The deportation drive

Print edition : August 15, 1998

The Maharashtra Government has suspended the deportation of alleged illegal immigrants from Bangladesh but insists that it will send back those people who do not provide proof of citizenship.

THE Maharashtra Government has suspended until October 1 the drive to deport "Bangladeshis" allegedly living as illegal immigrants in Mumbai. Chief Minister Manohar Joshi announced this at a press conference on August 1 after a three-member Trinamul Congress delegation, which was ostensibly on a fact-finding mission, met him.

The deportation controversy broke out after thousands of protesters, led by Rabin Ghosh, a Forward Bloc member of the West Bengal Assembly, attacked the Kurla-Howrah Express carrying 34 alleged illegal Bangladeshi immigrants at Uluberia station in West Bengal on July 23. It resulted in a stand-off between the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party Government in Maharashtra and the Left Front Government in West Bengal and, at the national level, between the Hindutva camp and the secular forces.

The suspension of the deportation operation seems to have been designed to boost the Trinamul Congress' stock in its West Bengal base by way of a quid pro quo: before Joshi made the announcement, delegation leader Ajit Panja, a former Union Minister, in effect told a press conference that there seemed to be nothing very wrong with the deportation operation and that the West Bengal Government, particularly Home Minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya, had behaved irresponsibly, needlessly vitiating the atmosphere.

According to K.C. Shrivastav, Maharashtra's Additional Chief Secretary (Home), the suspension of the operations pertains only to the actual despatch of the "Bangladeshis" to the border, to be handed over to the Border Security Force (BSF). He told Frontline that the process leading to the deportation, including identification and investigation of suspects, would however, continue.

Bengali-speaking Muslims at their Reay Road dwellings in Mumbai.-VIVEK BENDRE

The Calcutta High Court, through its orders passed on July 24 and 27, has already stayed until mid-August the deportation drive. The Maharashtra Government's understanding of the orders, however, is that they apply only to the nine persons who sought the court's protection. While the West Bengal Government and the secular forces say that the expulsion of Bengali Muslims, who are Indian nationals, is being carried out under the pretext of weeding out illegal aliens, the Maharashtra Government, supported by the BJP-led Government at the Centre, has asserted that all the deportees are Bangladeshi infiltrators identified as such through a process in which the judiciary has a role.

What makes it difficult to accept the Shiv Sena-BJP Government's protestations at face value, granted that the ranks of the deportees include a few Hindus, is the known anti-Muslim stance of the Hindutva forces. The general awareness of this stance lends credibility to the assertion of many of the victims that they are Bengali-speaking Indians and not Bangladeshis.

Indications are that the State Government has grossly overestimated the number of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in Mumbai. Deputy Chief Minister Gopinath Munde is on record as having said that there are more than one lakh such immigrants in the city. On the other hand, the 1991 census found that the total Bengali-speaking population in Maharashtra was 1,61,497. A spokesman of the office of the Director of Census Operations (Maharashtra) told Frontline that the district-wise break-up of this figure was being worked out. Asked whether the question of the Bengali-speaking people's nationality had been canvassed during the course of enumeration, he replied in the negative.

The State Government has put out figures to show that Bangladeshis illegally residing in Mumbai were being deported on a regular basis long before the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance assumed power. According to those figures, while 582 persons were deported in 1998 up to July 24, in all 8,013 persons have been deported since 1982.

But the figures tell a tale different from the one the Government wants them to. The largest number of people deported in any year before the Shiv Sena-BJP combine took office is 750, in 1991. Only in one other year, 1990, was the 700 mark crossed. On the other hand, the figure for 1996, the Manohar Joshi Government's first full year in office, is 771 and that for 1997 is 806. The deportation of 582 "Bangladeshis" this year took place in just 205 days. Forward projection provides a figure of 1,035 for the full year.

By the Government's own admission, 96 persons on the deportation list were put on trains bound for West Bengal in just three days, between July 20 and 22. It is futile for the Government, therefore, to pretend that the deportation operations were not stepped up.

It is conjectured that the intensification of the drive is directly connected with the approach of the August 16 deadline for the tabling in the Legislative Assembly of the report of the Srikrishna Commission, which inquired into the communal riots in Mumbai in December 1992 and January 1993. The speculation is based on reports to the effect that the commission has indicted Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray and other leaders of the party.

How does the Mumbai Police identify suspected illegal immigrants? Additional Commissioner of Police Raj Khilnani said that the beat staff of individual police stations would collect information. After preliminary enquiries, the police stations hand over the information to the Special Branch of the city police. Inspectors and sub-inspectors of the Special Branch then pursue the enquiries. The suspects would be asked to furnish documentary evidence of their citizenship status.

Stating that Section 9 of the Foreigners Act, 1946, placed the burden of proof on the suspect, Shrivastav said that any one of at least six categories of documents was accepted as proof of citizenship. These included birth certificates, domicile certificates, school leaving certificates, ration cards, identity cards issued by the Election Commission and passports. Asked how ration cards and school leaving certificates could constitute proof of citizenship, the Additional Chief Secretary said that the State Government had adopted a liberal approach. On the other hand, Khilnani said that ration cards by themselves would not be accepted as proof of nationality.

Getting off a police van before being produced in court.-VIVEK BENDRE

Suspects who are unable to furnish the relevant documents are produced before a metropolitan magistrate, who is given the police report. Ordinarily, the magistrate would remand the suspects for a week, during which period a friend, relative or legal representative of a suspect may procure one or more of the required documents. While Khilnani said that the time given was a week, liable to be extended to a fortnight if the need for extension is explained to the satisfaction of the magistrate, Shrivastav said that the suspects would be given a fortnight to procure evidence and that in rare cases even an extension for a week would be considered. Only if no proof of Indian citizenship was provided at the end of the time granted would a suspect be deported, Shrivastav and Khilnani maintained.

The places where the police search for illegal Bangladeshi immigrants are shantytowns and concentrations of pavement-dwellings on the harbour branch of the Central Railway's suburban services. Bengali-speaking slum-dwellers and pavement-dwellers, most of them Muslims, eke out a living in the zari and jewellery trades and as casual workers. Even Indian citizens among slum and pavement dwellers do not ordinarily keep documentary proof of their citizenship for production at short notice.

One can be an Indian citizen by virtue of birth in the country, by virtue of either of one's parents having been born in the country, or through registration (naturalisation).

The registration of births is not a very common practice in all parts of the country. So a Muslim from West Bengal who is resident in a Mumbai slum may not have either his own birth certificate or the birth certificate of either of his parents. Not too many of them would have gone to school. And voter identity cards have been issued to only a fraction of the total number of voters. Evidence of ownership of land in a West Bengal village may be accepted as proof of Indian citizenship, but how many slum-dwellers would own land?

Suppose the evidence of a suspect's Indian citizenship is available in the records of the panchayat of a West Bengal village, will a slum-dweller in police custody be in a position to get someone else to procure the evidence? .

There have been several complaints of policemen picking up Bengali-speaking Muslims at random and abusing the procedure in order to extort money. There have also been complaints of policemen destroying documents on the ground that they are fake.

Mahendra Singh, Secretary of the Mumbai District Committee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said that he had learnt after a visit to Bangalipura that the police declined to accept Bengali-language documents as proof of Indian citizenship and demanded an English version. According to his information, only 10 of the 34 deportees in the train that was attacked at Uluberia were Bangladeshis.

The issue provoked a storm in the Maharashtra legislature. Notice of a motion of no-confidence against Assembly Speaker Datta Nalavade was given on the ground of bias in the conduct of proceedings pertaining to the issue. The Chief Minister held out the prospect of a Maharashtra bandh in protest against West Bengal's stand on the question and threatened to withhold protection to those who opposed the bandh. Both he and his Deputy Chief Minister have asserted more than once that the Government will persist with the policy of deporting illegal immigrants.

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