Migrant workers in Bengaluru live in fear as police search for Bangladeshi immigrants

Bengaluru police have arrested and detained multiple persons on suspicion of being illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, as part of their renewed efforts to crack down on migrant workers.
Migrant workers in Bengaluru live in fear as police search for Bangladeshi immigrants
Migrant workers in Bengaluru live in fear as police search for Bangladeshi immigrants
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Night falls quickly in Thubarahalli. Along with it, Muhammad Sekh, clad in a black t-shirt and a lungi, pulls down the shutters of his grocery store. The 44-year-old wholesale dealer moves briskly inside the cramped room filled with cucumbers, lettuce and stacks of condiments, attending to his customers’ final requests of the day.  

He asks the small crowd, seated on plastic chairs at the shop’s entrance where they’ve gathered to socialise, if they want anything more from the shop. When he eventually downs the shutters, darkness envelops Thubarahalli. The only light seen is from the firewood burning inside tarpaulin and tin-roofed shanties, located beside towering luxury apartment blocks that loom large over the impoverished settlement.   

“In the Kaali Khaata, four boys were taken away by the police even though they had ID cards showing they are from Nadia district of West Bengal,” says Muhammad Sekh, a resident of the migrant settlement in Thubarahalli, located close to Whitefield in Bengaluru. 

Kaali Khaata (Bengali slang for waste picker) is the name given by residents in Thubarahalli for a cluster of sheds in Munnekolala, a migrant settlement located three kilometres away.

Migrant settlement in Thubarahalli

Earlier this week, police officials from Marathahalli police station arrested three people belonging to a family in Munnekolala alleging that they are illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. In addition, Marathahalli police officials also detained and later released four other Bengali-speaking migrants after questioning them. 

The arrests and detentions are part of renewed efforts by police officials in Bengaluru’s Whitefield division to identify alleged illegal Bangladeshi immigrants and register cases against them. "Now, people want data on how many Bangladeshi immigrants are staying in Bengaluru so we will be filing FIRs and registering cases under the Foreigners Act,"  MN Anuchet, Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP), Whitefield division, told TNM.

Police stated that there are four migrant settlements in the Whitefield division — Munnekolala, Thubarahalli, Kariyammana Agrahara, and Devarabeesanahalli — where illegal Bangladeshi immigrants are believed to be  residing. Like Thubarahalli, Kariyammana Agrahara falls within the shadows of high-rise apartment buildings, where residents have access to private pools and lush greenery. It was a complaint by these residents which ultimately led the Kariyammana Agrahara settlers to their doom.

Migrant settlement in Thubarahalli

The demolition

Prior to the arrests, on January 18, an excavator was sent at the behest of a Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) official to demolish sheds in Kariyammana Agrahara, claiming that some of the sheds were occupied by ‘illegal Bangladeshi immigrants.’ The demolition was ordered by Narayan Swamy, an Assistant Executive Engineer (AEE) in the BBMP's Mahadevapura division. He said that residents in apartments in Bellandur had complained about the settlements.

Before the demolition, a video reportedly shot in Bellandur had been shared widely on WhatsApp. In the video, it was claimed that Bangladeshi immigrants were illegally staying in Bellandur. 

Demolition drive in Kariyammana Agrahara on January 18

The video was also shared on Twitter by Mahadevapura’s BJP MLA Arvind Limbavali, who was campaigning for the evictions of ‘illegal Bangladeshi immigrants’ much before talk of National Register of Citizens (NRC) in India.

A news report by Suvarna News, a Kannada channel, in the previous week had also claimed the presence of Bangladeshi immigrants staying in the area. However, it has since been revealed that the BBMP did not have authorisation to demolish the homes on private land, but scores of sheds were reduced to heaps of rubble. 

Muhammad, who came to Bengaluru from Nadia district of West Bengal three years ago, along with his wife Nargis Sekh (35), and two children Lalchand (17), and Sapna (12), says that Bengali-speakers are being targeted in the Bengaluru police’s search for illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. “Just because we speak Bengali, we are identified as Bangladeshis and we are being told to provide documents for the National Population Register (NPR) and NRC. But the people living here are from different places in West Bengal and other neighboring states. We submitted our documents at the local (Varthur) police station when we were threatened with eviction last year,” says Muhammad. 

The settlements 

These four migrant settlements came up at different times over a decade ago. They are located close to the bustling tech hub in the southeastern part of Bengaluru and were opened to accommodate an influx of migrant workers in the construction industry. The influx of migrants included workers from Bangladesh who were given an enticing promise of daily wages, according to Muhammad.

The migrant settlements are clusters of tin-and-tarpaulin roofed sheds, where some have lived their whole lives. They have shops selling books, DVDs, mobile accessories, groceries and even sporting goods. Some shops also sell cell phones and SIM cards by which the people in the settlements can connect to the internet and the outside world. 

“But all that we have is being taken away on the assumption that we are from Bangladesh," says Muhammad, holding up his Aadhaar card, "If we are deported to Bangladesh, we don't have a certificate to prove that we left Bangladesh for India.”

Migrant settlement in Thubarahalli

The men staying in the migrant settlements work as ragpickers, housekeepers, construction workers, security guards, and drivers, in high-rise apartments surrounding their settlement while the women work as cooks and cleaners. 

The settlements in Thubarahalli and Munnekolala are mostly made up of Bengali-speaking migrants. Around 6,700 migrant workers reside in Thubarahalli and 4000 migrant workers stay in Munnekolala, according to a survey conducted by a group of residents led by Abdul Jabbar. Abdul arrived in the settlement 15 years ago as a construction worker but now works as a cleaner for an online home services aggregator. He also works as a part-time activist in helping organise the residents of migrant settlements in Thubarahalli and Munnekolala.

“Because people are constantly coming in and out of the settlement, we decided to conduct our own survey to find out how many migrant workers are staying here,” says Abdul. 

Abdul Jabbar stares at ID cards of residents in Thubarahalli

The survey was conducted much like how a government survey is conducted by asking residents to produce identification cards like Aadhaar card, PAN card or voter ID card. Abdul Jabbar says that more than 80% of the residents in Thubarahalli and Munnekolala are Bengali-speaking Muslims. However, he admits that some of the residents could be Bangladeshi immigrants without documents. 

Meanwhile, activists from the Alternative Law Forum (ALF) estimate there are around 15,000 residents in the migrant settlement in Kariyammana Agrahara, mostly from states like West Bengal, Assam, Uttar Pradesh, and Bihar. People from north Karnataka were found to be staying in Devarabeesanahalli. 

Migrant settlement in Kariyammana Agrahara

Landowner paid fixed monthly rent

Landowners in settlement areas allow the construction of sheds to house migrant workers in exchange for a fixed monthly rent. The families in these houses pay rent of amounts ranging from Rs. 500 to Rs 2,000 per shed to a ‘supervisor’ who in turn pays the rent to the landowner. The 'supervisor' is an intermediary who collects the rent from the tenants and pays a fixed amount to the landowner. In each shed, around two to four people reside in the 10-foot by 10-foot-sized hut. 

“There are around 300 small houses on my land. I am paid Rs 50,000 per month as fixed rent for this,” says Manjunath Gowda, who owns 2.5 acres of land in the settlement area in Thubarahalli. 

TNM spoke to a number of landowners where migrant settlements are located who say they are unaware of how electricity and water supply were arranged for the residents in the settlements. Water and electricity supply to the settlements were cut off a week ago by the BBMP, prior to the January 18 demolition. 

Migrant settlement in Kariyammana Agrahara

Distinguishing Bangladeshi immigrants  

Police officials said that those found with Bangladeshi identity cards will be arrested and that those found with Indian identity cards will not be troubled. But residents in Thubarahalli and Munnekolala say that it is hard even for a native Bengali speaker to distinguish someone who is from Bangladesh. Bengali is spoken on both sides of the 4,156 km long international border which runs along the states of West Bengal, Assam, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Tripura.

According to Sachindra Robin Mondal, a 61-year-old resident of Thubarahalli, the migrant settlements in Thubarahalli and Munnekolala are divided. On one side is the ‘Laal Maati’ (red earth) which constitutes Thubarahalli and part of Munnekolala, and is considered as the Indian side of the settlement. On the other side is Kaali Khaata, a part of the settlement in Munnekolala where Bangladeshi immigrants allegedly reside. Residents say that Kaali Khaata came up around six years ago 

Sachindra Robin Mondal, a resident of Thubarahalli

“There is no distinguishable difference between Bangladeshis and Bengalis. We share a common culture. We wear similar clothes and ornaments, and enjoy similar tastes in food and music. We speak a common language - Bengali,” says Sachindra Robin Mondal. “There are slight variations in the accent and dialect. One common perception is that the words spoken by someone from Bangladesh seem slower, cautious and more formal but that cannot be used to identify someone as Bangladeshi,” he adds. 

The divisions within the migrant settlements has given rise to a situation in which residents are pointing fingers at the residents of Kaali Khaata as the area for police officials to target their search for Bangladeshi immigrants. 

Mohammed Nazeemuddin, a resident of Kariyammana Agrahara

Police officials say that they will only detain residents found with Bangladeshi identity cards but their claims are met with suspicion by the residents of Thubarahalli and Munnekolala. “I carry my documents with me everywhere I go now because you never know when the police will demand them,” says Abdul. ”I hope that people who are from India are not harassed in the search for illegal Bangladeshi immigrants.”

All photographs by Prajwal Bhat

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