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Why Zohra Bibi’s story is not unusual

LiveMint logoLiveMint 14-07-2017 Rajyasree Sen

On Tuesday, all hell broke loose in a gated condominium in Greater Noida. A mob of over 100 people stormed the grounds, breaking the guards’ rooms, vandalizing property, entered an apartment and ransacked it. Was this random mob violence? Far from it.

This took place in Mahagun Moderne Society, a gated community in the underarm of Delhi, Greater Noida. Zohra Bibi, a domestic worker from West Bengal, who lived in the slum from where the mob emerged had not come home from work the evening before. Bibi, like many migrant workers in the National Capital Region and the rest of urban India, worked as a part-timer in various apartments in the condo. Bibi has three children and lives with her husband in the slum which has cropped up near the condo. Over 150 families live in this slum in Sector 78. The condominium she worked in, is spread over 25 acres, has over 2,800 apartments, of which 2,000 apartments are occupied. It has been reported that nearly 600 domestic workers—whom the residents lovingly refer to as “Bangladeshis” work there every day.

When Bibi’s husband checked the entry register, he saw that she had never exited the building premises.

One of Bibi’s employers in the building—who is accused of locking her up—claims that she had stolen money from them and had therefore sacked her. But surprisingly, did not file a police complaint against her. Bibi had been called to their house on Tuesday evening to collect the remainder of her salary. It is their house that was ransacked by the mob.

What is important is that Bibi was indeed found in the condo after the mob reached the gates. The police, who had been called by her husband Abdul Sattar, conducted a search of the society on Tuesday evening but couldn’t find her. The police say that Bibi was found on Wednesday morning “from a room in the basement of one of the buildings, where she had taken shelter after being physically assaulted by a Mahagun Moderne resident”. In the first information report (FIR) filed by Bibi’s husband, the resident is Bibi’s ex-employer, Anshu Sethi. Sethi’s husband, Mitul Sethi, has filed a counter-FIR against the mob for ransacking their house.

Bibi has claimed that the police are lying and that she had quit her job 15 days ago and gone to collect two months’ pending salary from the Sethis, who had then beaten her up and locked her overnight in their apartment, when she went to pick up the money.

The Sethis, who are not slum dwellers, have gone to a relative’s house to escape the trauma they have undergone. Bibi and her husband have no such option. Just many of the economic and class imbalances in this situation. Whether or not Bibi was locked up, it is odd that she could not be found even by the police when they conducted a search. And it is a fact that she was indeed missing for a day and was finally found in the condo. It’s not like she was having a slumber party at the condo and therefore, it is odd that she didn’t call up her husband and inform him that she’d decided to stay the night in the condo—something she had never done before. Should the slumdwellers have mobbed the premises? Well, if one of their neighbours has gone missing on premises which are too hallowed for them to enter and search, they will go on a rampage.

Zohra Bibi’s story is not unusual. It is yet another of many horrific incidents of assault, incarceration and general horrific behaviour against domestic help, which keeps popping up in the media every other month. In September 2015, a maid and her daughter were rescued from a Saudi diplomat’s apartment in Caitriona Towers, Gurgaon. The two had been kept locked up for two months and gangraped repeatedly. The diplomat’s wife lived in the house. The case only came to light when another maid went to the house for an interview and saw these two women and went to an NGO and informed them about the condition of the two. No neighbours complained or quite possibly noticed what was happening.

In the very fancy South City Apartments in Kolkata, a man who kept four underage girls in his house as help was found to be sexually assaulting the young girls. He has since gone missing. But it’s not just sexual assault, people who hire help tend to believe that they have indeed purchased an object. One of the residents of my tiny colony has confiscated his driver’s license and has a backlog of two months’ salary. The driver finds it impossible to leave as he’ll have to forego the salary—and doesn’t know how to get his license back. His employer is a vice president in a corporate behemoth. I have walked into homes where people lock their refrigerators in case their help eats their food. A bottle of water is kept out for the maids when the employers are not at home. There are CCTVs in the kitchen to monitor what food is being eaten. Many do not think twice about physically reprimanding their help if they make a mistake. And keeping them under lock and key when the employers go out of the house, much like they do their furniture and belongings, is de rigueur. They are viewed as the “other”, as second-class citizens, called “Bangladeshis” even if they are from Orissa or West Bengal, who aren’t good enough to be treated as equals, but are good enough to look after our expensive cars, homes and our children—and sometimes even sexually assault.

And you see it every day. At restaurants, where a child’s nanny is made to stand outside or not offered any food or not acknowledged other than to take a picture of the parents with their offspring. Drivers being told that they can’t sit in the tree-shaded park because they’re an eyesore. Maids not being given a meal to eat or allowed to sit down even after working 10 hours a day.

Barely two weeks ago, Tailin Lyngdoh, a governess, had been invited for lunch at the Delhi Golf Club by a member. The manager thought nothing of walking up to Lyngdoh and asking her to leave the dining hall as she “looked like a maid”. That legally anyone can enter the club as long as they have been signed in by a member was simply ignored, because the manager felt that if Lyngdoh is indeed a maid, he can say anything to her.

The problem is that domestic help in India have no legal rights. There are no fixed working hours or leave stipulated by law. A lot of them are migrant labour, without proper identification. They are people who’ve left their homes to come live in our homes and look after us, because they live in penury back in their villages. They are trained cooks, nannies, housekeepers, drivers. But they have no legal standing or rights. Much like animals. Which is why people like Zohra Bibi’s employers feel that they can do with them what they want. The same way people treat their pets in urban cities. If they’re lucky, they’re treated well. But if you so wish, you can ill-treat your pet as much as you want because they can’t complain. It’s only when a good Samaritan steps in to help an animal or a domestic worker do they get some justice. Till ill-treatment of domestic workers is punishable by law, these incidents will keep happening.

I am impressed though, that the police actually allowed Zohra Bibi’s husband to file an FIR, and went to the condo and conducted a search. This is a massive step forward. Normally, such a complaint would have simply been ignored by the police. There is also some solace to be taken from the fact that the media has started reporting such cases. But till people with money and clout stop viewing those without as chattel, this will keep happening. Because sadly, privilege doesn’t go hand in hand with compassion. All we can hope for is that the fear of being publicly named and shamed makes people start treating others as equals. Ironically, the very people who’ve locked themselves in gated colonies to keep themselves “safe” are the ones we need to keep domestic help safe from.

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