A dispute between the residents of a posh gated community and their domestic workers in Noida on the outskirts of Delhi has reached the highest levels of the Indian government. At least, this is what the Union minister of culture Mahesh Sharma claimed at a meeting with the residents of Mahagun Moderne on Sunday. Sharma, who is the MP from Uttar Pradesh’s Gautam Buddha Nagar constituency under which Noida falls, assured the residents of the complex that he was on their side.

“I have spoken to home ministry officials, the home minister of the country, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh,” said Sharma. “We have asked the officials to take strict action against those who are responsible for this incident.”

The residential locality in Noida’s Sector 78 had witnessed a riot-like situation on July 12 after a domestic worker Zohra Bibi went missing overnight. Her husband came looking for her in the morning with a group of other domestic workers and their relatives. The group clashed with the security guards and the police had to be called to restore order. Bibi, 27, who was found later, alleged that she had been held captive by her employers, the Sethi family. Two FIRs were filed – one by Bibi against her employers, and the other by the Sethis against unidentified members of the crowd that had forced their way into the gated community.

But Sharma claimed only one complaint was valid. “There is no doubt that the [Sethi] family is not at fault,” he said, prompting the residents to break into applause. “It is clear that a group of people got together with the intent to injure and kill and they should be booked under those sections and under the Goonda Act. I assure you that they will not get bail for years to come. We will fight the case on behalf of the family.”

Mahesh Sharma addressed the residents of Mahagun Moderne on Sunday.

So far, the police has arrested 13 men – all relatives of the domestic workers. It is still looking for Bibi’s husband who has gone into hiding. Turning to the police station house officer, who was present at the meeting along with Noida Authority officials, Sharma said: “We have informed the police that in the next 24 hours, if you do not arrest the main accused…”

Sharma also held out a threat for those who were intervening on behalf of the workers. “People in the media and others are running shops in the name of human rights. They are trying to give this incident a communal colour...You [the residents] don’t need to do anything, our people will answer the human rights activists,” he said, boasting that the Bharatiya Janata Party had an army of more than 10 lakh party workers.

Listen to Mahesh Sharma's speech at Mahagun Moderne.

Mahagun Moderne has around 2,000 apartments and nearly 600 domestic workers come to work in the complex everyday. Many domestic workers are Muslim migrants from the districts of West Bengal. After the dispute, some residents had alleged that the domestic workers were illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and had compared the events in their building complex to the communal violence that had broken out in Malda district in West Bengal in January 2016.

Sharma exonerated the residents and blamed the media for presenting the incident through a communal lens. But he ended up revealing his own prejudice as he said: “It is our need and compulsion [to hire the workers]. I understand this since I live in sector 15 where we are supposed to hire servants after a process of verification. But even though we know who they are, we turn a blind eye, because of our needs.”

A blacklist

Last week, the police superintendent of Noida City, Arun Kumar Singh, had not responded to calls by Scroll.in. On Monday, however, he backed the comments made by the minister in support of the Sethi family.

“CCTV footage shows that the maid servant [Zohra Bibi] ran away from the employer’s apartment and she could be seen running from one lobby to the other. So the captive theory no longer applies,” Singh said. “We are looking out for more men who were involved in the vandalism,” he added.

Separate from the police investigation, the real estate managers at Mahagun Moderne carried out their own enquiries. Around 2 pm on Sunday, soon after Sharma left, a list of 61 workers was released by the managers of Jones Lang LaSalle, a multinational company that runs the gated complex with the help of a security agency. These workers were reportedly identified by security guards as part of the rioting mob. By 9 pm on Sunday, the list had swelled to 81 names.

“They are the ones who were directly involved with the vandalism and we will not allow them to enter the premises of the society,” said Rama Swamy, the chief security officer in Mahagun Moderne.

On the list was Mamata Bibi, 35, who worked as a cook for the Sethis and three other families. A migrant from Cooch behar district in West Bengal, she lived in a slum in Sector-78. Her husband and son had worked as construction labour to build Mahagun Moderne. After the police had swooped down on the slum last week to make arrests, the family had decided to leave.

“We are planning to leave for our villages but there is a lot of money stuck,” said Bibi. “While four of my employers owe me Rs 17,000, the contractor under whom my husband and son worked also owes them Rs 10,000 each.”

Mamata Bibi outside her home. Photo credit: Abhishek Dey

On Monday morning, several domestic workers were denied entry even though their names were not on the list. The workers were told they would be allowed inside only after their employers had submitted a letter stating they took full responsibility for them.

Some residents, who did not want to be identified, expressed dismay at the way workers were being treated. They said depriving the poor of their livelihoods was not only unjust but also counter-productive since it would add to the insecurity in the area.

But such views appear to held by a small minority. On Monday afternoon, members of the Noida Residents Welfare Association, an umbrella body of several residents’ association welfare associations, came to Mahagun Moderne to ask for a copy of the list of domestic workers who had been denied entry in the complex.

“We want to circulate this list among all resident welfare bodies so that the blacklisted domestic helps do not get job anywhere,” said N P Singh, president of the Noida Residents Welfare Association.

Demolition drive

Towards the end of the meeting with Sharma on Sunday afternoon, a resident brought up a list of requests with the minister: a permanent police post, better street lights, more security and the removal of encroachments in the area.

Around noon on Monday, officials of the Noida Authority arrived to demolish 30-odd makeshift shops on an empty plot of land across the road from Mahagun Moderne. The officials claimed it had nothing to do with the events at the residential society.

The remains of a tea-shop after the demolition. Photo credit: Abhishek Dey

But the shopkeepers were unconvinced. “Why did they do this to us now?” said Mohammad Rafeeq, 39, who had a sugarcane juice shop that had been reduced to rubble.

Said Sunita Devi, 30, who ironed clothes for the residents of Mahagun Moderne: “It was a dispute between a family and their domestic worker, which turned into a ruckus. But what do we have to do with that? Have the rich flat owners started to see every poor person as a threat after this incident?”