Even Before NRC, Mumbai's Bengali-Speaking Muslims Spent Years Trying to Prove Citizenship

Using a network of informers who then act like they are helping the families, the police allegedly targets Bengali-speaking Muslims. The state is already planning a detention centre for those held under the Foreigners Act and Passport Act.

Mumbai: Among the otherwise brightly-lit courtrooms of the metropolitan magistrate courts in south Mumbai, the gloomy room number 8 stands out.

Several unruly, makeshift wooden partitions and scaffolding from past renovation work gives this space a sense of impermanence. But this designated special court on the second floor of the three-storey colonial structure has existed for several decades, deciding fates of thousands who have been booked on the speculation of being a “foreigner”.

More than a few dozen litigants visit the courtroom, lined with cupboards and wooden benches, every day. Noorjahan Mandal*, a 33-year-old domestic worker from Mumbai’s Reay Road area, sits listlessly among the crowd, clutching a huge pile of documents that she has meticulously assembled over the past nine years to help her prove her nationality.

A matted ration card issued in early 2000 shows that she has been living in Mumbai for close to two decades. Her school-leaving certificate claims she has studied till Class Seven in a district-run school in West Bengal’s North 24 Parganas. Her laminated Aadhaar card too declares her a Mumbai resident.

While her documents establish that she is a Bengali-speaking Muslim from a border town in West Bengal, living in Mumbai for close to two decades, they are not good enough a marker to determine her Indian nationality. In 2011, the special branch of the Mumbai police had, on a “tip-off”, arrested Mandal while she was on her way to work as a domestic worker in a gated society in Wadala.

Mandal says she was turned in by a woman whose house she had been working in for a month. “The house owner refused to pay my monthly due. When I told her that I would take it up with the domestic workers’ association, she felt challenged. The very next day, I was detained by the police,” Mandal recalls.

She had to spend over four months in the Byculla women’s prison before her neighbours and a few friends raised Rs 15,000 for her bail. Mandal’s childhood friend, Sarita*, who was with her at the time of the arrest, was also detained, only to be soon released. “Sarita and I went to the same school, came to Mumbai around the same time. Our lives are almost identical besides the fact that she is a Hindu and I am a Muslim,” Mandal says.

Special designated magistrate court to conduct trials under the Foreigners Act and the Passport Act in Mumbai. Photo: Sukanya Shantha

Mandal’s is not a unique struggle. Her dilemma resonates with the several hundred Bengali-speaking Muslims living in Mumbai. The stretch between Mumbai Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus and Wadala, which is also known as the “harbour railway route”, has metamorphosed into contiguous, larger settlements for Bengali-origin Muslim migrants who have moved to Mumbai for work.

Mumbai’s process of screening and segregating Bengali-speaking Muslims has been an old one, much before the frenzy around the National Registry of Citizens (NRC) was triggered in Assam.

While the Foreigners Act and the Passport Act apply to any foreign nationals entering and residing in India without proper legal documentation, historically, the state has been seen using it primarily against those it’s suspected to be undocumented immigrants who crossed over from Bangladesh. From the 1990s onward, the Shiv Sena has milked this Bangladeshi bogey.

The state police have, from time to time, launched a large-scale combing operation in Mumbai’s Muslim pockets. The Maharashtra state government’s decision to set up an Assam-like detention centre in Nerul, on the outskirts of Mumbai, is only an extension of the frenzy whipped up decades ago.

Migration before Bangladesh was born

Among Mumbai’s migrants, some came to the region as early as in the 1960s, nearly a decade before Bangladesh was formed. Fifty-year-old Muzamin Shaikh, for instance, says he wasn’t even born when his father, Sameer Shaikh, came to Mumbai in search of a job. “My father came here when he was still a teenager, did several odd jobs, earned his living and finally built this house here in Reay Road. When he died, we buried him at a qabarastan nearby,” says Shaikh, who works as a mason.

He says, his father would recall his childhood in Bargaon village, somewhere in West Bengal’s Bardaman district. “We would dream of visiting our native place. But since we had no one living there, we never could,” Shaikh tells this reporter.

Also read: Gorkhas Excluded From NRC in Assam Say They Won’t Go to Foreigners’ Tribunals

But this simple reality did not deter the police when they launched a “concerted operation” to flush out “Bangladeshi infiltrators” from Reay Road. The police team, comprising over three dozen people, had barged into Shaikh’s house at 2 am on May 2, 2017. The police claimed they had received a tip-off that a Bangladeshi family had recently started living here. The police record claims Shaikh, on arrest, had accepted that he was a “Bangladeshi”. Shaikh, however, told The Wire he was beaten up and forcibly asked to accept the charges.

“They rounded us all up and took us to the police station. All the adults were taken along, and the kids were left behind with my sister-in-law who had delivered her second child only two days before the raid. They beat me and my son up for two days continuously,” Shaikh says.

The Reay Road railway station in Mumbai. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In all, six people were arrested, and they had to spend between three and seven months in jail before being released on a bail of Rs 15,000 each, summing up to Rs 1.5 lakh – an amount too large for a family working as daily wagers. Since their arrest, and eventual bail, Shaikh has lost several jobs, and also the zeal to fend for his family. “I have had to keep visiting the court, which kept me away from work,” he says. His wife, Rahima, has meanwhile stepped in and has ever since been working as a domestic worker to care for the family.

The inconsistency in the police action can be seen from the charges levelled against Shaikh’s family. While Muzamin and his family were booked, the police did not initiate any action against his other blood relatives living in the same locality. “By the police’s logic, they should have been identified as undocumented immigrants too. But since the informer showed them just our house, they were spared,” Muzamin points out.

After two years, and on having changed a few lawyers and spent a few lakhs on the trial, additional chief metropolitan magistrate H.B. Sirsalkar on August 19 finally acquitted Shaikh and his family of all charges. “It is a bittersweet feeling. My family is under huge debt. Although the court has given a favourable order, who will pay up for all the expenses incurred in the process of proving our nationality?” Rahima asks.

On August 31 this year, as many as 19 lakh residents of Assam were excluded from the NRC, leaving them virtually stateless until their appeals before the Foreigners’ Tribunals are decided upon. A few days after the list was published, Union home minister Amit Shah declared that the NRC will soon be registered across India and “all illegal immigrants will be thrown out of the country through legal means”. Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat said, “I assure you, not a single Hindu will have to leave this country because of NRC.” The NRC is only meant for non-Hindu minorities, primarily Muslims, he implied.

Soon after Shah made his statement on September 18, Rahima contacted this reporter to find out if her family would have to go to another tribunal to prove their nationality. “Will we have to go through the trial again? Will we be sent out of Mumbai?” she asked.

Also read: ‘There Is a Road Named After My Family. Is That Not Proof I Am Assamese?’

In Mumbai’s suburbs, the process of finding a place to set up a detention centre had already begun in June this year. Maharashtra’s principal secretary (special), home, Amitabh Gupta said that a centre to accommodate 50 inmates would be soon built in Nerul, Navi Mumbai. “We were informed by the Special Branch-II of the Mumbai police that a centre to accommodate at least 50 persons should be set up. While we are looking for a permanent centre, we have already identified a temporary one and the work on acquiring it is already underway,” Gupta told The Wire. He further added that the state home department had started the work of scouting for a place soon after the centre had sent out a directive to each state in this regard.

Advocate Aslam, who has been handling several cases under the Foreigners Act, sometimes even pro bono, says the law has been an active tool in the hands of the state to terrorise and victimise the Muslim community. “Most cases end up in an acquittal. These people are all dependent on their day’s income for survival. You put them in jail, and you snatch away their livelihood. Their arrests have only helped the state create a discourse of “illegal Bangladesh immigrants” in the country,” he says.

The Wire reached out to the state CID and special branch-1, which handles immigration cases, but they were unwilling to comment for the article.

The missing numbers

In most Muslim pockets across Mumbai and the adjoining Thane district, raids are periodically carried out as a concerted exercise between the local police and the intelligence bureau of the state CID. National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) data indicates that after West Bengal, Maharashtra and Karnataka have most numbers of cases registered under the Foreigners Act. Police officials claim that suspected Bangladeshis outnumber other foreigners migrating to these states. Among these suspected Bangladeshis, almost all are Bengali-speaking Muslims.

There is no way to ascertain how many of those migrating to the city are actually Indian nationals. The state police call it “classified information” and do not make the data of those booked and tried under the Foreigners Act public. The NCRB data was last made available in 2016. Just going by the orders uploaded on the district court’s website, it becomes clear that every second case ends in an acquittal.

According to data provided by the Ministry of Home affairs, between 2015 and March 2018, as many as 1,770 “Bangladeshi nationals” were repatriated, an average of around 400 every year. Senior officials in the Bangladesh High Commission told The Wire that the figures are not even one-third of how many get arrested every year. The NCRB data show around 245 cases, implicating multiple persons, have been registered in Maharashtra alone between 2014 and 2016.

Acquittal, however, doesn’t ensure that the person is free from further legal hurdles. “Even after the courts here convict a person under the law, their repatriation can be completed only after a local contact is established in their parent country. In many cases, contact can’t be established and the arrested person ends up in prison for much longer than the stipulated period,” a senior official in the Bangladesh High Commission, privy to the process, told The Wire.

The police-informer nexus

The police are heavily dependent on informers, who most often are locals living and working around the same area. The demand-supply chain is well oiled and the informers, who the locals identify as “dalal” or broker, work as both informer and later as a rescuer for those reported. While the informers ensure the police have their yearly quota of cases, in most cases it is the local Bengali-speaking Muslim families who become the police’s targets.

Also read: ‘New India’ Will Soon Need Its Own Gulags

The Wire met one such informer outside the metropolitan magistrate court in August. A 20-something man, he identified himself by his first name, Irshad. He claimed to have come to the court to meet a lawyer to help a family of three picked up in a police raid a week before. He claimed that he was related to one of the arrested persons. Irshad, in a low voice, spoke to a lawyer, who he seemed to be already acquainted with. He was also familiar with the court proceedings and several investigating officers who were attending the court hearings.

Later, when he left the court, a relative of one of the persons arrested told this reporter that Irshad was, in fact, the one who had aided the police in the raid. “He is now demanding Rs 60,000 to get all three released. He says he will ensure that we don’t land in any further trouble. It is all pre-set,” the relative said.

Children the biggest victims

When the state targets adults, it is children who face the worst kind of isolation and uncertainty. As soon as the police arrests “suspicious” adults, their children get sent to institutional care centres in the city.

These children, unsure of their education and future, end up waiting for years before the courts decide on their parents’ nationality, which in turn also decides both their nationality and fate. Vijay Doiphode, the chairperson of the Child Welfare Committee (CWC) in Mumbai city, says at least a dozen children get referred to children’s homes every month. Doiphode, before being appointed CWC chairperson, had worked as a child rights activist for over two decades. “In most cases, these children have been leading a normal life. Suddenly, overnight, their parents are branded as criminals. Most children go through acute anxieties in the process,” Doiphode says.

He further adds that in most children’s homes, these children are neglected. “At least with other children, there is some clarity on how long they would stay in the homes, and that on being released they can continue with their education. But with such children (whose parents are booked under the Foreigners Act), there is no certainty and the institutional care ends up neglecting them completely,” he says.

Strains on familial ties

Not just children, adults too find it hard to cope with the uncertainties of this long-drawn legal process. Amit Sahaskar*, a Thane-based social worker, was booked for “abetting” the stay of a Bangladeshi woman in the city. The woman in question here is his wife Abeda*, who the police have booked for being an undocumented immigrant. Sahaskar says his wife has lived all her life in the Thane suburbs, and doesn’t have any other place to call home. Her parents had migrated in the 1980s from West Bengal, according to him.

Advocate Willson Gaikwad has been handling immigration cases for nearly a decade. Photo: Sukanya Shantha

So how did the couple run into legal trouble? In early 2017, Abeda’s distant relatives, also living in Thane district, were picked up by the special branch of the CID. The Sahaskar couple had visited the police station to help them with legal assistance, and were arrested too. Since then, the two have been released on bail and the trial is yet to begin.

If proven guilty, Abeda, along with the mandatory six months sentence, would have to be repatriated to Bangladesh, where she says she has no family members. “I am a Maharashtrian and she is a Bengali Muslim. If we fail to prove our case, it will not just impact our marriage but also our new-born child,” Sahaskar says.

Also read: Goodbye Citizenship, Hello ‘Statizenship’

Willson Gaikwad, a human rights lawyer and expert on immigration law, says as soon as one person from a family gets arrested, relatives cut them off. “The moment someone comes forward to help, they get arrested too. I have come across so many clients who have lost their relatives and friends because of this fear,” Gaikwad says.

Women are particularly likely to be abandoned, human rights experts point out. Legal researcher and lawyer Archana Rupwate, as a part of her past job with the Human Rights Law Network, would visit women prisoners across Mumbai. She says, “These women would wait forever in the hope of someone to offer help. And in the absence of any external help, these women inmates fail to gather the required documents and end up in the jail much longer than the stipulated period under the law.” Mumbai prisons have a disproportionately high number of men and women booked under the Foreigners Act and Passport Act, a jail authority confirms.

The Foreigners Act, Rupwate says, has in most cases been used to only disenfranchise an already marginalised community. “Almost all of them are landless, Dalit-Muslim converts, illiterate and come from the poverty-stricken border districts of West Bengal.”

Gaikwad, from his experience of handling such cases, says that once a person is convicted by the lower court, the chances of filing an appeal is low. “There are just a handful high court and apex court judgements for reference. The accused persons end up exhausting all their resources in the trial court itself and seldom file for appeal,” Gaikwad says.

*Name changed to protect the person’s identity.