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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 42 New Delhi October 5, 2019

The Loss of Humanity

Saturday 5 October 2019, by Sagari Chhabra

I recently attended the Peoples’ Tribunal on the ‘Contested Citizenship in Assam’, in Delhi. At the outset, I am grateful for a few brave and courageous citizens who are bringing the voices of the impoverished and unlettered before us, as the mainstream media drumbeats us into a stupor.

So the NRC list is out declaring: 1.9 million people are not in it and, therefore, stateless. The tribunal pointed out, through testimonies, the tremendous and unspeakable human costs of the anxiety, fear and insecurity afflicting those who have had to line up and prove that they are not foreigners.

The burden of proof has been shifted to the poor to prove that they are not foreigners. Several have lost their livelihood as rag-pickers and labour at construction sites and a few have even committed suicide.

Traumatised and deeply affected are women and children, for most women who are married off under-age, as is the custom in the area, do not have access to land records, birth and school-leaving certificates and other such niceties. Their identity is primarily their husband’s name. Children of single mothers or born out of polygamy have often been left out of the family tree or legacy.

Jamila Begum, who is from Barpeta, Assam, has been recorded by Varna Balakrishna of the Karwan-e-Mohabbat (Caravan of Love) and I am so grateful for the existence of love and compassion in our dark times as my beloved country undergoes a dramatic change in its mindscape.This candle of hope must be nurtured and supported for our very existence is entwined with it.

Jamila Begum says she has been unable to work in her small field as her name did not figure in the NRC list. The gaubura—village chief—told her it is because the panchayat certificate stating that she, Jamila Begum, is the daughter of Abdullah Islam—whose name was present in the 1951 NRC list—was not accepted.

Since the notice says ‘legacy person’ and not parent or grandparent and since she never went to school and was married off before she could think of having a Voter’s ID or a senior school-leaving certificate, documents that ‘officially’ link her to her parents, the panchayat certificate was her last resort. However, she stands excluded.

Her son too was excluded as his name was differently spelled, carelessly or wilfully—we do not know, by the officer who wrote her family- tree. Since Jamila cannot read, she could not have known beforehand, besides there are multiple ways in which an Indian name or word, can be spelled in English.

Her exclusion from the NRC has jeopardised the citizenship of all her children as well. Her married daughter’s relationship with her in-laws has soured as who wants someone who is not a citizen without any rights in the family; and her other daughter’s engagement is teetering for the same reason.

So family and social ties and a basic sense of dignity and security are being seriously jeopardised. When she filed for an appeal with the help of the village head, there was no transport to the tribunal and she had to borrow money to hire a mini-bus to transport herself and nine of her relatives to the site where the hearing was to be held. So the state demands that you appear but makes no provisions for it.

It was a hot, sunny day and there was no shade; so her niece had to look around for hours to find a place to feed her baby and rest. And then the wonder of wonders, the official spoke only in Assamese and not in her Bengali dialect! So how could she communicate her experiential reality?

The question I would like to ask is,not did but could Jamila Begum actually have a fair hearing?

When asked if she was confident about the results she replied, ‘No’ as the officer had said, ‘You are a Bangladeshi.’ He was laughing at that time, she had recalled. So was it dark humour or was he serious? That is a question that haunts her every living moment and that is the power a petty official has over a poor, unlettered woman.

Why does a poor, unlettered woman in a flood-prone area have to produce a document? These documents are the job of the state.

What are we doing to human beings and whatever happened to our collective humanity?

According to the Centre, there are 938 persons in six detention camps in Assam and a detention centre—clearing a dense forest of the size of six football fields—is being built in Goalpara. Some of the labour working on the site are themselves off the list and could possibly end up there. The photograph of the watch-tower chilled me to the bone because, gentle reader, it reminded me of the pictures of the Nazi concentration camps. How do you take away the freedom of people when they have committed no crime? Meanwhile you invite foreigners to come and do business with you and invest in your country; an amazing paradox you will agree, gentle reader.

In an article, Nizam Pasha has traced parallels with the Third Reich. He writes, “The entire NRC process is eerily reminiscent of the Reich Citizenship Laws passed by the Nazi Govern-ment in 1935. Historians now identify the passing of the Nuremberg as the beginning of the series of events now known as the Holocaust. The Reich Citizenship Laws defined a citizen of the Reich as that ‘subject who is German or kindred blood’. The status of a citizen was acquired by the granting of citizenship papers by the government of the Third Reich. All political rights were available to citizens granted papers under this law.”

Not only have we subjected so many people to cruelty but Bangladesh has stated it is not willing to accept the people either; so where are they to go?

In front of me is an incident that seem to have gnashed into my memory. On a research visit to Myanmar I was searching for Chinnaya who, as a member of the Indian National Army (INA), was a freedom fighter. However, I could not get any of his Indian-origin neighbours, to walk me to his dwelling. I did so, alone. Then I discovered when I walked the water-logged path with tin cans and bricks that served as a path, to a hovel covered with gunny bags and plastic to protect him; that he was stateless. A stateless person has no rights and no dignity, even his Indian origin neighbours who gave me tea and were otherwise hospitable to me, were unwilling to show me his dwelling. Needless to say, he never received any recognition or pension from the government of free India; he was stateless and remained so.

To be poor is one thing but to have no rights is terrifying.

I also remember meeting Rajbala who had six children and was burnt by her husband. She had nowhere to go; her inlaws did not want her and neither did her parental family. That is why we have a Domestic Violence Act that enables women to live on where they are, for where else are they to go?

So what should be our response? Grant citizenship to those who have lived with us and scrap the Citizenship Amendment Bill that invites Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and Parsis —not Muslims—to take citizenship of our land from the neighbouring countries.

Invest in people, not barbed wire, patrolling men dressed in jackboots and armed with guns who have the power to grab any woman and rape her, because she is a ‘foreigner’ and despatch anyone to a detention camp.

Several years ago I visited the Jewish synagogue in Mattancheri, Kochi. The beautiful synagogue was built in 1568 by descendants of the Spanish, Dutch and European Jews and is an important record of the continual presence of Jews in India, when they were persecuted elsewhere. It is also called the Paradesi synagogue and its crystal chandeliers and royal blueand white inlaid tiles speak of an era when we embraced the paradesi (foreigner) with our innate idea of ‘vasudeiva katumbakam’—the world is our family.

Give me my beloved country based on the idea of ahimsa,satyagraha and amazingly diverse living—back! This was not the tryst of destiny that my country was to awaken to—for whose freedom millions fought for—this is a nightmare.

It is time to redeem our pledge; India is not just a country. it is a civilisation that has been the refuge of people from diverse races and religions over the centuries.

Sagari Chhabra is an award-winning author and film-maker.

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