“We are as Indian as the people living in those big societies,” said Abida Bibi, 22, as she stood in a queue with a bundle of documents outside the duty officer’s room in Noida’s Sector 49 police station on Thursday afternoon. “But never in our lives did we imagine that we would have to prove it one day.”
The documents Abida Bibi held firmly in her hands were several photocopies of her and her husband’s Aadhaar cards, voter identity cards and even a document issued by the gram panchayat, or village council, of their village in West Bengal’s Cooch Behar district. They were required to establish their identities as Indian nationals.
A day after a mob mostly comprising domestic workers and their family members vandalised the entrance to Mahagun Moderne Society in Noida’s Sector 78 after a domestic worker employed there did not return home the previous night, the mood among domestic workers in the area, some of whom were part of the mob, had changed from anger to fear.
The missing woman, Zohra Bibi emerged from the complex on Wednesday morning even as the police was called to control the mob that had come looking for her. She alleged that she had been assaulted and held captive overnight by her employers over a dispute related to payment. The employers have denied this.
The mob comprised migrant workers, both men and women, living in the slum clusters in and around Sector 78, about 23 km from New Delhi, which has a profusion of luxury high-rises.
At about midnight on Wednesday, the Uttar Pradesh police swooped down on those slums, picking up male members of the family. “We have never seen this kind of police action in our lives,” said Jainul, a migrant worker who lives in the slum where Zohra Bibi also lives.
By the end of Thursday, at least 13 people had been arrested in connection with the violence at the complex, and an unknown number detained. Police officials who did not wish to be identified said that four cases have been registered in connection with the matter. They said that all the arrested persons are residents of the slums. There has been no police action against Zohra Bibi’s employers – a merchant navy engineer and his wife – against whom a First Information Report was filed on Wednesday.
Arrested and detained
Around 1 pm, in the queue outside the police station, there were at least 30 others like Abida Bibi. All of them were employed as domestic workers in Sector 78’s upmarket housing societies. Like Zohra Bibi, they too live in the slum clusters in the area. They had gathered there to secure the release of their relatives who had been picked up during the police raid.
Abida Bibi and her husband left their village in West Bengal two years ago. She has been working as a domestic worker in Noida since 2015. She is not employed at Mahagun Moderne, but works in three flats in a neighbouring society.
While Abida Bibi had no clue about where the police had taken her husband, the person behind her in the queue was equally clueless. Hasna Bano’s husband and two brothers – Jalil and Abdul Dulal – had been picked up by the police.
Following the tension outside Mahagun Moderne Society, speculation was rife on social media that the domestic workers involved in the violence were “illegal immigrants from Bangladesh”. This was possibly because many of them are migrants from the West Bengal districts of Cooch Behar, Malda and Jalpaiguri, as well as from Assam. While the women work as domestic workers, the men are employed as daily wagers in construction sites that pockmark the satellite township adjoining New Delhi.
The allegation that they were Bangladeshis meant that workers, some of whom have lived in the area for a decade, suddenly have had to prove their identity.
“Never in my life have I come across any employer calling me a Bangladeshi even as a joke,” said Rupali Bibi, who has been employed as a domestic worker in Noida for nearly 12 years. The workers standing near her nodded their heads solemnly. “I cannot imagine what have happened to them suddenly,” she added.
The midnight knock
At the entrance of the Sector 49 police station, the sentry, a woman in her late twenties, shouted, “One person at a time”.
It was Narzina Bibi’s turn. She rushed inside quickly and came out even quicker. She broke down in the corridor. As those around her attempted to pacify her, she said that the police had told her that her husband was not among the few detained at that particular police station. “When I asked them where he is, they did not say anything and asked me to wait here until he is brought back,” she said. “When I asked them when he will be brought back, they did not answer.”
The midnight knock was hard.
“I was around 12 am, and we had just gone to bed when someone knocked on the door so hard that it felt like it would just break apart,” said Nazeema Bibi, a migrant from Cooch Behar whose husband, Rahul Haq, was one of those detained. “It was the police. They asked my husband to come out and show his identity documents. He never returned home.”
Jainul, a migrant construction worker, was one who got away. He said that the police followed the same strategy in all the slum clusters they raided on Wednesday. “Once the men were out of their houses with their documents, the police grabbed them and asked them to sit in their vehicles,” said Jainul. “The ones who were at the back of the queues, managed to flee.”
While eight persons were detained from Nazeema Bibi’s slum, around 14 were detained from the slum in which Jainul and Zohra Bibi live.
The door of Zohra Bibi’s tin sheet and bamboo hut was locked on Thursday. Neighbours said that her husband, Abdul Sattar, fled during the midnight raid, leaving his wife and three minor children behind. The neighbours said that the oldest son, about 13 years old, was also picked up by the police. They said that the police had taken Zohra Bibi for a medical check-up on Thursday morning, along with her two youngest children. She had not returned by the evening.
Several attempts were made to reach senior police officials, including Superintendent of Police (Noida City) for their comments. However, they did not respond to repeated calls and text messages. When this correspondent checked in at their offices on Thursday afternoon, staffers said that the officers were in a meeting with the Inspector General of Police.
By Thursday morning, the anger domestic workers had displayed the previous day at the treatment of a member of their fraternity had been replaced by fear. “Residents of the slum who were agitated by the entire episode and were even ready to thrash some of the security guards of Mahagun who had assaulted them, are scared to death today,” said Jainul.
On Wednesday, the workers had told this correspondent that they had joined the protests outside Mahagun Moderne out of solidarity with Zohra Bibi. They said that they were scared that something like that could also happen to them. Today, they are worried about their jobs.
Around 600 domestic workers used to work in Mahagun Moderne Society alone. Following Wednesday’s incident, the society announced that it had restricted the entry of domestic workers. While many domestic workers work in more than one housing complex, some have all their jobs in Mahagun Moderne.
Haseena Bibi is one of them. She works in three homes in the complex, earning around Rs 12,000 a month. She is staring at possible unemployment and the prospect of being homeless too. “My husband and I fled from our slum last night after the police raided the place,” she said. She is afraid of returning. “We are presently living with a relative. We later got to know that around six men were detained from our slum.”
The employers of other domestic workers in other societies have been calling them back to work. “This morning I received a call from one of my employers in a neighbouring society, who asked me to come to work,” said Parul Jogi, a migrant from Farakka in Murshidabad district of West Bengal. She works in three different societies, including Mahagun Moderne. “But I could not go there as my husband is in the police station. I cannot say how long we can survive like this.”
Some other domestic workers were concerned that their employers in neighbouring societies had not called them.
Narzina Bibi was one of them. At the same time, she did not want to call them herself as she knew that she cannot start work just yet as her husband has been detained by the police.
All photographs by Abhishek Dey.