They left Bangladesh for a better future. Now they are trapped in India

30 Sep 2019 9:51 AM
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For many, the hope of a brighter future against the backdrop of extreme poverty and exploitation transcends any notion of nation-states and the boundaries between them.
But for these Bangladeshi women, the road to a better life led to a loss of personal agency, autonomy and ultimately, incarceration as illegal migrants in India.

"Before I came here I didn’t know some place called Indiya existed,” Salma (not her real name), 18, told Indian daily newspaper The Hindu, with her face contorting as she tried to pronounce the word correctly.

“I had heard of Bharat, Kolkata and Hindustan. I knew that only Hindus stayed in Bharat and there were no Muslims. That is all I knew.”

The concept of borders did not occur to Salma while fleeing the abuse by her husband and his family back home and crossing into India, which, to her, was just a geographical space. She now finds herself imprisoned in India for being a foreigner without valid documents, according to The Hindu.

Nargis, a 22-year-old widow, shares a fate similar to Salma's. She had sensed something was awry when the dalal (agent) she was travelling on a train with offered her an apple, she told The Hindu.

Nargis had been promised a job by the man and was on her way to it. "I told him I wanted to go back; but he said that once someone gets on this path, they do not return. I tremble when I think of him even now," said Nargis. She later landed in a correctional home in Kolkata.

Reshmi, 22, managed to escape the clutches of the trafficker who brought her to India but ended up in the hands of the Border Security Force (BSF). “The BSF caught me. They kept me in their camp for a night, they kicked me in my stomach, they raped me, they tortured me. I fell unconscious. I had to be admitted to hospital. It’s been two years and three months; some parts of my body still ache.”

Most of these women crossed the border in a bid to escape a vulnerable and violent situation for a better life.

They pinned all their hopes in a ‘facilitator’, invariably a friend or acquaintance from their village, who assure them of a job or refuge. But they were later trafficked instead, mostly to brothels in India, according to the report.

No-man's land

The exclusion of over 1.9 million people from a recently published list of citizens in the Indian state of Assam has sparked widespread concern. The worries stem from a specific historical context in Assam where India, be it through the NRC or the legal system, has effectively rendered a group of people stateless.

Detention centres are being built to accommodate these 'illegal immigrants' as their future remains clouded in uncertainty.

The Bangladeshi women languishing in Indian prisons are another set of disempowered people trapped in no-man’s land, according to the report. Bangladeshis account for the largest proportion of foreign prisoners in India.

According to the 2015 Prison Statistics India, there were 1,493 Bangladeshi convicts (of 2,353 foreign national prisoners) lodged in prisons across the country.

Of these, 1,253 were in prisons in West Bengal. A total of 2,579 Bangladeshis (of the 3,795 foreign nation prisoners) were awaiting trials in 2015, and 2,099 of them were in West Bengal. Maharashtra had the second highest number of Bangladeshis waiting to be tried. In 2016, the number of Bangladeshi convicts in Indian prisons rose to 1,792.

In some states, Bangladeshis without valid documents are arrested under the Foreigners Act, 1946, and in others, under the Passports Act, 1967. There is little clarity on what documents the police check while arresting those who are alleged Bangladeshis, The Hindu writes.

Lack of legal support

The predicament of Bangladeshi prisoners, in general, and of Bangladeshi women prisoners in particular, is grim. A number of women who are victims of trafficking are arrested as ‘illegal’ immigrants, often while they are fleeing brothels or exploitative jobs.

According to the author of the essay, once in prison, it is difficult for these women to get legal aid, as the District Legal Services Authority lawyers are usually unwilling to take up their cases, and the prisoners do not have the money to hire private lawyers. They do not have visitors either as their relatives fear arrest, or are all in Bangladesh.

Sometimes, Muslim women from West Bengal are arrested in other states when they are unable to produce documents — which makes them “Bangladeshi” in the eyes of the criminal justice system.

Rina, 21, divorced her husband because he was a drug addict. “I was really young. I didn’t want to get married but didn’t have the courage to say this to my mother... this is why I am still upset with my parents,” she is cited as saying.

“So I decided to come to India for some time... I needed money to raise my child.”

For many, migration becomes inevitable in the face of domestic violence, the severing of relationships, and the subsequent livelihood crisis. Any promise of a better life is embraced — and opportunity often presents itself in the form of traffickers, who promise jobs in other cities in Bangladesh or in India.

Often, these women start out working in a garment factory in Dhaka or other Bangladeshi cities where the seeds of migration to India are sowed.  Many of these women are then sent on a journey across the border, only to be later sold into brothels.

And so, the garment factories in Bangladesh, which are seen as a road to empowerment for women, often become the site of violence and disappearance.

The political concept of borders is also completely lost on many of these women.

Rumpa, 20, a young mother, told The Hindu, “This country is taking the help of Bangladesh and Bangladesh takes the help of this country. There seems to be nothing wrong with that. In Bangladesh, we eat Indian rice, Indians eat vegetables grown in Bangladesh.”

“We take oil from India, we share water... there seems nothing wrong with all this exchange of goods; then why is there objection to women like us who come to work? We plan to go back... we don’t want to stay in your country forever.”

For most of them, the first realisation that they are making a mistake occurs at the time of crossing the border when the agent tells them to run across clandestinely, or makes them wade across narrow ditches or jump across barbed wire fences, according to the report.

Though they acquiesce and go through with it, focussed on a ‘bright future’, it is at this point that doubts and confusion creeps in.

The realisation that they have committed a crime only dawns on them after their arrest.

The lack of a clear process of repatriation to Bangladesh at the end of their sentences only compounds their situation.

They are taken to the border in West Bengal and here, they are ‘pushed back’ into Bangladesh.

In fact, on occasions, they continue in prison in West Bengal even after their sentence is over since there are no clear repatriation orders.

While various records and documents are maintained from the time a Bangladeshi is arrested, then released, then returned to the border, the process is still mired in confusion, according to the report.