This week, a story was reported about a temple in Varanasi, which had been inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi. The temple’s unique feature was a marble “map” — I suppose the reporter meant a bas-relief — of undivided India. The bits that are today Bangladesh and Pakistan and places farther afield were included in this particular depiction of Bharat Mata. The temple was in a state of some disrepair but was hopeful of landing funding from one of the many schemes that have been launched to “beautify” Varanasi (assuming such a thing is actually possible — I have visited it and have my doubts).
Also this week, a Bharatiya Janata Party legislator said that those who did not figure in the National Registry of Citizens compiled in Assam should be shot if they didn’t return to “their” country, meaning Bangladesh. That pretty much summarises the paradox of our nationalism. We are fascinated by the idea of Akhand Bharat, but we are disgusted by its actual contents. We covet the land, but don’t know what to do with its people.
There has been no sympathy, from any party it must be said, and one has long lost faith in the media, for those individuals who, wherever they may have come from, are today in India and think themselves Indian. The casualness with which we have embarked on this magnificent exercise in disenfranchisement is breathtaking. The first assumption is that it is easy to prove one’s identity in this country. Those who have had to make a passport know how tough this actually is.
Illustration by Binay Sinha
I’m an individual of privilege in many ways, including having the ability to ring up or have people ring up chiefs of police to help out with the verification that passports require. Even for me the process is an absolute nightmare and I am terrified by the thought of going through it each time the blank leaves in the booklet begin to run out.
What must be the lot in such a place of those who are poor and weak and illiterate asked to produce documentation? It is the people like us who have a passport, and a few years ago the government said that only over 5 per cent of all Indians had a passport. Even assuming that this figure has doubled, it means that 9 out of 10 of us do not have one and must rely on some other document to demonstrate our citizenship.
And in Assam it’s doubly difficult because of the cut-off date, of almost five decades ago, that must determine one’s ancestral citizenship. How does one prove to a state that is inherently suspicious and is today also malicious, one’s bona fides? The amount of trauma this must have produced and continues to produce is heartbreaking, but fortunately for us, we can look away because the focus is on what an absolute triumph the exercise has been against the “illegal immigrant”.
And it’s not even as if the state needs to be malicious, its inherent incompetence and weaknesses arising from a lack of resources, will put paid to the thought that the registry will be painless. Further, BJP legislators asking that Muslims be shot — and let us be honest, this is what he means — are not even needed to stir this pot. It is already on the boil. Individuals in the party, including one man currently in the Rajya Sabha, have publicly floated the idea of universal Muslim disenfranchisement before so we must examine the goings-on in that light.
The Citizenship Amendment Bill, which deliberately discriminates against Muslims, presumably for the crimes, real and imagined, of their ancestors is also part of this mix in Assam.
Minister of State in the External Affairs Ministry, M J Akbar, recounted this story once about Partition. His father opted for Pakistan (East Pakistan, today Bangladesh) but returned after some time. Mr Akbar asked him later why and the old man replied “Wahan bohat mussalmaan thay (There were too many Muslims there)”. I think what he meant was that he preferred the more mixed culture of West Bengal. What space do we have today for someone like him when we neatly line people up on the basis of the faith of their birth? None.
For now, having been struck off the register, people are assured that they will be given every chance of proving themselves innocent, but for now the 4 million are effectively guilty of being “illegal”.
There is talk of sending people, including Rohingya refugees “back”. How? Where? Are Bangladesh and Burma willing? What happens till such time as that happens? Are we prepared to house millions of people in internment camps for no crime? Do we have the money to do this even if we have the will? Do we even have the capacity to round them up? These are questions that are not being debated seriously, and so far as I know, not even being asked.
Why does it require the Supreme Court to say that no coercive action should be taken against the 4 million? The reason of course is that there is the real possibility that the state will do something reckless as is its wont in our times to do.
The fact is that whichever part of Akhand Bharat their distant ancestry may be from, those demonstrably born here, and even those whose parents were born here, can have their Indian citizenship taken away. The ease with which this has happened without resistance from the rest of us is to me deeply disappointing but not surprising.
Science teaches us that the origin of the homo sapiens species is in Ethiopia’s Rift Valley. I wonder when the call will come for all of us to be sent back where we came from.