It has become commonplace in Narendra Modi’s India for senior political figures to speak of Muslim immigrant workers in extremely derogatory terms – usually as “infiltrators”, sometimes as “termites”.
And that rhetoric bore fruit this week in the major city of Bengaluru, formerly Bangalore, where the shanty homes of hundreds of labourers were bulldozed on the pretext that they were housing “suspected illegal immigrants”.
The action, taken with police involvement yet seemingly on no official orders, has left hundreds homeless – either forced to share the limited space in those huts that are still standing, or else sleep on the streets.
And while the city authority is framing the incident as the actions of a rogue middle-ranking official, it has been welcomed by the local branch of Modi’s ruling BJP party, which called it “the right decision”.
The incident began last Sunday when men in JCB bulldozers, flanked by plainclothes police officers, descended on the 600-home informal settlement of Kariyammana Agrahara, to the east of the city.
They declared that all those present were illegal Bangladeshi migrants, and started tearing apart their homes.
Videos that have since gone viral on social media show the residents trying to produce their voter ID cards, biometric registration documents known as Aadhaar, and other evidence that they were in fact born and raised in other states of India.
But the police continued regardless, later telling a local newspaper that they have neither the time nor the money to verify such documents with other state authorities.
The destruction ended after around 200 homes were destroyed, and after submissions by legal activists the Karnataka state High Court issued a stay order on Wednesday, as well as an immediate inquiry into both the police and municipal corporation to determine how something like this could happen.
Lekha Adavi, a member of the Alternative Law Forum collective which has been providing Bengaluru’s migrant workers with free legal support, told The Independent that those living in the slum came to the city from other Indian states like West Bengal, Assam, or even within Karnataka itself.
And even if they were illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, or third- or fourth-generation migrants, neither the municipal authorities nor the local police has the jurisdiction to act in the way it did – that would be a matter for the federal authorities.
Adavi said the incident was particularly concerning because it came just days after the local BJP legislative assembly member (MLA) for the area, Aravind Limbavali, tweeted a video of the settlement, saying it was “without cleanliness ... a site of illegal activity” and housing people who “are suspect to be illegal immigrants of Bangladesh”.
Few people have taken shelter under illegally constructed sheds located in Kariyammana Agrahara of Bellanduru which is within the jurisdiction of our Mahadevapura Assembly constituency. 1/3 pic.twitter.com/WjvmWlSE55— Aravind Limbavali (@ArvindLBJP)January 12, 2020
Such comments do not exist in isolation. Only two days after the demolition, the BJP’s most senior official in West Bengal state, Dilip Ghosh, said there were “two crore [20 million] Bangladeshi Muslim infiltrators” who had entered India, adding that “we will not allow any to stay here”.
Adavi said there was clearly a link between the evictions in Bengaluru and a broader anti-immigrant “sense across India right now”, with the government recently passing a citizenship law for refugees that excludes Muslims, and the exercise of creating a register of legal citizens (NRC) in Assam state.
“It is very clear that these guys are implementing their [the BJP’s] agenda, there is nothing more or less to it. They want to implement their agenda of persecuting Muslims, and Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants happen to be one pawn in that entire agenda,” she said.
Mohammed Riyadh Ul Islam, 24, told NDTV he had been forced to stay this week in a hut that already housed two others before the demolitions, saying his home was destroyed on Sunday.
He agreed that “if there are Bangladeshis here, it is the job of police to do an inquiry and remove them”.
“[But] we are from Assam – we just went through NRC and we have all the proof. Police should check those papers instead of saying ‘Bangladeshis’ and demolishing houses. All of us living here are from different parts of India.”
Marathahalli police has arrived at the settlement next to Sakra Hospital in Bellandur to demolish houses. Police say that a news report stated that Bangladeshis stay here but residents are asking the police to check their IDs before demolishing. pic.twitter.com/Zv1pfcBW2L— Prajwal (@prajwalmanipal)January 19, 2020
Siddaramaiah, the former chief minister of Karnataka, called the evictions and demolition “an inhumane act by the BJP government”.
And VS Ugrappa, a spokesperson for the opposition Congress party, said: “God only knows what happens to the people who are there. It is nothing but a jungle raj and ultimately the government has to be held responsible.”
When approached by the Deccan Herald newspaper, a senior police officer at the station local to Kariyammana Agrahara suggested it was up to the slum residents to provide verification for their own ID documents, adding: “What is the guarantee that these documents are genuine?”
He said previous attempts by officers to travel to West Bengal and verify migrant workers’ documents had been met with non-compliance by the state authorities there.
D Randeep, head of the local branch of the municipal authority, said in a statement that “no senior officials were informed beforehand” about the evictions. He said the engineer whose letter to police sparked the action would face unspecified “action” and that a detailed report would be produced on Sunday’s events.