| An Indian family (left) talks to a Bangladeshi family in a village on the Indo-Bangla border on Thursday. (Reuters)
Mumbai, Feb. 6: Mumbai’s main railway station, VT, has not played host to so many Bengalis in a long time. From the time deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani stepped up the heat on illegal immigrants, hundreds of Bangladeshis have been fleeing their homes in the city every day.
Rubina Begum, a woman in her early twenties, has come with her family — husband and three children — to see her mother-in-law off. The old woman sits huddled in a corner in the unreserved ladies compartment of the Howrah Mail via Allahabad, on a seat shared by five other women, with children squeezed in between.
There are about 150 women in the compartment, which is smaller than the others, and all of them Bengali with the exception of three or four, though no one will admit to knowing the language.
Bengali families crowd the entrance to the station — with bags and bundles, big and small, heaped up. One family is carrying a kitchen shelf.
“I don’t know Bengali,” says a man who has just asked his wife in that language to go into the ladies’ compartment with their children and not talk to strangers. They have two suitcases and a bed-roll.
“My mother-in-law is going to Bongaon, though I don’t know what the others will do,” says Rubina.
“We stayed in Bongaon after coming from Bangladesh. We have our relatives there,” she adds. They have put her on the train because they are afraid that police will soon start hounding out people they suspect of not possessing the right documents.
Advani had announced rounding up and deportation of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants.
Rubina and her family, residents of Reay Road, home to many Bangladeshis, can afford to stay back because they have been living here for 10 years and have procured “official documents”.
Her husband is a vegetable vendor, “doing well”. Her mother-in-law does not have the papers, the reason she has to go. She waves back at her grandchildren and her old neighbour who also has come to say good-bye.
Several families have packed their bags — giant nylon hold-alls available at all Mumbai stations — and headed for Howrah.
Many of them don’t know where they will end up, but they will leave Mumbai before the police catch them.
“About 500 to 1,000 Bangladeshis are leaving from VT everyday over the past 10 days,” says a policeman on duty. “The Howrah Mail via Nagpur left an hour ago carrying many of them,” he adds.
They actually started leaving earlier, after Advani’s deportation threat. Three such groups of Bangladeshis on the run from Mumbai were arrested in Bengal — Jhargram, Howrah and Burdwan — in the last 10 days of January.
Mumbai is said to have more than a lakh illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. Most live in slums — the men working as labourers and the women as domestic help. The better-off work in restaurants. Many Bangladeshi girls are involved in the flesh trade.
More than families, however, there are groups of single men trying to rush into the train. “Three of us work as waiters in an Udupi restaurant in Kandivli,” says a young man, dropping his voice.
“We are all from Bangladesh,” he says, pointing at five other men who seem to be in their twenties. “We stay together, in a slum near Kandivli. We have to go because we don’t have the official papers,” he says.
He says he doesn’t know if he will go back to Bangladesh. “Let us reach Calcutta. Then we will decide.”
The special branch of the CID says it knows of the exodus, but denies having caused it.
“We haven’t stepped up the drive to hunt out Bangladeshis. They are fleeing because of what is happening on the border,” said a special branch officer.
Rabeya Khatun, in the group arrested in Jhargram, had alleged that the Shiv Sena had issued an ultimatum to leave.