Citizenship Amendment Bill: A million Sitas for the earth to swallow

The fire has shifted to the Northeast. Kashmir will be watching with a bemused eye as troops get redeployed out of the Valley

Published: 13th December 2019 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 13th December 2019 09:47 AM   |  A+A-

I have a complaint. I am a Hindu Bengali. And even I feel marked out in India, my country of birth: Sujalang, suphalang ... shasya shyamalang Mataram. Where do I go? My Bodo friend of many years tells me, “Please don’t mind me saying so, I hate you as much as I hate you know who….” I laugh and ask why, though I have an inkling. “See, my mother has to go to the wet market and speak in Bengali to buy her vegetables,” she explains. “And that’s in her ancestral village!” She was dismissive of my protestations about having had to speak Hindi in Kolkata’s AC Market (I don’t live there any more, not for nigh on three decades). “Well, you can sing Tagore songs, believe in universalism, we don’t! You have a problem? Yours is the third most spoken language in the world, mine isn’t.”

That ‘hate’ is the byproduct of a history of pain. Yes, with my kind of name/caste/religion, you would assume layers of privilege, a relatively secure social ledge from which to gauge deeper, more troubled waters. (Even if pain is universal.) But it’s like a shadow that follows me. It’s striking how frequently I find myself in situations where my nativity is sized up with a ruthless forensic eye.

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There I was in Rajasthan last year, covering the Assembly polls. A state I’ve travelled to often, for work or leisure. I have known people from all walks of life—prominent politicians to common villagers. Still, the scary experience I had that late evening had as much to do with being stranded alone, as a woman, on a dark highway between Tonk and Pushkar as with a question about ‘who’ I was. The cabbie, beset by sleep after miles on winding country roads, had driven off by mistake, without noticing I had not yet climbed into the backseat. My bag, tablet, phone were all in the car. At that chauraha, miraculously, a little crowd gathered to help me, offering me tea and shelter. Suddenly, from amongst them, a voice rings out: “Are you a Bangladeshi?”

As journalists, we face all kinds of situations; I put this away as one of those. But I could not forget it, especially when exactly the same question was thrown at me in Patna, of all places, at a breakfast meeting with some local politicos. I was as usual covering elections. (Maybe it’s time I stopped wearing that big bindi.)

My Andhra-origin colleague too is a bit anxious these days. She was born in Chennai, and has been living in Bengaluru so long that she’s a Kannadiga now by choice. She’s lost her birth certificate, and frets whether the old hospital can supply her with a duplicate in time for the NRC. Neither she nor I should have a problem now that Parliament has passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. We are both Hindus, so safe. “But we are not persecuted asylum-seekers from Bangladesh, Pakistan or Afghanistan, would that be a problem?” my colleague snaps. Dear Article 14, are we reasonably classified or arbitrarily so? Are we in the ‘right class’ of people? First let me be safe, then I’ll look to the others if …. Anyway, Harish Salve, a legal eagle who soars the highest, says no one law can presumably address all evils. How naive of us to even harbour that expectation! Just because some bleeding-hearts want India, so unreasonably, to offer asylum to persecuted Rohingyas doesn’t mean we can’t, meanwhile, have a law for persecuted Hindus from elsewhere (the word ‘persecuted’ is not there in the Bill by the way.) Be patient, wait. Be kind where you can. It’s legally kosher to be selective, reasonably or arbitrarily. Thank you. You’re welcome.

Welcome? In Assam, no one is singing welcome songs. They are chanting ‘Go back Bengalis, go back foreigner’. Bengalis who had booked a New Year trip to Shillong via Guwahati, or planned a year-end pilgrimage to Kamakhya, are cancelling en masse. It’s really gotten complicated. Inner Line Permit, Sixth Schedule, what not. Assamese Bengali (yes, really complicated) journalists stationed in Dimapur, Nagaland, are now queuing up for ILPs (an internal travel visa of sorts), looking over their shoulder for protesting mobs baying for the blood of ‘foreigners’, Bengali termites destroying their language and culture. Meanwhile, in Raichur, Karnataka, some 10,000 Bangladeshi Hindus, living in a scheduled enclave, are celebrating the end of their statelessness. Will these new Indians become Kannadiga citizen-voters?

At the other end, Kashmir will be watching with a bemused eye as the internet switches off in Guwahati and Agartala, and troops get redeployed out of the Valley. A winter holiday in Srinagar, anyone? The fire has shifted to the Northeast. It looks a lot like the seventies. Tripura’s Bangladesh-origin CM may have no fear of being put in a detention camp, but he would be right in being afraid, very afraid. So would New Delhi, about everything. ULFA’s Paresh Barua has come out of the woodwork to call a bandh after a long, long time. All the heavy diplomatic spadework with an India-friendly Sheikh Hasina too may get washed down like so much spare water from the Farakka. All that, just to sideline Didi. So what if the Northeast burns? Or Bengalis get suspected of being Bangladeshi across the country. The Hindu has consolidated, with a homeland, just like the Jew.

Or, wait. What about Sri Lankan Tamil refugees … also, er, Hindus? Well, Vaiko was asked to shut up by none other than the all-knowing Subramanian Swamy. Lankan Tamils, quoth he, were not persecuted for their religion, so deserve no mercy, our hearts must bleed only for minorities from Islamic countries. Meanwhile, the rest of us must give citizenship tests too, like modern-day Sitas being readied for agni pariksha. And oh, since you asked, my mother was born on the other side. Before the earth split.

Santwana Bhattacharya
Resident Editor, Karnataka


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