Leave alone a nonplussed Congress high command, it even took the bjp, vhp and the rest of the Hindutva brigade by surprise. The Congress government's decision in Rajasthan on August 10 to repatriate some 3,500 illegal Bangladeshi migrants in Jaipur and Ajmer has stirred a hornet's nest. While the authorities say it was purely an administrative action, the contentious issue has already begun to get political overtones, given the fact that it has come from a Congress government.
At the centre of the political storm is the Rajasthan home minister, Gulab Singh Shaktawat, who told the press last week that the government has decided to deport the illegal immigrants. The announcement came in the wake of an incident on August 5 when policemen in Jaipur were injured in clashes with residents of Gopalbari, a slum cluster of illegal Bangladeshi migrants.
The minister subsequently announced that a survey will be carried out by the district collectors of Jaipur and Ajmer to identify their exact number, and then they would be deported in a phased manner. The involvement of the Bangladeshis in criminal activities was cited as a major reason for their repatriation.
But much has transpired since then. Caught between the sharp reactions from within the state Congress and protests from the cpi(m) and the Samajwadi Party, Shaktawat rushed to the party headquarters in New Delhi. Ever since, he has been downplaying the entire episode. The Congress high command obviously did not wish to be seen as a party taking such drastic action against members of a minority community which it considers a crucial votebank.
Speaking to Outlook, Shaktawat pointed out that "this is not a new decision. We are merely following up the process of repatriating illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, as per the norms laid down by the Centre. This is an ongoing process and is not being done for the first time."
The Congress high command, however, is definitely not rejoicing over the state government's adventurous moves, ill-timed as it is when its credibility has suffered after incidents of mosques being destroyed in Asind and Pander towns in Bhilwara. "I will not be able to make an informed comment on the matter," says Congress spokesman Jaipal Reddy. Meanwhile, sources in the state government indicated an obvious softening of the stand on the repatriation issue.
But other 'secular' parties are not buying the argument. Says Amra Ram, the lone cpi(m) mla from Dhod town, who has been vehemently protesting the state government's move: "The Congress government is hand-in-glove with the bjp and rss. They have arrived at some mutual agreement to drive out the Bangladeshi migrants from the state. The police, in turn, is committing atrocities on them. They are human beings after all. It's a case of violation of human rights. The migrants should be sent back through proper channels and not driven out like cattle."
The bjp, naturally, is supportive of the state government move. Says Ghanshyam Tiwari, senior vice-president of the state unit: "The bjp had initiated the process and now the Congress is taking it forward. The Bangladeshis have become a major threat to law and order in the city. We will extend our full support to the state government."
Politics apart, the issue has a real estate angle too. According to rough estimates, Jaipur alone has a migrant Bangladeshi population of about 2,200. Of these, about 1,200 live in the congested slum cluster of Gopalbari on prime land about half a kilometre away from the chief minister's residence and other strategic locations like the bus stand, railway station and the high court.
The land is worth crores of rupees and belongs to the Jaipur Development Authority (jda), which too is struggling to vacate the unauthorised occupants. Local residents and even politicians of all hues are agreed that there's a real estate angle to the entire move to deport the Bangladeshis.
Says Ramesh Sharma, a district committee office-bearer of the cpi(m): "There is a definite involvement of the land mafia in the move. A Congress mla had even tried to erect a structure at the site, but it was demolished. There are many mlas from both the Congress and the bjp vying to grab the land once the Bangladeshis are evicted."
A potential goldmine for politicians and builders, Gopalbari now is nothing but a hell-hole where the migrants survive in sub-human conditions. There is no electricity, no water, and two to three families with their children are packed like sardines in a single hut. The men pull rickshaws, women work as domestic help and the children are ragpickers, out on their rounds as early as 4 in the morning before the municipality staff clears the garbage.
The August 5 clash with the local police has cost the migrants dearly, with nearly two dozen of their men and a woman still languishing in judicial custody. The brawl broke out when cops came in search of some youths in Gopalbari who had attacked two staffers of a local travel agency with knives. They were met with fierce protests. The dark, narrow lanes in the cluster witnessed heavy stone-pelting and lathicharge for hours. The additional collector and SP had to rush to the spot.
Says B.L. Soni, SP Jaipur (south), who is handling the case: "This is not the first time that the Bangladeshis have disturbed the peace. They have had around 100 cases registered against them in the city's police stations in the last four years."
Meanwhile, the talk of being forcibly deported has the residents in a panic. They say they would rather die than return to the misery and hunger in Bangladesh. "If things come to that, we will request the government to make us stand in a line and shoot all of us. But we will not go back," says Mohammed Bahul Sheikh, a rickshaw puller. Adds 60-year-old Zamir Akhtar, a resident of the slum for the last 10 years, "It's true that some of the men did attack the police. Punish them but don't brand all of us as criminals. We are here to survive. If we go back, we will die anyway."
The Gopalbari dwellers would rather forget the whole incident. Right now, they are busy raising money to bail out those held by the police. "They (the authorities) have asked us to get at least Rs 1,500 for the release of ten people," says a local.
Significantly, the state government is putting the brakes on its deportation effort, widely seen now as a political blunder. Shaktawat himself is more cautious now: "Repatriation itself is a very complex process. We'll have to first identify how many illegal Bangladeshi immigrants are there in the state. We can't take any suo motu action. It's not a drive or an initiative at all. We are just following routine procedure."
Shaktawat also denies holding back his fire for fear of upsetting the Muslim votebank. "The Bangladeshis are not even on the voters' list that one can be presumed to be interested in the votebank," he says. The home minister is a much chastised man and his cautious approach is a far cry from the sabre-rattling just a week ago.
As for the Bangladeshi migrants, they can heave a sigh of relief.At least for now.