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The Illegals: Mumbai's Bangladeshis

By Mahesh Vijapurkar
February 24, 2010 15:30 IST
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Not a single Bangladeshi has been found to have been involved in security breaches or terror. But that does not mean aliens have a place of comfort when they illegally enter and stay in Mumbai, writes Mahesh Vijapurkar.

There is no doubt Mumbai and the region around the city has illegal Bangladeshis living there but a clear fix on their specific numbers is not available.

They could be in their thousands, and by what some -- hopefully informed people, despite the fact that they hold or held public office -- say, it could be in lakhs. All are guestimates at best.

According to Ramesh Bagwe, Minister of State for Home, their number in Maharashtra could be 3.5 lakh but when he talked to the media last week, he did not explain how this number was arrived at. There never has been a survey to determine that.

Then there is the number put out by Kirit Somaiya, former MP known for being a number cruncher, there are as many as 16 lakh in Mumbai Metropolitan Region, ten lakh of lakh of them within Mumbai municipal limits.

Big numbers

If one goes by Bagwe's estimate, then there are fewer than what Somaiya says. Even if they are fewer, they are a matter of worry. Worry because no self-respecting nation with a flag and an anthem and a system of issuing passports and needing visas for foreigners to enter the country would ever tolerate an alien. And alien, without legitimate documents for temporary stay, have no business to be here.

The numbers mentioned by Bagwe apparently include Pakistanis and other nationals as well. At a Maharashtra home department meeting, it was pointed out that many come legitimately and stay on after their travel documents have expired. It shows their ingenuity but throws up our administrators in very poor light indeed. Bangladeshis among illegal aliens are apparently the largest. Home Minister R R Patil now wants every person involved in preparing forged documents to be spotted and punished.

Tragic confusion

Talking of numbers, there is a tragicomic instance of how the public domain began to reverberate with 40,000 Bangladeshis in Mumbai. When the then state Chief Electoral Officer D K Shankaran, asked some people to prove their credentials and as many as 40,000 did not respond, they were dubbed 'foreigners' and media dubbed them 'Bangladeshis'. That number seems to persist in some quarters even now.

This happened, despite the then Chief Secretary Sharad Upasani pointing out that they were not determined foreigners but only those why may have not complied with the demand. The media ignored this clarification made moments after the election machinery goofed. Such is the quality of statistics which are bandied about in public.

Many have come across the border via West Bengal using agents who charged them a few thousand rupees and left them in Mumbai where they secured ration cards and voter identity cards using a mix of the corrupt bureaucracy as well as politicians, the former for money and the latter for votes, helping them.

Who is a Bangladeshi?

Once here, they pretend to be from West Bengal and claim to be domestic migrants so to say and assert their right to live here. The truth is that Maharashtra officials when asked to deport them find it hard to distinguish them from Bangladeshis though there are nuances which differentiate one from the other.

In fact, during the late 1990s, West Bengal had sought that Maharashtra seek its help to determine who is from Bangladesh and who from West Bengal but later, in another case of demographic changes in their own state, West Bengal had told the Supreme Court that it lacked both ability and means to do so.

The bottom line is no one knows for sure who is who if he is poor and is in a slum and speaks Bengali.

Who are these?

And no, they are not the Bangladeshis who came before, during and after the war which split Pakistan into two. They were put up in Dandakaranya rehabilitation camp, having come as refugees who declared themselves and found protection. Their rehabilitation, older generation of the population would remember, was funded by the small levy of a few paise on everything bought or sold, including on cinema tickets.

Why are the numbers so big now? There are several reasons.

One reason is that when, especially after the 1992-93 riots the exercise of locating and deporting them, especially from Mumbai continued, civil society protested. The protests were on the 'secular' platform, the logic being that since most were Muslims, they ought not to be sent packing. The argument was not that they were poor so one needed to be nice to them. The point missed was that even if on that count, they needed to come as refugees, not by stealth and pretend to be Indian citizens.

The past efforts

For long, from the time V N Deshmukh, who later retired as Maharashtra's intelligence chief was an official in Mumbai Police Special Branch, the Bangladeshi's were ferreted out and packed off, because of their illegal status which no sovereign nation would countenance their presence. This was done quietly.

In fact that official overcame corruption by paying each constable a token money from the secret funds at his department's disposal. That neutralised the temptation of the paltry bribes the Bangladeshi's offered the men on search-and-weed operations typically conducted between 2 and 5 am. Hundreds were thus spotted and deported.

The fanfare

The issue found greater attention when Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray began to demand that Mumbai should cease to be a dharamshala for Bangladeshis and linked all mischief in Mumbai to them. When his party and the Bharatiya Janata Party formed the government in Maharashtra, he asked then Chief Minister Manohar Joshi to start the hunt for them. Joshi realised that the state had a procedure to follow but Thackeray had threatened to have the Shiv Sena cadres undertake the job.

That nettled the Centre which sent then Union Home Minister Indrajit Gupta to Mumbai where it was decided that West Bengal would help determine if the suspects were Bangladeshis or West Bengalis. But nothing much happened; the issue took a backseat with the media losing its interest. The media, if you notice, has a short attention span in India.

From the statistics I have, 5,301 were deported between 1982 and 1994. From 1995 when the Sena-BJP government was formed, that is from 1995 to April 2005, as many as 4,908 were detected and deported. But during the process, some of those being sent by train towards the Indo-Bangla border were intercepted by CPI-M activists and freed when they traversed through West Bengal.

Now, the size

Now, according to officials, some 1,300 Bangladeshis were deported by Mumbai police in 2009 but the exact figures of such staying on is hard to pin down, they say. It is not that these are summery actions of the executive, a constable doing the job. The suspects are asked to prove their identity in a court and then only are their deportation ordered. That is big, indeed.

However, in a country where getting one's name included in the citizenship register is not mandatory or even a normal practice, the suspects could be wrongly be branded Bangladeshis but the larger risk is of the illegals staying on without being official refugees. Due diligence has to be carefully carried out. That is where the attention of the administration should focus now.

Another fact: so far, not a single Bangladeshi, legal or illegal, has been found to have been involved in any action that even bordered on security breaches or terror. But that does not mean aliens have a place of comfort when they illegally enter and stay in Mumbai, Maharashtra or any corner of India. No self-respecting sovereign nation can allow that.

Mahesh Vijapurkar is a senior journalist and commentator

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