At Thubarahalli in the eastern outskirts of Bengaluru, there is palpable unrest and an atmosphere of fear. This is where around 12,000 Bengali-speaking people in the city live.
“These days police come regularly to our houses asking us to show identity cards. Sometimes they stop our women while they are entering the apartment complexes and demand to see their identifications. All this because they suspect we are Bangladeshis,” an angry and tired Jabar says.
Jabar Mandal is from Murshidabad district in West Bengal, and has been living in Bengaluru for almost two decades. Jabar first started out as a labourer, then worked his way up to becoming a labour contractor. Later, he left the construction sector and is currently employed in a more lucrative job, as a cleaner for an online home services aggregator. He lives in a shanty along with his extended family and relatives.
The Bengali-speaking settlement in Thubarahalli (consisting mainly of people from West Bengal) is one of many that have sprung up in multiple localities on either side of the Outer Ring Road in the last decade.
This community has become an integral part of the city’s workforce, and there was a time when their primary concern was the occasional skirmish among locals. But in the last few months, things have changed drastically and Jabar fears that that the situation will never go back to normal. For one, there are concerns that the Karnataka government will implement a National Register for Citizens (NRC) in the state, a controversial exercise where people need to prove their citizenship by showing that their ancestors are Indians, while also proving their relationship with their ancestors. NRC has so far only been implemented in Assam.
A majority of the men living in these settlements work as construction workers, drivers, cleaners, ragpickers and hawkers, while the women mostly work as domestic help or cooks in nearby multi-storeyed apartment complexes. Many are even employed as civic workers by the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP). But most of them don’t have savings or any kind of safety net, and now fear that they will be sacked, or worse, detained by police.
But the Indian Bengali speakers, mainly Muslims, here allege that police are demanding a long list of documents branding them as 'Bangladeshis', and many have been forced into hiding. In the Thubarahalli settlement, some are skipping work for fear that they would be targeted by the police, but have subsequently lost their jobs. Several also told TNM that police sometimes turn up at apartment gates at random and demand their ID cards.
Jabar urges, “Why doesn’t the government conduct a proper survey and settle the matter once and for all? We are being harassed as there is too much rumour mongering. Bengalis, who are Indian nationals, are also being harassed.”
Over a year ago, the local police conducted a demolition drive against these shanties allegedly under directions by the local BJP MLA Arvind Limbavali. Limbavali has been vocal in his opposition to Bangladeshis living in Karnataka, but his fevered pitch for driving out ‘illegal immigrants’ has put the lives of many Indian Bengali speakers in jeopardy.
That demolition drive was halted in July 2018 after city-based activists took the matter to court. However, since then, the atmosphere has changed drastically.
Apartments playing cops
Tension began to mount after a rumour spread that Bengali speakers would not be allowed to enter apartment complexes until their identities were re-verified.
Saheena*, a neighbour of Jabar, says, “In the first week of November, police (from Varthur police station) were posted at the gate of an apartment complex I work in. I saw them stopping others like me who work there and ask for IDs. Since I was not carrying anything, I rushed home.”
TNM confirmed that in one apartment in Electronic City — Concorde Manhattans — the apartment complex association has issued a directive to all residents to not hire “Bangladeshi” workers as they are “illegal”.
Rohan Vasantha apartment in Thubarahalli has also unofficially tried to screen “illegal immigrants” by asking for workers for their documents.
Speaking to TNM, a resident of Rohan Vasantha, says, “I have come to know this drive is being conducted by one of the office-bearers of the apartment association. They say an official decision is yet to be taken. But he himself along with a few others have started this drive to stop ‘illegal Bangladeshis’ as it is their national duty. So far, he has screened 30 workers who have all established that they are Indians.”
The frenzy to verify credentials is also partly driven by the alarm raised by beat constables who allegedly keep “warning” apartment residents that they also would be booked under section 120 B (a party to a criminal conspiracy) of the Indian Penal Code if they are caught harbouring illegal Bangladeshi immigrants.
Aside from police action, panicked Whatsapp messages are also fuelling the issue. Many are forwarding messages that advise people against employing Bengali-speaking people. While activists working with migrant labourers say that the problem is acute in Whitefield and Electronic City areas, such messages have also spread to Hennur and other parts of the city.
Used and discarded
It is no secret that hundreds of Bangladeshis have made Bengaluru their home. They constitute an important part of the workforce and in fact, many of these workers are employed by the city’s civic body, the BBMP.
On October 26, the Police Commissioner of Bengaluru city, Bhaskar Rao held a press meet noting that the city police would not tolerate illegal immigrants, and announced the arrest of 60 such persons, including young children. Some of these people were reportedly working in apartments built on the Outer Ring Road, while others were employed by the BBMP.
Kaleemullah, a Bengaluru-based activist with Swaraj Abhiyan, who works for the cause of migrant labourers, says, “The arrest of 60 people was nothing but showboating when it is publicly known that there are many more Bangladeshis in Bengaluru, to the tune of thousands. While some may be involved in objectionable activities, the majority of them work indirectly with the BBMP. They segregate the mixed waste with their hands and perform other menial jobs for extremely low wages.”
An activist who requested anonymity, alleges, “If the BBMP contractor profits from them, that means the political class and the police are also aware of their existence.”
Not a standalone incident
TNM visited another such settlement of shanties at the edge of Bellandur Lake. Though the settlement was once as big as its counterpart in Thubarahalli, it has shrunk in recent days. According to those who remain in the settlement, those who left were Bangladeshi nationals who feared they would be detained by the police.
“The police had come a week ago and warned all Bangladeshis to leave,” a private security guard, who watches over an empty plot near the settlement, says.
Indranil, an IT professional from Kolkata residing in an apartment near the lake says, “Many of us employ them as domestic helps and to be honest, initially, we did not know that they were from Bangladesh. But due to the recent crackdown, our househelp has said she won’t be able to come for a few days.”
While domestic workers employed in apartment complexes come from different communities, the domestic workforce in the Bellandur-Iblur area today is largely dominated by Bengali-speaking people.
Indranil alleges, “When we talk to them, they admit in confidence that they have come to the country illegally. They have Aadhaar card, Voter ID card and some even have PAN cards. Personally for us, we don’t see any problem as they are harmless.”
He further adds the police denied knowledge about Bangladeshis working in the apartment buildings during a security review meetings with the apartments.
The activist who spoke on the basis of anonymity believes the current situation is being created just to exploit and harass Indian Bengalis and Bangladeshis further. “Many of the contractors are telling these workers to leave so that they don’t have to pay them. The police in turn extort more money from Indian Bengalis and Bangladeshis as well,” he adds.
He further alleges that most of the lower level police personnel are ignorant of that fact that there are many Musim Bengalis living in West Bengal, Assam and Tripura. He cited an incident in Ramamurthy Nagar Police Station limits where a Muslim Bengali man was picked by police on suspicion of him being a Bangladeshi without any provocation.
Police deny Indians are being targeted
The police have also been accused of targeting all Bengali-speakers — whether Indian or foreign — in their sweep, with an aim to harass and ask bribe from them. Police, however, deny this allegation.
“We had already warned apartment associations and landlords to ensure that they are not renting out their house to Bangladeshis or employing them. This drive is going on and the first set of warnings were given three-four months ago. We don’t know about Indian nationals being targeted,” Bellandur Police Inspector says.
However, another senior police officer working in the Whitefield Division, admits that there has been confusion, and migrants from West Bengal were facing the brunt of it.
“In the police stations of Bellandur, Marathalli, Whitefield and Varthur, there are a couple of FIRs registered against landlords for renting houses to Bangladeshis. This is a matter of national security,” he says.
He adds, “Many of these people have also left by themselves out of fear after we started the crackdown. But it is true that we struggle to distinguish between Indian nationals from West Bengal and from the other side of the border. The fact that almost all of them have fake identity cards make it harder for us.”
The officer says that an already overburdened and understaffed police department was now finding itself sandwiched between higher officials, political class and human rights activists. He asks, “Why is the police department blamed for this? It is not our fault that this situation started, but now we are being made to clean up this mess.”
The officer also acknowledges that many garbage contractors hire Bangladeshi migrants knowing they don’t have legal documents. “The workers enjoy the protection provided by the contractors,” he says.
He adds, “We have now started doing a beatwise survey of these shanties and are inspecting identity cards of people. Following this, we have noticed a lot of people leaving.”
Crackdown forcing return
TNM spoke to two Bangladeshi women who admitted the recent developments have forced them to return home to an uncertain future.
Lakhi, one such woman, says she has been in Bengaluru for more than a decade after she lost her house on the Indo-Bangladesh border but was not compensated during an exchange of territory between the two countries in 2015-16. Until very recently she was working as a cook in apartment complexes in Hennur, which is also on the Outer Ring Road in the northern end of the city.
“My husband, who works for the BBMP, and I used to make around Rs 20,000 a month as he would not get his full salary ever. Until now, things have been good but since the arrest in October, we are always scared the police will arrest us,” Lakhi says.
“One of my sons used to stay here and go to a Madrasa. We were still managing here despite difficulties. Now we don’t know if we can enter Bangladesh safely or how much bribe we will have to pay the Border Security Force or the Bangladeshi guards,” she adds.
She also admitted that despite being a Bangladeshi, her husband has managed to get her whole family a set of Indian “identity proofs.”
Another Bangladeshi woman, Rahima who works in Bellandur-Iblur area, says, “I have been in India for many years. I don’t know why I should be asked to leave. I work all day and go back home in the evening. If I sense any trouble, I will go to Ghaziabad where I have some of my family members working in factories.”
‘Only illegal immigrants our target’: Top cop
Speaking to TNM, Bengaluru City Police Commissioner Bhaskar Rao rejected the version by local police that surveys are being carried out by individual police stations.
He says, “The raid which led to the arrest of 60 illegal immigrants was based on credible intelligence inputs. We have gone behind those people who are illegal migrants. Bengalis have been living in Bengaluru for more than 50-60 years. We have not touched anybody, nor have we called anybody. They are part of our diaspora of Bengaluru, why should we trouble them?"
He adds, “So our targets are people who are victims of human trafficking or are brought by illegal agents. Please make it clear that only illegal Bangladeshi immigrants will be caught by the police. And this crackdown will continue.” He also assures that immigrants with valid documents have no reason to worry.