It was, by all accounts, an ordinary Saturday afternoon for 23-year-old Munni Begum and her family, who came to Bengaluru from Assam two years ago. Munni had just returned to her tin and tarpaulin-roofed shed after her morning shift of housekeeping work when the sound of an excavator jolted her.
Officials from the Marathalli police had turned up at the migrant settlement located at Kariyammana Agrahara, a locality behind Mantri Espana apartment in Bellandur, with an excavator. The officials claimed that the sheds in the settlement area were illegally built on private property and that some were occupied by Bangladeshi nationals.
Even as Munni and several other residents in this settlement held up their identity cards, including aadhaar card, voter ID, employee ID cards, to prove that they were Indians, the officials continued to raze the sheds to the ground. By Sunday afternoon, around 100 sheds in the shanty were taken down. This move comes at a time when people across India have been protesting against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC).
The demolition mainly seems due to a sting operation by a channel and a video that was doing the rounds. The video, reportedly taken in Bellandur, had been shared widely on WhatsApp and was tweeted by Mahadevapura's BJP MLA Arvind Limbavali, and it claimed Bangladeshi immigrants were illegally staying in the area. A news report by Suvarna News in the previous week had also claimed the presence of Bangladeshi immigrants staying in Bellandur.
Few people have taken shelter under illegally constructed sheds located in Kariyammana Agrahara of Bellanduru which is within the jurisdiction of our Mahadevapura Assembly constituency. 1/3 pic.twitter.com/WjvmWlSE55— Aravind Limbavali (@ArvindLBJP) January 12, 2020
“We did not get a prior intimation. The police came here with an excavator and began demolishing rooms. We were not even given the time to retrieve some of our items in the rooms. Why didn’t the police check our documents?" asked Munni.
Marathahalli police has arrived at the settlement next to Sakra Hospital in Bellandur to demolish houses. Police say that a news report stated that Bangladeshis stay here but residents are asking the police to check their IDs before demolishing. pic.twitter.com/Zv1pfcBW2L— Prajwal (@prajwalmanipal) January 19, 2020
Munni Begum works as a housekeeper at an upscale apartment in Bellandur on the eastern periphery of the city. Other residents here, too, work in upscale apartments near the settlement, as security guards, housekeepers, cooks, cleaners and waste segregators. Many people residing here came from Assam, West Bengal, Tripura, Uttar Pradesh and even from northern Karnataka.
"We are working as housekeepers and cleaners here. We are also human just like the people who have a problem with us being here. If the police doubt our citizenship, they should re-verify our documents," says Mohammed Ahad-ul, a 20-year-old who arrived at the settlement from Assam four years ago.
"The demolitions which took place are completely illegal. There was no order for demolition or eviction by any relevant authorities. Police issued a notice to some land owners saying there are people from Bangladesh illegally staying there and sheds are illegal and those sheds should be removed. It is a notice which is illegal, arbitrary and does not come under police jurisdiction. And this notice has not been issued to any residents. If there are any foreigners staying illegally, the police should proceed under Foreigners Act. That act or any other law does not give power to police to ask someone to vacate their tenants," Vinay Sreenivasa, an advocate with the Alternative Law Forum, told TNM.
BBMP’s demolition drive
Police arrived with an excavator on both Saturday and Sunday. The Assistant Executive Engineer of the BBMP’s Marathahalli sub-division, on Saturday, had written to Marathahalli police station seeking police protection to carry out the demolition. In the letter, the official said that "Bangladeshi nationals have built illegal sheds and the residents here have converted this into a slum area".
Vinay says this letter too is arbitrary. "Firstly no notice was sent by BBMP to either the land owner or to the people, how then did they decide to evict? Secondly, any eviction order if it was there had to be preceded by a notice, no notice was sent. Thirdly, if a notice was to be sent and subsequently a demolition ordered, it cannot be by the AEE," Vinay said. Only the BBMP Commissioner has the powers to order an eviction.
The Marathalli police, who were also present at the spot to oversee the demolition drive on both days, claimed that a notice was sent to the landowner earlier this week.
In the police notice to the landowner, dated January 11, it said that illegal sheds have been constructed in the area behind Mantri Espana apartment survey number 35/2 without any permission from the government. “In these sheds, Bangladeshi nationals are sheltered outside the scope of the law, without providing any documents. By constructing sheds and providing illegal electricity, it is illegal to stay outside the scope of the law.”
However, many residents claimed that they did not receive this police notice.
Two months ago, the city police detained 60 Bengali-speaking migrants from Ramamurthy Nagar, Bellandur and Marathahalli and subsequently took them to the Indo-Bangladesh border via train. After this incident, the residents told TNM that others, who were not from India, decided to leave the settlement.
The police said that landowners should construct apartments for these residents and cited safety hazards for demolishing these sheds. However, the residents said this would prove costly to them. “We cannot afford the deposit needed to move into a flat. We are daily wage workers and if we are being evicted, we don't have a place to go to,” said Mohammed.
By Sunday afternoon, lawyers and activists had reached the spot to question the police over its actions.
The eviction-demolition on Saturday and Sunday seems to be redolent of an instance in August 2018 when the BBMP demolished 400 huts occupied by low-income group families in the vicinity just beside the Sakara Hospital. At the time, authorities said the huts had to be demolished as they apparently violated the buffer zone of the Bellandur lake, which is more than a kilometre away. Soon after, the Karnataka High Court had stayed evictions in the area after activists approached the court for relief.