Was the gathering at Mumbai’s Bandra bus depot a conspiracy?
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Was the gathering at Mumbai’s Bandra bus depot a conspiracy?

Newslaundry investigates questions raised by TV channels about communal angle.

By Prateek Goyal

Published on :

At 3.30 pm on Tuesday, April 14, Masoom Ali, 24, had just finished his lunch and was throwing out the trash when a group of 8-10 people walked past his rented room in Mumbai’s Shastri Nagar. Wondering why so many people were out during a lockdown, he asked one of them what was happening.

A meeting was taking place at a nearby bus stop, the man told Ali, to demand transport for migrants to return to their hometowns and villages. It would be attended by government representatives, he added. “The government will not listen to us poor labourers unless we gather in large numbers.”

This statement hit home. Ali is a migrant worker from Bengal. Since the lockdown started, he has been desperate to get home. Without a second thought, he joined the group and headed towards the Bandra bus depot.

There were about 1,500 migrant workers like Ali at the depot, out in violation of the lockdown put in place to contain the coronavirus outbreak. The lockdown was scheduled to end that day, before Prime Minister Narendra Modi extended it to May 3.

Migrant workers across India have been among the worst hit by the lockdown. With employment opportunities gone, they have lost their daily wages. With transport services suspended, many have been walking hundreds of kilometres back home.

Nobody is sure what led to the migrants protesting outside the bus depot. Some TV news channels have suggested that they were instigated by social media posts or news stories that trains would be arranged for them. But the majority of the workers Newslaundry spoke with said it was none of these. Instead, they said, they were driven by hunger, poor living conditions, poverty, and an urgency to go home.

The police used force to disperse the crowd, including by wielding lathis. They also filed three FIRs, one of them against over 800 unidentified men who had gathered at the depot. At least 11 people were arrested.

For migrant workers like Ali, meanwhile, there’s still no way home.

'Thought of staying here until May 3 was devastating'

Shastri Nagar, where Ali lives, is a migrant colony in the Old Slaughterhouse area of Bandra West. He lives in Lane 3, sharing a single 300 sq ft room with 13-14 workers. All of them have less than Rs 300 in their pockets. Every day, they have to queue up for a meal of dry rice — provided not by the government but by NGOs.

The room is covered by a tin roof and gets very warm with summer approaching. With the lockdown, Ali can’t go outside to escape the constraint of 14 bodies packed together in a small space. “This is, more or less, the condition of every migrant living in Shastri Nagar,” he said.

Ali is the sole breadwinner of a family of five. His parents and two sisters live in Malda in Bengal. “They are totally dependent on me, and I’ve been without work for the past one month,” Ali said. “I am a daily wage labourer. My home in Malda runs on my income. I don’t have a penny. Life has become hell here. That’s why we want to go back home.”

On Tuesday, Ali said he followed the crowd to the bus depot, about 100 metres from his room. It was 3.45 pm and the crowd was swelling. About six or seven policemen were present, but it soon grew to a contingent of 150-200. A truck of rations rumbled up at one point, but the crowd didn’t care.

“People began shouting ‘Gaadi chahiye’. We want trains. They said we don’t want rations, just send us back home,” Ali said. “They said ‘our parents and children are crying’. Some of them said they will hang themselves.”

This continued until 5.30 pm, he said, and he stayed till the end.

“The crowd was so huge that to address it, the cops had to borrow a microphone from the nearby Bada Masjid,” Ali said. “The police asked the crowd not to shout. Many of us also asked people to calm down, but no one listened. Finally at 5.30 pm, the police began lathicharging and dispersing the crowd.”

Phones and chappals dropped to the ground as the crowd tried to dodge the assault. Ali said a “bada sahab” asked the police to stop beating the migrants. However, when the workers returned to Shastri Nagar, he said, local residents blocked the lane and hit them with sticks, angry that they had congregated and violated the lockdown.

Did Ali see any appeals on Facebook, WhatsApp or YouTube urging the workers to congregate at the Bandra bus depot, or any posts or news stories on train services resuming?

“No,” he said.

Instead, Ali said the workers were worried after Modi’s speech at 10 am on Tuesday in which he announced the extension of the lockdown until May 3. Though Maharashtra had already extended the lockdown to April 30, many migrant workers had booked tickets for April 15 to return to their hometowns.

“We had been living in these conditions somehow for 21 days, but the thought of staying this way till May 3 was devastating,” Ali explained. “In my case, I have no money. About 13-14 of us live in one room. Trains were shown as available on railway booking sites and apps. So people thought there was still a chance they could go back.”

‘No work, no money, no food’

Naseemul, 27, is a daily wage worker from Katihar, Bihar. On Tuesday, he was at a chemist’s when he saw a group of migrant workers going past. They told him they intended to go to the Bandra bus depot and demand that trains be arranged to take them back home.

“After sometime, I also went,” Naseem said. “Because we are living in pathetic conditions.”

Naseem lives in a 100 sq ft room with four other people. While he agreed that the lockdown was important – and that he appreciates the government announcing it — he had been looking forward to going home on April 14, when it lifted.

“Our conditions have become miserable here,” he said. “We get one packet of rice as a meal every day, it doesn’t even fill our stomachs. Since this pandemic started, we don’t have any work. We’re worried about our parents, wives, children who are dependent on our income.”

Naseem said railway tickets were still available for booking on apps and websites. “I checked the Dadar-Guwahati Express, which was shown as available on April 15 with 370 seats,” he said. “I hadn’t booked it yet. When others said they were going to the bus depot to demand for trains, I went too, thinking it would help.”

Like Ali, Naseem said he wasn’t “influenced” by anything he saw on social media or news reports about train services. “I did not receive any such message, or see any news report or social media post,” he said. “I think nobody in our area saw any such thing.”

Mohammad Ashraf, 28, agrees. A resident of Abadpur village in Bihar’s Katihar, he saw a crowd of people standing at the bus depot, about 150 metres from his room in Shastri Nagar, and joined them.

“People gathered because all of us had hoped we could go back to our villages after the lockdown,” he said. “Our living conditions here are really difficult.”

Ashraf shares a 250 sq ft room with 10 other migrant workers. “The weather has become hot. We don’t even have space to breathe inside the room,” he said. “We cannot go out, there is no work, no money, no proper food...So when the extension of the lockdown was announced, we were disheartened.”

Khush Mohammad, 29, from Bengal’s Malda, was sitting in his room in Shastri Nagar when his roommates told him that migrants were gathering at the bus depot.

“They said many people from Shastri Nagar are gathering, one by one, to make a demand to start the trains. They asked us to join them,” he said. “So we also went, because we want to go back home.” Khush insisted that the workers gathered “in their individual capacity”, he saw no news reports or social media posts urging the workers to gather.

Khush lives in a 150-200 sq ft room with nine or 10 other people. “We get food once a day after standing in a long line. There are times when some of us don’t get food at all,” he said. “I have just Rs 150 in my pocket. We thought we would leave for our villages after April 14 but with the lockdown extended, everyone is worried. Because we know how we barely managed to survive till now.”

Mohammad Hussain, 26, who is also from Malda, stepped outside his room, which he shares with 15-16 other workers, to throw garbage when he saw the crowd at the bus depot. “I also went there. There were around 3,000 people,” he said. “All were shouting ‘humko gaadi chahiye’.”

Hussain continued: “When the lockdown was extended, many of my fellow labourers panicked, even cried. It may be easy for rich people to live in their houses during the lockdown but for us it isn’t. We live in horrible conditions. That’s why the thought of continuing to live like this got us together at the bus depot.”

Since the Bandra gathering, Hussain said, the workers have started getting food twice a day.

Nazim, 27, a labourer from Katihar, also lives in Shastri Nagar. He told Newslaundry that migrant workers from Bihar, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Odisha convened at the bus depot.

“A few people living in Behrampada in Bandra East also came, but 95 percent of the crowd was from our area,” he said. “We just cannot bear to live in the same horrific conditions. That’s why we gathered.”

The three FIRs

The Mumbai police have filed three separate FIRs regarding the incident. One was registered against over 800 unnamed people who had assembled at the bus depot.

The second was filed against Vinay Dubey, a self-proclaimed activist from Navi Mumbai, whose social media posts reportedly called for nationwide protests if the migrant workers were not ferried back home.

The third was filed against Rahul Kulkarni, a journalist with ABP Majha, for purportedly spreading “fake news” that prompted the Bandra gathering.

Abhishek Trimukhe, the Mumbai police’s deputy commissioner for Zone 9, told Newslaundry: “Besides the ABP reporter and Dubey, nine persons have been arrested. These nine were seeking to provoke people who gathered there. An initial inquiry is under process and we are interrogating them.”

Dubey has been remanded in police custody till April 21. “His interrogation started just a day ago. There are many things related to Dubey and we are investigating many of those things,” Trimukhe said. “It will take some time. From whatever material we have gathered on him, it seems he was running some campaign related to this [the migrant workers].”

Did messages circulate on social media asking the migrant workers to gather, or announcing that train services have resumed?

“As of now, our inquiry has not found that anyone received such a message,” Trimukhe said. “They may have been influenced by news or social media, but we are not certain if the call to gather at the bus depot was on the basis of some messages, or was planned.”

A video, purportedly shot during the protest, has gone viral. It shows a man urging a crowd to “continue to protest” until they are paid Rs 15,000 each.

“We are searching for the people who made the video,” Trimukhe said. “Once they are arrested, the picture will get clearer. We are not certain yet if the gathering was planned or if it was a flash mob. But we are sure all the people are from the lanes of Shastri Nagar, which is close to Bandra bus depot, and not from other parts of Mumbai.”

He added that the protesters did not cross police barriers to reach Bandra from other parts of Mumbai.

According to the DCP, there were only 150-odd people at the bus depot when the police first arrived at around 3.15 pm. “People gathered there hoping the administration would resolve their issues in going back home,” he explained. “We started listening to their grievances. This sent a message among them – that the administration will resolve their problems – and they called up more people from the lanes of Shastri Nagar to join them.”

Trimukhe added: “As a police officer, I feel these people were already desperate. When we listened to them, it gave them the impression that the administration was thinking positively, and would make arrangements for them.”

Did the ABP Majha report lead to the gathering?

Rahul Kulkarni, a journalist with Marathi news channel ABP Majha, was arrested on April 14 for allegedly spreading “fake information” that might have led to the migrant workers gathering.

Kulkarni featured in a video news report at 9 am on April 14 – about an hour before Modi officially extended the lockdown until May 3.

The report was based on a circular, dated April 13, issued by the office of the chief commercial manager under the railway ministry. With the subject line “Proposal for Jansadharan Special Trains”, the circular said it had been decided to “run Jansadharan Specials for clearing stranded passengers/migrant labour of unreserved segment”.

“I don’t know who connected my report with the Bandra incident,” Kulkarni told Newslaundry a few hours before he was arrested on the night of April 14. “I never mentioned any train is going to start today. In fact, I did not mention any date in my report.”

In the report, the ABP anchor says, “Trains carrying the stranded labourers to their native places will start running from every division. This is the biggest news of this hour."

The anchor then asks Kulkarni for more details, saying, “Rahul, what could specifically be this decision?”

Kulkarni responds: “We have a letter from a railways source stating that the railways division communicates through videoconferencing with the railways board and railways minister on a daily basis. Similarly, videoconferencing took place yesterday and a letter was issued in the evening.”

He explains the contents of the letter: “The letter provides the data of the stranded labourers in each division and how these labourers can be sent back to their native places through Jansadharan special trains, which are to be started.”

If the prime minister extends the lockdown, Kulkarni continues in the report, “then there is a plan ready to take these labourers who are stuck in different cities. Additionally, I have details that if railway services are to be started on a limited basis, then what steps must be taken”.

Kulkarni says the “most important news now” is that the Jansadharan special train will be started. “Some more details are needed, like the number of labourers and where all they are stuck. After that, Jansadharan railways will be started.”

All the migrant workers whom Newslaundry spoke with and who had gone to the bus depot said they hadn’t read or watched the ABP Majha report. Many of them pointed out that they didn’t even understand Marathi.

On Kulkarni’s arrest and the connection between his report and the Bandra gathering, DCP Trimukhe said: “Prima facie it looks like there is a misrepresentation in his report. But we are trying to discover more about it.”

To add to the confusion, the prime minister’s extension of the lockdown was announced in his speech at 10 am. ABP Majha published the online version of Kulkarni’s video report at 11.23 am.

Kulkarni told Newslaundry he didn’t know why his channel published the online version of the report at 11.23 am. “Maybe as everyone is working from home, it might have got delayed...But I don’t know the exact reason.”

On April 14, Newslaundry reached out to Shakeel Ahmed, public relations officer of South Central Railway, to ask about the circular.

“That letter is not fake, but it was meant for internal communication and was sent to all divisions of South Central Railway for advance preparations. It has been wrongly quoted by the media,” Shakeel said. “We are issuing a rejoinder because it caused a lot of misunderstanding, as some [sections of] the Marathi media carried it.

The rejoinder said: “It is to kindly clarify that there is no proposal to run any special train for clearing the rush of any stranded migrant labour from various locations over South Central Railway. The media is therefore requested to kindly carry this factual clarification so as to negate any misapprehensions amongst the public, particularly amongst the valued rail customers.”

Newslaundry contacted Rajiv Khandkar, the executive editor of ABP Majha, to ask him about their report. Why was it published on the channel’s website after the extension of the lockdown?

In response, Khandkar forwarded a statement issued by the channel. It said: "There are several reports purporting to draw a connection between the gathering at Mumbai’s Bandra West station and a news story run on ABP Majha. The reports are entirely misconceived and are being circulated with the sole intention of baselessly maligning ABP Majha. Our news story was broadcast in public interest and on the basis of valid documents and information. Subsequent to the Hon’ble Prime Minister’s announcement at 10 am of the continuation of the lockdown and announcements thereafter from the Ministry of Railways with regard to cancellation of trains and refunds till May 3, 2020, we ran multiple stories, starting from shortly after the Railway Ministry’s announcement starting from 12.30 pm to 1.30 pm, on our channel clearly announcing that no trains will be running. There is no conceivable way in which the crowds that gathered at the Bandra West Station from around 3.45 pm can be linked to our stories.

“To insinuate that our running of the story and the updates thereafter amount to a criminal act is outrageous. We are shocked and dismayed that our reporter Mr Rahul Kulkarni has been arrested in connection with the story. We will be taking necessary and immediate steps in law. We can say with full confidence that we have not deviated from practices of responsible journalism. Journalism and media are essential services. There is no denial of the Railway Ministry’s letter of 13.4.2020 recommending running of trains to return migrant labourers to their hometowns. We are a responsible and respectable channel running an essential service in providing information and news to society and community at large. We make every possible good faith endeavor to ensure the accuracy of our information and news from credible sources before broadcasting the same. Consequently, despite the morning news before the PM’s speech, shortly after the Railway Ministry announcement that no trains will run till 3rd May, 2020, we immediately started running the story on our channels as a responsible media institution. We would like to say that before journalists are arrested there should be due verification of all facts and circumstances."

Police: The gathering did not have a communal angle

On the night of April 14, India TV founder Rajat Sharma tweeted that the “gathering of people outside a masjid in Bandra” was a matter of concern. If they had come to catch a train, he said, where was their luggage?

Sharma was criticised for adding communal colour to the gathering, though his statements gained traction among Hindu nationalist sections of social media.

To start with, the workers weren’t carrying bags because they hadn’t assembled to catch a train, they hoped to speak to government officials about their predicament. Over a dozen migrant workers confirmed as much to Newslaundry.

The reason why the workers were near the masjid is because the masjid is next to the bus depot. The police requisitioned a microphone from the masjid in order to address the crowd.

“This gathering does not have any communal angle,” DCP Trimukhe said. “The crowd was large and shouting so much we couldn’t convey announcements through our own megaphones and vehicles. We wanted to talk to them and convince them, so we made an announcement through the nearby masjid.”

Trimukhe said the police asked the masjid’s imam to make an announcement too, urging the crowd to disperse and maintain social distancing.

Raja Rehbar Khan, a former councillor of Bandra West and a local leader of some influence, confirmed this to Newslaundry.

“The Bandra bus depot is adjacent to the Bandra station masjid, otherwise called Bada Masjid,” he explained. “To address the crowd, the police used the masjid’s sound system. They requested the imam to tell the crowd that coronavirus is a global emergency, that it’s wrong to gather like this in large numbers, that it’s a pandemic.”

Khan said he, the imam, Trimukhe, and additional police commissioner Manoj Sharma used the masjid’s sound system to speak to the migrant workers.

He felt “sad” for the workers, Khan said. “Now the police have registered a case against more than 800 people. They don’t even have money for bail if they get arrested.”

Update on April 17

ABP Majha's Rahul Kulkarni was released on bail on April 16 by a Mumbai court. The court directed him to observe "utmost precaution while making news report" and to go in quarantine for two weeks. The court said since prisons were overcrowded and at risk from the coronavirus outbreak, it would not be proper to keep the journalist behind bars, the Indian Express reported.

After his release, Kulkarni went on ABP Majha and insisted that they had done no wrong. “There's nothing wrong in the report," the Indian Express quoted him as saying. "That is why our channel has not taken it off Facebook or Twitter.”

The police arrested Rauf Shaikh, 35, for allegedly shooting the viral video that had someone urging the crowd to keep protesting until they were paid Rs 15,000 each. Rauf is a tailor who lives in Shastri Nagar. The Mumbai police maintained that there was no "conspiracy angle" to the video, and it had been shot "spontaneously".

DCP Trimukhe said: "As per our investigation until now, it seems this video was shot spontaneously. We have not got sufficient evidence to prove that it is a conspiracy. We have arrested Rauf who has shot the video and are searching for other two who can be seen in the video."

The other people arrested by the police in connection with the Bandra incident are Altamash Shaik, Shamsher Ali Malik, Mohammad Amruddin, Alam Shaikh, Saif Hussain Shaikh, Hilal Ali, Mohammad Shahid Shaikh, Firoz Shaikh, and Mohammad Arshad Shaikh. They are all in the age group of 20 to 36 years.

Vijayalaxmi Hiremath, a police inspector at the Bandra police station, told Newslaundry the gathering of migrant workers was not a "preplanned conspiracy" though the police is still investigating.

"They all gathered by word of mouth and followed each other," Hiremath said. "Bandra bus depot is adjacent to Shastri Nagar, it's just next door to their rooms so they gathered there. In fact, they sometimes come and sit there at night as they don't have enough space in their rooms."

Hiremath added: "The accused who were arrested had provoked them [the workers] to come together, some said that it's better to go home than die here. But at this stage, we don't see any planned conspiracy. In fact, they have not deleted even the videos and messages on their mobiles."

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