citizenship Act, citizen registries, and other draconian laws such as the Model Prisons Act 2023. Works by Sudha Bharadwaj and Uma Chakravarti on Repressive State Apparatuses may be helpful in combating the growing carceral state in India.

2019 saw the beginning of a large protest movement in Delhi’s largely working class, Muslim Shaheen Bagh neighborhood, in which hundreds of thousands of protestors—most of them Muslim women—participated in a months-long sit-in to oppose the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. Many actors, students, and people of various socio-economic and educational backgrounds demonstrated their solidarity with this movement through public art, the distribution of political literature, and the singing of revolutionary songs.  T Similar opposition to these policies were expressed by 25,000 protestors in Mumbai’s Kranti Maidan park, a massive human chain in Kerala, and sit-in protests in Kolkata’s Park Circus.  Although these protest movements demonstrate the growing popular resistance to India’s carceral policies, there has been a severe crackdown on activists, including arrests of opponents of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and NRC, further extending the cycle of carcerality.  However, it is important to note that carceral inhumanity is not simply contained by the realm of prisons or the formal criminal system. Decarceral work should also turn its attention to refugee camps and other practices of spatial control that occur in these “gray spaces.”

Prateeti has completed her Bachelor’s in Sociology from Jamia Millia Islamia in 2019 and her Master’s in Humanities and Social Sciences from IIT Gandhinagar in 2021. Currently, she works as a Project Executive with The Desai Foundation Trust in Gujarat, India along with pursuing her second Master’s in Public Governance. 




We feature stories on inclusive urban planning practices, grassroots organizing, and civic action. Our contributors and readers are activists, reporters, practitioners, academics, and community members.


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