Bengaluru: Jailed for months, a Bengali Hindu family is fighting to prove they’re Indian

The Bengaluru police have been cracking down on Bengali migrants, and the burden of proof is extraordinary.

WrittenBy:Prajwal Bhat
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It had barely been a month since Palash Adhikary, a resident of Burdwan district of West Bengal, had resettled on the outskirts of Bengaluru along with his wife and two-year-old son when police officers came knocking on his door in July 2022. Having lived in Burdwan all his life, Palash, a Hindu, never thought his Indian identity would ever be questioned. 

So, when the police who knocked on his door asked him to prove it, he was shocked.

Palash was arrested along with his wife and son and sent to prison in Bengaluru along with five others suspected of being ‘illegal’ Bangladeshi immigrants. In the bail hearing that followed, Palash’s family pieced together documents to demonstrate to the magistrate court in Bengaluru Rural district that they were Indian. 

“We never thought it would come to this. We collected all the identity cards we could find and gave them to a lawyer in Bengaluru,” Palash’s sister Sathi Adhikary told TNM.

Palash’s submission in court included birth certificates, Aadhaar cards, voter ID cards, ration cards, PAN cards, vehicle registration documents, and Life Insurance Corporation documents showing ties to India at various points in the last three decades. But the bail application was rejected after the police claimed in court that the ID cards were fake.

It was only when the family approached for bail a second time and foraged for more documents, including a letter from their gram panchayat, that the court eventually granted bail in April 2023. Palash, his wife Shukla and his two-year-old son Adrik had spent 10 months in jail by then.

The family’s incarceration has now raised serious questions about the legitimacy of the Bengaluru police’s drive against people they consider to be ‘illegal’ Bangladeshi immigrants. Though it is not disputed that there are undocumented Bangladeshi immigrants in the city, civil rights activists say that the police act indiscriminately against many Bengali migrant labourers, particularly those engaged in menial work. 

Once caught in the police dragnet, the burden of proof is ‘extraordinary’ and violative of the rights of Bengali migrants, activists say.

Bengaluru’s waste segregation runs on the backs of poor migrants

In July 2022, when the Bengaluru police raided the settlement where Palash’s family lived, their main target was Mohammed Jalal Khalifa, a 32-year-old labourer who the police claimed was trafficking people into the country from Bangladesh to provide manpower to plastic waste recycling units that cropped up on the outskirts of the city.

Like dozens of other Bengali migrants, 35-year-old Palash had found work in a sorting unit in Sulibele village where useful plastics are separated from garbage that goes to landfills. Working without gloves, he was tasked with handling broken bottles and syringes, and collecting waste material from nearby restaurants. He was paid meagre daily wages for his efforts and Palash said it was enough for him to manage his life living in the settlement. 

Without workers like Palash, Bengaluru’s overflowing landfills would fill up even more quickly. In a city where nearly 15 percent of the waste is ‘processed’ or ‘recycled’ in units like this, they are a vital cog in the waste segregation system.

Arbitrary imprisonment

The police raids threw Palash’s life into disarray. He was imprisoned in the Bengaluru Central Prison, separated from his wife and son. 

“We tried explaining to the police that we were from Jaugram’s Telipukur village [in West Bengal]. But the message was lost in translation and we struggled to find police officers who would hear our side of the story,” Palash told TNM.

The police insisted that all accused arrested were ‘illegal’ Bangladeshi immigrants and filed a chargesheet against them under the Foreigners Act, even though they say that they did not recover any Bangladesh identity cards from any of the accused during their searches. While Palash and his family got away lightly, others arrested in the same case such as Mohammed Jalal Khalifa are still in prison, nearly a year after their arrest.

R Kaleem Ullah, an activist from the All India Shramik Swaraj Kendra, an advocacy group that provides legal support to labourers, said that periodic police sweeps looking for ‘illegal Bangladeshi immigrants’ often targeted Muslims and made every Bengali migrant feel that they are not Indian. 

“The police know very well who is an illegal immigrant and who is not. These drives are done to collect money from migrant labourers,” he alleged. 

Bengaluru police officials denied allegations of bribery and claimed that the exercise was strictly to identify illegal immigrants. “Phone call records and transaction records often help us establish who is an illegal immigrant,” a senior police official told TNM. “We have to re-examine the case of Palash and Shukla Adhikary and see how this has happened,” the police official added.

The Bengaluru police’s decision to register a case and imprison the suspects is not always the norm in these situations. A detention centre built on the outskirts of Bengaluru has been used since 2020 to detain and deport suspected ‘illegal foreigners’ identified by the police. 

But in Palash’s case, the Bengaluru police registered an FIR and claimed that there were suspicions of human trafficking. “If it was a simple case of foreigners staying in Bengaluru without documents, they would not be arrested. This was a case of trafficking,” SD Sharanappa, joint commissioner of police (crime) in Bengaluru told TNM

Contrary to the police’s claims, however, neither the FIR nor the chargesheet mention human trafficking charges but only refer to charges under the Foreigners Act. The same law is invoked when foreigners enter the country without a passport or a valid visa.

‘What more is needed to prove that we are Indians?’

Palash’s sister Sathi, who runs a beauty parlour in Burdwan, managed to arrange a lawyer to fight their case and the first bail plea was heard in the magistrate court in Bengaluru Rural district in November 2022. 

“We submitted the Aadhaar card, ration card, PAN card, voter ID card and birth certificates,” Sathi told TNM. “We even submitted vehicle registration documents, and LIC documents. What more can we do to prove we are Indians?”

The court initially rejected Palash’s bail plea after the police claimed that the documents provided were fake. Lawyers and activists who frequently appear in cases booked under the Foreigners Act say that this is a pattern that is often repeated. “The police insisted that every document we submit is fake,” Mohammed Shakeeb, Palash’s lawyer, told TNM

The Bengaluru police’s focus on Bengali migrants is not new. The city police have held periodic exercises to identify and imprison people they consider ‘illegal Bangladeshi immigrants’. Unlike in Assam, where the quasi-judicial Foreigners Tribunals verify the documents of citizens, in Bengaluru, the verification is at the police’s discretion.

“That there are undocumented immigrants in Bengaluru is not in dispute, but the exercises to search for them are conducted in a way that is traumatising and in violation of the rights of Bengali migrants,” said Basawa Kunale, a lawyer with Alternative Law Forum. “Article 21 (of the Constitution of India) accords the right to life and dignity to not just citizens but to everyone in the country including foreigners.”

Acquittals in cases under the Foreigners Act are rare, with only 15 exonerations recorded across India in 2021 when the National Crime Records Bureau last published statistics. An acquittal could mean one of two things – either the accused was a foreign national who produced the required documents, or the accused was Indian and was able to prove their citizenship. 

“The burden of proof on anyone suspected of being an illegal immigrant is enormous,” said lawyer Mohammed Shakeeb. 

This burden is written into the legislation of the Foreigners Act, 1946. Section 9 of the act stipulates that when the nationality of a person is under question, the onus of proving that they are not a foreigner lies upon them.

A clampdown on Bengali-speaking migrants

NCRB data from 2021 further showed that 3,430 persons were booked under the Foreigners Act that year, and a majority among them – 2,868 persons – were from Bangladesh. Records indicate that after West Bengal and New Delhi, the highest number of ‘illegal Bangladeshi immigrants’ were recorded in Bengaluru. Though NCRB data indicated this number was 39, sources in the Bengaluru police say that as many as 400 persons have been deported to Bangladesh from the city in the last three years.

In 2018, the then MLA from Bengaluru’s Mahadevapura assembly constituency, Aravind Limbavali of the Bharatiya Janata Party, claimed that “lakhs” of Bangladeshi nationals had entered Bengaluru illegally and that they constituted a “national security threat”. A few days later, Bengaluru’s city corporation deployed bulldozers to raze a slum which had 3,000 migrants. Nearly 20 sheds were razed before the Karnataka High Court intervened, ordering a status quo and staying the eviction notice. 

In 2020, Limbavali again claimed that a slum in his constituency was home to ‘illegal’ Bangladeshi immigrants. This time, bulldozers razed dozens of sheds before the high court intervened once again, and admonished the Bengaluru police for the forced evictions without due verification or process.

In another exercise in 2019, 59 Bengali-speaking migrant labourers who were working as manual scavengers were apprehended in raids conducted by the Bengaluru police. The police later said that the labourers were deported to Bangladesh via the Petrapole-Benapole border checkpoint in an operation that the Indian government describes as a ‘pushback’, a quasi-official term used for a method of deportation in which those pronounced to be Bangladeshi are taken to the border with Bangladesh and forced into that country, often at gunpoint. Police officials TNM spoke to claim that this method is no longer being considered. 

Around the time of the 2019 exercise, police officials in the Varthur area of Bengaluru began rounding up residents of migrant settlements and demanded that they submit their identity cards for verification by the police. Police officials who were familiar with the exercise told TNM that the drives against Bengali migrants were prompted by fears raised by right-wing groups. 

“There was no evidence to suggest there were a large number of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants staying in Bengaluru. But there was pressure from right-wing groups in Whitefield to verify the documents of every migrant,” a senior police officer who was familiar with the exercise told TNM.

For Palash and his wife Shukla, even if they are eventually able to prove that they are Indian citizens, there is neither reparation nor assistance to rebuild their lives after months of disruption. The family is also worried about arranging the funds to fight the case.

“Even when we received bail in April, we were not immediately released because we took time to furnish the surety,” said Palash. 

The couple is now being supported by pro-Bangla advocacy organisations such as Bangla Pokkho. Though they have received bail, the case against them still remains and they have to travel to Bengaluru again to appear in court. 

“At home, no one is asking us if we are Indian or Bangladeshi. Why is the police in Bengaluru continuously asking us this?” Palash asked. 

This report was republished from The News Minute as part of The News Minute-Newslaundry alliance. Read about our partnership here and become a TNM Member here.

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