Their day begins at 5 am. A cup of tea, perhaps a biscuit, and a dose of nostalgia for their homes back in north Bengal is all they have for breakfast before they head for the thousands of flats that have come up in Noida’s Sector 78, where they sweep floors or cook. Many of them are migrants from Bengal, who came to Noida in search of a better job and a better life. They live in a temporary settlement less than a kilometre away from Mahagun Moderne — a gated society that on Wednesday woke up to find 100-150 people from the community standing outside its gate, hurling stones and demanding the ‘return’ of a domestic help who had ‘gone missing’ the previous evening.
At the centre of the controversy was 26-year-old Zohra Bibi, who had ‘disappeared’ after being accused of stealing money by her employers. When she re-emerged on Wednesday, Bibi alleged she had been beaten and kept captive — a charge denied by her employers. Almost immediately after, Mahagun Moderne placed restrictions on the entry of domestic helps into the complex. Other condominiums followed suit, with WhatsApp messages urging residents and RWAs to ‘keep Bangladeshis out’.
With the fragile employer-employee relationship coming under strain, domestic helps told The Indian Express that questions like, ‘are you a Bengali Muslim’ have become common. Those who reply in the affirmative are told to leave immediately. Back at the settlement, disparagingly called ‘Bangladeshi colony’ by those at the housing complexes, there is anger, resentment and fear, especially after 13 men were picked up by police late on Wednesday. “Many of the men aren’t here. Our homes are empty and we have no job. What will we do, with no work and nowhere to go? The police came later and broke open our doors. Zohra’s eldest son, who is 15, was also picked up,” alleged Mohsina Bibi, who worked at six households.
These 13 men were charged under IPC sections relating to rioting and damage to property. On whether Zohra’s son was among those picked up by police and later released, Gautam Buddha Nagar SSP Love Kumar said, “Apart from the 13 who were arrested, more people were picked up but were let off. The arrests were made only after these people were identified as among those responsible for the violence that day. CCTV footage from the society was used to identify them. Others were not arrested.”
Despite the ban on refusing entry to the 500 domestic helps to be partly lifted from Monday, many are unsure if they will get their jobs back.
Study in contrast
By 6 am, a part of the colony empties out. At many jobs — from selling vegetables to working at construction sites — the worker’s identity matters little. But not everyone is as lucky. Many, like Meena Bibi, haven’t been paid this month and are now without a job.
“We came here a decade ago, or maybe more. Most of us are from Cooch Behar in north Bengal. We have lived here for about two years; before this we were in Indirapuram, and before that, when there were no flats, we worked at construction sites. Many of us built these flats with our own hands; the same flats they are kicking us out of now,” Zohra’s husband, Abdul Sattar, said.
The real estate sector, buoyed by the Noida Authority’s decision to defer three infrastructure projects in a bid to ensure Metro connectivity, has seen thousands of flats spring up — each costing around Rs 55,000-Rs 70,000 per sqft. The massive towers are named after parks in London and squares in New York, representative of the middle-class dream of owning a ‘golf view’ apartment.
Back at the colony, though, even dreams are a luxury. There are no windows, no view, just the surety of knowing that rent is due every month — Rs 500 for a 50 sqft porta cabin, to be paid to the local who erected the cabins and turns up every month to collect rent.
While the local refused to comment on the status of land ownership, a senior government official said, “It is unlikely that the land is privately owned.”
By 9 am, not everyone has left. Many like Marjina Bibi don’t have a job now. Not used to being idle, she starts speaking of her home. Cooch Behar, she says, was India’s first planned city, built by the legendary king of the princely state of Koch Bihar, Nripendra Narayan, in the early 1900s.
“Cooch Behar taught the rest of India about modernity, about roads. Our palace continues to inspire whoever goes there. We are here not because we want to, but because we are trying to survive. It might be beautiful back there, but there are no jobs. If our king was still alive, none of this would be happening,” she said.
It wasn’t until 1949 that Cooch Behar became a part of India, leading to discomfiture among its residents. An accusation that flares up during elections is that Cooch Behar’s merger with West Bengal was a betrayal of the original agreement between the Maharaja of Cooch Behar and India. According to the West Bengal government, in 2005, when many of these residents moved to Noida, rural poverty in the district was as high as 25.62 per cent.
“Poverty in Bengal was different. We wouldn’t go hungry, but there were no jobs. We thought we could move here, find work and save money, so that at least our children could go to school… and we could maybe buy a house one day,” said Amina Bibi, 24.
But the community hasn’t let go of its roots entirely. Take, for instance, the houses. Each tin roof has been lined with bamboo thatchwork, a traditional cultural practice in north Bengal where, as one resident put it, children start learning to make the thatch as soon as they turn five. Every home also has the traditional Bengali hath pakha (hand fan).
An hour later, as bright yellow school buses start arriving at the housing complexes to take smartly dressed children to school, kids at the settlement stay put. Abdul and Zohra’s sons, aged 15 and 12, dropped out of school last year because it was too far and transportation options were limited.
There are no signs of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the government’s ICDS scheme, health schemes for mothers, zero balance bank accounts, or even toilets. Access to electricity too is limited from evening till morning. Yet, the residents diligently carry a series of documents proving their identity — Aadhaar card, documents from their village panchayat, PAN card, driver’s licence and, in rare cases, bank documents.
Sattar, one of the accused in the case registered by police, takes out his wallet with practiced ease for anyone who asks to see it. Each document has been neatly tucked into a plastic packet. “We are far away from home, so we always carry documents because anyone can stop us or the police can harass us. This is what migrants do,” he said.
On most days, work at different homes finishes by 2 pm. Breakfast is usually a question of whether an employer gives them food. The men usually flock to a tiny shop, the Bangali Hindu Hotel, which serves parotta and dal in the morning and fish and rice in the afternoon.
“After lunch, we get some rest, then we work again till evening. Women usually get done by 7 pm, and the men return by 8 pm,” said Sattar, who works at a construction site. But he hasn’t gone to work since Tuesday for fear of being arrested. He said he was among those who constructed the Golf Course Metro station and a temple at Badalpur, Mayawati’s village. “There, I was called ‘Babu’ and treated with a lot of respect. The guards would take us out for dinner. Not like this,” he said.
“In all these years, we have never been accused of being Bangladeshi. What does that even mean? Do these people know that Bangladesh and Bengal were the same? That we continue to be the same people? In Cooch Behar, the Hilsa is as great as the one in Bangladesh. We speak the same language and have the same culture of treating outsiders with respect. It’s only here, in north India, that we are targeted like this for being Muslim,” said Moinuddin, a rickshaw puller.
As the light begins to fade, families start lining up next to the solitary tubewell, the only source of water for 100-odd households. Some wash the fish bought from a nearby market, others, mostly children, pick coriander leaves from plants that grow in tiny herb gardens outside their homes.
Rohu, the residents explain, is the most common and affordable fish available. Puti, a small bony freshwater fish, isn’t as tasty in Noida, while chingri (prawn) is reserved for special occasions. “Some of us cook as well. But no one wants Bengali food as it is spicy. So we have learnt new dishes for them, like chole and rajma. But we rarely cook those at our home,” said Mamata Bibi.
Meanwhile, Zohra Bibi, who said she is “still unwell” from Wednesday’s incident, rests inside a dimly lit room. “I have a headache… Doctors have given me medicine but no prescription, so there is no proof of what happened to me,” she said.
Zohra has been prescribed a painkiller, an antacid and a calcium supplement. Muzaffar, her brother-in-law, said, “There is no justice in any of this. They have arrested our people, but nothing is being done to the people who did this to her. It’s because we are Muslim.”
Immediately, another woman, Parul, retorted that her husband, Lakshmiram, too has been picked up by police. They are among the few in the settlement, who aren’t from Cooch Behar, but from Farakka in Malda. “I am Hindu, so is my husband. He was picked up, too. They don’t care about our religion; for them we are poor and that is all that matters. Don’t start talking about religion, we have been living together for a decade and our blood is the same,” she said.
After dinner, the men crush tobacco in their palms, lovingly brought from their hometowns. On most days, this would be the time when everyone sits in a huddle and discusses their day. Not today. The only thing on everyone’s mind is to bring back the 13 who have been detained. “What if they take them away to some jail and we don’t know where they are? What do we do then?” asked one.
For now, there are no answers. As the night grows darker, the settlement is illuminated only by the eerie glow of massive towers behind it. “Each lit window up there,” said 15-year-old Ashraf, “is a reminder to us of our place in the world.”