The only thing that’s certain is that no one – neither India nor Bangladesh – seems to want these people.

The uncertain future of the Bangladeshi immigrants taken from Bengaluru to KolkataImage for representation. Courtesy: Acagastya [CC0]
news Immigration Friday, November 29, 2019 - 18:08

The Bengaluru police recently took 59 Bangladeshi immigrants in a train to Kolkata to be deported to Bangladesh. These 59 men, women and children were deemed illegal residents in India, and were taken by the police on a train to West Bengal.

According to reports, many of them were not even intimated that they are being taken out of their homes to be detained for about a month before ultimately being deported. Media reports surfaced of the kind of lives they led – most of them did menial jobs, were household helps or labourers in Bengaluru. And now, all that is known since they deboarded at the Howrah Railway Station, is that they are housed at Nischinda in Howrah.

“They were brought here in good condition. But now, we have no idea what is happening because no one is allowed to contact them,” says Darshana of Alternative Law Forum, a Bengaluru based legal research organisation, who is following the issue in Kolkata.

Even as activists and social workers are trying to make sense of what is happening with these 59 people, there have been reports of many immigrants being ‘pushed back’ along the Indian border by the BSF, into Bangladesh. These people have been arrested or detained by the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) – and 20 of them are reportedly children.

Operation Pushback

A ‘pushback’ is when the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) allegedly just pushes people across the Indian border, leaving them to find their way into Bangladesh. The procedure is dangerous and illegal.

The practice has its roots in the Narasimha Rao government of 1991. Operation Push Back was formulated by him as an “action plan” against Bangladeshis staying in India illegally. In September 1992, when the first operation took place, the 132 men, women and children’s heads were shaved off, so that they could be easily identifiable if they tried to enter India again.

The operation received a lot of flak for the inhumane treatment caused by “forcibly pushing Bengali-speaking Indian Muslims into Bangladesh.” The operation was suspended in November 1992 after national and international criticism.

However, similar operations have since been undertaken – such as Operation Flush Out which was carried out in Maharashtra against Bangladeshi immigrants.

Are Bangladeshi immigrants from Bengaluru being pushed back?

On November 22, Daily Star, a leading Bangladeshi newspaper reported that 329 people had been arrested in the last three weeks by the BGB while trying to illegally enter Bangladesh from India. The arrestees were sent to district jails in Bangladesh.

A BGB official told the newspaper that most of these people were from Bengaluru, where some had shifted from Assam. Twenty of these 329 people are children, along with 28 women and 67 men.

Another Daily Star report said that the BGB arrested 12 persons who were illegally trying to enter Bangladesh on Wednesday. They were caught by the BGB at the Daulatpur camp in Benapole, Bangladesh. Some of them were reportedly from Bengaluru, and had been living in the city for many years. They were reportedly handed over by the Indian police to the BSF, who allegedly pushed them into Bangladesh at the border.

It is not yet confirmed if these persons were part of the 59 who were taken by the Bengaluru police to Kolkata. When TNM asked Bengaluru Commissioner Bhaskar Rao about the alleged pushbacks, he washed his hands off. “Our job is to take them to Kolkata and hand them over to the West Bengal police. It is now the responsibility of the Border Security Force (BSF). They are the designated agency to ensure that immigrants cross the border,” he said.

No takers for the immigrants

The immigrants are faced with the very real threat of pushbacks in West Bengal, and uncertainty about what will happen once that happens. 

The only thing that’s certain is that no one seems to want these people. Nisha Biswas, a Kolkata-based activist with Association of Protection for Democratic Rights (APDR), says that immigrants who are pushed back from India also face a very real risk to life. They could be shot, or the BGB could push them back into India.

This, even as India and Bangladesh signed an MoU in 2015 which aimed to prevent trafficking, protect the rights of trafficking victims, and lay down Standard Operating Procedures for repatriation of victims which is to be done “as expeditiously as possible”. The home country is also responsible for safe and effective reintegration of these victims, according to the MoU.

The treatment being meted out the immigrants right now is inhumane and unjust, activists say. “The problem is that the state looks at them as offenders, and not as victims,” argues Nisha.

“Even now, there is no documentation,” she alleges, “The names of those who have been brought to West Bengal have also not been put down. When they came to Howrah, we (activists) were at the railway stations for six hours. But we got no answers.”

“The due process should have started in Bengaluru. If the authorities believed that these people were illegal immigrants, then they should have taken the matter to court. The court would then have decided whether they are illegal residents. Then the embassy mandated procedure should have been followed. This whole activity of putting them in a train and bringing them here is illegal,” Nisha adds.

The case in Karnataka High Court

The Karnataka High Court is presently hearing a bail plea of 14 Bangladeshi immigrants who were arrested in 2018, which could also set a precedent for how issues of illegal residents are dealt with – including in this year’s case involving the 59 people. For instance, the court has sought answers about what steps the Union and state governments plan to take for the children of the immigrants.

“If the child is a minor they can be allowed to be kept with their parents but what if he/she is not and the parents don't have the capacity to take their care, outside the detention centre. What is the fate of such children? State will have to make arrangements. If there is no solution, we will have to pass directions," the court said on Thursday, reported Live Law.

According to Sirajuddin Ahmed, the lawyer representing the illegal immigrants arrested in 2018, “The two cases are very similar because in both cases, immigrants from Bangladesh were found without documents. But they were handled differently because there are no spaces to detain illegal immigrants in Bengaluru.”

As of now, the state government has informed the High Court that it had identified 35 spaces to temporarily detain foreigners without documents in the state. These spaces are government homes for women, children and men. 

The developments also come at a time Union Home Minister Amit Shah declared that the National Register of Citizens (NRC), first implemented in Assam, will be extended across the country. The NRC asks residents to prove their citizenship, the citizenship of their ancestors, and their relationship to their ancestors. In Assam, residents were asked to produce documents proving that they or their families lived in India before March 24, 1971, and in the final list published, more than 19 lakh residents were excluded.

Note: This story has been edited. Earlier, the story referred to a woman named Ushnara who was still housed at a shelter, where the 59 immigrants were initially housed, in Bengaluru. It has been been pointed out to TNM that she is not related to the present case of the 59 immigrants. The section has been removed from the story.

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