Over the last couple of weeks, a curious battle of class has been playing out at a posh Noida society over the alleged disappearance of a domestic worker. An angry mob of over two hundred people from Zohra Sattar's locality — a slum adjoining the highrise — barged into the complex, led by Zohra's husband Abdul, demanding to know where she was. They clashed with the guards at the gate, pelted stones and vandalised property, before the police was called in to handle the rapidly-escalating situation.
Since then, over 60 domestic workers have been blacklisted, and the police picked up 13 men from the area on charges of rioting. Zohra's husband is absconding. On Sunday, Union Minister of Culture, and an MP from Gautam Buddha Nagar, Mahesh Sharma, met the residents of Mahagun Moderne.
As an MP from the area, Sharma had sufficient locus standi to reassure people from his constituency of his support in crisis. He informed them that he has apprised both the Home Minister and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath of the situation, drawing spirited applause from residents. He assured them that a police outpost will be set up in the area to handle such situations in future.
However, in an audio recording of his speech during the meeting, published by Scroll, Sharma is heard saying much more. Apart from giving a clean chit to the Sethi family, embroiled in the controversy, he went on to make an ominous threat against any NGO or human rights activists working for the rights of the underprivileged in the area. Zohra said she was held captive by her employers, a theory that police has debunked based on CCTV footage from the society that allegedly shows her coming out of her employers house and entering another. The matter of alleged assault remains.
"Us parivar ki koi galti nahi hai," Sharma is heard saying, even though the incident is under police probe and two separate FIRs have been lodged, including one by Zohra's family against her employer. He went on say that those who are "running a shop in the name of human rights and trying to give this incident a colour, will be dealt with by our party workers."
"Aap ko ispe kuchh nahi karna, humare party ke log iska jawab denge."
"Aap ko ispe kuchh nahi karna, humare party ke log iska jawab denge," Sharma said, practically sanctioning extra-judicial methods by Bharatiya Janata Party workers ("We have more than 10 lakh of them in the area", he bragged) to curb future labour protests. Sharma's threat comes in the wake of several people objecting to support for Zohra, a Bengali Muslim migrant in the city, tarring the whole community as outsiders and trouble-makers.
Twice during the recording, Sharma is heard repeating the word "yeh manavadhikaar waale log" making clear his disdain towards human rights activists sympathetic towards the plight of domestic workers who work in the high-rises, often without basic pay, a standard leave policy, and access to amenities such as washrooms of the houses they clean. Most societies in the area even have separate lifts for them to prevent them from using the one that residents use.
Sharma said he lived in Sector 15 and understood the compulsion ("majbooriya") to hire domestic workers after proper verification.
"Jaantey bhi hai yeh kaun hai, par anjaan banne ki koshish kartey hai, kyuki humaari zaroorat hai (we know who these people are but pretend ignorance because we need their help)," he said. Let that sink in. Not only did a minister go to a residents' meeting to reassure a group of rich and privileged people that their entitlement will be protected and encouraged, he blatantly also exposed his own bias in an attempt to appease those unnerved at the prospect of a labour strike.
It gets worse.
Sharma said, "just the other day, someone had joked that you can run a household without the husband or the wife, but not without the domestic worker".
"Iske peechhe sandesh kya hai samajh lein," he said while residents are heard laughing. The word he used was "naukrani", a derogatory term often used for domestic workers. A resident of Mahagun Moderne, who was present at that meeting, and heard Sharma making these statements, confirmed the authenticity of the audio to HuffPost India.
While Sharma is absolutely correct in saying that no mob — no matter what caste, religion or community — has the right to take the law in its hands to vandalise, threaten, or attack and must strictly be dealt with — his open class bias towards the people he superciliously admits we can't do without despite "knowing who they are", will not help in bridging the gap between the residents and the workers.
In this 'us vs them' narrative, a resident told HuffPost India the house-owners are primarily worried about losing the "perception war" in media, not so much as reaching out to the people who help them run their homes, ensure their children are fed, picked up on time from bus stops, take care of pets, and nurse the elderly. The issue has been widely covered and residents believe it gives the housing complex a bad rap.
Sharma's presence might also have politicized the issue. At most, the incident was a matter of complete collapse of law and order, the trigger being counter-accusations of thievery and assault. But Sharma's presence and open declaration that he will not hesitate to involve his party functionaries in vigilantism, has given the whole thing a political colour. As an MP, Sharma could have simply assured the residents of continued police support. What will now stop other politicians from turning the incident into a plank for their vote-bank politics?
From the look of it, it's already started. "I have asked TMC MPs to look into the matter. While I don't know the exact details, the way in which people from Bengal are being treated by the BJP administration in UP is unfortunate and against Indian ethos," said Mamata Banerjee. With little or no evidence to back their claim, social media users trended the hashtag #MaldaInNoida to claim Bangladeshi immigrants were behind the attack on the residents — a potentially dangerous trigger for further violence, comparing it with a communal flare-up in Bengal's Malda.
The police have confirmed that Zohra and her husband hailed from Cooch Behar in Bengal, but that fact would not matter in the WhatsApp propaganda war to stir hate against all Bengali workers in the area by calling them Bangladeshi troublemakers.
While every member of the mob that took part in violence should be prosecuted, what followed in the subsequent days, in the words of a resident, was "simply an inhuman and arbitrary profiling" of domestic workers at the gate. Their employers now have to vouch for them before they are even allowed into the society complex. Who's to tell what further discrimination and alienation the innocent among them will continue to face?
On the one hand residents want to keep out Bangladeshis, and by extension, Bengali Muslim workers, on the other, they also cannot do without them. Mahagun resident Neelam Goyal's comment to Hindustan Times perfectly brings out the conflict of class privilege — the othering of those the rich depend on to do their dirty work for them: "It's a big relief that helps will start working from Monday. The last five days have been very stressful as we are used to domestic helps. However, it was necessary for us to come together against the hooliganism of helps and their relatives."
Till we find a way to address the larger issue of labour rights, humane working conditions, better policing of gated communities, and upliftment of the living conditions of domestic workers, Sharma's threat to the activists — who are trying to find a middle ground and be the voice of the voiceless — and scorn for the labour force that keeps Noida running will deflect from a boiling issue that can easily snowball into something sinister and bigger in future.
Listen to Sharma's speech here: