The outsiders

Print edition : November 29, 2013

Maharashtra Navnirman Sena activists marching for a rally against illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in Mumbai on August 21, 2012. Photo: VIVEK PRAKASH/REUTERS

MNS chief Raj Thckeray addressing the rally demanding action against the perpetrators of violence during the protests against he "Assam riots" on August 11. Photo: Shashi Ashiwal

By Anupama Katakam in Mumbai

“What kind of jobs are they talking about? We do work that nobody wants to do—ragpicking and garbage collection. That is not stealing anyone’s job.”

—Abdul Karim, a garbage sorter, who came from Bangladesh 10 years ago.

The issue of migration has always raised passions in Mumbai. In 1995, Bal Thackeray, the late Shiv Sena supremo, said the city had no place for illegal residents who were making the metropolis resemble a slum and who were taking jobs meant for the local people. “There are 20 million Bangladeshi residents in Mumbai and I will have the entire community exterminated,” he thundered. In August 2012, when a riot broke out at Azad Maidan during a rally held to protest against the killing of Bangladeshi Muslims in Assam, Thackeray again declared that he would not “tolerate Muslims from Pakistan and Bangladesh inside Maharashtra”.

Observers say Thackeray has often used the insider-outsider issue as a political weapon. It is believed that such rants brought the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) combine to power in Maharashtra in 1995. Last year, it brought victory to the party in the municipal elections.

Whether the same tactics will work again is a moot question. Most people Frontline spoke to say Mumbai has been scarred by communal violence and people here will not succumb to such political ploys that easily. It appears that the BJP’s systematic efforts at wooing the voter in Muslim-dominated neighbourhoods will not work. The Congress has been a let-down and, oddly, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), formed in 2006 after Bal Thackeray’s nephew, Raj Thackeray, broke away from the Shiv Sena, has managed to make some significant inroads into its minority vote base. Anwar Ansari, a wholesale garment manufacturer in Behrampada, said: “We don’t want the BJP because of [Narendra] Modi. We have tried the Congress many times. Let’s give the others a chance.”

Like the Shiv Sena, the MNS has often used the migrant issue to further its agenda. There have been several attacks on north Indians, minorities, and Bangladeshi migrants in the city in the recent past. Although whipping up passions on this front has worked in previous elections, this time it appears that political parties are looking at Mumbai’s minorities and migrants as significant vote banks.

Ansari believes that his community feels it is probably safer to get protection through party membership. When questioned about the rise in membership of Muslims in the party, MNS chief Raj Thackeray said “the party is all-inclusive unlike the Shiv Sena”. He had some convoluted theory about his party men targeting Biharis in 2008, saying they were outsiders while Muslims were not.

“The illegal immigrant and the Bangladeshi issues seem to arise when elections are on the horizon,” said Irfan Engineer of the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism. However, in Mumbai not only Bangladeshi immigrants, but people from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh, who form a large chunk of the immigrants within the State, are targeted.

According to National Sample Survey (NSS) 2001 figures, Maharashtra has close to 32.8 lakh “in-migrants”, who include 48,394 from abroad. Mumbai draws a large number of them. Engineer says it is practically impossible to get a figure on the number of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

“Soon after Thackeray’s speech, we conducted a study on the settlements, mainly to disprove his preposterous figure, and got a figure of 20,000 Bangladesh immigrants. It would have gone up in the past 15 years, but definitely not in the numbers Thackeray said,” Engineer said.

There has always been a method in creating communal tensions before an election. “Even now the memories of communal violence are very vivid. People have worked very hard towards keeping the peace in spite of deep polarisation. They understand it is politics and do not want to be used. Look how many incidents, including terror attacks, have taken place in the past few years, but there is no retaliation,” said Khatoon Sheikh, a social worker with the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan.

Illegal or irregular

Ever since 1995, when Shiv Sainiks, along with the police, hounded out hundreds of supposedly Bangladeshi families from slums across the city, Bangladeshi Muslims have tried to be inconspicuous. They live in constant fear of deportation. In several cases, even Bengali Muslims were deported to the border and left to fend for themselves in an alien country.

Several attempts by this correspondent to interview Bangladeshi immigrants fell through. “We are too frightened. They [police] can come at any time. I have already been deported once and do not want to go through that again,’ said Karim, 36, (name changed), one of those who spoke in confidence.

He lives in a makeshift hut on the pavement on the periphery of one of the slums that mainly houses immigrants from West Bengal, although it is understood that a good percentage of them are Bangladeshis.

“The police from the Special Branch always come at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. We sleep in fear of that knock on our door. The first time it happened to my family was 10 years ago. They dragged my father, mother, sister, younger brother and me out of the house and started shouting about producing papers. Luckily we had managed to get a ration card through some social workers, but they said it wasn’t enough,” said Karim.

The next day they were put on the Howrah Mail. It was full of other Bangladeshi families. From Howrah they were taken to Benapole on the Indian border and handed over to the Border Security Force. After this they were released into Bangladesh.

“We have nothing there. So we borrowed money from our relatives and came back to Mumbai,” said Karim. “Over the years, we have got a voter card and a ration card, so we are not illegal anymore. We continue to live in utmost poverty with no status at all. They just want our votes.”

Most Bangladeshi migrants are concentrated in four big slums in Mumbai: Dockyard and Reay Road, Antop Hill, Rafiq Nagar and Vashi. Engineer says they largely work in the zari (gold embroidery) industry, in sweatshops, at construction sites, at the docks, in wholesale markets, or as domestic labour.

“They are the cheapest labour,” said Engineer. “In fact, we believe the construction industry actually sources them from across the border for their cheap labour. Unfortunately, we are unable to provide any protection to them and they do not want it; when we tried they [declined], saying they will be found out.” Naseer Aslam Sheikh, 50, a garment worker, is from Murshidabad in West Bengal. Yet he is constantly taken to be a Bangladeshi. “They can’t tell the difference in our dialects so they round us up whenever there is an alert. These days, however, the political parties are trying to be good. Instead of targeting us, they are helping with ration cards and Aadhar cards. Now that many Bangladeshi families have been here for more than 30 years, they are legal and have become a vote bank,” said Sheikh.

The Bangladesh Muslim issue can be traced to 1971 when thousands fled to India during the liberation war. Those who came before 1971 were legalised. Again, in 1974, when Bangladesh witnessed a severe famine, thousands found their way to India. The migration has continued through the porous border In the late 1980s the BJP started raising the bogey of a security threat and the persecution began, said Engineer.

Hundreds of people from Bangladesh and West Bengal are languishing in jail for not being able to prove that they are Indian citizens. The authorities ask them to produce the domicile documents required under the Foreigners Act of 1946, but social workers say many of them are accused of producing fake documents.

“They are harassed on a daily basis,” said Simpreet Singh of the National Alliance of People’s Movement. “The conditions they live in are squalid, with no water or sanitation. On top of that they live in fear or deportation.”

Simpreet Singh said it was not sure whether the MNS’s hard work among Muslim voters would translate into votes. “They will target Biharis, who constitute barely 2.3 per cent of the population. But they will not touch the people of Uttar Pradesh, who are about 15-18 per cent, or even the Muslims, who form 18 per cent of Mumbai’s population.”

In a city of 124 lakh people according to Census 2011, almost everyone is a migrant other than the Kolis, the original inhabitants of Mumbai. “We would call them irregular rather than illegal,” said R.B. Bhagat of the International Institute of Population Studies in Mumbai. “We have to take a more humanitarian approach to the migrant issue.”