Hours after BJP MP Tejasvi Surya was reported to have apologised for “communalising” an alleged bed-booking scam and passing bigoted remarks at religious minorities at a COVID war room in Bengaluru, the leader has denied the report as “fake news”.
Reports said Surya on Thursday (May 6) visited the BBMP South War Room and apologised to the 200 employees saying his intention was not to hurt anyone or pick on any community members.
However, in a tweet the MP clarified, “When one has no news, they create fake news.”
His version, however, is countered by many present in the war room who insisted that he did apologise but is refusing to accept it now.
Surya on Tuesday (May 4) had cherry-picked 16 Muslim workers who worked as data entry operators and telecallers, and a Christian woman in-charge for the bed allocation, and alleged they were involved in the bed-allocation scam. He chose to selectively name them out of the 205 workers in total.
But the incident boomeranged on the MP as the police haven’t found any evidence against the named workers. They were found to be merely assisting people in distress.
The MP had alleged that at least 4,065 beds were ‘blocked’ under fake names by hospitals across the city and highlighted the alleged nexus among BBMP officials, COVID war room operators, and private and public hospitals.
At a time when the state was grappling with oxygen shortage and unavailability of beds, leading to multiple deaths in Chamarajanagar and Bengaluru, Surya’s attempt to communalise not only drew flak from civil society and opposition leaders but also exposed his double standards. One of the MLAs, Satish Reddy, who along with Surya, had barged into the war room to accuse people, was found to be himself allegedly involved in the bed booking scam.
According to BBMP officials in the war room, the politicians led by Surya interfered in the war room’s functioning by demanding that five-10 beds be created every day as part of the MP/MLA/minister’s quota. While people were dying without facilities, the politicians wanted the bed-allocation to go through the recommendation process.
Surya himself is alleged to have told officers that the system was inefficient and hence wanted to work with them and take control of the war room, which they denied, as it would set a bad precedent.
Aam Aadmi Party members termed the entire incident an eyewash to deflect the attention of the state government’s mishandling of COVID and BJP MLAs’ involvement in the scam.
In the absence of an elected council and a Mayor in Bengaluru, the elections to which are delayed due to expansion plans of the civic body, the government on April 1 appointed IAS officer Rakesh Singh as the BBMP administrator. The chief minister himself holds the Bangalore Development portfolio. So Surya’s attempt only ended up further mishandling the crisis, but also raised questions on the functioning of the party.
“The need of the hour is more and better medical infrastructure, supplies and management. But what the four BJP legislators have done is to dish out communal hatred in the name of uncovering a scam in his own government. This is a criminal offence,” said a civil society group in a statement.
“These antics by Tejasvi Surya and other BJP legislators can only dishearten volunteers from various communities, whose selfless work has been the backbone of the state’s response to the pandemic.”
Meanwhile, Aam Aadmi Party leaders in Bengaluru said this was not a matter only of corruption, but also criminal neglect of duty and loss of lives amounting to murder.
“Various high courts and the Supreme Court have held that denial of medical health amounts to criminal negligence. It is our strong belief that a free and fair investigation cannot be conducted since it is now clear that powerful elected representatives are involved. We, therefore, demand an immediate arrest of Bommanahalli MLA Satish Reddy,” the party issued a statement and filed a complaint against the MLA in the city.
‘Workers left traumatised, abused’
Soon after Surya and the MLAs barged into the war room, and questioned officials whether they were hiring employees for a corporation or a Madrasa, a WhatsApp message, listing names of minority community members and branding them as terrorists, began circulating.
Now the 16 Muslim workers have temporarily lost their jobs. The employer, Crystal Infosystems & Services, who recruited them, has asked them not to report to work until further orders. The workers are left in the lurch. They have not been suspended either. The company hasn’t said anything about their reinstatement.
“Just before the MP barged into the war room, our reporting manager had asked us to leave. They gave no reason and when we asked, they only said there was some problem that they cannot explain,” said Muhammed Zaid, who left the place perplexed and confused. “Later we got to know that the Muslim workers were targeted by the MP.”
Zaid, who is in his twenties, says he’s traumatised as the WhatsApp forwards started to float around calling him and others as terrorists to their dismay. His parents are worried and do not want him to go out, he says.
“I did not come here for the money or to help my own community. I came here, leaving other jobs, to serve people and help those in distress,” Zaid said. He’s worked in the war room for eight months.
Another worker, Zameer Pasha, 22, says not all 16 Muslims knew each other and they worked in different shifts. “I had more Hindu friends in the war room than Muslim friends. But by the end of the day, we all were branded as terrorists even as the police found no evidence of any wrongdoing,” Pasha said.
He said when they asked the police what their fault was, they got no answer. Pasha, a B Com graduate, who joined the war room 10 days ago says he did not work there for money, but to help people. “Even now I am not insisting on the 10 days’ pay. But let them clarify why we have to endure this trauma,” Pasha asks. These workers were getting paid between ₹12000-₹15000.
Congress MLA Zameer Ahmed Khan assured work to them at a higher pay if the company did not reinstate them.
While civil society groups wrote to the chief minister asking Surya and others to apologise for their actions, they also urged the government to compensate the affected employees by paying ₹50,000 for the agony caused to them.
“Hate Speech Beda” (No to hate speech), a citizens’ collective to combat hate speech, has filed a police complaint against Surya on charges of spreading communal hatred.