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The Rediff Special/Syed Firdaus Ashraf

'Get up. It's the police. We are searching for Bangladeshi nationals'

Photographs: Jewella C Miranda

Knock, knock!

Bangladeshi nationals "Who is it?" says a shaky voice from inside a small hut at the Shri Sainath Nagar zopadpatti. In the hutments near the Reay Road railway station in south Bombay, such unexpected callers are not unusual. And most of them come in the dead of night.

"Get up. It's the police. We are searching for Bangladeshi nationals," said the stern voice outside -- at two in the morning.

No, this is not a Hitchcockian drama. But a real life experience faced by Bengali Muslims at the hands of the Bombay police. Ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena combine came to power in March 1995, a series of search operations have been launched to flush out Bangladeshi nationals from the metropolis.

"I am an Indian citizen and have been living in Bombay for the last 20 years. But still, these policemen do not believe me. Every fortnight they come and ask the West Bengali Muslims in our area to prove that they are Indians," says Mohammad Nur-ul-Islam, a native of Tangra in West Bengal.

Bangladeshi nationals Bengali Muslims and Bangladeshis are mainly spread over five areas in Bombay: Around the Reay Road and Dockyard Road railway stations, Antop Hill, Wadala, Mira Road and Thane.

With no tap water in any of these houses and no lavatory facilities, they live under extremely unhygienic conditions. In fact, men and women squat on the railway tracks, while children defecate on the roadside.

The average per month income of these Bengali Muslims and Bangladeshis approximately amounts to Rs 2,500. Poor economic conditions force these people to leave their villages and migrate to Bombay. Unlike other organised communities, these migrants have no community leader. Often the most educated among them has studied only up to class 10.

Seeking refuge in the city's many slums, they are mostly employed as labourers or are self employed. The women folk work as bais (household workers) in middle class homes.

Says Issauddin Shaikh, a handcart puller from Malda district of West Bengal: "Six months ago the policemen forcibly took me and charged a case against me -- by stating that I am a Bangladeshi national. Next they deported me to the Bangladesh border."

Although Issauddin holds a proper ration card and an Election Commission identity card, the police did not pay any heed. He was then accused of bribing government officials for procuring fake cards.

Bangladeshi nationals Grieves his wife Negjan Bibi: "My son Mehboob was only 18 months then. He was suffering from tuberculosis. I pleaded with the policemen not to take away the sole earning member of my family. But they didn't listen and deported my husband."

The police operation works on informers, or khabris in police parlance. The Bombay police have a staff who collect information about suspect foreigners. The information is then verified through confidential inquiries conducted by the Bombay police's special branch.

Special branch officers visit the place and ask the concerned suspect to show any of the following documents to prove his national status: Birth certificate, school leaving certificate, ration card, electoral identity card or domicile certificate.

"These policemen never believed me when I showed them all these documents," rues Issauddin.

Even women are not spared.

"The lady police constables drag the women folk out at odd hours in the night. And sometimes when they don't come, the male policemen do the needful. They are drunk and abuse us for no reason," says Negjan Bibi.

As per police records, a total of 8,103 illegal migrants have been deported since 1982. Interestingly -- according to the migrants -- they are not handed over to the Border Security Force, but are left in no man's land, which makes it easy for them to come back to India.

The law, however specifies, that the migrants have to be handed over to either of the following check posts: Bangao, Krishna Nagar, Haridaspur, Seema Nagar, Kalyani and Sukhiya on the India-Bangladesh border.

Bangladeshi childrens Though very much in place, these measures have not been successful in removing Bangladeshis from Bombay. And after many such 'flushing out' operations, they continue to remain a part of the city.

Armed with ration cards and domicile certificates, they fulfill the technical requirements for an Indian citizens. And those who don't, keep moving from one place to another in order to protect their identity.

"I came to India in 1982. I wandered through Calcutta, Kanpur, Rajasthan and in 1978 I finally settled down in Bombay," says Mohammad Abdul Karim. A grocery shop owner from Bangladesh, Karim hails from Rajsai near the Malda border at the Kalyani check post.

Yet, today, Karim is an Indian citizen. Like other West Bengali Muslims, he possesses a ration card as well as an election card. In fact, Karim didn't have to bribe the rationing officers -- it was not difficult to get a ration card ten years ago.

"I have five children now. They study in government schools. How can the police throw me out of this country today by stating that I am a Bangladeshi? If I go to Bangladesh where will my children go?" argues Karim.

Bangladeshi childrens As a person adept at Bengali, it is easy for Karim to recognise a Bangladeshi. Bangladeshis speak a different dialect as compared to the Bengali spoken in West Bengal. However, it is very difficult for a lay person to distinguish between the two languages.

"The Bombay police cannot differentiate between a Bengali Muslim and a Bangladeshi. Almost every month, they come and ask me about Bangladeshi Muslims without realising the fact that I hail from Bangladesh," chuckles Karim.

Agrees Momina Khatoon. Originally a Bangladeshi, Momina became an Indian citizen 20 years ago. "The problem with these policemen is that their information is completely based on their informers. And sometimes they too do not understand Bangla. So, they always deport wrong people," she says.

Momina came to India from Bangladesh with her family after the Indo-Pak war in 1971. She works as a housekeeper with a family in Reay Road, and has had no connection with Bangladesh since her arrival in India.

However, once they become Indian nationals, Bangladeshis hardly ever return to their native land.

"Why should we go?" asks Mohammad Aziz, a garage worker. "After all the chief minister of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu, hails from Bangladesh. And the home minister of India, L K Advani, hails from Pakistan. Why doesn't anybody question their national identity and asks them to leave for their native states?"

Bangladeshi childrens Asked why the BJP-SS government is targeting them in particular, Aziz says: "Because they are biased against Muslims. They have nothing against Nepali gorkhas who too are in equal numbers in the city."

Their mistrust for the state government is evident. When this correspondent asked about 50 Bengali Muslims and Bangladeshis whom they voted for in the general election -- it was either the Congress or the Samajwadi Party. In fact, Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray said that Bangladeshi Muslims were one of the major reasons for the defeat of Sena candidates.

Meanwhile, after the Calcutta high court ordered a stay on the deportation, there has been a sense of jubilation in the migrants' camp.

"Ever since the SS-BJP government came to power. We have been in constant fear. I hope the stay continues so that we can at least live in peace," says Mohammad Ismail.

Special Editorial Assistance: Ujjal Halder

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