Mohammed Syed-Ul came to Bengaluru five years ago with his wife Ansala and two children in the search of work and a better life. Like many others, he and his family had entered Bengal from Bangladesh, crossing the border illegally.
They journeyed onward to Karnataka and settled in the outskirts of its capital city in Ramamurthynagar. Mohammed’s wife worked as a domestic help at a nearby apartment, while he worked for a contractor of the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike, collecting garbage.
"I have two daughters aged 10 and 12. They go for tuitions at this house, where my wife works as a help. I don't know what they study. I am not educated. I came here looking for work,” he says.
The life they had built here was uprooted in October as they were among the 60 Bangladeshi immigrants who were detained by the police from north Bengaluru for staying in India illegally.
Of the sixty, the women and children - 22 and nine respectively – were kept at a government-run shelter in the city until they were to be deported. The men – 29 – were kept in a room inside a police station. They were then taken by the police on a train to West Bengal recently.
The 14 Bangladeshi nationals News18 spoke to said there was no one at the border when they had crossed over.
“We talk to this person and he arranges everything. He stayed in a village nearby and he knows what the best time to cross is,” they said, adding that he takes money in return to help them. “Sometimes one thousand rupees per person.”
The oldest of the lot was 73-year-old Kamal Mistri, who came to Bengaluru seven or eight years ago. He said he belongs in India and claims to have sold his possessions in Bangladesh and moved to Kolkata several years ago. His relatives who live there have documents, while he remains an illegal immigrant who must now go back to Bangladesh.
All of them come from different villages in Khulna district of Bangladesh. By road, it would take them about five hours to reach Kolkata. Police say they travelled through Benapole, a border area in Bangladesh, to Basirhat, a border area in West Bengal.
"We came by ourselves here secretly. We didn't know each other before coming here. We don't come together. We came in twos or threes. One came five years ago, I came a year ago, another came six months ago. But we would all know someone who had already come here," said one Mohammed Salauddeen.
Salauddeen's 50-year-old uncle Mohammed Hakeem came three months ago and was the latest to join them. Mohammed Moniruddeen came with his 15-year-old brother and Mohammed Shojeeb with his 13-year-old brother.
Bangladesh shares a land border of over 4000 km with India, the maximum part of which is with West Bengal.
"There was knee length water where I was crossing," Hakeem told News18.
"It depends on which point they leave us at. It could be water or dry land. They leave us at the border as promised and then we carry on from there. They make sure nobody is at the border when we cross, on both sides. We don't know about guards on the other (Indian) side. We pay this one person and he handles the rest," he added.
Some of them like Mohammed Zakariah came with wife and a one-and-half-year-old child.
All of them earned around Rs 4,000 a month, the amount that the contractor pays them for garbage collection. Segregating and selling the plastic waste collected got them another Rs 4,000. They lived in shanties and as a group paid around 15,000 rupees per month as rent. This included water and electricity supply.
Jamal, another Bangladeshi who employed them and provided them with the amenities, was also detained by the police.
Back home, these illegal immigrants would earn around 300 rupees a day.
"That too, only the man in the family would earn, as the woman does not get work. She does the cooking and taking care of children. One person's meagre income has to support the entire family. Here, both work and the income is also good," said Mohammed Hafez, on the reason why thousands like him risk their lives to enter another country illegally.
The crackdown on illegal Bangladeshi immigrants by the police in October had led to an exodus-like situation in the nearby areas, with many fleeing the city or disappearing from their usual spots. The crackdown was also followed by stern warnings for residents of Bengaluru from the police: they were told that anyone employing people without valid documents would be culprits too.
A Bangladeshi national who worked at Vivek's (name changed) house in Sarjapur suddenly left, saying she had to leave by November 10.
"The police want them to leave. This is what she told me. Initially, they had detained some and put them behind bars. Later they talked nicely and told them to leave the country as soon as possible. I do not know if she has left or is somewhere else but she has not come back to work since," said Vivek.
"I cannot speak for all Bangladeshis but she worked well. And if there is a way for them to come here and work legally, the governments should step in and facilitate that. The Bangladesh government should do something because what they earn, they send back to their country. Here, there are people willing to work and there is also work available for them. There should be a legal way for them. Even if it was a Kannadiga in her place, I would have had the same concern," he added.
Meanwhile, India says it will continue to deport anyone who is residing in the country without a valid document. On November 20, union home minister Amit Shah said in Parliament that the National Register of Citizens will be implemented across the country on the lines of the one in Assam, where 19 people were left out.
In Karnataka, a detention centre is being built and will be ready by January 2020, state home minister Basavaraj Bommai said recently. Picking up on these hints, many have left the state and thousands of others live in fear of deportation.
According to procedure, those caught staying illegally are detained, sent to jail if detained under the Foreigners Act and then deported after a due trial. The alternative is to detain them and talk to the consulates of their respective countries. Once that country accepts the immigrants, they are deported. This is often seen as an easier and faster method.
The illegals are lodged in one of the 35 detention centres across the state, according to an affidavit the Karnataka government filed in the high court on November 26. There is no clarity yet on what the government would do if the detainees have to stay for longer than the Supreme Court-mandated guideline of three years.
"It really is a desperate situation. One day we talk to them and the next day they are not there. A few of them said that we will go back if you give us safe passage,” said Geeta Menon, a social activist.
“But there is a lot of confusion about how to deal with this. They are from outside but you have to treat them with respect and to see if there is some way of keeping them safe… in fact some of the apartments said that you take twenty days but you get verification done. There are many willing to give them employment," she added.
Salauddeen, and 58 others, are on their way back this week - being sent across the border by the police after being taken to Howrah.
"We have been living here for the last five or eight years without any problem. We don’t have any debt and we do legitimate work. We are not involved in anything illegal. We work day and night. Police detain us, ask us for ID cards which we don't have. What can we show? We came here without a visa. That is the wrong we did," he said.
On being asked if nobody knew he was from Bangladesh all these years, he replied: "Some knew, some helped. Others did not. Our identity is not written on our foreheads, is it?"
Bengaluru police commissioner Bhaskar Rao described them as victims of trafficking. “When we interrogated them, they admit that they are at the mercy of these agents who get them across the border. Then someone arranges accommodation for them here, and jobs. All these things happen through a chain of contractors," he says.
The police, however, has been sounding the alert in many neighbourhoods, asking residents to check the antecedents of people who are employed as domestic helps or for other odd jobs.
"With the kind of inputs we have on hand, that sleeper cells and undesirable persons could be given shelter here, there could be anti-national elements sheltered here, we have brought this to the notice of the Bureau of Immigration. These are places where sleeper cells could reside, and could become targets of extreme radicalisation. From that point of view, our efforts are to ensure these persons who are persona non grata here must be sent back," Rao says.