A few hours before the dramatic and fiery CAB debate in the Lok Sabha, I was chatting with an activist/professor (Indian), who lives in New York. This was at an event in Kolkata and the overall atmosphere was overheated with all sorts of opinions flying around. The prof seemed particularly agitated as she raised tricky issues not too many exhausted authors were in the mood to respond to — the lunch buffet was about to be removed and food for the stomach overruled food for thought.
Regardless, she tapped available shoulders and initiated conversations, which was pretty brave of her. I found it fascinating that she was quoting (almost exclusively), a small coteries of New York-based desi “intellectuals”, who meet regularly at one another’s homes to discuss the “India problem”. It was a familiar echo chamber — like-minded folks talking to each other, their brows furrowed, their voices subdued.
I asked her what she was most worried about right now, and she disappointed me with her predictable response. “We are deeply concerned about the future of India.” Honey, tell me something I don’t know! She talked about Trump and the rise of “fascist forces”, comparing the situation in America to what she and her friends believed was happening in India — the rise and rise and rise of right-wingers determined to destabilise and destroy the country. She was well meaning and earnest. But also, clueless. This was a schoolgirlish, textbook take on the current political establishment.
She talked about “exposing” the hugely successful West Coast techie desis who, she said, had funded “Howdy Mody” and earlier, his Madison Square Garden show. “So many of them are crooks out to make money by pretending to be working for a better India.” Perhaps. But what plans did her snooty pals in NYC have to counter these rogues? Start a new dialogue? Blank! I asked her whether she was ever coming back to India, and she shook her head. Then? Were her buddies going to return in the foreseeable future? Nope.
I have no problem with patriot games being played like parlour games. Provided I am receptive and in a more conducive setting, without one eye on the lunch buffet and another on the timing of my delayed sessions. Khair. En passant, I said to her that what was happening in Assam and to Assam was likely to change the future of India far more than any other development projected by the NYC gang (it reminded me of the Khan Market Gang in terms of their naiveté and ignorance). Assam has been transformed into the centre of India, metaphorically, in one stroke.
The Assam agitation will polarise India like no other political development since Independence. Here we are, bang in the middle of an uncomfortable and potentially dangerous situation that is forcing most of us to ask tough questions to which there are no plausible, jhatphat answers. The Lok Sabha passed the tricky citizenship bill 311-80 at midnight, with Amit Shah proclaiming, “NRC is coming”. This sounds even more ominous than I had anticipated. It is a dire warning to citizens, forcing political party leaders of other parties to ask valid questions. Saugata Roy (Trinamul Congress) wondered whatever happened to the “one law, one nation” declaration in the wake of the abrogation of Article 370. An impassioned and on-fire Asaduddin Owaisi (AIMIM) tore up papers, declaring dramatically, “It is a conspiracy to make Muslims stateless.” But that’s Owaisi. Anything more moderate coming from him would have been a major surprise.
Between these points of view, the scariest claim came from Amit Shah himself when he blandly stated what citizens had suspected and feared all along – we have gradually but surely surrendered all our rights. “ It ( the bill ) has the endorsement of 130 crore citizens as it was part of BJP’s manifesto in 2014 as well as 2019 Lok Sabha elections.” Really? How easy it is for Amit Shah to state something as exaggerated and misleading and insist he is speaking on behalf of 130 crore Indian citizens. I am also a citizen. A tiny speck , but a citizen of India nevertheless. Sure, I did not vote for the BJP. Does that make me a non-citizen? Is that the new criterion? Why is Amit Shah including me so glibly in his sweeping statement? There are many citizens like me – some who didn’t vote for the BJP and others who didn’t bother to vote at all. Does this mean we are now automatically downgraded by the State and do not enjoy the same rights as full-fledged, bonafide Indian citizens? What happened to the Constitution of India? Also downgraded? Is it still relevant after the passage of the prickly Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB)? How do I know in which light the State views people like me from this moment on? Can I still call myself a citizen of India and believe it? Gosh! It has come to this! And so quickly. After the ease with which the 311 members allowed the Bill to sail through, one wonders if this is merely a ‘let’s test the waters’ experiment, before the Constitution of India gets junked altogether. This is exactly what I had tried to convey to my NYC prof. The path to citizenship as outlined in the CAB, is open to interpretation and comes with horrifying implications. It sounds like a bill designed to exclude rather than include. No amount of justification can whitewash the obvious. What happens to me tomorrow, if, for example, I change my faith officially and move to another state — Assam, for example? My limited knowledge tells me, I’ll be considered dead meat . A traitor. From this moment on, we need to figure what we can and cannot take for granted as citizens of a democracy which promises each one of us the exact same rights. As of now, I am thoroughly confused. If I changed my name from Shobhaa to Shabana, would I be instantly relegated to being a second, maybe even third rung demi-citizen with severely curtailed rights? Amit Shah used the word “infiltrators”. “Infiltrators” is a loaded term. I am beginning to feel like an infiltrator in my own country. Must ask the NYC Gang what they feel like — aliens from another galaxy?