Death is becoming cheaper: Some questions on India’s detention centres

Detention centre in Sondekoppa
The SC/ST/OBC hostel in Karnataka’s Sondekoppa village that has been converted into a detention centre for ‘illegal immigrants’ (Courtesy: The News Minute)

The Karnataka government last year converted a hostel meant for Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) students into a detention centre for ‘illegal immigrants’, while a similar move by the Uttar Pradesh government recently was reversed after opposition from Bahujan Samaj Party supremo Mayawati. 

As of April 2020, 30 people have died across Assam’s six detention centres since 2009. Despite prime minister Narendra Modi’s claims that there are no detention centres in the country and home minister Amit Shah’s declaration that there are no plans to prepare a National Register of Citizens, states other than Assam too have started setting up detention centres in their territories. 

The detention centre in Karnataka is located 40 kilometres away from Bengaluru in a village called Sondekoppa. A report in the Times of India quotes a villager saying, “No one from Sondekoppa had imagined that the building meant for a hostel would lodge illegal immigrants one day”. The report points out that this hostel, which was opened in 1992, had to be shut down in 2008 due to the dwindling number of students each year.

The transformation of a hostel meant for Dalit and Adivasi students into a detention centre exemplifies the casteist pathology of the current government, the sadism of its regime of securitisation and surveillance, the banality of its bureaucratic machinery, and the cunningness of the state’s promise of well-being towards its most marginalised students. 

Emmanuel Levinas, the French philosopher known for his contributions to the studies of ethics and ontology, wrote in 1934, “Hitlerism is more than a contagion or a madness; it is an awakening of elementary feelings”. Pointing out that “the philosophy of Hitler is simplistic,” Levinas nonetheless emphasised that it was a marker of “the secret nostalgia within the German soul.”

Levinas’ words are cautionary because they provoke us to think about our current predicament as demonstrating something more than a mere pathology, banality, cunningness, or even ‘madness’. Like Levinas’ claim about the philosophy of ‘Hitlerism’, the conversion of a hostel meant for SC/ST/OBCs into a detention centre might appear to us at first as something benign. It reveals exactly what it says—hostels meant for marginalised students, empty and desolate for more than a decade in Karnataka and for four years in Uttar Pradesh—would only ‘naturally’ be a worthy candidate for now lodging ‘illegal immigrants’ in them. A ‘cost–benefit’ analysis would even reassure us into seeing this as an advantage, since the government doesn’t need to build a new structure which would have cost the state exchequer dearly.

And yet, this transformation can be read as revealing much more than what it says. Might one not read in this instance, taking a cue from Levinas, an exemplification of the ‘secret nostalgia’ that is harboured within the caste Hindu soul? Does this instance not reveal the structure of ‘elementary feelings,’ which are deftly capable of such contemporary metamorphosis that turns places of living into those of dying?

What is it about the Dalit and Adivasi students’ hostels that the authorities thought they were the ‘perfect’ places for housing ‘immigrant’ undertrials and convicts? Could one have perhaps similarly conceived, for example, a school, a palace, a fort, a temple or a shopping complex as a pre-eminent choice for the purposes of a detention centre?

The choice of marginalised students’ hostels as the ‘perfect’ locations for building detention centres in Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh is symptomatic, to say the least. One wonders if there was no other structure, no other avenue or space available for this urgent priority of the state—even if they were decrepit and desolate for years altogether—apart from the hostels meant for the most marginalised among the students. One may either read this instance as being merely coincidental, or at best, a very ‘natural’ and ‘efficient’ choice where a currently unused structure is being put to some ‘good use’. Or, one may read this as being most shocking, as a moral turpitude, as both places serve the most polar opposite purposes and for entirely different kinds of people—students and ‘criminals’ respectively. 

And yet, I would like to suggest another mode of reading this event, where we eschew both moralist responses of ‘natural’ indifference and excessive shock. The transformation of the hostels into detention centres marks a precise phenomenon—or in the words of Levinas, a ‘secret nostalgia’—namely establishing a consonance or a continuum between Dalit and Adivasi students and ‘illegal immigrants’. In other words, this transformation reveals the sameness sought to be established between two different uses of the space. This might come across as the most gross case of equivalences—between marginalised students pursuing their education on the one hand and ‘illegal immigrants’ deemed as criminally residing in a nation-state on the other. 

Yet, the perception of the most polar contradiction between these two categories of people could only occur to those who have not witnessed or experienced the real condition of Dalit and Adivasi students’ hostels, which would hardly qualify as being places of decent and dignified living. The feeling of excessive shock arises for some because they see a hostel as primarily a space signifying dignified life, while a detention centre is seen as signifying a space hostile to life—as signifying even death—as the figures of the deaths of inmates inside Assam’s detention centres show.

However, the difference lies precisely in underscoring the fact that the hostels were constructed for Dalit and Adivasi students, and several reports can be cited to highlight the undignified and hostile conditions in which the marginalised students exist in these spaces, such that they can only uncritically be called as ‘places of living’. 

These hostels, which are constructed and managed by the social welfare departments of state governments, owe their existence to the efforts of the anti-caste movement whose social–educational initiatives consisted of not only building institutions of learning but also residential spaces for marginalised students. Considering unaffordable rent as well as the caste-based discriminatory practices prevalent in most Indian cities, the state-managed hostels are often the most important criterion for marginalised students about whether they would be able to sustain themselves in a particular educational institution or not. The lack of affordable and dignified hostels often implies that marginalised students do not enrol themselves in the educational institutions of their choice despite being qualified to do so.

Might one not say then, that these detention centres only reveal the truth of the space that they currently occupy? Might one not say, that these detention centres take the life-denying and inhuman conditions encountered by Dalit and Adivasi students as ‘inmates’ of such hostels to its logical extreme, to its ‘true’ potential, to its worst possible outcome? Might one not say that these detention centres serve to highlight the brutal genius of the present government in India which is capable of effortless transformations of places of living into places of dying?

Ankit Kawade is an MPhil candidate at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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