India Sends Bangladeshis Home

As people flee war, famine, and deprivation around the world, the United States, Europe, India, and Australia are reacting to the influx by rethinking or retooling their refugee and immigration policies

TASLEEMA ALI is missing. The 16-year-old daughter of a rag-picker was sleeping with her family in their two-room hovel in East Delhi's New Seemapuri Colony when the policemen came. It was 2 a.m., and her father Azhar Ali had gone to sleep in his rag-picker's shop nearby, to make way for a visiting grandmother.

That night in late September, policemen taking part in an unofficial campaign that the press here has labeled "Operation Push-Back" rounded up Tasleema and other "illegal immigrants" from Bangladesh who live in this desperately poor section of the Indian capital. Witnesses say the policemen came barging through the jute curtains that screen the hovels' entrances and residents fled. Tasleema and her grandmother were among the immigrants who were put into police vans and taken away.

"My wife came running and told me what had happened," Mr. Ali says. "I was sick with worry for my daughter and mother-in-law. I asked around, and found that all my neighbors who had been caught had been taken to a detention camp in Narela, in another corner of Delhi."

He rushed to the camp, where he met many neighbors, but none had seen his daughter. Now more than a month later, Ali does not know if his daughter and mother-in-law are alive or dead, in India or deported to Bangladesh.

Immigrants here assert Tasleema and the others were taken from Delhi to Calcutta by train, then to the Bangladeshi border by truck, and later forced to walk across by the Border Security Force (BSF). Diplomatic row

Allegations of brutality during the short-lived operation has led to a diplomatic row between India and Bangladesh.

The Indian government admits that 132 men, women, and children were deported from Delhi in late September. Some had their heads shaved before being deported so that they could be easily identified if they tried to return.

But India's Home Ministry denies that an Operation Push-Back was ever a coordinated government program. The head shaving, a ministry spokesman says, was an "abberation, and disciplinary proceedings have been started."

In past years, as Indian newspapers and the parliament debated how to handle the influx of immigrants, the Bangladeshi government in Dhaka kept quiet. But politicians in the Bangladeshi parliament reacted strongly to recent reports of the operation, calling the Indian action inhumane. The Bangladeshi government officially refused entry to the 132 persons, describing them as Indian nationals. But the families of those immigrants say they are still missing.

Bangladesh's Foreign Minister A. S. M. Mostafizur Rahman said India's push-back was a unilateral action and "against international norms."

"Never before in Bangladesh's 21-year-old history has such an unanimity been found on an issue involving India, both in parliament and in the streets," wrote Haroon Habib, a Bangladeshi journalist.

Embarrassed by the press attention, the Indian Foreign Ministry has tried to play down the border episode. But the issue was high on the agenda during the Bangladeshi foreign minister's visit to New Delhi Nov. 15.

Bangladesh officially maintains that there are no illegal immigrants from Bangladesh to India, but diplomats from Dhaka privately admit the influx is real. They note that it is difficult to distinguish between Bangladeshi immigrants and ethnic Bengalis from the Indian state of West Bengal.

"If people are caught crossing the border, you can push them back," a Bangladeshi diplomat in Delhi says. "But you cannot pick up people from Delhi and push them across an international border just because they are Bengali-speaking. There are Bengali-speaking people in India too."

[In all, the Indian government may deport as many as 600,000 immigrants who are thought to have entered India illegally since 1977, a Dhaka diplomat told Reuters in late September.]

The move to deport people of Bangladeshi origin is being spearheaded by the Hindu revivalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the policy has gained a substantial following in a country with its own problems of severe poverty and unemployment. Support for the BJP's deportation call is especially strong in New Delhi, where an estimated 150,000 Bangladeshis live, and in areas around the Bangladeshi border.

The Indian majority in New Seemapuri, which has the capital's largest concentration of Bangladeshis, managed to send a BJP member to the national parliament in last year's elections, largely in support of anti-immigrant policies.

The BJP's attempt to play up the immigrant issue is raising tensions between religious communities. The party says Hindu refugees are welcome, because they are "persecuted in Bangladesh, but the Muslims are here for purely economic reasons." Steady exodus to India

Few doubt that there is a steady exodus to India from even poorer Bangladesh. Last year out of the 92,000 Bangladeshi nationals trying to cross over illegally - and pushed back physically - more than 75,000 were intercepted near the West Bengal border, say BSF officials. But countless others get through a largely open border.

Once across, the immigrants blend into communities of earlier immigrants. The Indian economy has been able to absorb them so far. Most of the male immigrants do menial work while the women hire themselves out as domestic help.

Indian assurances of good treatment for future returnees is of little comfort to Ali. Like many immigrants who admit having come from Bangladesh, he suddenly finds himself declared an illegal alien, after spending years in India. He and others produce various forms of proof of residence to show that they are Indian: photocopies of passports, ration cards which allow them to buy food at subsidized rates, voter lists, electricity bills, and insurance policies.

Many of these "proofs" of citizenship were provided by politicians who wanted the votes of the new immigrants, and promised "protection" from deportation in return.

Abdul Mannan, a member of the ruling Congress Party, recalls how then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi addressed the immigrants in 1975 - asking them to live together in New Seemapuri, and giving them free plots of land. The ration cards and other "proofs" followed as the immigrants displayed their loyalty by voting for Congress in each election. Today the immigrants say they feel cheated by the politicians and say they are scared.

More than a month has passed since the night of the forcible pick-ups, but many people are still missing. The few residents who have secure, brick-walled homes bolt their doors every night. Others go to an adjacent neighborhood and sleep in friends' houses.

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