New Delhi: The Supreme Court Monday expressed unhappiness over several thousand declared foreign nationals absconding and amalgamating with local population in Assam, and summoned the state's chief secretary to appear before it on April 8.
Accusing Assam government of "playing with the court", the apex court also termed the reply filed by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) as an "exercise in futility" and sought to know as to how the persons, declared foreigners by the tribunal, have amalgamated with the local population.
"You (Assam government) are saying that the declared foreigners have gone untraceable. How do you intend to identify them and deport them," the bench, also comprising Justices Deepak Gupta and Sanjiv Khanna, asked Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, representing the state government.
The top court was hearing a PIL filed by activist Harsh Mander, through advocate Prashant Bhushan, on the plight of foreigners in detention centres. The plea alleged that they are kept in detention indefinitely just because they are not Indians and are treated as "illegal aliens".
At the outset, the bench referred to the figure provided by the government that about 91,609 people have been declared as illegal foreigners by tribunals and out of them, 72,486 were absconding and around 900 persons are in kept in detention centres presently.
"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. You say that they have amalgamated with the local population," the bench asked, adding that it was the reason for which 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 court, which hinted that it may issue warrants against the chief secretary, later took note of the undertaking by Mehta that the top officer would appear as and when asked and fixed the case for hearing on April 8.
"Tushar Mehta, Solicitor General, undertakes that the Chief Secretary of the state of Assam will be personally present in the court on the next date fixed and will remain present in the court until required. On this undertaking, we refrain from passing any coercive order and fix the matter for April 8," the bench said in its order.
The bench asked the government as to what measures have been taken to improve living conditions in detention centres.
On the issue of policy, adopted to deport illegal foreigners, the bench quipped, "Your government pushed back illegal foreigners without even knowing their country of origin. Now you have suddenly grown wise and are resorting to diplomatic channels.
"Tell us what is your planning to trace the people who have merged with the local population".
On being told that the government was planing to set up a committee, the bench said: "This is your contemplated future course of action. We are asking about the present steps. Where are they (illegal foreigners) and how will you crack them down... What have you done in last five years."
Disputing the figures on illegal foreigners, the bench said that only over 91,000 have been declared foreigners, and the NRC identified that there are 40 lakh illegal immigrants.
"Further, only 166 have been deported. How will the people have confidence in your government," it asked.
"There is total non-cooperation. The government of Assam is playing around with the court. Your affidavit is an exercise in futility," the bench said.
Mehta said the state government has been doing its "best" to deal with the situation.
"If this is the best any government can do then permit us to pass an order under the Constitution," the bench said.
MHA, in its recent affidavit filed through Director Pramod Kumar, has told the court that out of about 91,609 people declared as illegal foreigners by Foreigners Tribunals, 72,486 were absconding, which was "quite a large number".
The affidavit said that these declared foreigners are required to be kept in detention centres till their deportation; if not, then there was a very high probability of them becoming absconding or merging with Indians.
It said 1,215 foreigners, who have completed their jail term and 829 people declared as foreigners, are lodged in six detention centres in Assam.
MHA also said that it was necessary to keep the declared foreigners and those who have completed their sentences in detention to ensure their availability for deportation when their native country confirms their nationality and issues travel documents.
Earlier also, the 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.
On March 13, it 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.