New Delhi: Chittaranjan Park in south Delhi, known previously as the East Pakistan Displaced Persons colony, is home to a large Bengali population. The smell of fresh, raw fish in the bustling fish market, where most Bengalis in the area congregate for their daily stock, is overpowering. In the midst of each shop, segregated only by a low wall of fish stacked onto a raised platform, sits the shopkeeper with a bothi, a cutting instrument that allows the use of both hands and is held down by the feet. Outside, a young man in his late 20s, a cloth tied around his head and dressed in rugged jeans and a sweatshirt, ushers potential customers towards his stall.

Pull factor: A Bangladeshi immigrant, Binod Das, selling fish at the Chittaranjan Park market in New Delhi. Das says he began to look at the city as his home only after he witnessed Durga Puja celebrations in the locality.(Ramesh Pathania/Mint)

Such cageyness is unsurprising: while Bangladeshis make up the largest group of immigrants in India—a population estimated at three million—few will admit to their origins, says Anasua Basu Roy Chaudhury, a research scholar with the Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group. “The moment they admit to being from Bangladesh, they know their future in the country is uncertain."

Her assertion is supported by data: Since 2005, the Delhi Police has deported more than 7,500 illegal migrants from the capital. The Delhi Police even established a Bangladeshi cell in 2002 on a high court order due to the increasing number of illegal migrants from the neighbouring country. In the first couple of years, 1,500-1,600 immigrants were nabbed every month by the Delhi Police’s North East District Bangladeshi Cell.

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The number has decreased in recent years to about 300 people a month, but the influx from Bangladesh continues, says Roshan Lal, an assistant sub-inspector with the Bangladeshi Cell. “We usually get a tip-off on where they are from their neighbours, mostly as a result of a tiff between them," says Lal. “Since we cannot go to their houses at night as per high court orders, we have to go during the day when most of them are at work."

The first wave of Bangladeshi migrants came to India between 1946 and 1958 following India’s partition into India and Pakistan. Bangladesh, on India’s east and bordering West Bengal, became a part of Pakistan. India opened its border to Bangladesh a second time in 1971, allowing in refugees fleeing the country after the Bangladesh Liberation War. India actively supported Bangladesh in its war for independence from Pakistan.

By the end of 1971, the Bangladeshi population in India had reached 10 million, show figures provided by the Indian government to the United Nations. To control the influx, India announced that all refugees who had entered the country after 25 March 1971 would need to return to Bangladesh. Those who crossed over after that date were not granted Indian citizenship and would be illegal immigrants.

Today, most of the Bangladeshi migrants crossing into India come for economic, not political, reasons, according to Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group’s Chaudhury. “The pull factor attracts them to India due to the vast economic opportunities, and due to the push factor, they do not want to go back to Bangladesh because the economic environment there isn’t considered conducive," she explains.

Jogesh, in his mid-30s, is a rickshaw puller who came to Delhi as a teenager. According to him, many Bangladeshis hire touts on both sides of the border to procure documentation that will allow them to blend into Indian society. “They provide ration cards, education certificates, voter identity cards and even passports for a price. In a matter of weeks, one can become a citizen from an illegal inhabitant," Jogesh says. The most trustworthy tout within his circle of acquittances, he says, charges 7,000-10,000 per person, depending on the number and the nature of the documents to be procured.

The porous nature of the Petrapole-Benapole border, some 95km from Kolkata in North 24 Parganas district, makes West Bengal vulnerable to illegal migration. “If we make the borders softer and give work permits, illegal movement can be substantively curbed," Chaudhury says. “This kind of migration has contributed largely to the illegal trade between the countries, and so it has steadily increased over the years."

Jogesh was a teenager when he joined a roadside repair shop in Janakpuri, west Delhi, as a car mechanic. He was born to Bangladeshi parents who crossed the border into India during the 1971 conflict. After reaching Tripura, his parents and he lived in refugee camps in the north-eastern Indian border state before finding their way to Delhi in 1995.

Life in Delhi has not been easy. Jogesh and his wife Milli, who works as a domestic help, live in fear of the police. Their identification papers were seized by police in 2010 when Govindpuri—a low-income group settlement in south Delhi—was declared an unauthorized colony by the Delhi government. Jogesh had moved to Govindpuri after he began pulling a rickshaw, expecting the neighbourhood to pay him better in his new trade. “I have to save at least 20,000 to get documents for my wife and me. On a good day, I earn up to 900," says Jogesh, who is contemplating borrowing from a neighbour to pay for new documents.

In the eastern states—home to the largest Bangladeshi influx—relations between Indians and Bangladeshi migrants are more strained. Tensions came to a head in 2001 when the ruling Left Front in West Bengal appealed to the Union government to address what it called a refugee influx from neighbouring Bangladesh. This might explain why more and more Bangladeshi migrants are choosing Delhi over north-eastern and eastern states that are closer to home.

Bangladeshi migrants are drawn to the capital not only by its economy, but also the large Bengali-speaking community the city is home to. Binod Das, who sells fish at the Chittaranjan Park market, says he made friends with Punjabis while living in Laxmi Nagar, but once he witnessed Durga Puja celebrations—an important Bengali festival—in Chittaranjan Park, he moved there and began to look at the city as his new home.

Jogesh’s wife Milli, who wears her traditional shakha pola and loha—bangles of conchshell and red coral—to signify she’s married, says she has come to trust only those who have hired her. Regardless of her family’s legal status in India, she says they are likely to stay in Delhi so long as the economy back home continues to struggle.

“We moved to Delhi because there is less suspicion and fear here as compared to Bengal where our papers and identification are constantly scrutinized," she says as she walks across to a house that employs her as a maid. “We don’t want to go back; there is nothing there for us. We have built a life here for what it’s worth" says Milli, though she knows her family can be uprooted again any time, even in Delhi, which they thought was safer. “And then we’ll move somewhere else and start over."

nidhi.m@livemint.com

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