By Nidhi Suresh
“Our lives have been turned upside down. They are saying we have our jobs but here we are, scared and jobless,” said one of the Muslim staffers of a Bangalore Covid war room who were shunted out and detained after being communally targeted by BJP leader Tejasvi Surya. “Our story is not over.”
On May 5, Surya, MP from Bangalore South, along with three legislators from his party, barged into the war room and read out the names of 16 staffers, all Muslim. He alleged that they were involved in a bed allocation scam, fraudulently blocking Covid beds under the names of people who didn’t need them, thus denying hospital care to those who actually did.
If there was any doubt as to the communal agenda of the BJP leaders, Ravi Subramanya, one of the MLAs accompanying the MP, dispelled it. “Have you hired people to a madrassa or a corporation?” he demanded to know from Tulasi Madineni, special commissioner, BBMP, the city municipal corporation which runs the war rooms.
Instead of standing up for its workers against the communal bullies, the BBMP promptly removed the 16 Muslim staffers from their posts, and another who hadn’t been named by Surya or his acolytes, and told them they wouldn’t be paid until their suspension was over. Soon, the police got involved. They took the Muslims for questioning but, having found no evidence of wrongdoing, let them off.
Yet, at a press conference on May 10, Surya insisted that, let alone be held accountable for communally targeting Muslim staffers of the Covid war room, he had nothing to apologise for. He was merely acting on information supplied by the BBMP.
The same day, the BBMP claimed they had reinstated the 17 men. They haven’t really.
Newslaundry contacted the 17 men to find out if they had been reinstated. Only one of them agreed to meet and speak with us, on the condition that we didn’t reveal his identity. Five agreed to speak over the phone. Two refused, two had changed their listed phone numbers, and seven did not respond to calls or messages. All six men we spoke with said they were still to go back to work.
In all, we contacted 133 of the 205 persons who manned the Bangalore South war room the day Surya’s mob barged in. As many as 62 wouldn’t speak to us and 50 were unresponsive. Of the 21 people who did speak, nine confirmed that none of the Muslims had been rehired. The rest were hesitant to speak on the subject.
On May 22, Newslaundry visited the South Zone war room and asked Tulasi Madineni, the official in charge, how many of the supposedly reinstated men were back at work. She could not say.
Ayesha Shaikh, 38, who felt forced to quit her job at the war room because she wasn’t allowed to stand up for her fellow workers, said six of the 17 men have declined to work with the war room again while 10 are still awaiting calls from the BBMP or the private agency they had been hired through.
All six Muslim men who spoke with us agreed to do so on the condition of anonymity.
“We are scared and tired,” said one of the men whom we shall call Salim. “Initially, many of us spoke openly to the press. And what happened? Nothing. Now, we just want our jobs back.”
Salim, 23, who grew up in Bangalore, has been staying with his parents in Andhra Pradesh since he was shunted out at Surya’s behest. He has been in touch with Crystal Infosystem, the private agency through which the BBMP hires manpower for its Covid war rooms for a monthly salary of Rs 13,500, but is yet to be sent back to work.
“Initially, they said there was no vacancy in the same war room. They told me to join the East Zone war room for the night shift,” he said. “I don’t have transport and cannot spend money on it. I just want my old job back.”
When Salim persisted that he wanted to go back to the job he had been unjustly removed from, Shivu Naik, a manager at the hiring agency, said they had already filled it.
On May 7, Naik had sent a message on the South Zone Whatsapp group giving the staffers “strict instructions” to not speak to the media or share “anything with regards to office matters on any kind of social media”.
Salim had been working in the South Zone war room for about 10 months, unlike the other suspended staffers who had been hired recently.
He had just started his first job after completing a diploma in industrial training when the first Covid wave struck Karnataka last year and put him out of work. He joined the war room on June 4 after a friend told him about a job opening there.
Initially, Salim worked two shifts totalling 15 hours, from 8 am to 11 pm. After three months, when the Covid cases came down, he was asked to work only one shift.
In the late afternoon on May 5, Salim had just returned home after his shift and opened Facebook. “It was all over the news. My name was on that list. I was shocked,” he recalled. “Then I began receiving forwarded messages on WhatsApp. One had our photos with the caption, ‘These 17 people were killing thousands of people in Bangalore.’ I don’t know what they have against us. We were doing our jobs and helping people.”
Salim hadn’t heard of Tejasvi Surya until then. “I hate politics,” he declared, now that he had.
Salim’s aging parents and sister, whose college he pays for, live in Andhra. His parents, both labourers, were left without work after last year’s Covid lockdown and have no income now. “I’m the only earning member in my family,” he said. “I need to save money for my sister’s marriage as well.”
His family are worried. “When my mother heard about what happened, she didn’t eat. The news also spread in my village, and my parents were asked so many questions by everyone. That’s why I came home,” he said.
It’s all in the name
In a viral video of the BJP mob raid on the Covid war room, Surya is heard demanding from the BBMP officials, “I want to know how you hired these people. I’m going to read 17 names. 17.”
He ended up reading out only 16 names. The one he spared we shall call Nishan.
Nishan, 26, said when he went for his shift that night at 11 pm, the manager asked for every worker’s name. “I gave my name and they just told me to continue work. The other Muslim men were taken to the police station,” he added. “The next day more men were called to the station.”
Nishan was never called by the police but on the evening of May 6, he learned his name had been added to the list as well and he was removed from his post.
Why was Nishan’s name added later?
When he began working at the BBMP war room on April 23, he gave his first name. Later, when he was asked for his full name, he mentioned that his first name was Mohammad.
“In the register, they simply added ‘Md’ in front of my name,” he said, explaining this could be why Surya’s mob didn’t mmediately realise he was Muslim and put him on the list only after they had figured out ‘Md’ stood for Mohammad.
“If it wasn’t clear already, this should make it crystal clear that it was was a baseless and targeted attack on our Muslim identity,” he said.
Nishan hasn’t got his job back. After waiting 10 days to be called back, he decided not to return.
He is stressed about earning an income now. Nishan lives with his brother in Bangalore. His parents, who are farmers, live in Bihar.
“I have been living in Bangalore for years. My parents feel that as a Muslim it is safer for me here than in the North. I have not told them what happened. They will collapse out of fear if they find out,” he said, explaining that in all his years in the city, this was the first time he had been directly targeted for his identity.
“If the BJP comes to power again in Karnataka, it will become just as bad as North India,” he added.
The cost of standing up
Ayesha Shaikh was in the war room when Surya’s mob came and she witnessed what happened.
When she publicly expressed her anger towards the BJP, she got a call from Naik, the hiring agency manager. “He told me that if I supported these 17 men then I must quit my job,” she said. “So I quit.”
Ayesha recalled that when a list of the war room’s staffers with their phone numbers was leaked, she began receiving calls and messages from unknown numbers. One such call was from a person who claimed to be a patient. When she picked up, the person said, “Is there a Muslim call receiver next to you? How many more are you going to kill?”
Ayesha, a single mother who also supports her mother, said she was pushed to work during the pandemic because he needed an income. Now, she is without a job.
The blame game
When Newslaundry reached out to Surya, his chief aide, Arvind Suchendra, said the MP wasn’t speaking to the press currently. As for the reinstatement of the Muslim staffers, he said, “We did not remove them, we did not ask to reinstate them. Ask BBMP.”
Dr Veerabhadra Swamy, joint commissioner of the BBMP, directed us to “ask the hiring agency” since the municipal corporation had told them to reinstate the Muslim men.
The BBMP, according to Ayesha, replaced the 17 staffers within a few days. Asked if this was the case, Swamy said, “I don’t think so.”
Naik, the hiring agency manager, said “all the men” had been rehired and were “working in different offices”.
When we persisted that the men had testified to not getting the jobs back, he said, “I am on leave for 10 days” and cut the call. He sent us the phone number of the current manager who hasn’t responded to our calls. The report will be updated if he does.
An official at the South Zone war room said since coronavirus infections in the city were declining, they are relieving people from their jobs. Asked how many of the 17 Muslim men were back at the war room, he remarked, “I think I remember seeing 2-3 of them back. Not sure.”
The official admitted that the Muslim men were targeted for their religious identity. “Where is evidence for this so-called scam?” he asked to buttress his point.
The origin of Surya’s list of Muslim staffers, meanwhile, remains a mystery. Suchendra said it was given to the MP by the BBMP’s Swamy and he merely read out the names.
We asked Swamy if he had given the list to Surya. “Why are you harping on old issues?” he demanded to know. “Please focus on positive things now. I have no comment on this.”
While Swamy focuses on “positive things”, the Muslim staffers wait – tired, angry and jobless.
The names of the Muslim men have been changed to protect their identities.
Salil Ahuja, Urvi Dugar and Ritika Chauhan contributed reporting.
This story first appeared on newslaundry.com