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August 6, 1998


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The Rediff Interview/Ajit Panja

'It is the policemen who are giving the Sena-BJP a bad name'

Trinamool Congress leader Ajit Panja, MP, came from Calcutta to Mumbai, to investigate the charges that the Maharashtra government was forcibly deporting Bengali Muslims to Bangladesh. After visiting some Bengali areas, Panja spoke to Pritish Nandy about his findings and blamed the Left Front government in West Bengal for the plight of Bengali Muslims in the city.

What were your first reactions on speaking to the Bengalis in Mumbai?

The community leaders strongly denied the charges. They denied the charges. They denied the charge that they were being discriminated against by the Sena-BJP government. In fact, they praised the way Bombay has treated them over the years.

But Pritishbabu, the poor slum dwellers are genuinely worried. Very worried. Their fear is not against discrimination in Bombay. They fear that by making this into a communal issue, a Bengali versus Maharashtrian issue, the Left Front government in West Bengal is actually hurting their livelihood. These people are very poor. They are here in Bombay because they can earn better daily wages from their professionals skills. They do not want to be caught in any political crossfire.

As far as they are concerned, they have nothing to do with the Bangladeshis and they are not, in any way, being persecuted out here. They want to live here peacefully and make a decent livelihood. They are angry with all this politicisation of the deportation issue and they fear that it might hurt their future in Bombay.

They are angry with Jyoti Basu and Buddhadeb Bhattacharya for making inflammatory statements in Calcutta that could hurt their future in Bombay.

Where and in which areas did you meet these slum dwellers?

In different parts of the city. In Santacruz, Wadala, Reay Road, Zaveri Bazar. They are very poor people and have been living here for years. They came running to us when our delegation arrived there. They felt comforted after talking to us. They were very worried with all this propaganda going on. Till now, they told us, they had not faced any problems. But they were worried about the future.

We met the police too. Also the chief minister and the deputy chief minister. They said: If there is one example of unfair deportation, please tell us and we will immediately act against the guilty persons. We are all quite confident that this controversy will quickly blow over. It is just another bogey raised by the Left Front to draw away attention from their own failures in West Bengal. After all, if the Marxists were capable of finding them jobs, would these people have left their homes and come away to Mumbai to fend for themselves in an alien environment?

What kind of jobs do these local Bengalis do?

They are mainly zari workers, goldsmiths and silversmiths, embroidery makers. Small craftsmen with amazing skills, who come here to Mumbai to earn (say) Rs 100 or Rs 200 extra per day than what they would earn at home. They live together in these appalling slums and have no problems with the locals at all. But, yes, in recent times, taking advantage of all this uproar, the police have started extorting them. This must stop. I have mentioned this to the government here and they have agreed to take all steps to ensure that the police do not take the law in their own hands. Extortion must stop immediately.

Are you convinced that these charges are false or are you covering up for the Sena-BJP government here just to embarrass the Left Front in West Bengal?

We are all convinced that the charges are false. We are going back satisfied and will be issuing a statement saying so, openly and unequivocally. There may be the occasional aberration and that must be corrected. But our impression is that such aberrations are very few and far between. For instance, the police are trying to take advantage of this deportation drive and are making money on the side. But can you blame the government for it?

The harassment, wherever it has taken place, is because of the police and that too at the lowest rungs. We have spoken to their bosses who admit that this is happening and must be stopped immediately. But then, as you know, the police are a problem everywhere. How can you blame the state government for it?

But the police is a state subject. It is the responsibility of the state government to ensure that the police do not harass, intimidate, extort citizens. If they do, they must be caught and punished.

I agree with you entirely. The paperwork is very shoddy. In many cases, the way they have gone about deporting these Bangladeshis -- the genuine Bangladeshis -- is entirely violative of human rights. We pointed this out. The government was very understanding but what can they do? They cannot check each and every case. They have to depend on the police and the courts. It is the policemen who are giving the Sena-BJP a bad name.

But, then, this is not in Mumbai alone. Ask the young Bengali boys here and they will tell you horror stories about how the West Bengal police harass them as well, when they go home during the festival time. How the police join hands with the blue porters in Howrah and Kharagpur railway stations to loot them when they get off the trains. They know the usual time of their arrival. Say, during Durga Puja. So they hang out there in the railway stations waiting to catch these boys returning home from Mumbai with cash or gifts for their old parents. With small items of jewellery for their sisters' weddings. They loot them, extort them, harass them.

These blue porters, as distinct from the red porters who are officially licensed by the railways, are aligned with the local CPM unions. They are part of the Left Front's goonda raj. They are the ones who harass these boys the most. And, of course, the police. They are a bad lot anywhere in India ...

So what was the final outcome of your visit?

We have explained to the government where they can set things right. Meanwhile, we are convinced that there is no deliberate attempt to deport Bengalis from this city. The ongoing deportations are aimed only at Bangladeshis, who are here as illegal immigrants and -- like any other nation of the world - India also has to keep deporting them back to the nation of their origin. The Maharashtra government has done nothing wrong.

In fact, it has proved its bonafides by staying all deportations till the Durga Puja. This was our request to them and they promptly agreed.

Nothing wrong! But the press reports that these immigrants have been put on trains, manacled and with leg irons on! Surely this is violative of human rights!

If they have been manacled and put in leg irons, that is something the police must be ashamed of. I have, in fact, clearly pointed this out to the chief minister and the deputy chief minister that the police is giving them a bad name. They must immediately take steps to tame the police or they will, in the process, acquire a terrible name and all the human rights bodies will hold them responsible for a crime they have played no part in. You should also talk to them, Pritishbabu. The Maharashtra government must not get a bad name because of the greed and avarice of the Mumbai police.

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