Bengaluru: On 9 June 2022, a police search unit burst into a waste segregation centre overflowing with plastic waste, alongside which nearly 40 people lived in corrugated iron sheds with no sewers or electricity.
From the ramshackle slum of Shikaripalya on the southern edges of Karnataka’s capital city are visible the glass-and-steel towers of Electronics City, one of the largest info-tech hubs in a metropolis made famous by its felicity in serving clients around the world.
Shikaripalya is unknown even in Bengaluru, but it is one of many slums that process, segregate and otherwise manage some of the garbage generated by more than 11 million people. Without them, Bengaluru’s landfills would fill up quicker than they already do, with the process often requiring court intervention.
When the police descended on Shikaripalya—as they have on other slums like it with increasing frequency this year—they randomly accosted some of the labourers and demanded proof, said the workers, that the men, women and children living there were not illegal Bangladeshi immigrants.
The police have denied illegal detentions and allegations that their sweeps focussed on Bengali-speaking Muslims, despite evidence to the contrary. That there are Bangladeshi migrants in Bengaluru is not in dispute, but the search for them is being conducted in a manner that is traumatising and violative of the rights of Bengali-speaking Indian Muslims, said lawyers.
Police raids for Bangladeshis, said Bengali-speaking Muslim labourers we spoke to in five slums, were common. Every few weeks, policemen from the local Hebbagodi police station came with lathis in hand to “verify” the citizenship of the workers, almost all Bengali-speaking Muslims.
The latest of these came on 18 June, when policemen from the Hebbagodi police station entered a labour camp, reportedly beat labourers, alleging they were "Bangladeshis" and demanded that the recycling unit be closed. While the police denied the incident to Deccan Herald, medical reports seen by Article 14 and CCTV grabs suggest that two people suffered serious injuries in the raid.
Despite providing identity proofs—some of which are illegally procured, according to the police—many face harassment and days in police lockups, a violation of constitutional rights, said lawyers.
Used to the raids, garbage-handling supervisors in Shikaripalya have a file with names and multiple identity proofs for every worker who lives there.
On the afternoon of 9 June, two Shikaripalya supervisors, who are brothers, were taken to the police station. The police insisted the documents they proffered, which included Aadhaar cards, voter identification cards and even an income-tax filing, were fake.
By the end of the day, one of two brothers, M—who requested us not to use his name for fear of police retaliation—was kept in the station lock-up, while his brother was released.
‘What More Is Needed To Prove We Are Indian?’
Section 167 of the Code of Criminal Procedure 1973 requires the police to produce those accused of a crime before the “nearest” magistrate within 24 hours. This did not happen with any of the “suspected illegal immigrants”, even though two of the four detained had submitted identity documents.
“We’ve shown our Aadhaar card. We’ve shown ration, labour and voter ID cards,” M’s brother told Article 14. “What more is needed to prove that we are Indians?”
The 33-year-old from Rejinagar village in West Bengal’s Murshidabad district has lived in Bengaluru for 12 years. He was anxious as he spoke, describing his past experience in a Bengaluru police lock-up.
In 2018 he was detained and then sent to jail for 12 days on a charge he still knows nothing about. All he remembered, he said, was that he was repeatedly asked to prove he was Indian.
“Our only crime is that we are Bengali, and we are Muslim,” said M’s brother.
The police told Article 14 that he would be released only if West Bengal authorities sent an e-mail to the Hebbagodi police confirming that they were citizens of India.
On the afternoon of 13 June, five days after he was placed in illegal police custody, M was released. The local sarpanch or head of the village council back home had written an email to the police confirming he was from there.
“Even then, when I went the next day to collect my mobile that had been seized, the police officer insisted I was Bangladeshi,” said M. “I know this is not the last time I’ll be called to the police station.”
Bengali-Speaking Muslims Must Prove They Aren’t Bangladeshis
The sweep through Shikaripalya was the latest instance of police harassment and illegal action against Bengali-speaking Muslims as they intensified their ‘drive’ to identify illegal Bangladeshi immigrants.
Officials have made “verification visits” to slums and garbage-segregation sites where a majority of the workers are Bengali-speaking Muslims.
Everyone that Article 14 spoke to, all Bengali-speaking Muslims, in five slums spoke of an increasing frequency of police visits over the past year. On most occasions, they alleged, the harassment ended when they bribed police, the average of a week’s wage or Rs 2,500.
R Kaleem Ullah, the national vice president of the All India Shramik Swaraj Kendra, an advocacy group that provides healthcare and legal support to labourers, said received daily calls about police harassment from waste pickers.
“The entire drive is a sham,” said Kaleem Ullah. “The police know who is an illegal immigrant and who isn’t. In the guise of verification drives, they find a way to extort money from labourers and landowners. If one doesn’t pay, labourers are called to the police station and accused of being Bangladeshi.”
Inspector general of police (IGP) M Chandrashekhar denied allegations of bribery. He said only those suspected of being illegal immigrants were called to the police station.
The focus on Bengali Muslims is not new for Bengaluru. In late 2018, the local member of the legislative assembly (MLA), Arvind Limbavalli of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), claimed that “lakhs” of Bangladeshi nationals had entered Bengaluru illegally and were a “national security” threat.
A few days later, Bengaluru’s city corporation deployed bulldozers to raze a slum housing at least 3,000 people. Nearly 20 sheds were razed before the High Court intervened, ordering a status quo and staying the eviction notice.
‘Citizens Can’t Be Detained Until They Provide ID Proof’
In 2020, Limbavalli again claimed a slum in his constituency hosted Bangladeshi immigrants. This time bulldozers razed over 200 sheds before the High Court intervened, again, and admonished the Bengaluru police for forced evictions without due verification or process.
“The police can legally ask for documents and find immigrants. This has the sanction of the ministry of home affairs, who have sent multiple orders and circulars,” said Clifton D’Rosario, an advocate who had argued on behalf of slum dwellers during the 2020 demolition drive.
“But the constant harassment is constitutionally impermissible. Article 21 (of the Indian Constitution, 1949) accords the right to life and dignity to not just citizens but to anyone in the country,” said D’Rosario.
The targeting of specific communities or professions, argued D’Rosario, represented “collective criminalisation” and an effort to place the burden of proof on anyone the police suspected of being illegal immigrants.
“This is impermissible under the law,” said D’Rosario. “Citizens can’t be detained until they provide proof of their identity.”
Kaleem Ullah of the All India Shramik Swaraj Kendra alleged police sweeps were part of a larger social project to alienate Muslims.
“There are Bangladeshi nationals who are living here illegally. There are Rohingya refugees who are living here with refugee cards,” said Kaleem Ullah. “But, with these drives, the police makes it clear that if anyone is Bengali and Muslim, they are not Indian and they should be evicted.”
The Focus On Bengali-Speaking Muslims
There are no data to indicate that the police sweeps focus on Bengali Muslims. But from interviews with workers, supervisors and factory owners, it appeared only Bengali-speaking Muslims were subject to additional scrutiny and abuse.
On the eastern outskirts of the city, in a slum we visited, there were 20 Biharis and nearly 130 Bengali Muslims who sorted and recycled waste. Each time the police visited, the Muslims were singled out for harassment, said Sanju Kumar, the Bihari Hindu supervisor of the factory.
Another waste recycling centre in a southern suburb was run by a Hindu manager, with a majority of the workforce Bengali Hindus.
“The police come here but they don’t harass us. I’ve openly told them we have an elderly couple who have come from Bangladesh and who work here,” said the manager, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They told me to drive them away. But they didn’t force the issue. They know that they are too old and poor.”
The elderly couple, aged 85 and 70, were indeed Bangladeshis, crossing the border nearly six years ago. Their son was mentally-challenged, and after their daughter was married, they decided to migrate. Their choices were either to starve, they said, in their village in Pirojpur district in Bangladesh, or undertake the journey to India.
They paid Rs 30,000 to a local agent, slipped past an Indian Border Security Force check post and after a day’s halt in Kolkata, made their way to Bengaluru, where they have lived ever since in a slum.
“We pose no threat to anyone, and we aren’t scared,” said the elderly man, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We have nothing to lose but our lives. All we want is a plate of food.”
‘The Police Have Not Detained Anybody’
At a press conference on 11 June, the Bengaluru rural police announced the arrest of nine people, including three from Bangladesh. One of the arrested ran a garbage waste recycling centre.
The “gang”, as the police described them, was accused of falsifying records to provide Aadhaar cards and other documents to people suspected to be illegal immigrants. The police said they suspected 123 persons had identification based on “dubious records”. As soon as the “racket” was busted, the district police launched a “special drive” to identify illegal immigrants.
“There is a lot of work left to trace these persons,” Chandrashekar, the IGP, said at the press conference. He believed there were many such gangs that provided documentation to illegal Bangladeshi migrants.
Asked by Article 14 about the allegations of police misconduct during these “verification drives”, Chandrashekhar said: “The police have not detained anybody nor are they verifying identities of all people from a particular community. It is only those suspected of entering illegally who are being asked for identity cards.”
On the sidelines of the press conference, police officers talked about the “lakhs” of Bangladeshi migrants “draining the city’s resources”. The arrests were just the “tip of the iceberg”, said one police officer.
Police Pressure On Land Owners
Soon after the press conference, Anand Reddy, who runs a segregation centre and plastics recycling factory in Anugondanahalli on Bengaluru’s eastern outskirts, received a message from the local police warning that Bengali labourers were forging Aadhaar cards.
Previously, the police had sent Reddy messages asking him to keep an eye on Bengali labourers for illicit drug consumption or their involvement in theft and other crime.
Only a few weeks earlier, the police had arrived at his centre. Of nearly 100 people working here, 20 were Hindus from Bihar, the rest Bengali Muslims. Reddy said he faced pressure from the police to evict them.
“We’ve produced all documents, and we’ve told the police they can come and verify anytime too,” said Reddy. “But we can’t evict them. Without Bengali labourers, I’ll have to shut shop. Locals will not take up jobs like this even if you offer them a lot of money.”
Reddy estimated that nearly three-fourths of the city’s waste-picking labour force is from Bengal. “Without them, Bengaluru will be filled with garbage,” he said.
Among the tangible impact of these “verification drives” is the pressure on landowners not to lease lands to “Bengali Muslims”.
Syed Ilyas, whose property has been leased to waste pickers in southern Bengaluru, alleged the police had threatened him with criminal action if his tenants were not evicted.
“I get called to the police station numerous times, and I’m asked to evict Bengali Muslims,” said Ilyas. “Like every other landowner, I ask for documents from my tenants. The police claim they are fake documents, but no cases are registered. How am I supposed to evict poor migrants when they have done nothing wrong?”
A Risky, Vital Business Run On Backs Of Poor Migrants
In a trash-segregation factory, truck after truck brought in tonnes of dry waste when Article 14 visited one day in June. Workers sorted useful plastics—which are made into pellets and sold—from useless garbage that goes to the landfills.
They handled broken bottles, syringes, condoms and half-eaten food. Often, the sorting was done without gloves. It is a job rife with hazards, and the only reason they do it is poverty. Yet, it is an important task in a burgeoning city that cannot handle its waste: about 15% is “processed” or recycled in units such as these. Without such units, overflowing landfills would fill up quicker.
One of the workers, 25-year-old Feroza Mullah narrated how she ended up here two years ago, after she travelled from Nadia district in West Bengal along with her six-year-old son and husband. From 8 am to 4 pm, she sorts plastic, much of it restaurant takeaways filled with rotting food.
She said she did not mind her unhealthy job. She and her husband are paid Rs 12,000 each. Half of their salaries goes back to their parents in their home village.
“We don’t own fields. And there aren’t enough jobs or enough money working in other people’s fields in the village,” said Mullah, as her son played with stray bits of plastic around her. “There really is no option.”
Her husband was at the back of the factory, where the men are often tasked with the hazardous job of separating plastics from glass or medical waste.
Caught Between A Living Wage & The Police
In the five days that M, the supervisor quoted previously, was in the lock-up, the 40 labourers whose work he supervised stayed back in their sheds. They huddled together in whispers, ready to pick up their belongings ready to pick up their belongings at a moment's notice.
“We barely even leave this place. We’re scared,” said Musaiah Shaik, a 55-year-old from a town called Salar in West Bengal’s Murshidabad district. “The police had come again, and they threatened to set our sheds on fire.”
Shaik came to Bengaluru five years ago with his wife and son. They do not own land and income from infrequent daily-wage labour could not sustain the family, which includes his ailing parents.
Shaik and others in the camp had not worked for five days since the police arrived. This was a significant loss for migrants who send half of their Rs 10,000 monthly salary back home to West Bengal.
Labour contractors had told them that Bengaluru was where they could change their fortunes. There certainly was more money to be made, but they did not reckon with a hostile police force. “Back home, no one asks us if we are Indian or Bangladeshi,” said Shaikh, expressing the dilemma of many Bengali Muslims. “But back home, there is no food or jobs for us.”
In her two years here, Mullah said she had seen the police enter the complex at least six times. Each time they came, she ran into the shed. She said she had seen the police break mirrors, deflate tyres of garbage trucks; beat up fellow labourers, “misbehave with women” and tear documents.
Mullah expressed her sadness at constantly having to prove themselves to be Indian. Why then did she continue to live in Bengaluru?
“There is no other choice for us,” she said. “It is either this or starvation.”
(Mohit M Rao is a freelance reporter based in Bengaluru.)