Mumbai, Feb. 7: They are leaving the city, under cover of darkness, hidden from police, and also their neighbours’ eyes.
The shacks are piled up on two sides of the road that leads to the Reay Road station. The slum is home to thousands of Bangladeshis, who have been living in terror since deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani began his recent rhetoric on flushing out illegal immigrants from the country.
A huge number of them, running into several hundreds, have left the city, fearing police action. The rest are terrified that they will be hounded out any time.
But the first thing a resident of the Reay Road slum area will do is thrust his “papers” — which, in many cases, he carries on his person — under the nose of a visitor. It is usually a ration card and a voter’s identity card. Those who have them will speak up; the others will remain enclosed within a wall of silence.
“What do you want from me'” asks a woman with frank hostility when approached and disappears inside her shack.
“We are from India. We have been living here for so long,” says Aminuddin, who looks 70. “Only the ‘original’ Bangladeshis are leaving. They don’t have the papers. We are different,” he says.
“We are from the same village, Belta in Bongaon, in India,” says Abdur Rahman, his neighbour, displaying his ration card, marked with a ’94 date, from West Bengal. “What do you think of this' We are settled in Mumbai for years. People from our village are not going away from here,” says Rahman, who appears to be the spokesman.
“But over the past month, the real Bangladeshis have started to leave this place in large numbers,” says Aminuddin. “I can’t tell how many, but you often find that a family is missing,” he says.
“They don’t tell us and leave. You get up one morning and find that a family has just left,” says a young man, his neighbour.
“There are many people who have left from the shacks below the bridge,” he says, pointing to one end of the slum. “There are others who are planning to leave after Id,” he adds.
“We read a Bengali newspaper everyday. We know what’s happening,” says Kuttus, a driver.
“You don’t know how many people from here are landing up at VT everyday,” says a woman. At VT, the city’s main railway station, trains to Howrah have been jampacked with Bangladeshis over the past 10 days.
If Delhi diktats are a sporadic problem, the CID, which has a special Bangladesh cell, is a constant one. The residents complain that policemen from the CID harass them continuously.
“They just round us up, and, even if we have the papers, charge us Rs 500 or Rs 1,000, and then let us go. Otherwise it’s tori-paar (deportation),” says Aminuddin.
“Last night, there were so many people hiding from the police around the railway tracks,” adds the woman, who is asked to keep mum. “They were hiding from the CID.”
Some, though, feel that it’s business as usual. “Why should people go away from here'” asks an old man. “The trains are overcrowded because many people are going away to be with their families during Id,” he says.
Not the others, for whom their lives depend on their “papers”. “We have worked hard to get these papers,” says a man in his twenties, who pulls out a piece of paper that says he had studied at a school in Palta, in North 24-Parganas. “Don’t you think this is proof enough'” he asks.
“And what is the government going to do with us' Do you think we will really have to go'” asks Rahman.