In The Beginning Was The Loaded Word

How can a human being be ‘illegal’? How the language of dehumanisation is fuelling the Assam crisis.

In The Beginning Was The Loaded Word
Sandipan Chatterjee
In The Beginning Was The Loaded Word

The main discourse in Assam today is of the children-of-the-soil being pitted against the so-called “illegal Bangladeshis”. The term, which is sadly gaining casual usage, is erroneous, not to mention pejorative. As a professional historian, I can confidently speak of the artificiality of the construct of “legal” and “illegal” people in India. And as an “ethnic Assamese”—a term coined by Sanjib Baruah, a well-known Assamese political scientist based in the US—I am horrified by the reckless display of violence to establish Assamese superiority.

Hiding behind the discourse of rights in “our home”, we want to deny others their basic rights as human beings. By referring to people who don’t share our religion or language as “illegal”, we are dehumanising them and ceasing to think of them as people like us. A human is condemned and reduced to nothingness by one word—“illegal”—implying that his very existence is criminal. Even the British did not refer to us, their colonised subjects, as “illegal”; they’d use all kind of names—‘thugs’, ‘badmashes’, ‘miscreants’ and ‘junglees’—but never “illegal”.

It’s a term not used in Indian constitutional or nationality law. The Indian Constitution, one of the finest documents, guarantees rights to all within the nation and is extremely benign toward non-citizens and foreigners. In India, citizenship is based on blood and not birth; but there’s a provision of naturalisation after 12 years of residence. It is ironic that political groups who stir up the “illegal immigrants” discourse have failed to educate people of their rights to become naturalised citizens. One must assume that the unwillingness to solve the problem by constitutional means is because it serves other purposes.

A similar “anti-illegal immigrant” situation prevails in Arizona, US, where I live. In 2010, Governor Jan Brewer signed a bill called SB1070. This bill gave law enforcement officers the power to stop, detain or arrest an individual they suspect is an illegal immigrant. Impetus for SB1070 is attributed to shifting demographics, leading to a larger Hispanic population, increased drugs-related violence and a struggling state economy. For two years, critics of the legislation tried to expose the corrupt practices that underlie the bill, claiming it encourages racial profiling and unlawful detention of people in prisons that are privately run and earn federal dollars for housing inmates. President Obama has publicly expressed concern that Arizona’s anti-immigration law may lead to racial profiling and even infringement of civil rights. The Arizona law is not dissimilar to one in Saudi Arabia, where all non-Saudis are expected to have on their person the resident permit or iqama. “One cannot even step out to throw garbage without carrying the iqama in case the Saudi police ask,” an Indian engineer who lived in Saudi Arabia once told me. Curiously, one cannot apply for an iqama without a Saudi sponsor. A foreigner living and working in Saudi Arabia is at the mercy of his sponsor. The bottomline on all these punitive anti-immigrant measures is an anti-human message. If Assam does not want to follow the example of Arizona and Saudi Arabia in dealing with their so-called “illegal immigrants”, it needs to rethink its own future.

The British had the choicest terms for Indian criminals—thugs, badmashes —but even they never referred to us as ‘illegals’, a term we now use loosely.

Historically speaking, India has been kind to strangers, outsiders and refugees. In doing research on the 1971 war, I found that East Pakistani Bengalis were encouraged to migrate during the violence,  leading to a “humanitarian crisis” within India. A large number of the Hindu refugees settled down in India, but the majority of the Muslim Bengalis returned to Bangladesh after the war. Although Bangladesh is not an Islamic country, the Bengali Muslims, being numerically larger, confidently claimed their place in their home country. In researching the 1947 partition of India, I came across a rich source of visual materials in the Red Cross International library in Geneva. The photographic evidence documents the settlement of multiple groups of Bengali “refugee” families in Guwahati in 1948. For the 1930s, there is a variety of archival material in India, Bangladesh, Geneva and London that tell the story of migration and resettlement of people from East Bengal to Assam. This was intentional on the part of the British rulers, who wanted to boost agricultural production. Sir Sadullah, who was then the premier of Assam, was happy to have government support to boost his electoral base. Throughout the 20th century, Assam continued to receive new waves of people who settled there due to a variety of reasons, including government policy, business, employment, and/or plain survival. These immigrants were not committing a criminal offence in seeking a better life. Assam’s ability to provide a safe and friendly place to the settlers made us a richer and better community. We showed concern for the plight of other human beings. But in present-day Assam, a person who speaks Bengali or professes another religion is targeted as an “illegal”. Our human development is on reverse. The peace that we are seeking in Assam cannot be earned by violence. We need to wake up to this understanding for our own sake, if we want to solve the threat to Assamese in Assam.

In the 1980s, the upsurge against the “illegal immigrants” led by the All Assam Students Union (AASU) culminated in the Assam accord in 1985. The accord proposed criminalising the presence of immigrants who came after 1971. However, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) (constituted by AASU leaders), who came into government after the election of 1986, failed to execute the task of documenting the immigrants.

Why? Politicians, whoever they are—AGP, Congress, BJP, AIUDF, Bodos and all others—owe the people of Assam and the rest of India an honest answer for their machinations. They have played too many games and fooled too many people. We had remained silent. But now they are manipulating the human condition, normalising brutality and horror, and dehumanising us. We must speak back to them and claim our due as human beings because human dignity is our right.

The people in Assam are angry. It is evident in the street protests and marches. But the Assamese people must also realise that we are part of a human community. As an immigrant myself, like many thousands of other Assamese, who live, work and enjoy rights as naturalised citizens in America, I am keenly aware of the “immigrant condition”. Many in Assam have their family and friends living here in America. They know about their relatives’ hard but fulfilling lives, and they are proud of their successes. Many of these naturalised Assamese-Americans, like other Indian-Americans, also enjoy the benefits assured to them as Persons of Indian Origin (PoI) and Overseas Indian Cards (OIC). Although, this is not equivalent to dual citizenship, holders of these cards are entitled to rights and benefits within India. In the US, the Assamese-Americans enjoy a wide range of rights. Every year, they gather together to celebrate Bihu. Assamese parents work hard to impart their language and culture to their American-born children. They try to arrange their marriages with Assamese partners. I would be appalled if tomorrow some of my White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) friends and neighbors denied me the right to speak Assamese or practice my religion with my community. It will be an infringement of my basic civil rights, a denial of my past, my heritage and my humanity. When Assamese people expect the right to enjoy their own culture and religion wherever they are, why should they think that others should relinquish their right to their culture and religion in Assam? If speaking in my own mother language, Assamese, with my parents and elders is considered good manners, why should I expect that Bengali children should speak to their parents and elders of their community in Assamese, and not in their own language, Bengali? We must want for others what we want for ourselves. That is a basic rule of human tolerance and accommodation.

The reckless use of the term “illegal” in Assam for some groups of people is belied by the complexity of our linguistic chauvinism and a sense of threat, a sense that the future is bleak. These fears make us take recourse to violence, which Assamese, as a community, otherwise abhor. My mother used to say, “The Assamese will never be violent if we remember that our religio-cultural foundation rests on Sankardeva and Azan Pir. Both of them were proponents of the dignity and love that binds people together.” I continue to believe in my mother’s conviction that the Assamese are not a violent people and that we will not turn to violence to resolve our problems. Like my mother, another human voice, Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner, states it categorically, “No human being is illegal.” We should take care to recognise this ideal. One person cannot decide the legality of another person’s existence. People are not things that can be labelled, categorised and disposed of. We have to find humane ways that uphold ours and others’ human dignity to resolve difficult and critical issues of living together and side-by-side.

(The writer is Hardt-Nickachos Chair in Peace Studies and professor of history at Arizona State University.)

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