Going through India’s citizenship test as a Bengali Assamese
At the very beginning, a few important disclosures – I am a Bengali Assamese, an identity I wear with pride; and this is not a political commentary on the National Register of Citizens of Assam. I write this because the process of NRC, which has been of personal anguish to my family and many others, has been impersonalized and dehumanized at certain levels.
During every visit to my home in Guwahati in the last two years, the discussions within the Bengali community in Assam have been predominantly around the NRC. The fear of being “othered” and persecuted fueled these discussions. This is despite the fact that all the families I have been speaking to have valid documents that trace their roots much before March 24, 1971, as did my mother and I.
When the first draft of the NRC was published last December 31, both our names were missing from the list. This was despite the fact that both my mother and I are Indian citizens by birth. The reason cited was that my father’s name was missing from the 1971 electoral roll, a year when he was posted in Manipur, working for a nationalized bank.
For the first time, my legitimacy as a citizen of India was being doubted, and it unsettled me like I had never imagined. I realized that I wear my relationship with my country as an easy, loose but much loved garment; and that is how I believe it should be. It is there, it is evident, I love and respect its contours and boundaries, but it doesn’t constrict me or demand obeisance. But all of a sudden, I felt the possibility of being disfranchised and alienated in a country where being a citizen is my birthright.
For the first time, my legitimacy as a citizen of India was being doubted, and it unsettled me like I had never imagined. I realized that I wear my relationship with my country as an easy, loose but much loved garment; and that is how I believe it should be
It was worse for my mother. She hails from the family of the late Akshaya Kumar Ghosh, the first government attorney of Assam in Sivasagar in 1880; the Sivasagar Legal Bar probably came to being with him. She is also fiercely protective about her identity as a Bengali-speaking Assamese. She was indignant. She has shared her life with someone who had experienced the struggles of forced migration from Sylhet to Assam after the Partition of the subcontinent. Sylhet, then a district of undivided Assam, was hived off to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) after one of two plebiscites held in the subcontinent during the Partition.
Naturally, she was hurt. She was also scared, along with all other Bengali Assamese who had witnessed and borne the brunt of the Bongal kheda (Remove Bengalis) movement in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. And when the NRC started, she was in Guwahati, alone and a senior citizen. The discussions of detention camps and delisting from electoral rolls did not augur well. My sister and I feared for her health and well-being after a friend’s 60-year-old aunt was held for questioning for four hours. We wanted our mother to come out of Assam but she wasn’t willing to budge an inch without proving where she belonged.
But beyond personal anguish, the NRC, to me, at certain levels was chauvinistic and divisive. The calls of nationalism or sub-nationalism do not appeal to me. The humane sanctity of a process that wants to identify “illegal immigrants” without having a repatriation plan and wants to put people in “detention camps” is questionable. As is the attempt of the government and the majority population completely to dismiss the fears of the Bengali community as unfounded.
The pretense that it comes with no historical baggage of persecution is a willful omission. To speak about it was to be branded Bongal (Bengali) – pejorative slang that many would throw derogatorily at us at various points of time, along with labels of being “anti-Assamese,” or “Bengali-pseudo-liberal.” I have heard all those in the past few months, and from people I considered close friends. I was for once relieved that my father wasn’t alive, because I shudder to think of his reaction at reliving this sense of being “othered” once again.
I was waiting to see if my views on this would change if my name featured in the final draft of the NRC. It didn’t. I spent several sleepless nights. All the angry evoking of Assamese sub-nationalism brought back deeply suppressed memories of gun-wielding young men barging into our house late at night when the “Remove Bengalis” movement was peaking, sensing my mother’s anguish and fear until my father returned home.
We lived through blackouts and curfews, and the unsettling pain of a severed identity at being called a Bongal. The lack of acknowledgement of that violent or often casual hatred while undertaking an exercise like the NRC and the fault lines it can cause in a place like Assam is deeply upsetting. The denial of personal human anguish at the altar of a majoritarian identity is exactly how the bottomless black hole of identity politics pans out.
I have heard all sorts of arguments – from the hilarious to the bizarre – in the last few days. Someone on Facebook posted that the Assamese needn’t fear the Tai Ahoms – the dominant tribe of Assam that migrated to the Brahmaputra Valley from Yunan province in China and embraced Hinduism – because they became Assamese before the Bengalis did.
I want to hear a Tai Ahom’s view on that. Another view claims that “illegal immigrants” are a drain on Assamese taxpayers’ resources. Where do they think the resources for the detention camps will come from? The exodus in face of violent persecution is different from an exodus due to economic duress.
The lack of credible population figures is also problematic. The census of India shows a marginal influx of migrants from Bangladesh, and the Muslim population in the state is much lower than the Hindus. Even the higher growth rate of the Muslim population will not be able to change that for decades.
We want the civilized world to be kind, empathetic and open toward receiving immigrants and refugees, but in our back yard, our identity takes over our humane judgment. Do we then have a right to judge anyone not wanting to dilute national/linguistic identities by taking in migrants? Living in one of the most vulnerable zones in a world that will see increased human displacement due to climate change, is this how we plan to deal with human crises, by being in denial, impersonalizing and dehumanizing issues? These are broader questions about principles that will shape India’s future.
And finally, if one calls herself or himself a “liberal” but champion a nationalist or sub-nationalist cause, then that is the very definition of hypocrisy.