Concentration camps, citizenship and the burden of erasure in India
A few months ago, I wrote an article after first hearing loose talk of forced-labor camps as possible fallout from the ongoing National Register for Citizens (NRC) process in the Indian state of Assam. However, I finally chose not to publish it at the time for the fear of raising what I thought were mere academic concerns. That situation has since changed.
Last week, my brother and I learned from our father Dhruba Jyoti Saikia, the founding vice-chancellor of Cotton College State University in Assam, that he had filed an NRC application in 2015 listing himself and Rowena Robinson but excluding both me and my brother Bikram, who are his children. This is the first we’ve heard of his application or his inclusion in the NRC. Our parents are divorced.
We’re also unsure of being able to prove our ancestry through our maternal line.
Erasure of ancestry
One of our last encounters with our mother’s side of the family involved her elder sister Purabi and her husband, Vijay Jindal, the latter a lawyer in Shillong. Purabi and Jindal got together with my father to frame a memorandum of understanding, which our mother was bamboozled into signing at the National Centre for Radio Astrophysics campus in Pune in 1999. The MoU irretrievably damaged the relationship with the maternal side of the family.
Those who structured the NRC process do not appear to have contemplated such a situation. Despite belonging to old, well-established Indian families on both the maternal and paternal sides, we do not feel confident of easily being able to prove our ancestry if it is required. Our mother’s maternal grandfather was Sarbananda Dowerah, one of the leading tea planters in Assam, and his son was the prominent cinematographer Nalin Dowerah.
At the time of writing this, we do not believe we have copies of all the pertinent documents to prove our ancestry and are uncertain of being able to access them.
My brother was born in Pune and has spent his life in the city apart from living in Canada with our father for a short while. I was born in Bangalore and studied in a Pune school after having spent part of my early childhood in England with my parents. There is absolutely no doubt that we’re Indian.
My maternal grandfather, Mahesh Chandra Das, in fact, found himself in jail fighting for our country’s independence; he was granted a freedom fighter’s pension, which my grandmother received. However, we do not have the entire relevant documentary proof. And now, we seem to have found ourselves in the horrifying situation of trying to prove our antecedents should the need arise.
Of all the acceptable solutions there could be to address illegal immigration, concentration camps are not one. In India, we’re confronted with unprecedented waves of migration, not least from Bangladesh and Myanmar, in the age of social media and free, careless comment. And we live in a world where, among the supposed global leaders of human rights and democracy, there are those who spend their time looking for the least offensive ways to describe children living in cages. But even so, the talk of concentration camps, however loose, is beyond the pale.
Issues of citizenship and belonging have always been fraught in India. We are a plural society that was irrevocably torn apart in 1947. As a legal construct, the Indian republic is a federation of states. As a social reality, we know affiliations to various sub-nationalisms, subsumed within a greater pan-Indian nationalism, to be a source of individual pride.
Throughout history, we have granted refuge to those who have sought it and enabled “outsiders” to be assimilated into our society. The Parsis who arrived in India from Persia, perhaps as early as the 8th century, know this as do those Burmese who arrived in India amid the wreckage of World War II.
The burden of a fractured past
We are not, however, a society that has consistently seen communal harmony. In recent history, British colonizers used a divide-and-rule policy to help cement their control over vast swaths of the Indian subcontinent. Among other acts, they divided Bengal in 1905 in essence along religious lines and, although the division was later re-calibrated after protests, they demonstrated scant regard for safeguarding India’s social fabric.
The 1947 Partition of India, at the time of independence from colonial rule, created Pakistan partly by further dividing Bengal. In fact, the country was almost literally cut along lines drawn on a map by a British lawyer, Cyril Radcliffe, who was unfamiliar with the subcontinent. In true colonial form, he in effect disappeared from the scene after contributing to the creation of chaos. Partition became one of the largest displacements in modern history: 15 million were forced to flee, and more than a million were killed, too often tortured to death.
Plebiscites were few and far between: One of them was in Sylhet in the East. With a century’s worth of state-facilitated communalism superimposed over older ethnic and regional conflicts, it could have come as no surprise to anyone that local politics became mired in concerns about indigenous identity.
American photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White saw vast areas of Calcutta “dark with ruins and black with the wings of vultures that hovered impartially over the Hindu and Muslim dead” in 1946. The image of death approaching under the waiting, watchful eye of vultures was not new to Bengal, which had, at the time, barely recovered from a devastating famine, exacerbated by British policies, that took about 4 million lives. This was the same famine that prompted Leo Amery, then secretary of state for India and Burma, to compare Winston Churchill’s attitudes to those of Adolf Hitler.
Bourke-White found the scene she witnessed in Calcutta reminiscent of Buchenwald, a German concentration camp. It had come into being after Muhammad Ali Jinnah announced Direct Action Day, insisting, as he did in his quest to carve out Pakistan: “We will have either a divided India or a destroyed India.” Streets strewn with corpses were “the ultimate result of racial and religious prejudice” in India just as they had been in Germany’s concentration camps, she commented.
Photographs taken in the 1940s in the fenced hunger-cum-labor camps of Europe and in the fence-less hunger-cum-labor geography of Bengal are not always easy to tell apart. Ravaged bodies with ashen skin, regardless of their color, can look much the same in black and white.
We may only now be beginning to call the famine genocide, and recognize the lingering effects of Partition, but we know what to expect of concentration camps. And we know that their effects can be achieved simply with incendiary rhetoric and administrative action. They do not need fences or a fenced-off vocabulary.
(This is the first article of a two-part series on the threat that the National Register of Citizens poses to human rights in India.)