Behrampore, March 16: Touts from the state engaged in “smuggling” physically-challenged men, women and children to Mecca and Medina during Haj were arrested by the Saudi Arabian authorities last month, according to reports available here.
The challenged people, most of them from the state, were employed as professional beggars in the holy cities.
In a throwback to a development seven years ago, the Saudi authorities have begun sending back the detained beggars through the Indian embassy there. The touts are serving a six-month prison term in Mecca.
“This year, the Saudi government took firm measures to curb begging during Haj. The police picked up the beggars and arrested the touts following the leads they provided. The challenged people were taken there last month and forced to beg,” said Sameer Sheikh, a resident of Jahangirpur village in the Khargram police station area. Sameer returned from Haj days ago.
He named touts from Behrampore, Kandi, Beldanga and villages in Malda who are now behind bars in Mecca.
“Some I know have gone into hiding and some have managed to return but 31 of them are still in jail,” Sameer said. He named two sets of brothers from a village here, Phelu Haji and Imamul and Abdul Mannan and Abdul Hameed, as being among the 31 touts.
Sources in the district intelligence branch said the touts changed strategy this year and got hold of passports for the challenged people from cities like Patna and Guwahati.
“We had identified the touts after the 1996 incident, when a large number of beggars were detained and sent back to Murshidabad from Mecca. Since then, we have been issuing objections to passport applications by these touts and the disabled folk who are being exploited. Hence they shifted base,” said an intelligence official.
Bakir Sheikh, a resident of Shajahadpur village in Behrampore, said there are “touts” who specialise in getting the passports from Patna, Delhi or Guwahati. “There are people in Mumbai who facilitate the journey to Mecca.”
Though the administration is not aware of the exact developments in Saudi Arabia, the district police are gearing up to receive the first batch of beggars.
“Hasina Khatun, 12, has been sent back. The girl from Bansbari village in Murshidabad was caught begging in Mecca. We have received a message that she is now lodged in a safe home in Mumbai and we are sending a team to bring her back,” said district superintendent of police Virendra.
“The news of the arrests and deportation, if true, will reach us from Delhi and will take some time. If the handicapped people have made it to Mecca, they have done so without valid passports as we have banned the verification of the passports of the poor and physically-challenged people bound for Saudi Arabia,” said Murshidabad district magistrate Manoj Panth.
In 1996, all but four of the 75 challenged youths sent back to India from Mecca were from Murshidabad. A second batch of 47 “beggars” sent back that year had 44 from this district.