Turmoil, mental anguish and a sea of insecurity has been unleashed by the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam. The earlier document had 4 million out of the list; as families were bifurcated, a few people committed suicide.
Now the latest list has declared 1.9 million out of the NRC. These are a lot of people to make fearful and insecure. Detention camps have been set up to house ‘illegal immigrants’ and they have rightly been called ‘concentration camps’ because of their awful conditions.
Besides, how do you take away a human being from his family and keep him in a ‘camp’ for not committing any crime, except for the fact that his name is not on a list? Is it not extraordinary to ask poor people who live in an area that is frequently flooded to produce documents such as a birth certificate or their parents’ birth certificates?
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Himanta Biswa Sarma, who is Assam’s Finance Minister, says that the border police can stop anyone and probe “questionable documents”. You can imagine what this means to poor people, particularly women, who can be subjected to sexual harassment.
It would be appropriate to share with you, gentle reader, that I started researching and recording oral testimonies of surviving freedom fighters many years ago. In this context, I visited Myanmar to locate and record the surviving freedom fighters of India—those who had worked in the Indian National Army (INA) under Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.
To my horror, I found that several of India’s freedom fighters were stateless and existed under a Foreigners Registration Certificate, which they had to get renewed annually. They had no right to a proper job or to buy and sell property. Nor could they travel from one district to another within Myanmar without permission from the authorities.
I met Chinnaya who lived in a hovel and was blind with poverty. His home in Yangon was across a water-logged path with tin cans fashioned into a walkway and his hut was covered with gunny sacks and plastic bags to keep him and his wife and son safe from the pouring rain. As he sang the INA national anthem, ‘Sukh chain ki barkha barse’, I had tears rolling down my cheeks and felt grateful for the moment that he was unable to see my shame.
I met Perumal who had also been with the INA and also was without citizenship, as were his children and grandchildren. He was so poor that he could not even buy a Tamil newspaper. That is the state of statelessness.
Despite having fought for the freedom of India, the freedom fighters of India had no citizenship of any country. They, however, did not wish to move from where they were, as their children and grandchildren were in Myanmar. They wanted the issue of citizenship to be addressed.
There are over 4,00,000 stateless people of Indian origin living in Myanmar, according to a report prepared by the late LM Singhvi, Rajya Sabha member and chairman of the High Powered Committee on Indian Diaspora. They are impoverished and have no voice as they are without citizenship. This is what the military junta of Myanmar did with the people of Indian origin and our government looked the other way. Now we are proceeding to do the same, for no other country is prepared to take people excluded by Assam’s NRC either. Besides, who would wish to leave their family behind, for home is where the heart is.
But wait a minute, many not on this list are Hindu migrants. Now that indeed is a glitch in the seamless metamorphosis of India. The Citizenship Amendment Bill passed by the earlier Lok Sabha but defeated at the Rajya Sabha states that the Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and Parsis from our neighbouring countries— Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan—can apply for citizenship. Please note that it blithely does not even mention Muslims.
So perhaps, the pain, anxiety and confusion of the NRC will be bypassed by an even more serious sock to our constitutional stomachs?
After receiving a brute majority the BJP-led government has showed its muscular abilities in Kashmir. Political leaders have been locked up along with the people and the press still does not have access to the Valley. Gentle reader, do you wish to reel further?
The Citizenship Amendment Bill could possibly be passed in the coming session. Quite simply, abrogating the vision of our founding mothers and fathers of India being a country that would house people of all religions and diverse opinions.
For, after all, was not that plural, tolerant vision of fraternity but just a special status?
Meanwhile the Convention of Democratic Rights was disrupted on 1 September by right wing rowdies who objected to ideas being debated, peacefully. The venue was changed.
Is it not debilitating to the health of our democracy that contentious issues cannot be discussed in the capital city of Delhi by journalists, lawyers, academics and social activists? The democratic space is shrinking and soon there will be no place left where discussions can take place. Only, gentle reader, how many detention centres will they set up?
Meanwhile, Medha Patkar—whose fast for the rights of the people of the Narmada Valley who are being displaced by the dam entered its ninth day—has been persuaded to call off her fast on the assurance that the issues raised by the displaced people will be looked into. This non-violent struggle has been going on for three decades. I first met Patkar along with the venerable social activist Baba Amte at Harsud in Madhya Pradesh. Along with 50,000 others, Patkar and Amte were trying to save that little town with an ancient temple and a way of life. However, Harsud drowned.
Patkar’s health has become precarious, but what is happening is large scale displacement of our own people and the values by which the people of India have always lived.
The health of our democracy, gentle reader, has become precarious. Let us not drown out the voices of our own people, for they are precious. It is what makes India not just a country but a civilisation.
Sagari Chhabra is an award-winning author and film director. Views are personal.