Citizenship Bill: I Am An Indian Bengali from Assam & I Am Scared
(Disclaimer: Tridip K Mandal is a creative director with The Quint with roots in Assam and Shillong. His name featured in the completed draft NRC. He has written this blog in his personal capacity, and not as a journalistic piece.)
Some Memories Never Fade Away...
Winters are particularly harsh in Shillong. So every winter for almost 2 months, my family would travel to the plains in Assam, to our hometown in Nagaon.
At the end of one such winter break, in February 1983, my family and I were travelling back to Shillong. But this time, the Assam State Transport bus we were travelling in had cops in it. A police escort accompanied the bus as it sped through Nellie. All the shops and markets were shut, there was not a single soul on the road.
Back then I had no idea why the roads looked so deserted that day.
It was only when I grew up that I came to know that we passed through Nellie during a curfew. Just a few days earlier, one of the worst massacres in Indian history had taken place there. Almost 2,000 Bengali-speaking-Muslims were killed in Nellie on 18 February 1983. This was at the peak of the Assam agitation.
A Bengali in Shillong
I have always thought of myself as a Shillong boy. I was born there and lived there for almost 23 years, through the tumultuous 80s and the relatively peaceful 90s. But throughout, I could always feel a deep sense of divide and mistrust between the indigenous tribal communities and the non-tribals, particularly the Bengalis.
Sometimes it took a violent turn.
In the late 80s, Shillong burned for months. Curfews were normal with just few hours of relaxation when people could buy essential supplies. Some areas in Shillong like Jail Road, Laban were identified as Bengali ghettos. Bengalis hardly ventured into areas dominated by the Khasis. We were used to street fights and everyday college rivalry between the two communities.
But by the late 90s, Shillong had dramatically transformed. This was post-liberalisation India. Perhaps there were more jobs, more money... but for whatever reason, suddenly the hostility was not so obvious. No major violent incident happened, barring few scuffles in colleges between the tribals and non-tribals.
Television Unites Us All
Andheri Sports Club, Mumbai
It was the grand finale of Zee’s iconic show ‘Sa re ga ma pa’. I was in the audience watching the show LIVE as Debojit Saha from Assam became the first contestant from the Northeast to win this show. The winner was decided by the number of SMS votes that the audience sent in. The whole of the Northeast voted for him. No one cared that he was a Bengali from Silchar in Assam, for them he was a Northeastern boy competing against a participant from mainland India, and the whole of the Northeast came together and made him a winner.
Then came two more TV shows, Indian Idol and India’s Got Talent.
Khasis, Bengalis, Jaintias, Garos, Assamese – they all came together with just one mission, to make two talented acts from Shillong win these reality shows.
Shillong Chamber Choir and Indian Idol participant Amit Paul played a key role in bridging the divide between communities in Shillong. Finally, communities were voting and living together without any animosity or mistrust. It seemed that the Khasis have finally accepted that the non-tribals and Bengalis are a part of Meghalaya.
From the mid-2000s, tourism picked up in the region. The locals were busier than before, they had more earning opportunities, more spending power. There was no space for violence or to indulge in divisive politics.
Citizenship Bill has Undone Everything
What the idiot box and the talent shows managed to achieve has been undone by the Citizenship Amendment Bill pushed forward by the BJP-led central government.
This Bill has ended up harming the Bengalis instead, they have made them more vulnerable to violence and racism in the Northeast and Assam. Most of these Bengalis are bona-fide Indians like me. My ancestors were from Mymensingh in Bangladesh which was part of undivided India till 1947. My grandfather moved to the Brahmaputra valley around 1920s when the British wanted these dense forested regions to be populated.
My father’s name is in the 1952 voters list. This is the record I used to prove my Indian citizenship in the recently conducted National Register of Citizens (NRC) exercise.
NRC: A Wasted Exercise?
On 31 August 2019, the final NRC list was released. Out of the 3.29 applicants, about 3.11 crore made it to the final list. I was one of them, so was my mom and daughter. More than 19 lakh people didn't make it to the final list. They still have to prove that they are Indians by approaching one of the foreigners tribunals in Assam. My wife belongs to this category. She's an Indian without all the requisite documents for NRC. Will she now need to prove that she's a Bangladeshi migrant to claim her Indian citizenship?
The Citizenship Amendment Bill has diluted the whole purpose of NRC, which was to find out illegal migrants living in Assam. It would have identified and detected them without any religious bias. Any person, be it Hindu, Muslim, Christian or from any other religion – if they couldn’t prove that they were in Assam before 25 March 1971 – they would have been declared as illegal migrants.
The NRC exercise cost the exchequer more than Rs 1,200 crore and over 60,000 personnel worked on it. The Citizenship Bill has made the whole NRC process a meaningless exercise, a waste of taxpayers’ money.
The BJP-led Government of India is playing with fire with this Bill.
The whole of Northeast India will burn – what will be left are the ashes of bona fide Indian Bengalis living in Assam and the rest of the Northeast.
(This blog was first published on 25 January 2019. It has been reposted from The Quint’s archives with an update reflecting on the recent developments concerning the Citizenship Amendment Bill).
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