It was “Malda again”, some alarmists claimed on social media, referring to the communal violence that had broken out in the West Bengal district in January 2016. Others demanded that Bangladeshis be thrown out of India. At the centre of this exaggerated panic was a dispute between a family in Noida’s posh Mahagun Moderne Society gated community and their Muslim domestic worker from West Bengal, which led to a riot-like situation on Wednesday morning that the Uttar Pradesh police was summoned to control.

By the end of the day, two First Information Reports had been filed with the police. The first was against the domestic worker’s employer and unidentified persons in the housing complex. The other was against unidentified members of the crowd that had forced their way into the gated community early on Wednesday morning.

The incident in the housing society in Noida’s Sector 78, approximately 23 km from New Delhi, is the latest manifestation of the intense hostility between privileged Indians and their domestic workers that seems to erupt in India’s cities with frightening regularity. But it was perhaps for the first time that such a dispute had swelled to such proportions, there were accusations that security guards had fired into the air to disperse a crowd angered at the treatment meted out to the domestic worker.

Missing woman

By 3 pm on Wednesday, the shattered windows of the cabin that housed the security guards at the entrance of the complex and the unusually large number of policemen standing outside its gates were the only evidence of the tense situation that prevailed earlier in the day.

The tense situation started at around 7 am, when a group of over 100 persons attempted to force their way into the premises of Mahagun Moderne Society in Noida’s Sector 78. They were looking for a woman who was employed as a domestic worker at the housing society. Zohra Bibi, 27, who had three children, had not returned to her home in a slum in the same sector the previous night.

Videos of the incident show the complex’s security guards throwing back stones pitched by the protestors standing at its gate.

Conflicting narratives

According to the police, on Tuesday night, when Zohra Bibi’s husband Abdul Sattar told them that his wife was missing, they conducted a search of the society’s premises but she could not be found.

The police claim that Zohra Bibi was rescued on Wednesday morning from a room in the basement of one of the buildings, where she had taken shelter after being physically assaulted by a Mahagun Moderne resident. The resident has been identified as Anshu Sethi in one of the two FIRs registered by the police. Sethi’s husband, Mitul Sethi, is the complainant in the second FIR.

However, Zohra Bibi contested the police version, saying that she was held captive overnight in the Sethi apartment, and that she had not been in the basement. She said that she had quit working at the Sethi home around 15 days ago and had gone there on Tuesday to ask them for the two months’ salary that they owed her.

The police claimed to have recorded Zohra Bibi’s statement on the basis of which the FIR against the Mahagun Moderne residents was filed. However, Zohra Bibi also denies that she gave the police a statement.

The residents of Mahagun Moderne claim that Zohra Bibi had run away from the Sethi apartment on Tuesday after she was accused of stealing cash. “She admitted to have stolen Rs 10,000 over a period of time when Mrs Sethi told her that she could produce CCTV footage to prove that,” claimed Dharmendra Rathode, a resident of the complex. “However, she [Sethi] did not have any such footage with her.”

Migrant workers

The protestors pushing at the gates of the housing complex on Wednesday morning comprised migrant workers, both men and women, living in the slum clusters in and around Sector 78, which has a profusion of luxury high-rises.

Many of the residents of these slum clusters are migrants from the West Bengal districts of Cooch Behar, Malda and Jalpaiguri, as well as from Assam. While the men work for daily wages in the construction industry in buildings being constructed in the satellite township, the women are usually employed as domestic workers in these plush high-rises.

Some of the protesters said that the complex’s security guards fired in the air to scare them off. However, Parshuram, the Station House Officer of the Sector 49 Police Station, in whose jurisdiction Mahagun Moderne Society falls, refuted that claim. “We have registered two cases based on complaints from both parties and the investigation is underway,” he said.

‘Pay my dues’

Zohra Bibi’s husband said that he was driven to despair when his wife did not return home on Tuesday and contacted the police. “What could I do?” said Sattar, a migrant from West Bengal’s Cooch Behar. “There was no other way to find my wife.”

He said that he had seen in the registers maintained by security guards at the entrance of the complex that Zohra had entered the society’s premises on Tuesday morning and did not come out. “I knew that she was there but both the police and security guards claimed that they could not find her there,” said Sattar. “So, the next morning, I went there with some neighbours to rescue my wife and soon people from some neighbouring slums joined us too.”

Mamata Bibi, 35, a cook in the Sethi home, said that she had accompanied Zohra Bibi to the Sethi apartment on Tuesday morning. “While we left their house by 9 am, madam had asked her to come again in the evening to collect her dues,” said Mamata Bibi. “She [Zohra Bibi] had clearly stated that she did not want to work there any longer and madam was unhappy with her decision.”

After Zohra Bibi emerged from the complex in the morning, the police took her to hospital for a medico-legal check-up. Later, Station House Officer Parshuram said that she had sustained no injuries.

Adding perspective to the incident were Facebook posts from Nilanjana Bhowmick, who lives in a complex in the vicinity. She said she had gone to the site as a “concerned citizen” and had intervened to stop the protestors from clashing with the police.

Bhowmick, who said that she had met Zohra Bibi on Wednesday evening, said that the woman “consistently reiterated that she was locked up in a room”.

Bhowmick wrote:

“We had to carry her to the car to take her for a medical examination. She vomited all the way. It was painful. And she kept asking, ‘why would they do this to me?’ Why indeed. I have never felt so ashamed of my privilege as I felt then. As I have felt all of today.”

(Photo credit: Nilanjana Bhowmick/Facebook).

A ban on workers

The Mahagun website says that the homes in Mahagun Moderne, one of the several luxury properties the realty firm has constructed, “mirror the taste of affluent class and include an array of space options (2, 3, 4 BHK units) comprising of high rise apartments, duplex apartments, independent floors, penthouses in addition to an iconic tower Marvella dedicated to luxurious 5 BHK units”.

According to the website, the complex is spread over 25 acres. Security guards said that it has over 2,800 apartments, of which 2,000 apartments are occupied. They said nearly 600 domestic workers visit it every day.

Mahagun Moderene. (Photo credit: Abhishek Dey).

On Wednesday evening, the society held a meeting of its residents, which senior Noida police officers attended. “In the meeting, we decided that no domestic worker should be allowed entry unless the matter is fully resolved,” said resident Dharmendra Rathode.

Over 150 families live in the isolated slum in Sector 78 where Zohra Bibi lives in a tin shack. A significant number of women there, including at least 30 who are Zohra Bibi’s neighbours, work at Mahagun Moderne.

The domestic workers usually have two shifts – between 6 am and 1 pm and between 4 pm and 9 pm. Their salaries vary. While basic household cleaning jobs bring them Rs 1,500 per household, salaries go up to between Rs 4,500 and Rs 5,000 for cooking and doing the dishes.

Mahagun shattered glass. (Photo credit: Abhishek Dey).

Workers show solidarity

Zohra Bibi’s case has stunned other domestic workers. “In Zohra’s case, we all joined the protest out of fear,” said Mona Biswas, a migrant from Siliguri in West Bengal. “Tomorrow, it could happen to any of us.” Biswas has been living in the National Capital Region with her family for over 10 years, and works as a cook in four households in Mahagun Moderne.

As is the case with domestic workers across the country, humiliation by some employers is such a daily part their lives that some of them do not even recognise it as such.

Asked if she had ever been humiliated by the people who employed her, 55-year-old Meera Halder, who also works in Mahagun Moderne, did not seem to understand the question. Later, she recalled an incident in which her employers accused her of theft after they spotted her eating two biscuits with some water in her employer’s kitchen. “It was not their biscuits at all,” she said. “We do not get to eat anything for long hours and we occasionally carry light snacks from home.” Haldar lives with her family at a slum cluster in Noida’s Barola village near Sector 49.

Domestic workers complain of other problems not unique to Mahagun Moderne. “At times we find that our employers are not home,” said Haldar, who hails from Malda. “It is not possible to come back home, nor can we rest in one of the parks in the society as the security guards do not allow it. Most employers also take offence if we ask them if we can rest in their homes for a while.”

Mona Biswas (left) Sudevi Halder (centre) and Meera Halder (right). (Photo credit: Abhishek Dey).

At 6 pm, in the slum cluster that Zohra Bibi and members of her fraternity call home, there was anxiety once news of the society’s decision to ban their entry reached them. For few minutes, some of them pondered whether to contact their employers over the decision. But they later changed their minds and decided to take Zohra to hospital instead.

“She did not eat any food today and has been vomiting since morning,” said Sattar. “We have no clue about what the doctors said when the police took her to hospital in the morning.”

Zohra and Mamata Bibi. (Photo credit: Abhishek Dey).