[This was written sometime in end-September, 2012]
As debates over Assam riots in August, 2012 increasingly got a communal hue, some of our well-meaning media experts averred that the issue was never communal in the first place. Rather, they affirmed that the conflict must be viewed in its proper context – Indians versus the illegal immigrants. To put it bluntly, these illegal immigrants denoted the Bangladeshis, who supposedly had clandestinely, and often not so clandestinely, crossed over the porous border in the North East.
Some had voiced legitimate concerns about how these riot-affected people could possibly prove their identity as Indian citizens. When ‘Bangladeshi’ has become the new code word for exclusion, how could even a legitimate citizen prove her/his identity? Could any amount of paper and plastic – e.g. the much touted aadhar card – prove one’s citizenship if the government agencies chose to ignore them? Now that almost three months have elapsed since those tumultuous events severely tested Indian polity, I would like to offer a personal story of state-sponsored identity-crisis as a counterpoint to some of the hypothetical, rhetorical, and legal debates. This story is offered NOT as an instance of victimization but as an instance of crisis of engagement with the secular, democratic state from an individual’s perspective, which might be overlooked from the vantage point of a theoretical understanding of the Indian state.
I joined Kurseong College in the Darjeeling hills as a Lecturer-in-English in 2002. The interview for the job was conducted by the West Bengal College Service Commission (WBCSC) in Calcutta and I was recommended for appointment in Kurseong College after about six months. At the time, I was conducting research on Partition (1947) literature at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. I left my doctoral research mid-way and decided to plunge into teaching.
I was born in Kotulpur, which is part of Bankura district in South Bengal. Even though I was born there, I had spent only a few years there. As is the practice with most rural families who want to see their children educated, my parents sent me off to a boarding school run by Ramakrishna Mission on the outskirts of Calcutta. From then on I lived in Calcutta, Burdwan, Hyderabad, and Delhi for my education. Thus, when I landed in Kurseong, I was certain that it was merely a temporary arrangement before I managed a transfer to a college near Calcutta or move to another job in another college or, better still, in a university.
As it often happens with teaching jobs in India, one feels a sense of stagnation teaching endlessly the same university-determined courses year after year. In addition, there is inadequate research infrastructure in the colleges located away from the city. It was late 2005 when I decided to apply to a few North American universities to complete my doctoral study. Instead of putting in a passport application in Bankura Regional Passport office, I decided to submit it at the Siliguri office as I thought it will be easy for getting the police verification done. I received a phone call from the local police station within a couple of months. On the day of appointment, I carried all my documents including voter identity card, ration card, PAN card, college appointment letter, and a letter from my college Principal. Even before verifying any of my documents, the inspector stunned me with a strange question: Are you a Bangladeshi?
I was at a complete loss for words and lost my sense of composure for a few seconds. I failed to understand how an officer could ask me such a question when I had all the relevant documents to prove my Indian citizenship. In addition, all my documents had already been verified by the West Bengal government before regularizing my service and putting me on the payroll. I took the officer’s question as a hint of seeking a favor and, I must admit without hesitation, I handed him some money, as some of my friends had suggested this to be a common practice during police verification. The matter ended there and the officer promised to send the documents to Calcutta office which was supposed to issue my passport.
I waited expectantly. When it was about six months, I became a little restless as the usual time-frame for issue of a passport was about six-months at the time. When it was about a year and there was no trace of my passport, which was supposed to be delivered at home by post, I decided to enquire at the Calcutta office. To my horror, I found that the space for citizenship verification had been kept blank in my police verification report. The report neither confirmed nor denied my status as an Indian citizen. The officer in Calcutta office suggested that I approach the Bankura office to get my police verification done. It took me another six months to get the passport from Calcutta. But not before I was asked to grease the palm of the officer in Calcutta quite generously. I had no other option as I had already registered for my TOEFL exam in early 2007.
When people speak of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, I am reminded of my engagement with a secular, democratic state at a time when the leftist government ruled. Even if the Assamese Muslims were Indian who settled in the Bodo administered territory, would any amount of proof serve to uphold their citizenship? If a tax-paying citizen on the government payroll could be denied his Indian citizenship so easily, what chance do many of these daily wage earners have?
Once ‘Pakistani’ used to be the code-word for suspension of Indian Muslims’ claim to natural citizenship. The new code-word seems to be ‘Bangladeshi’.