When Zohrabi failed to Return Home, Concerned Neighbours found her Confined & Abused: Urban India Throws Up Bitter Class Bias

Published on: July 13, 2017

It was ‘citizen journalism’ at its very best. When Nilanjana Bhowmick and Tathagata Bhattacharya informed India and the world of the brute treatment meted out to 26 year-old Zohrabi, a domestic help in Noida, it set of a chain of concern and awareness that is seething, still. Their post said:

Edited after speaking to Zohra:
This is Zohra, a 26 year old who works as a domestic help in Noida. Following a tiff with her employer, she went missing for a day. Her family and neighbors - poor day wage laborers - started protesting and demanding to know her whereabouts. I spoke to her a while back and she confirmed she was locked up in a room the whole day [not in the boot of the car as my original post said]. Noida police, instead of taking action, is now firing at the protesters. There are at least five of them waiting outside, waiting for me to address this. I feel helpless and quite wretched because apart from posting on social media and speaking to the police, I don't even know from where I should start addressing this deep rot!!
 
These photos also on the post are shameful visual testimony to the treatment meted out to her:
 
Image credit: PTI Photo
 
(Photo credit: Nilanjana Bhowmick/Facebook).
(Photo credit: Nilanjana Bhowmick/Facebook).


“We had to carry her to the car to take her for a medical examination. She vomited all the way. It was painful. And she kept asking, ‘why would they do this to me?’ Why indeed. I have never felt so ashamed of my privilege as I felt then. As I have felt all of today, ” said Nilanjana later.
 
Facebook that allows all manner of vitriol to be spewed on its pages deleted this one:



What happened?

On Wednesday at around 5.30 a.m. the husband, along with his friends and neighbours gathered outside the apartment complex and tried to enter the premises by force claiming that Zohra had been kept prisoner by her employer. After two hours they barged inside the complex.

They found Zohra inside the flat in horrible condition with injury marks on her back and her clothes were torn.

It was a dispute between a family in Noida’s posh Mahagun Moderne Society gated community and their Muslim domestic worker from West Bengal, which led to a riot-like situation on Wednesday morning that the Uttar Pradesh police was summoned to control. Media reports said that by the end of the day, two First Information Reports had been filed with the police. The first was against the domestic worker’s employer and unidentified persons in the housing complex. The other was against unidentified members of the crowd that had forced their way into the gated community early on Wednesday morning.

What caused the brute attack ?

There were baseless allegations that 26-year-old domestic worker Zohra Bibi, who had been working for the high-rise’s residents Harshu Sethi and his wife for six months, was an illegal Bangladeshi migrant but police denied the claim as she had all necessary documents. Zohrabi lives in a nearby slum with her husband Abdul Sattar and their three children. “Madam said to me, if you try to run away, I’ll throw you in the dust bin. I’ll kill you,” the maid, Zohra Bibi, lying on a small cot said in a whisper, NDTV reported.

Reports suggest that that Zohra’s decision to not to work at Sethis further does not go down well and therefore they held her captive and was beaten up. It was 35-year-old Mamata Bibi, a cook in the Sethi home, who accompanied Zohra Bibi to the Sethi apartment on Tuesday morning said, “While we left their house by 9 am, madam had asked her to come again in the evening to collect her dues.” “She [Zohra Bibi] had clearly stated that she did not want to work there any longer and madam was unhappy with her decision.” Her employer Sethi’s had accused Zohra of stealing money and following a fight with her employer on Tuesday, she went missing for a day.

Her husband filed a police complaint after his wife not returned to her home throughout the day and also in the night. Family and neighbors went to the Mahagun Moderne complex to enquire about Zohra’s whereabouts. They found Zohra’s entry registered in the society records but not her exit.

Domestic helps, a largely unorganised sector, who struggle hard in the society to make ends meet becomes a victim of suspicion and harassment at the hand of affluent bosses.

Social Media Peddling Hate Around Zohra

Some of the hysteria referred to the incident as “Malda again”, while some mischief mongers claiming on social media, referring to the communal violence that had broken out in the West Bengal district in January 2016. Others demanded that Bangladeshis be thrown out of India.

Zohra went Missing

By 3 pm on Wednesday, the shattered windows of the cabin that housed the security guards at the entrance of the complex and the unusually large number of policemen standing outside its gates were the only evidence of the tense situation that prevailed earlier in the day.

The tense situation started at around 7 am, when a group of over 100 persons attempted to force their way into the premises of Mahagun Moderne Society in Noida’s Sector 78. They were looking for a woman who was employed as a domestic worker at the housing society. Zohra Bibi, 27, who had three children, had not returned to her home in a slum in the same sector the previous night.

Videos of the incident show the complex’s security guards throwing back stones pitched by the protestors standing at its gate.

‘Pay my dues’

Zohra Bibi’s husband said that he was driven to despair when his wife did not return home on Tuesday and contacted the police. “What could I do?” said Sattar, a migrant from West Bengal’s Cooch Behar. “There was no other way to find my wife.” The register maintained by security guards at the entrance of the complex that Zohra had entered the society’s premises on Tuesday morning and did not come out. “I knew that she was there but both the police and security guards claimed that they could not find her there,” said Sattar. “So, the next morning, I went there with some neighbours to rescue my wife and soon people from some neighbouring slums joined us too.”

Mamata Bibi, 35, a cook in the Sethi home, said that she had accompanied Zohra Bibi to the Sethi apartment on Tuesday morning. “While we left their house by 9 am, madam had asked her to come again in the evening to collect her dues,” said Mamata Bibi. “She [Zohra Bibi] had clearly stated that she did not want to work there any longer and madam was unhappy with her decision.”

After Zohra Bibi emerged from the complex in the morning, the police took her to hospital for a medico-legal check-up. Later, Station House Officer Parshuram said that she had sustained no injuries.

Adding perspective to the incident were Facebook posts from Nilanjana Bhowmick, who lives in a complex in the vicinity. She said she had gone to the site as a “concerned citizen” and had intervened to stop the protestors from clashing with the police.

Bhowmick, who said that she had met Zohra Bibi on Wednesday evening, said that the woman “consistently reiterated that she was locked up in a room”.

A ban on workers

Scroll.in reports that the Mahagun website says that the homes in Mahagun Moderne, one of the several luxury properties the realty firm has constructed, “mirror the taste of affluent class and include an array of space options (2, 3, 4 BHK units) comprising of high rise apartments, duplex apartments, independent floors, penthouses in addition to an iconic tower Marvella dedicated to luxurious 5 BHK units”. According to the website, the complex is spread over 25 acres. Security guards said that it has over 2,800 apartments, of which 2,000 apartments are occupied. They said nearly 600 domestic workers visit it every day.

Mahagun Moderene. (Photo credit: Abhishek Dey).
Mahagun Moderene. (Photo credit: Abhishek Dey).

On Wednesday evening, the society held a meeting of its residents, which senior Noida police officers attended. “In the meeting, we decided that no domestic worker should be allowed entry unless the matter is fully resolved,” said resident Dharmendra Rathode.

Over 150 families live in the isolated slum in Sector 78 where Zohra Bibi lives in a tin shack. A significant number of women there, including at least 30 who are Zohra Bibi’s neighbours, work at Mahagun Moderne.

The domestic workers usually have two shifts – between 6 am and 1 pm and between 4 pm and 9 pm. Their salaries vary. While basic household cleaning jobs bring them Rs 1,500 per household, salaries go up to between Rs 4,500 and Rs 5,000 for cooking and doing the dishes.

Solidarity of Workers

Domestic workers in and around the area have been shocked. “In Zohra’s case, we all joined the protest out of fear,” said Mona Biswas, a migrant from Siliguri in West Bengal. “Tomorrow, it could happen to any of us.” Biswas has been living in the National Capital Region with her family for over 10 years, and works as a cook in four households in Mahagun Moderne. Many left unions including those of the CPI(ML) have visited the area today.

As is the case with domestic workers across the country, humiliation by some employers is such a daily part their lives that some of them do not even recognise it as such.