Karnataka Home Minister Basavaraj Bommai announced that his government was deliberating conducting the contentious National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Karnataka, officially making it the first state in South India to implement it if it were to materialise. The announcement was not unforeseen as there has been growing clamour for NRC for several years and it gathered steam since BJP came to power in the state.
Republic visited one of the detention centres that has been prepared to apprehend immigrants whose documents are either missing or suspect. Two hours away from the state capital, Bengaluru, in Nelamangala, hostel owned by the state’s social welfare department has been turned into a fortress. On a two-acre land amidst papaya and areca fields, a total of 16 cells have been girded for illegal immigrants. When Republic visited the facility, it was locked, with people in the neighbourhood claiming that once a day, some caretakers visit to water the plants. High compound walls, fortified further with barbed wires, two watchtowers and cells reinforced with strong metal doors and padlocks were seen at the unnamed detention centre in a village called Sondekoppa
On September 29, Hindu Janajagruthi Samithi staged a protest at Maurya circle in Bengaluru demanding NRC in Karnataka as well. They alleged that ‘Bangladeshi immigrants, in particular, have been indulging in illegal activities in the state and also ‘spreading terrorism’.
BJP MPs Tejaswi Surya and PC Mohan have been spearheading the demand for NRC in Karnataka for several months. Surya has alleged that over 40,000 Bangladeshis have been living illegally in Bengaluru alone and are concentrated in his constituency of Bengaluru Central.
Speaking exclusively to Republic, Home Minister Basavaraj Bommai said ‘In South India, Karnataka, particularly Bengaluru attracts many immigrants. There are certain issues cropping up over the years in this regard as there are several immigrants whose passports have expired. So we want to have a detailed database on this. We are not against legal immigrants, we welcome people’.
Addressing fears of persecution by some sections of the society, Bommai added, ‘Keeping in mind the safety of locals, a database of illegal immigrants necessary. I have asked my officers to look into the gambit of this and prepare a database. NRC is a huge issue and a call has to be taken at the national level. With a database and activity mapping, we will discuss with MHA’.
Republic spoke to construction workers living in Bengaluru’s BTM Layout for the last three years who are afraid of being added in the NRC. Tufail Sultan who works on construction sites in the city claims he and his family of seven hail from Cooch Behar in West Bengal and have been mistaken to be Bangladeshis in the past. Now with NRC possible in the state, he dreads that they too could come under its gambit.
The same fears were also echoed by Fathima Khannum who works in apartments in Tavarekere for the last 2 years. Khanum claims that her family is from Malda in West Bengal and came to Bengaluru in search of work after her husband abandoned her and her four children.
Although intentions to conduct NRC in Karnataka has been announced only recently, the detention centre was built over the last two years when the Congress and then the coalition government was in power.
A tangle between the department of home affairs and social welfare for months had delayed the renovation of the government hostel into a detention centre. Finally, with the construction work complete, the centre has been handed over to the Foreigners Regional Registration Office, with the home department shouldering the responsibility of providing security and movement of inmates.
Sources in the home department have confirmed that over the last one month, the database has already been prepared with a list of immigrants whose passports have expired.
A total of 800+ names have been given for further vetting and immigrants from 13 countries have featured in the list. Topping the list are immigrants from Bangladesh followed by a few African countries like Nigeria and Kenya.