Aftermath of Tejasvi Surya's Islamophobic 'raid': The War Room 16 speak out

A few of them have contemplated the idea of approaching a court for relief. But the fear that they would never win any compensation and will be entangled in legal issues for years has made almost all of them back off.
BJP MP Tejasvi Surya is seen wearing a white shirt and blue overcoat
BJP MP Tejasvi Surya is seen wearing a white shirt and blue overcoat
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What happens when a Member of Parliament and three sitting Members of the Legislative Assembly decide to target you? What becomes of your life when these elected representatives, who have sworn by the Constitution to uphold the rights of every citizen, decide to slander you only because you are a Muslim? The lives of 16 young Muslim men were upended on May 4, when Bengaluru south MP Tejasvi Surya, flanked by three MLAs, stormed into the BBMP COVID-19 war room and read out the names of only the 16 Muslim men out of 205 people who worked there. In a cleverly planned way, the MP held a press meet the same day and revealed a bed booking scam in the BBMP. Within hours, people in Bengaluru started getting the list of the 16 Muslims calling them terrorists behind the bed scam.

These young men had nothing to do with the alleged scam, they are not accused of the same in any FIR. When questioned just six days later on why he read out a list of 16 Muslims, Tejasvi Surya had no proper reply. More than two months later, these young men continue to bear the brunt of the theatrics of the BJP leaders. TNM spoke to all 16 men to understand how things have changed and what holds for the future. 

Only one out of the 16 men was taken back into the BBMP war room; three got new jobs while most others are still desperately searching for a job. One young man left for Mumbai because he found it too much to bear and wanted to get away. Many stay away from social media, a few are scared to even mention the war room work experience on their resume, and all of them are dejected that despite the flood of support that came, no one was able to offer them a job.

Person 1: 40 years old 

‘A’ had been working at the BBMP control room since June 2020 when the first COVID-19 wave struck India. On May 4, 2021, he came to the war room for his shift at 4 pm, but by then the forwards were already doing the rounds with the names of 16 men calling them terrorists out to kill Bengalureans. “I was scared, at that point I did not even understand what was happening. I went home at 11 pm after my shift and was asked to appear before the police the next day. They questioned us and let us off. I could not sleep for days. I kept wondering why I was being targeted,” says A, who used to work on the indexing desk. 

When it became clear within a few days that the men had nothing to do with the alleged bed scam, A approached Crystal Infosystems and Services, the company which was contracted by the BBMP to hire personnel for the south war room. “I am married and have kids. My family would come on the pavement and I begged them to give my job back, and they did,” A says.

A’s salary however was reduced. “That did not cause me much pain. What pained me was what happened to all of us. What was our fault?” he asks.

A is the only person who was given the job back by the BBMP, perhaps because he was the only married man in the group and had been working in the war room for a year. Two others were offered jobs at war rooms situated far from their homes, one more was told to assist at a vaccination centre. 

Person 2: 23 years old

'B' never completed his 12th standard, and joined the war room call centre in June 2020. After working for four months, many were asked to leave as the workload had come down. He joined back in April 2021 for a second stint and he was barely 10 days into his job, when Tejasvi came storming in. B has a younger brother and mother to take care of, and the Rs 13,000 salary that the BBMP offered had been a huge relief for the family. 

“My uncle had been providing for us for years and I thought if I earn it would be a huge relief for the family. I was so wrong. I lost the job there and now I am not able to get other jobs,” he says.

B tried to get jobs at two call centres and in his resume he mentioned the war room work experience. “When they saw that, they asked me for details. I feel that’s why I did not get the job; maybe next time I won’t mention it. I need a job and I will just hide my experience,” he says.

B says many of his friends isolate him while others are supportive. He often wonders why big political leaders came to target a small data entry operator like him. “We are small people, why play politics with us? We live with our daily wages, why come for us?” he asks. 

Person 3: 21 years old

Having passed 12th standard, 'C' used to work with BPOs. But not having a steady job never bothered him too much as his father ran a small textile shop and he knew that was his backup. However, when the shop shut down due to the lockdown, C says he decided to look for a part time job, and this is when a friend suggested the war room. “My father did not want me to go, they were scared I would get infected. But my friend said BBMP needed help and that way, I can do some service. It was not about the salary for me, I didn’t care for it, I thought this was my chance to help people,” C says.

He too was barely 10 days into the job (which included three days of training) when Tejasvi’s raid happened. But what C says shows that before the BJP leaders came to the war room, there was pressure on BBMP to remove the Muslim men. 

“I was having lunch with my friend when the manager came rushing and told both of us to leave. When we asked why, he told us a BJP MLA has given a list of people they don’t want. We didn’t leave immediately. Within some time, we heard Tejasvi reading the list. We were very scared and went home, the next day we were told that those on the night shift were taken to the police station,” C explains.  

C clearly remembers his family huddled together and watching Public TV’s telecast that night and listening to the anchor praising Tejasvi for ‘weeding’ them out. “I did not even first understand we were being accused of a scam. Then the calls started. Many people started threatening me and telling me to leave and that I would suffer. My parents were in distress and asked me why I went for the job,” he says.

C has not tried for a job after that. Unable to bear the situation, he left for Mumbai and lives with a relative. 

Like C, a few others too mentioned threat calls. By May 4 night, the list of all 205 people in the war room had leaked, along with the phone numbers.

He has contemplated the idea of approaching a court for relief, like a few others in the group. But the fear that they would never win any compensation and will be entangled in legal issues for years has made almost all of them back off.

Persons 4 and 5: 27 years old and 20 years old

'D' and 'E' are brothers. While D is a B.Com graduate, E passed 12th standard. 

D says it was very unsettling as initially, family and friends asked them what went wrong. “I had worked in the war room for a few months during the first wave. When the second wave came, my brother also applied with me. Both of us lost our jobs,” he says.

D and E, like all the others, were given Rs 2,500 for their 10 day stint and simply asked to leave. Though the BBMP claimed that jobs would be given back, it never happened in May or June. By the end of June, the war room itself had shrunk in size and many were asked to leave as the numbers were no longer required.  

“I am now into small jobs like medicine delivery. We both called BBMP and Crystal many times, but they did not give us back the jobs,” says E. 

The only relief for the family of six is that D has got a temporary job, but they are worried how long this employment will last. “A masjid gave all 16 of us Rs 10,000, and Congress MLA Zameer Ahmed gave Rs 5,000. D at least has a job, for many others this money has been the only relief for two months,” E says.  

Persons 6 and 7: 23 years old and 21 years old

'F' and 'G' are brothers; while F is an IT engineer, G is an engineering student. When the Indian government banned many Chinese apps, F, who was working for Shareit, lost his job. Their father is a retired driver and the brothers thought a job at the war room would help the family of five.

“After two months of this nightmare, I just got a job two weeks ago. I tried for a job in so many places. The BBMP did not ask us once, though the media reported we are getting our jobs back,” F says.

The two of them were given Rs 2,000 as they were asked to leave unceremoniously. G regrets that he even took the job. “If you think of it, we would have survived without my job, but I didn’t want to sit at home. I spent so many hours at the police station, they did not even care that we were fasting for Ramzan. I am just a student and this is my experience,” G says.

Person 8: 25 years old

'H' is a B.Com graduate, the first graduate from his family. His brother stopped studying after 12th standard and they are daily wage laborers. In April 2021, he received a job offer from a call centre with the promise of Rs 17,000 as salary. Meanwhile, he also got the job offer at BBMP. “The salary was only Rs 13,500, but I thought that’s fine, I can help people. After that day, they just gave me Rs 2,900 and asked me to leave. I have been trying for a new job, but got none. We were targeted only because we were Muslims and now we are suffering,” H says.

Person 9: 18 years old

'I' is clear about one thing, he isn’t scared. “I didn’t do anything wrong. Why should I worry?” he asks. A student who passed 12th standard, he lives with his mother, and his uncle helped them financially.  “I thought that my earnings would help my mother. It was more of a timepass for me. But now I feel I should not have gone, all this happened because I am a Muslim,” he says.

He plans to join for graduation soon and is currently working in a grocery shop with a Rs 400 daily wage.  

Person 10: 18 years old

'J' completed his 12th standard and when the pandemic started he saw his family struggle. “My father is an auto driver and the lockdown caused his earnings to drop drastically. So I went to help him,” J says.

Ten days into the job, J was asked like all others to just leave. He is now preparing for his CET exams. The visit to the police station will haunt him forever, he says.

Person 11: 22 years old

'K' is desperate to find a job. “The name ‘terrorist’ has stuck to me. If I say I was in the BBMP war room, no one would give me a job. I went for two job interviews.”

K has a family of five to look after including two younger brothers. “When I called many times, the BBMP said they can give me a job at some vaccination centre in Kengeri. It is far. Also, I live in a one room house with my family, if I contract the virus, all will suffer,” he says.

He mentions that many people came forward to help initially. “No one is there now, no one,” he says. 

Person 12: 24 years old

'L' was studying to finish a few arrears for his diploma in mechanical engineering course when he was told in June 2020 that the BBMP war rooms were hiring people. “There was so much news of people dying around, I was just sitting at home and I wanted to help. I have never worked anywhere before, and I don't have to work also because my family is financially sound. I jumped at this opportunity thinking I can help society. But then suddenly my name came in the list of terrorists. Can you imagine how that feels?” he asks.  

L used to be active on social media, often uploading pictures on his Instagram handle. Some of the last ones he uploaded were ones of him standing proudly with BBMP officials. But he has not used his handle even once after that.

“My only solace is that people who know me, trust me,” he says.

Person 13: 24 years old

Hailing from Andhra Pradesh, 'M' has completed an ITI course. Living with his grandmother in Bengaluru, he had been looking for a job desperately when he was hired by Crystal in June 2020. “They just asked us to leave on May 4. After a few days they asked me to join either Domlur or RR Nagar war rooms. But that was impractical. These locations were at a considerable distance from my house and commuting would be tough. Moreover, Crystal did not pay us on time and therefore I would suffer even to fill petrol,” he says.

M has no savings and is now dependent on his parents, who are factory workers in Andhra Pradesh. “I have been looking for a job, but I have not got one. I hope all those politicians and others who promised us help, will actually give me a job,” he says.

Person 14: 23 years old

A graduate, 'N' lost his job when the pandemic began. His father, a private school teacher, too, lost his job and the family of six was in dire straits. “I joined the job thinking it will be a relief. When we were asked to leave, all of us were paid between Rs 2,000 to Rs 3,000 for our work in April, no reimbursement for the four days in May,” N says.  

On July 6, N got a job with a company as a marketing agent. “I will never mention the BBMP job experience anywhere. I had never seen a police station before that day. The BBMP made us sign letters and promised jobs, nothing happened,” he says.

Person 15: 22 years old

'O', who is a 12th standard graduate, was working in a lawyer’s office but lost the job during the pandemic. “I joined the war room in July 2020, I was into indexing and then bed blocking. I was one of the people who had experience working there, I felt very sad when it happened,” he says. 

He says his family and friends were shocked and he didn't even get his April salary.

Person 16: 25 years old

'P' says it now seems obvious why the BBMP war room was targeted. “Those accused are mainly from the Bommanahalli war room and I read in the news that some of them were staff members of BJP leaders. We were just used to distract attention,” he says.

P has four people in his family and his father, who is a caterer, hardly gets any work. He says he has been trying to get a job, but due to the pandemic, nothing has worked.  

“I used to work in an NGO before this, I will mention only that work experience. If anyone insists, I will tell them about my 10 day stint at the war room. But then I will be discriminated against. The Masjid committee has promised a job, hopefully it works,” he says.

Right to livelihood violated

Advocate Vinay Sreenivasa says that with their names deliberately read out and the video publicised, it has hurt the long-term prospects of employment for these men. “Their right to livelihood under Article 19 has been violated by the elected representatives and the BBMP. The reading out, the publication of the video, the WhatsApp messages by the supporterare an attack on the foundational ideas of the Constitution. The MP and MLAs who took their oath in the name of the constitution violated it by indulging in such blatant discrimination on religious grounds. The BBMP too in denying the rightful employment of these employees, just because they are Muslims has violated their right to Equality under Article 14; has indulged in religious discrimination which is prohibited under Article 15 and in bringing in discrimination in public employment has violated Article 16 of the constitution. The courts have held that the violation of fundamental rights will necessitate that the people discriminated against be provided compensation. The BBMP ought to compensate these men for the humiliation they suffered, for the loss of this job and harm to their future, for the attack on their dignity. Not doing so will mean that the constitution and law mean nothing to the BBMP or to our elected representatives,” he says.

Vinay points out that in many other democracies, those whose rights are violated feel free enough to approach the courts for compensation. 

“However, here, we are so feudal that it does not happen. And specifically in the case of Muslims, there has been so much targeting that they are even afraid to ask for their right to compensation, for the state to make amends and make amends for the assault on dignity. The actions of the MP and the MLAs were towards the goal of excluding Muslims from public spaces.”

TNM reached out to Tejasvi Surya for a reaction, this story will be updated when we receive one.

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