A sheet of tin that served as the gate to a makeshift colony of domestic workers, daily-wage labourers, and other workers, in Sector 78 in Noida, was bent and broken in half. The colony is adjacent to Mahagun Moderne, a sprawling residential complex spread over 25 acres, around 50 kilometers from the national capital. It is one among several such workers’ settlements in the area. The houses inside the colony were single-room constructions, made of similar tin sheets. On 13 July, when I visited the colony, it appeared deserted—most of the houses were bolted from the outside. I approached a group of young women and men who were standing at one end of the quarters, huddled around a man speaking on the phone.
Rizwaul Haq, a young man dressed in a pink shirt and grey trousers, stood at the centre of the group. Haq runs a small nearby shop that sells cosmetics, and is a resident of the workers’ colony. He looked tense and routinely paused his conversation to consult the group. “How many families can give Rs 500 today?” he asked the others. “Should we ask the lawyer to apply [for bail] for all 13 men?”
The Noida police had arrested the 13 men the previous night, allegedly for being part of a mob that stormed Mahagun Moderne earlier in the day. The mob had entered the complex after news spread that Zohra Bibi, a 26-year-old domestic worker employed with several households in Mahagun Moderne, was missing inside the complex. The Noida police had raided workers’ settlements within a two-kilometre radius of the complex in the intervening night of 12 and 13 July. Parshu Ram, the station house officer at the Sector 49 police station, said that a total of 78 men were detained.
Haq and his neighbor Anwarul were continuously fielding calls—from different trade unions that were beginning to get in touch with them; trying to locate where the police were holding the detained workers from the colonies; and trying to contact lawyers to apply for bail. They managed to bring down the lawyers' fee to Rs 500 per bail application, but even that was difficult for the workers. Most of the arrested workers were employed as sweepers and construction workers close to the apartment complexes where their wives and women relatives worked as domestic workers. Only seven families were able to contribute towards the lawyers’ fees—the group had Rs 3,500, about half the amount it needed.
Unable to collect more money, Haq and Anwarul set out for Surajpur district court, in Uttar Pradesh’s Gautam Budh Nagar district, where trials for offences committed in Noida are conducted. Both of them had one cousin each among the 13 accused. The lawyers they spoke to had told them that if they brought the money to court then they could apply for bail. Several women workers, whose family members were missing, also reached the court to look for their missing family members.
In the court of Judicial Magistrate Vikas Kumar, at about 4 pm, Haq and Anwarul watched as police officers brought the accused men inside. The men appeared to be wearing the clothes they had on at the time of their arrest—vests, and shorts or lungis. They sat on the floor of the courtroom—their hands tied with a common rope, one end of which was held by a police officer—waiting for the magistrate. One hour later, the magistrate had dismissed all of their bail applications. The men had been booked under the offence of attempt to murder, a non-bailable offence that can attract a punishment of up to ten years’ imprisonment—for this offence, they could only seek bail from a higher court.
On the evening of 11 July, Zohra Bibi went missing after visiting the residence of one of her employers, Harshu and Mithul Sethi—a first-floor house in the complex. A register at the security office at the gate to the complex showed that Zohra entered the premises at around 5 pm that day, but according to her husband Abdul Sattar, by nightfall, she had not yet returned home.
Sattar told me that he went to the apartment complex to search for her. When he did not find her, he went back home to consult his neighbours. At around 10 pm, he went to Noida’s Sector 49 police station and registered a complaint stating that his wife was missing. Sattar said that two police officers then accompanied him to the Mahagun Moderne to search for her, where the security guards handed him Zohra’s mobile phone, which did not contain its SIM card. When Sattar and the policemen visited the Sethis’ home that night, they denied having any information of Zohra’s whereabouts.
Haq, who is Zohra’s neighbour as well, told me that Sattar returned to the apartment gates early next morning at around 4 am, along with a few neighbours. As other domestic workers appeared at the gates to begin their morning shift, most did not go in to work after they heard what had happened. Word spread among the workers who lived in the area that a woman had gone missing inside the apartment complex, Haq continued, and soon over 200–300 domestic workers had assembled at its entrance.
He recounted that “hundreds of women workers who live in slums nearby, from Malda, West Bengal, Assam, Bihar, all stopped by at the gate and waited.” “A few workers passing by on bicycles and pedaling cycle rickshaws stopped by as well to pressure the security guards and started inspecting the vehicles leaving the buildings,” Haq added. The crowd got more agitated over the next few hours. At around 6 am, security guards emerged from the complex, carrying a pale and barely conscious Zohra. They handed her over to Sattar.
The workers were furious. “Zohra seemed unconscious,” Ruksana Bibi, who works as a cook in Antariksh, a residential complex nearby, said. “Even after she gained consciousness, she could hardly stand up, she would stare blankly when we called out her name, she had no strength left at all. It was maddening to see her state.” Another domestic worker, Almina Begum, explained how this enraged the workers: “Even if there had been a dispute with employers, Zohra’s husband had pleaded with them repeatedly at midnight, why did the building people not let her out then?”
The men, women, children, a few of whom were armed with stick and stones, vastly outnumbered the security guards, and stormed past the gates. At around 11 am that day, Shubhanshu Jha, a resident of Mahagun Moderne, posted short video clips on Facebook showing a mob, over a hundred members strong, inside the complex, and security guards pelting stones at the workers. A few residents stepped out to see what the commotion was about, while a group of workers walked to and reportedly ransacked the home of the Sethi’s while the couple and their eight-year-old son hid in the bathroom.
Two residents of the complex—Dharmendra Rathor, and another resident who has lived at the complex for two years but requested not to be identified—confirmed to me that the workers stormed the apartment complex after the guards brought Zohra Bibi to the gate. Four trucks carrying the police armed constabulary arrived at the building at around 9 am to control the agitating men and women. By noon on 12 July, the glass of the security office lay shattered, and rods and stones were scattered in the apartment complex.
The police registered three first information reports against the workers, based on three different complaints—by Zohra’s employer Mitul Sethi; by Pradeep Sharma, a manager of the Mahagun Moderne complex; and by Rahul Sahay, a resident of the complex.
The first FIR, based on the complaint by Mitul Sethi, who works in the merchant navy, accuses Zohra of having been caught stealing an undisclosed amount of money and states that she fled the Sethis’ house leaving her mobile phone behind. It accuses an unnamed mob of attacking the house with stones and sticks and charges them with the offences of rioting with deadly weapons, criminal intimidation, house trespass, and an attempt to murder. The FIR registered on Sharma’s complaint names ten persons, including Zohra and Sattar, and an unnamed mob of 125 persons for the same offences, except attempt to murder. The third FIR accuses Zohra and her husband of leading a 500-strong mob into the building.
The police have also recorded an FIR on Zohra’s complaint against her employers, charging the Sethis with the offences of voluntarily causing hurt and wrongful confinement, the maximum punishment for both of which is an imprisonment of one year or a fine of Rs 1,000, or both.
Arun Kumar Singh, the superintendent of police at Noida, told me that no resident of Mahagun Moderne reported any injuries, and none of the FIRs mention any attempts of physical attacks on the residents. When I asked Singh then why the accused men had been charged with attempt to murder in that case, he first responded by asking why I was bothered about which sections had been added. He then told me that he “cannot disclose why Section 307 was included,” adding that if the offence was not made out, then they would get acquitted.
Singh added that the police were yet to summon the Sethis or other residents from Mahagun Moderne for questioning in relation to Zohra’s complaint. On 16 July, at a meeting in the complex with its residents, Mahesh Sharma, the union culture minister and member of parliament from Gautam Budh Nagar, reportedly said, “There is no doubt that the [Sethi] family is not at fault.” He added, “I assure you that they [the accused workers] will not get bail for years to come.”
At the district court, I spoke to a few among the 13 accused men. Sahid-ul-Haq, a construction worker who is employed at a site around two kilometers away from the Mahagun Moderne complex, said that he had worked at sites in Silicon City—where the complex is located—for eight years. The distrust of the police among migrant labourers such as Sahid was evident as he continued. “This is the first time I have been detained. So far I had managed to avoid the police,” he said. Aktar-ul-Haq, another construction worker, was also among the arrested. “I had returned home from the construction site and had not even had time to wash myself when the police officers barged in,” he told me, pointing to cement marks on his feet.
After their bail applications were dismissed, the men were sent to judicial custody to Kasna Jail. Haq appeared concerned as he asked several lawyers in the court whether bail was still possible for those accused of an attempt to murder. A young lawyer, who had been watching the group of workers who had come to attend the hearing approached them and told them to accompany her to her office, where her “senior” would help them. I went with Haq to her office, where she told Haq that she needed Rs 600 to bribe the police officials to take a copy of the FIRs. While Haq relayed this information to the group of workers, members of the Gharelu Kamgar Union, a Delhi-based rights-advocacy group, approached the workers seeking to represent them in the legal proceedings. Haq told me that the workers agreed to the union lawyer because they were absolutely unfamiliar with the court proceedings and were relieved to hear that a lawyer from Delhi was offering help.
Around 5.30 pm, while the families of the workers still sat in the court grounds as the court was emptying, a police officer approached the families asking them to pay Rs 600 to obtain the copies of the three FIRs—these are are supposed to be available free of cost. A little later, another officer approached the workers and demanded that they pay Rs 600 for each FIR—a total of Rs 1,800 for all the FIRs. The Gharelu Kamgar Union members who were waiting with the families collected around Rs 1,000 to pay for the copies.
By the time the women workers returned to their colonies, there seemed to be a relative sense of calm compared to that afternoon, when they had not been sure where the men were being held. Apart from the 13 arrested men, the rest of the detained men were released the subsequent day. But there were still other worries for the workers. Hasna Begum, a domestic worker and Rizwaul Haq’s sister-in-law, whose husband Sahiruddin is among the 13 accused men, told me that she did not know what to tell her relatives in Dinhata in West Bengal’s Cooch Behar district. “I did not want my in-laws to worry, so I had not told them. But some relative seems to have informed them that the police took Sahiruddin, and now they are worried sick,” she said. She continued, “My elderly father-in-law was crying on the phone.” “Do you think they will release Sahiruddin by tomorrow?” she asked.
As the autorickshaw reached the workers’ settlement from the court, in the darkness of the shadow cast by the adjacent high-rises, the women slowly made their way to Zohra’s house. Abdul Sattar stood outside, talking to his neighbours. Inside, Zohra sat on the bed, still pale and exhausted by the last few days’ events.
Among the men detained from the colonies was Rahul Sattar, Zohra’s teenaged son, who, according to his neighbours, had graduated from the seventh grade the previous year. The metal sheet covering the family’s sparse room was bent out of shape when the police forcefully took Rahul with them. The police had released Rahul Sattar, Zohra and Abdul’s son, late in the evening on 13 July, almost 24 hours after he was detained.
Sitting next to Zohra, he described how he had spent the night in the crowded police lock-up at Sector 49 police station along with the other detained men from the neighbourhood. “The police first kept me in a house for an hour,” he said. “Then they locked me up with the others in a crowded cell,” he added. “They kept saying, ‘you were rioting, tell us where your father is.’” Rahul continued, “I asked for water to drink, but they denied me water at night, then they gave it in the morning.”
Gunjan Singh, the lawyer who is representing the workers after the union’s intervention, pointed out that the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015, expressly states that children below the age 18 years cannot be placed in a police lockup or lodged in jail. When I asked Arun Kumar Singh, the superintendent of police, about this, he claimed that “it is not illegal to lockup the child.” He added, “When we need to question a child, we can detain them, though we follow different norms for this.” There is no special juvenile unit or the designated child welfare police officer at the Sector 49 police station where Rahul had been locked up.
Over 20 policemen have kept guard at the gates of Mahagun Moderne since the incident. “They do not just sit at the gates idly, they are very active, they keep a close watch,” said the resident who has lived in Mahagun Moderne for the past two years. He continued, “And it is not just the gates. I found the police guarding Mahagun mart, our shopping complex, too. In this case, one has to really appreciate the role of the police.”