“We just sat and waited at the police station, telling every passing cop what we are not terrorists,” says Zameer Ahmed, a B.Com graduate. Zameer is one of the 16 people named by Bengaluru South MP Tejasvi Surya — one of the 16 Muslim men named by the legislator — as being involved in a bed allocation scam in the BBMP South Zone War Room. And ever since the moment Tejasvi and his associates — Basavanagudi MLA Ravi Subramanya, Chickpet MLA Uday Garudachar and Bommanahalli MLA Satish Reddy — barged into the War Room on Tuesday, Zameer’s life has turned into a long wait at the Jayanagar police station, for two full days. “We didn't know what we were waiting for, and feared the worst,” Zameer says.
The 16 people named by Tejasvi Surya are employed by an agency called Crystal Infosystems, which is providing human resources to the South Zone War Room. In fact, Crystal has placed 212 people in the War Room, from various religions. And the company’s representatives and the men who were targeted say, they have no clue why these 16 men were named by the MP.
Shivu Naik, a Crystal representative, reveals that 6 out of the 16 men were put to work just ten days before Tejasvi Surya barged into the war room waving a sheaf of papers. “They are still learning the process, how can they scam the system?” he asks.
Further, only one out of the 16 people named by the MP is on the bed allocation team, Shivu says. “He was appointed to that desk three days ago as someone else had fallen sick. The others work in the helpline, indexing, death and discharge, and home isolation teams,” he says.
Why were these 16 men targeted?
So how did Tejasvi Surya and his associates zero in on these 16 names? The MP, who has been hit by an avalanche of criticism, has claimed that he did not try to communalise the issue, but merely read out the names of those who had already been removed from the war room. He claimed that the BBMP Joint Commissioner Dr. Veerabhadraswamy had told him the same.
The Joint Commissioner’s phone has been switched off from May 6 morning and he was not reachable for a reaction.
Shivu however denies this. “We have only removed people who took leave without informing us for more than two days. None of the 16 were removed, many of them were in the War Room when Tejasvi Surya sir came,” he says.
However, the confusion created by Tejasvi and team’s outburst — followed by several WhatsApp forwards that called these men ‘terrorists’ and accused them of killing ‘Hindu lives’ — has meant that for two days, these 16 men have been making the rounds of a police station, uncertain about their future, and facing abusive messages from people who believe Tejasvi Surya. It is to be noted that the Crime Branch has investigated the case for two days and has not arrested any of the 16 men. They were detained and let go, while a few others- (not part of the 16) have been arrested.
Some versions of the same WhatsApp forwards with the same names also added the name of Sarfaraz Khan, a senior BBMP official, in the mix. Incidentally Khan posted as Joint Commissioner of Solid Waste Management is not connected with the bed allotment system at all. He has been given charge of managing COVID Care Centres for treating mildly symptomatic and asymptomatic patients. The hate messages that he got as a result of the forwards led him to approach the police and express his pain on social media. Taking to Facebook, he pleaded that he has been working diligently to make necessary arrangements for the CCCs without regards to religious preferences. “I would like to say that 90% occupancy in Haj Bhavan is our cost of Haj Committee funds. I would like to say that 90% occupancy in Haj Bhavan is our brothers from other religions and 10% of them are Muslims,” said Sarafaraz said in his Facebook post.
The men, who are all in their early 20s, were detained without any explanation at the Jayanagar police station the whole of Tuesday night and the following day. “We were taken to the police station straight from work on Tuesday evening a few hours after the MP came to the war room,” says Umraiz Khan, one of the men named by Tejasvi and team. “They took our bank and family details, checked our phones, opened all our personal chats. They repeatedly asked us about our role in bed blocking.”
They were allowed to go home at 4 am on Wednesday morning, Umraiz says, after they pleaded with the police that they needed to attend the Sehri Namaz and eat. They were once again summoned at 9 am and detained the whole day. “The second time we weren't asked any questions. We just sat and waited,” says Zameer, “I spent the entire time thinking we would be taken into a dark interrogation room and tortured.”
The group spoke with great hesitation when TNM met them late on Wednesday after they were released by the police to attend the evening prayers. The police, they say, are unsympathetic to their plight. They have been told to be prepared to appear at the station on short notice and not to shift their address without intimation.
Zameer’s father, an auto driver, passed away last month of a heart attack. Since then the responsibility has fallen on him to provide for his mother, two younger brothers and sister. “One brother is in PUC, the other is in 10th standard. My sister is in 3rd standard. I do not even have money for petrol,” he says and snaps into a rage. “I am a B.Com graduate and well qualified to look after my family. Why should I share my sob story with the whole world and plead like this? What have I done wrong?”
TNM met the group while they were being released from the Jayanagar police station on Wednesday. Yet, Sandip Patil, Joint Commissioner of police (Crime) flatly denied that they had been summoned or detained. When the officers at the Jayanagar police station were asked why the men were being detained, they said that they were being held at the instructions of the Crime Branch.
The Crime Branch which is investigating the case has arrested Dr Rehan, a BBMP appointed doctor, who was in charge of the South Zone War Room. They have also arrested another person working with Dr Rehan named Shashi Kumar. They have also arrested two people from the Bommanahalli war room- Rohit and Netravati.
As the police decide on how to move forward in the case, the contractor, Crystal, has asked the 16 men to stay home until further notice. “We are waiting for clearance from the police,” says Shivu Naik, the Crystal representative. “We have nothing against them. They are all qualified and hard working. But we do not want trouble from the police, that's all,” he says.
One of the managers of the war room tells TNM that once messages started going viral on social media claiming that ‘Muslim terrorists were not giving beds’, the 16 men started calling managers in panic. “Why are they calling me a terrorist? My friends are asking me if I am part of a scam. Are we in danger?” they asked.
Allegation, politics — but no help?
“We saw the statements of Congress leaders about our issue and assumed we would get help. We do not know any lawyers, activists or politicians. How do we get our jobs back? Who will save us from the police?” asks a panicked MD Younis.
The only person guiding them at the moment is their colleague Ayesha Shaik. She isn’t any older and is also a call centre executive at the BBMP war room like the others. But she has some political experience from having canvassed for a party in the last elections.
Outraged by what happened to them, Ayesha walked out of the job at the war room and is now trying to get justice for the group. She was obviously struggling when she asked this reporter, “Is the Congress better or the JD(S)? Should I speak to Zameer Ahmed or DK Shivakumar or Siddaramaiah? How do we get in touch with them?”
While her political connections might be weak, Ayesha is well aware of her rights. “There is the issue of harassment of these boys because of their religion. But there is also the larger issue of working conditions that affects all workers at the war room. We take more than 300 calls in each shift and are not paid properly,” she says.
She says that they are being made to work without weekly offs and are not being paid full wages. “How does one organise a press conference,” she asks and is disappointed to know that the Press Club is closed because of the lockdown.
They are alone, scared, unsure about their jobs and trying to frantically prove that they are not ‘terrorists’.
Upon their release from the Jayanagar police on Wednesday, the group headed straight back to the BBMP South Zone office where another political scene was unfolding. Soumya Reddy, the Congress’s Jayanagar MLA, was sitting on dharna outside the BBMP office with a few of her supporters before a sizable media contingent, surrounded by a large police force. She was holding up a list of Covid patients who had failed to receive emergency support through the BBMP war room and railed against the government’s mismanagement of the pandemic.
“They have been asked to not come to work till the inquiry clears them, they have not been terminated. If someone has done a scam, take action against them, file an FIR. There is no proof that these 16 people committed any crime. What gives you the right to call out their names when there is no proof?” she asks.