New Delhi, Jan. 15 (Reuters): Beauty Begum says in her heart she is Indian. It’s all she has known for her adult life. India is where she has raised her family.
Now New Delhi, labelling India’s 20 million illegal Bangladeshi immigrants a security risk, wants to send Beauty and her two children back to the homeland she fled as a 10-year-old two decades ago, leaving her parents behind.
But for Beauty, 30, living in a one-room cardboard hut in a slum here, eking out a living picking up discarded plastic and glass from the gutters and borrowing money to bribe police would be better than returning.
“I am Hindustani. I am settled here. I earn here, I eat here,” she said as children played in the rubbish. “I have been here since childhood. I have nothing back there.”
India is about to launch a drive to expel the immigrants to Bangladesh along with an estimated 11,500 Pakistanis, also in the country illegally.
“The presence of a large number of illegal foreign immigrants, particularly from Bangladesh, poses a serious threat to internal security and needs to be tackled with the utmost urgency and seriousness that it deserves,” the home ministry said in a statement announcing the move this month.
India has in the past accused illegal Bangladeshi immigrants of committing crimes and says some work for Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence.
India’s planned crackdown has sent a ripple of fear among many Bangladeshi immigrants, already the target of police harassment, immigrants and aid groups say. In one slum here, Bangladeshis told of an endless cycle of round-ups, beatings, bribes and threats of deportation by the police.
“They came at 1.30 in the morning, in the fog, and took us for no reason,” said 22-year-old driver Mohammad Salim.
“In the morning, they tied us to the (ceiling) fan, they tied our hands behind our back and we were beaten,” he said, adding that the police were careful not to leave tell-tale marks and bruises.
Women and children are also routinely picked up and the women, too, sometimes beaten.
Beauty recently borrowed Rs 3,500 — three-and-a-half times her monthly earnings — from friends to pay off the police. The police and officials deny any mistreatment.
An estimated 10 million Bangladeshis fled into India before and during the 1971 war between India and Pakistan that gave birth to Bangladesh from what was then East Pakistan.
Millions more looking for work and food have since crossed the porous 3,900 km border, which India is in the process of fencing along its entire length.
Bangladesh insists those who arrived in 1971 have all returned and there are no illegal immigrants in India any more. But the slums of Delhi and other cities are full of people who came as children in 1971, often without their parents.
About half of the 20 million illegal Bangladeshi immigrants are in West Bengal and Assam, where tension with local people who fear being swamped by the new arrivals has flared into violent clashes in the past.
Although most work as labourers, scavengers and rickshaw-pullers, they say life in India is better than going back.
“Now where will we go'” complained Samad Ali, a labourer in his early 20s at a construction site in Guwahati. “It’s better the Indian government take us to a slaughter house and kill us.”