By Chandrima Pal Sep. 09, 2019
My family traces its roots to Narayangunj, in present-day Bangladesh. And identity is that minefield that I am forced to negotiate every day. I am a part of “us” our government claims to protect today, there is no saying when I will find myself on the other side.
In 1946, my grandparents crossed a border that did not yet exist. They hailed from Narayangunj, in present-day Bangladesh, where the family had been engaged as doctors, lawyers, and official portrait artists for the British government for generations. But my grandfather, like many job seekers of the time, decided to move to Kolkata. With his wife, four kids, and their life’s savings, he boarded a steamer that sailed to the “Second City of the British Empire”. The timing of their arrival was important, just a year before Bengal’s partition into West Bengal and East Pakistan. They narrowly escaped being branded as refugees — a stigma that would have carried to their grandchildren.
To be Bengali means to take pride in your lineage, especially when it can be traced back to undivided Bengal, rich in its culinary, cultural, literary, linguistic, and artistic diversity. In 1947, the definition of a citizen of a free nation, was very different. Even those Bengali families that still owned land and houses across a border that came into existence overnight, or were fond of their Muslim friends and former neighbours, did not have to worry about being deported or branded anti-nationals.
Seven decades later, sitting in Kolkata, from where I observe the chaotic implementation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) unfolding in Assam, I cannot help but feel a sense of unease.
The first phase of the Supreme-court monitored and BJP government-led exercise to identify the “genuine Indian citizen” has triggered unprecedented chaos. Every resident in Assam, that has had a tumultuous relationship with immigrants and ethnic groups, had to produce documents to prove their families came to India before March 24, 1971. Consider this: Last year over 3.2 crore people applied to the NRC, and over 40 lakh people were left out. Last week’s final list left out over 19 lakh people who now have ten months to prove their right to live in India, before they are declared “stateless” and packed off to detention centres that the government has built. Now there are reports of a detention centre near Mumbai for illegal immigrants. The news come as Maharashtra readies for assembly elections in the next few months.
At a time when the UN is making every attempt to “eradicate statelessness,” we have disowned our own, forcing the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to issue a statement of concern. “Any process that could leave large numbers of people without a nationality would be an enormous blow to global efforts to eradicate statelessness,” High Commissioner Filippo Grandi said. “I appeal to India to ensure that no one is rendered stateless by this action, including by ensuring adequate access to information, legal aid, and legal recourse in accordance with the highest standards of due process.”
Last week’s final list left out over 19 lakh people who now have ten months to prove their right to live in India, before they are declared “stateless” and packed off to detention centres that the government has built. MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images
Last week’s final list left out over 19 lakh people who now have ten months to prove their right to live in India, before they are declared “stateless” and packed off to detention centres that the government has built.
MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images
According to the Citizenship Act, which sets 1951 as the cut-off year determining citizenship, I am safe. But it makes me wonder if the juggernaut could roll towards me any day. Even though the West Bengal Legislative Assembly passed a resolution opposing the NRC in Assam and ruling it out in Bengal, it is likely to last only as long as Mamata Banerjee’s tenure as chief minister. Because Amit Shah is a man of his words. And one of the things he promised during the elections, was a similar exercise to weed out “them” (read: outsiders) from “us” (read: real Indians).
My grandparents did not own any property until the ’80s. Were they outsiders until then? I doubt if there were any records of them shifting from one city in undivided Bengal to another. They did not bother with such trivialities back in the day. My family traces its roots to a different country now. And identity is that minefield that I am forced to negotiate every day. I am a part of “us” our government claims to protect today, there is no saying when I will find myself on the other side.
New India is all about markers of national identity. Or rather, markers that exclude one from claiming that identity. There is a powerful concept in the Upanishads and the Avadhuta Gita, “neti neti”, a Sanskrit expression which means “neither this, nor that”. It has been designed to help one understand what is the nature of Brahman, the ultimate truth, by understanding what is not. This process of negation was crucial in self-actualisation. A warped, infinitesimally more destructive form of this practice has now emerged in our pursuit of the politics of identity.
The NRC in Assam uses the median of 1971 to identify an Indian citizen from the rest. It could be something else in Bengal or even Punjab — states that have been home to migrants. The name may change. The methodology may change as well. What is likely to remain is the othering which seems to have become our favourite pastime. Looks like we will continue to devise newer and far more damaging NRC knockoffs, to squeeze the last drop of otherness from our culture to create a different India. Where does this process of distillation stop?
Looks like we will continue to devise newer and far more damaging NRC knockoffs, to squeeze the last drop of otherness from our culture to create a different India.
Today, it is the illegal Bangladeshi immigrants who are the purported targets of this exercise, but the NRC has stripped many Indian citizens of their statehood, with one egregious example being a Kargil war veteran and sitting MLA being excluded from the list of Indian citizens. Tomorrow it could be anyone who does not consider Hindi as their mother tongue. Or eats beef. We thought the NRC was about weeding out illegal immigrants, but we have all been proven wrong.
Today, we cannot tell you for sure who is an Indian. But we are getting there, by slapping labels on Muslims, tribals, ethnic groups, Dalits, Kashmiris. Our newfound love for labelling each other is only shrinking our world. Neti neti.
We had been taught how the idea of governance was about the government being responsible for every citizen’s welfare. Now the onus is on the poorest of the poor to prove that they deserve governance. As TMC MP Mahua Moitra had said in her maiden speech in the Parliament, “In a country where ministers cannot produce degrees to show that they have graduated from college, you expect dispossessed poor people to show papers, to show that they belong to this country?”
When my grandparents arrived in the city, a few people opened their hearts and their doors for them. Some of the kindest gestures were from those who had very little to themselves. It was understood that every person had a right to livelihood, a safe haven for their family. There were many who will share horror stories about the partition of Bengal. But there will also be those stories of warm embraces and shared dal bhat that would have laid the foundations of the world’s largest democracy, on a solid bed of inclusivity.
I understand my privilege. I have never had to wake up to find myself irrelevant like an old 500 or 1000-rupee note. But I cannot shrug off that fear that eats away at my complacency, that one fine day I will find myself in a Black Mirror world, stripped of my name, my identity, my life as I have known it. All I would have is a set of labels – not a “genuine” Indian, nor a foreigner, meat-eater, sickular, Bengali, woman.
Chandrima Pal is a journalist, columnist, career insomniac and caffeine snob. Loves food. Does travel. Author of A Song for I (Amaryllis) and At Home in Mumbai (Harper Collins).