Abdul Gaffar Sheikh, a 44-year-old migrant worker from Katna in Murshidabad, died in December 2018 in Saudi Arabia. For the last five months, his family in Murshidabad district has been waiting for the body of the Bengal migrant worker to return from a Saudi Arabia morgue.

According to Sheikh’s family in Katna village of Barwan block in Murshidabad district, his body is languishing in a morgue in Saudi Arabia. Abdul Gaffar’s widow, Abida, said her family, including two minor children, was now surviving on charity.

Communications from the Indian embassy revealed that the victim had committed suicide, and documents from the Saudi authorities were pending. However, Sheikh’s family members disputed the suicide report and alleged that he was murdered and his body was hanged to give it the appearance of suicide.

Matiur Rahaman, a social worker, had lodged a complaint (SB2MTR104490019) in this regard with the Union Ministry of External Affairs on 1 January 2019. He said all efforts to bring back the migrant worker’s body had failed,

Explaining why it takes so long to bring back the body of any migrant labourer from the Gulf countries, Rahaman said the transportation of mortal remains from abroad involved a labyrinth of procedures. “We came to know that Gaffar died on 18 December 2018 in Saudi Arabia. The request to bring his remains
back home was filed online (madad.gov.in) on 1 January this year with the consular services management system under the MEA of the Indian government,” he said.

‘Work in progress’ was the stock reply by the Indian embassy that responded to the complaint 18 times on different dates in the last five months, said Mr Rahaman.

Explaining the difficulties of pursuing correspondences with the authorities concerned, he said, “While keeping track of the complaint status, one needs to get in touch with the Saudi authorities like the police and the sponsoring company or the labour contractor who serves as recruiting agent of the migrant workers. Next comes the supply of documents to both the Saudi and Indian authorities.”

He also informed that the documents, required for transportation and to ascertain the identity of the dead and those claiming the body, include NOC (no objection certificate) from the Indian authority in Riyadh, death report from the Saudi ministry of health, embalming certificate, forensic report, death certificate from the Saudi ministry of interior and civil affairs, NOC from authorities in India, passport cancellation from emigration (by the Indian embassy), police report, entry of death as Indian national, burying permit and air ticket.

Additionally, a new set of documents like certificate from local Gram Panchayat Pradhan, power of attorney to Saudi police, voter and aadhar cards of both the victim and family members, family photos, Kabilnama of marriage (the marriage certificate), copy of the victim’s passport and visa etc were sent to both Indian and Saudi officials after Sheikh’s death was reported, said Mr. Abdul Atif Mallick, a relative of the dead.

The last reply from the Indian embassy was on 7 May 2019. The communication read:‘work in progress…awaiting final clearance’.

According to available records, the emigrant card number of the deceased (Abdul Gaffar Sheikh) is EN11020351 and his passport (number M8199866) was issued on 12.06.2015 and it was due to expire on 10 December 2025.

He died on 18 December, 2018 at Al Gasor area under AR Rass police station limits of Saudi Arabia. This is where his body has been kept for transportation, sources said. His visa (no. 2329361025), was issued on 22.09.2015. It was initially valid for 90 days or three months. It was alleged that migrant labourers like Sheikh (who are financially and educationally vulnerable and prone to be easily duped) are made to understand that the initial visa is valid for 3 years. So, the worker lands up being blackmailed by his employer after the initial validity period of 30 days of his/her visa ends. Here lies the most potent point of exploitation, said the sources.

Afraid of police action, the sources added, a labourer with outdated visa loses right to free movement and he has to depend on Ekama or his identity card which is issued by the Saudi government upon application filed by the concerned employer. Such rogue employer, it is alleged, blackmails vulnerable employees including poor women into exploitation by stating, “I shall not issue Ekama if you defy my orders. In that case, you will rot in jails as you cannot go back home with invalid visa.”

A visit to the family of Abdul Gaffar Sheikh at Katna village revealed that his cottage is actually an old brick-laden structure under a roof of corrugated tin sheets supported by bamboo planks. It now stands crumbling and deserted as his wife and children have moved out to take shelter in a relative’s house nearby.

Sheikh had left for Saudi Arabia as he wanted to build a new pucca house, said Abida, his widow.

“Every month he used to send Rs. 17,000 to Rs. 20,000 on an average. The money stopped after his death. Now villagers help me to feed my one son and one daughter,” she rued. Asked if she voted this year, she said, “I have cast my vote. The people who help me told me to vote.”

Abida, the 33 year-old rural widow, exercised her franchise on 29 April, 2019 in the Baharampur Lok Sabha constituency.

The hope for a better life took Sheikh to Saudi Arabia in 2015 when a young Abida was pregnant with their second child. The girl,  Saalma, is now three years old. Elder son Rejaul Karim is now a student of Class IV in a local primary
school.

Sheikh’s two brothers, Abdul Munir and Abdus Samad, have also migrated to Saudi Arabia to eke out a living. While Munir is stranded in Saudi, Samad had last visited his family at Katna about 18 months ago, said the family.