A police swoop in the dead of night, indiscriminate rounding up of men, young and old, and days stretching into months behind bars, where they are forced to double up as sweepers. Over the years, Selim Sheikh has become accustomed to the drill, but a sense of dread grips him every time there are talks about identity and migration.
The release of the draft National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam has led to fresh apprehensions in the minds of thousands of Bengali-speaking migrants, living in dank rooms amid unimaginable squalor but working as domestic helps at plush high-rises and manicured colonies, in Delhi and the neighbouring Noida and Gurgaon.
“Police arrive every few months. The frequency increases whenever there is a debate in the media. Last time, young men were picked up when the Rohingya crisis was at its peak. They always assure that all those with valid identity proof will be released,” alleged Sheikh, a resident of West Bengal’s Nadia district. “Once we are behind lock-ups, we are forced to sweep and wash the police stations, and clean latrines. No amount of persuasion that we are Indian citizens works.”
In Sheikh’s colony, a row of one-room tenements made of tin and tarpaulin under the shadows of a high-rise in Gurgaon’s Sector 54, most men work as garbage collectors at gated condos, while the women work as domestic helps.
On Thursday, a group of men sat discussing the situation in Assam, and statements made by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and several Union Ministers on the NRC.
“We are mostly from Murshidabad, Malda and Nadia. We migrated in search of work as we neither have land back home, nor the blessing of literacy. The taunts and snide remarks on our identity do bother us, but we keep going by reminding ourselves that these are little sacrifices for the sake of a square meal,” said Mohd Israil Sheikh.
Sheikh, who is paid around Rs 9,000 a month by a firm for picking garbage, said he makes it a point to carry his Aadhaar card and voter ID with him whenever he goes out, as random checks are not uncommon.
Many of these migrants flocked to Gurgaon at the turn of the millennium, when the township saw a construction boom. But over the years, Noida has emerged as another hotspot, with thousands turning up in search of unskilled jobs, their lives battered by floods and the growing footprint of the Ganges.
According to a garbage collector who did not wish to be named, the fact that fake identity proofs are up for sale makes it hard to distinguish a Bangladeshi national from a resident of West Bengal. “But they are mostly from districts (in Bangladesh) neighbouring Bengal, mainly victims of annual floods. When it comes to hunger, boundaries get blurred,” he said.
On the border of Noida’s Sector 76, along an open sewer, is Barola village, home to hundreds of migrants staying in huts rented out by local slumlords at around Rs 1,000 per month, with “electricity charges extra”.
Sixty-year-old Ayem Uddin, who occupies one such room, said the rent was only for the piece of land on which the rooms stand. “We have to construct the rooms ourselves,” he said. His wife Uzai Bibi, who hails from Murshidabad’s Shaktipur, has not heard about NRC, nor is she aware of its potential fallout or the shrill debate on the need to remove illegal immigrants.
“Maids like us do not have the luxury to indulge in debate. We leave home around 6 am and return for a short break around 1 pm. By 3-3.30 pm, we are back to work. For part-time work, a household pays us around Rs 1,500 per month. Full-timers get more, but we have to look after our family as well,” she said.
Every morning, hundreds of women line up outside the entrances of high-rises in these satellite townships, as security personnel, also belonging to the same economic strata, let them in one by one after checking their IDs, copies of which have to be submitted at the police station.
But, for all the back-breaking service she renders to keep her employers’ lives running smoothly, Bibi is no stranger to ridicules and aspersions on her identity. “I wouldn’t say that all of them are bad. Oder moton bhalo manush o nai, oder theke kharap manush o nai (it is difficult to find people as good as them, it is equally hard to find people as bad as them),” was her pithy observation, when asked to define her relationship with her employers.
But every now and then, the delicate balance is disturbed.
Last year, Mahagun Moderne high-rise in Noida’s Sector 78 was witness to a case of an alleged assault on a maid, and subsequent outburst by those employed at the society. “Those were some of the most difficult months we spent here. I hope we do not have to live that period all over again,” she said.
A relatively young domestic maid, Savita, who works part-time in a Greater Kailash bungalow, said she has read about the NRC issue “on WhatsApp”. “This will affect Bangladeshis who have eaten into our jobs. I do not think it will have any impact on our lives,” she said, bringing to fore the insecurity and divide over the issue even among blue-collar workers.
Nidhi, an artist based in Gurgaon who requested that her second name not be used, said it was an “open secret” that many maids conceal their real identities and use Hindu names, as it not only helps them get work, but also escape police scrutiny.
“The other issue is of social media penetration among them… WhatsApp messages are purposely spread among them to incite one community against the other,” she said.
A homemaker in Noida described domestic helps as the “indispensable evil of our lives”. “I understand they lead sad lives, but where do they get these ID cards? They are used as vote banks. We need them and they know about it well. Moreover, due to proximity to affluent households, their aspirations have grown. There are other people who can do these jobs. Why are women from Bihar or Jharkhand not employed instead? Seen in this context, are (Donald) Trump’s policies wrong?” she asked.
Back in her ramshackle household, preparing for her afternoon shift at the housing colonies, Bibi offered a different take on the issue: “Every individual in this city is a migrant. Our employers also hail from different parts of the country; they are here for jobs, isn’t it?”