Protest in West Bengal

Print edition : August 15, 1998

A CROWD of about 3,000 people stopped the Howrah-bound Kurla Express from Mumbai at Ulubearia, 65 km from Calcutta, on the afternoon of July 23, demanding that a batch of 34 persons in the train be set free. These passengers, who included seven women, were Bengali-speaking Muslims, all zari workers. They had been "identified as Bangladeshis" and sent by the Maharashtra Government, with police escort, to be deported to Bangladesh at West Bengal's border town of Bongaon.

A section of the crowd even climbed on to the train, and the Maharashtra police personnel who were in the train fired five rounds in the air. The Railway Protection Force (RPF) too fired blank shots.Veteran Forward Bloc leader and Member of the Legislative Assembly representing Uluberia, Rabin Ghosh, who led the protesters, claimed that the deportees had valid documents to prove that they hailed from Barast, Bangaon, Uluberia, Howrah and Panchla in West Bengal.

On July 24, the RPF personnel, led by a Deputy Superintendent of Police, removed from the Down Kurla Express at Kharagpur another group of 38 Bengali-speaking Muslim workers coming from Mumbai, apprehending trouble. The persons, who included 13 Bangladeshis, were granted bail by the Fifth Judicial Magistrate of the Midnapore Subdivisional Court.The Left Front Government in West Bengal has taken exception to the way in which the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party Government of Maharashtra has been deporting Bengali-speaking Muslim zari workers from Mumbai, branding them Bangladeshis.

Muslim residents of Howrah, Midnapore, Hooghly and 24-Parganas districts are anxiously waiting for news from their relatives in Mumbai who are mainly engaged as zari, diamond, platinum and gold workers. Alauddin Mollah, one of them, told Frontline that he had not heard from his brother Salim Ali for over a month. He had heard about the raids conducted in parts of Mumbai where Muslim workers from West Bengal live.

The workers returning from Mumbai alleged that the Maharashtra Police made large-scale arrests of Muslims workers, mistaking all of them for Bangladeshi infiltrators simply because they spoke Bengali. "On July 9, the police raided a place under the Satra police station in Mumbai when my friends were asleep. The minute the police heard the terrified workers speak Bengali, they herded them into a van," Sheikh Dilwar, a resident of Bahira in Howrah district, said. Dilwar escaped being picked up since he was sleeping some distance away. News of the incident spread, and within days, almost all Bengali workers in Maharashtra left.

Immediately after the Uluberia incident, the West Bengal Government lodged a protest with the Centre and the Maharashtra Government on the issue of "deporting infiltrators". Describing the Shiv Sena-BJP Government's action as uncivilised, Chief Minister Jyoti Basu asked: "Are they dealing with cattle?" Admitting that infiltration from Bangladesh to West Bengal has taken place, he said that his Government had discussed the matter several times in the State Assembly. Steps were being taken to detect and deport such infiltrators, he said.

However, Jyoti Basu said that preliminary police reports revealed that among those sent back by Maharashtra, only five or six persons did not have proof that they were Indian citizens.

Reacting sharply to Union Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi's statement that the West Bengal Government was "lackadaisical" about detecting and deporting illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, West Bengal Home (Police) Minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya pointed out that the Maharashtra Police had earlier pushed about 800 people back to Bangladesh from West Bengal's border areas without informing the State Government about the action. He asserted that West Bengal had always taken action against Bangladeshi infiltrators, but not in this manner. The State Government would prosecute Bangladeshis found to be staying in West Bengal without valid papers and hand them over to the Border Security Force.

Bhattacharya, who is also the acting Chief Minister, told Frontline that the State Government would seek an explanation from the Shiv Sena-BJP Government as to why it did not seek the West Bengal Government's permission before sending its police personnel to West Bengal. "Even if some of the deportees are Bangladeshis, this is no way to send them back. Is a Deputy Commissioner of the Maharashtra Police authorised to decide on deporting illegal immigrants? Do they have sufficient proof to establish that they are Bangladeshis?"

Bhattacharya said that the State authorities had been given the impression that the Mumbai Police had a court order, but it was found that there was none.

The Left Front Government has moved the Calcutta High Court against the Maharashtra Government's deportation of those whom the West Bengal Government believes are residents of the State. Meanwhile, Justice Samaresh Banerjee of the High Court passed an order on July 24 restraining the police and other respondents from deporting three petitioners to Bangladesh or any other country. The petitioners produced voters' lists and other relevant documents to show that they were citizens of India. They were among the 34 people whom the Maharashtra Police was escorting to Bongaon.

In another case, Justice Banerjee directed the West Bengal Police on July 27 to allow six petitioners to go to their houses in Howrah after taking an undertaking from them that they would not leave their houses without leave of the court. The Judge passed this order on the application of six deportees who had been handed over by the Maharashtra Police to the West Bengal police with the request that they be deported to Bangladesh.

Political parties in West Bengal, including the Congress(I), are angry with Maharashtra's move. Buddhadev Bhattacharya was, however, not pleased with Congress(I) supporters' action of defacing the walls of Maharashtra Nivas in South Calcutta. The Forward Bloc, a partner in the Left Front Government, sent to Mumbai a four-member team led by State Irrigation Minister Debabrata Banerjee to study the condition of the zari workers from Bengal in Maharashtra. A Trinamul Congress team led by Ajit Panja, Member of Parliament, also visited Mumbai in this regard.

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