THAT children from the Indian subcontinent are used as jockeys in camel races in some parts of the Gulf has been known for some time. But the detention of 34 Bangladeshis, including 16 young boys, at Bangalore's Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) Airport on September 12 indicates a new dimension to the problem - Bangalore may have become a gateway out of India for agents transporting Bangladeshi children to Gulf countries.
With Bangladesh tightening its emigration laws, making it difficult for agents to smuggle out children for camel racing and other purposes, recruiting agents began to bring the children into India and, often using false papers, flew them out of Calcutta or Mumbai to the Gulf. Once Indian immigration authorities at Calcutta and Mumbai airports became aware of this modus operandi, the going became difficult for the agents, who were forced to look for alternative exit routes. Bangalore airport seemed safe. It does not have a full-fledged international airport and its airport does not have permanently staffed immigration officials (local police officers are posted on temporary duty).
Assistant Commissioner of Police R. Subramani, who was manning the immigration post at the HAL airport, detained the group of Bangladeshis after he became suspicious, since all the children were boys and about the same age. Further, the age of some of the boys was declared in passports as 10 or 11, but none appeared to be above five years old.
Subramani said, "Some of the children even looked drugged and, when questioned, neither the parents nor the children were able to provide authentic answers. Although the names of the children had been included in the adults' passports, there was no official seal or signature. One person was not even able to tell me the child's name endorsed on his passport. Even the Indian visas lacked the official seal." Had the Bangladeshis not come in a group, said Subramani, it would have been difficult to discern if they were genuine visitors or part of an organised group.
In contrast to the case in Chennai, where the group of Bangladeshis detained are being considered victims of the agents, the adult members of the group detained in Bangalore were arrested under Sections 3 and 14 of the Foreigners Act (overstaying without valid documents) read with Sections 109 (abetting crime) and 471 (using a forged document as genuine) of the Indian Penal Code and taken into judicial custody. The children have been interned, along with the five Bangladeshi women prisoners, in Bangalore Central Jail.
Investigations by the Bangalore police indicated that the majority of those arrested were from villages in and around Dhaka and had been lured by the rags-to-riches stories of fellow Bangladeshis who had gone to the Gulf. Some of the persons arrested claimed that they were going to visit relatives in Dubai and Sharjah. Some others admitted that the boys were being taken to Sharjah to serve as camel jockeys. They said the money was good, up to 5,000 UAE dirhams (Rs.50,000) a month during the camel racing season. The parents were also promised jobs as gardeners and stable-hands.
One of the persons arrested Abdul Malek Patwari, said that his two sons were among the 16 children interned. He said, "I want my two children to take part in camel races. It earns me good money. Since it has become difficult to go from my country, I came to India." Others, however, denied any involvement in camel racing and said they had no idea about it. Alaya Begum, also arrested, said, "We took a train to Bangalore only because we wanted to save money. We are going to work legally. We only followed the advice given by our agent, who is known to our relatives, and came here." Some others said they were on a pilgrimage to Ajmer.
While the women claimed after their arrest that the children were their own, social workers who met the children have a different tale to tell. Aiyesha, a social worker with Janodaya, a public trust that does work with women prisoners, said, "When I first met the children, they were very disturbed, afraid and did not speak. The women had beaten them and told them not to speak to us, or even eat. But after a couple of days, the children, out of sheer hunger, began to eat and later talked to us. The children could have been kidnapped. The children are familiar with the women, having been with them for long, and have been trained to say that they are their mothers. But it comes out quite clearly that the women are not their mothers. After first saying that the women were their mothers, some of the children are now saying 'this is not my mother'."
A nun who met the children said that she did not believe that the boys were the children of the women. "Only one, at the most two, of the boys had their real mothers with them. The women had instructed the boys not to talk to us."
Some of the boys told Aiyesha that their fathers had come along with them and would take them back home.
According to Inspector H.T. Ramesh, one of the officers investigating the case, the group came to India in August and travelled by train to Chennai after visiting Delhi and Ajmer. From Chennai, they took a train to Bangalore on the day of their scheduled departure to Sharjah.
Agents in Chennai used the time when the group was in India to organise their travel papers. Though prepaid tickets had been issued from Sharjah, visas had not been obtained. According to the police, one of the agents, identified as Syed, had flown to Sharjah to receive the group. Two other agents who accompanied the group to Bangalore were absconding; another, Mohammed Tahir, was picked up along with the group.
Ramesh alleged that the operation was part of a network organised by agents who were operating in India, Bangladesh and the Gulf.