Between Faith and Panic

By Sahana Ghosh

Shiva says to Parvati/Durga: The NRC papers are in the bag. If there is trouble, tell Didi [Mamata Banerjee, the Chief Minister of West Bengal, who staunchly protested the BJP-campaign for implementing the NRC in West Bengal]. This cartoon appeared in the Uttar Banga Sangbad, the largest circulating daily in northern West Bengal on Oct. 4, 2019, on the first day of Durga Pujo, the biggest annual Hindu religious event.

In Cooch Behar in 2019, as queues became visible outside government offices, the news of some people verifying their government-issued documents became newsworthy, spreading like wildfire. Everyone’s worst nightmares rustled of paper (kagojer atonko) in those days. Following the publication of Assam’s National Register of Citizens (NRC) on August 31st 2019, discussions of the imminence of similar processes and exclusions reached a crescendo in the eastern state of West Bengal, especially in its borderlands adjoining Bangladesh. The rumor was that the NRC had started in West Bengal. “NRC chaloo hoyechhe:”  with simply a tonal variation, this sentence in Bengali—”the NRC has started”—swayed between a question and a statement. Even as government officials, local journalists, and educated youth in border towns and villages tried to assure the panicking public that it had not actually started, most concurred that even if the NRC had not yet started, the only way to calm their household and collective nerves was to cross-check the existing records. Amid a profusion of identificatory documents, the order of importance of records was intensely debated: some targeted land records, some wanted to check voter and census lists before 1971.[1] There were many who had folders of all their documents and wanted to correct details on one in order to make them all consistent.[2] The urgency driving the process was striking. It was as much a question of time as substance: jolting citizens into a new temporal relation with the state, people wanted to get to the state’s documents before they were brought up by them. The NRC engenders panic even among those putatively recognized as citizens.

West Bengal shares half of India’s 4,096 km long border with Bangladesh. Given that the detection of “foreigners” has become synonymous with “Bangladeshi,” residents of India’s eastern borderlands with cross-border ties and migrant histories have cause for concern. Coochbehar district in the north of the state lies stretched along the Bangladesh border, with the variously “friendly” borders with Nepal and Bhutan also nearby.[3] For several days in September and October, thousands across the state queued outside various government offices to verify their names on records, predominantly on voter and census lists predating 1971. The fear of the NRC and its exclusions has been especially pronounced in the districts of northern Bengal, such as Jalpaiguri and Coochbehar, as may be gleaned from allegedly NRC-related suicides. Residents of this region—whether lower-caste Hindu, Muslim, or tribal—have kinship ties across lower Assam and know intimately how the poor suffer the tremendous cost of this “infinite search” for the illegal migrant, as I have termed it elsewhere.[4]

Rajbangshi Hindus have steadily migrated from Bangladesh to settle in India’s eastern borderlands since 1971, the cut-off date after which India considers all migrants to be “illegal.” Over the decades, their clandestine migration and resettlement in India has been premised on their imagined community as Hindus, with citizenship of what they perceive to be a Hindu homeland. This faith is not only a deep religious identification but a belief in a recognition that is legitimate and due, be that socially from neighbors in the areas in which they settle, or bureaucratically, from the Indian state. In their experience of becoming documented citizens, the two have been closely related.[5] Relying on the sympathy of other Hindus, be they Rajbangshi or upper caste, these migrants have gradually built up a documentary record where none existed: residence certificates from the panchayat pradhan, then a ration card, then lining up the documents necessary to get a voter identity card and so on. Resettlement as citizens in India did not come as a watershed of before/after, funneled through a bounded bureaucratic arrival to accompany their physical presence. Anchored by faith in their place in the polity as citizens, Hindu migrant families have lived a slow and gradual tempo in the acquisition of documents.

Many of the Rajbangshi Hindu families represented in the queues that formed in panic during September and October in 2019 are the purported beneficiaries of the CAA.[6] This is also the demographic that came together in the national elections of 2019 to shape the Hindutva-sponsored resurgence of Rajbangshi cultural nationalism across northern Bengal and to provide electoral victories for the BJP. But just as they are wary of being left out of the NRC, should it be undertaken in West Bengal, they are not persuaded that the CAA will protect them.[7] After all, to come under the purview of the CAA to be granted citizenship, they have to out themselves as clandestine border-crossers fleeing religious persecution. Given that they have invested extensive bureaucratic and social efforts into establishing their identities as citizens and none into a history/record of persecution in Bangladesh, this demands a radical reimagination of their self-fashioning – now over a generation – both to the state and within their social worlds.[8]

Outside the colonial red-brick building of the Sub-Divisional Magistrate’s office in the border town of Dinhata, the wait to check documents was so long that people brought bedsheets and mosquito nets to queue up overnight. Most of these men, old and young, Hindus and Muslims, live in the hundreds of villages that dot the serpentine border of paddy fields. As I learned from a friend in one of these border villages, where I have been conducting ethnographic research since 2011, these queues become crucial channels of information. People aired the rumors they were privy to, shared the solutions of which they had been advised. It is in the nooks and bends of the line, as it turned a corner, curved around a roadside shrine, went up on the pavement, that Hindus and Muslims agreed: as borderland residents heavily surveilled by the Indian security state they all knew firsthand that no one was surely safe from this “paper monster”.[9]

The SDO’s office shares its complex with the district court. On any given week day, the bustle of typists, vendors selling stationary and snacks, lawyers, and members of the public with business in the courts or in the SDO’s office, filled up the space of the complex, pushing at its moss-covered walls. There was no space here for this new crowd of uncertainty: local officials redirected the public to check records online or to visit the district headquarters in Cooch Behar.[10] Most people wanted to see with their own eyes that their names and those of their family members—wives and mothers especially, since the NRC had proved to be viciously exclusionary for women—were present on the census and the electoral lists. Yet others wanted simply to check the spellings and addresses on these lists against those on the physical ID cards that they carried. A friend, who frequently worked as local staff in census and electoral rolls exercises, joked that this was the best news in a long time for the educated and unemployed young men in the border villages. With a laptop and an internet connection they set up shop in the bazars, offering services such as verifying names on electoral records or submitting corrections to Aadhar cards. Panic is good business and even Hindus faithful to the Hindutva state were in the market for reassurance.

The gradual tempo of Rajbangshi Hindu families’ acquisition of documents should not be mistaken for the lack of urgency. As India has increasingly militarized its side of the border with Bangladesh, particularly to guard against the influx of “illegal immigrants”, these densely populated agrarian borderlands have been saturated with a range of policing and surveillance practices. All residents of these borderlands are thus acutely aware of the importance of documents even as they experience the profound unreliability of such identificatory regimes on a daily basis. If waiting is the rhythm of bureaucratic violence that marginalized citizens endure and shutdown, the beat of the occupied, what is the tempo, the pace of this suspension between faith and panic, between being an included majoritarian member and a suspected foreigner?

For the Hindu migrants of northern Bengal, two paths of action await: the slow and unsteady course of faith or the unsteady ebb and flow of panic.

Sahana Ghosh is a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies, Harvard University. She studies the intersections of gender, mobility, borders, and national security in South Asia. Her book-in-progress explores questions of value, space, and gender, as it charts the making and militarization of the agrarian borderlands between India and Bangladesh.

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Natasha Raheja and Syantani Chatterjee for their editorial guidance and anonymous reviewers whose careful engagement raised questions that far exceed the scope of this essay. I am grateful to Akkas Ali and Lalita Barman for their input and ongoing discussions.

Notes

[1] See Tarangini Sriraman, In Pursuit of Proof: A History of Identification Documents in India, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2018, for a historical ethnography of such regimes of documentary citizenship.

[2] It has been widely reported that in Assam’s NRC, a large number of exclusions and listing in the dreaded “D” (doubtful) category resulted from inconsistencies or errors in spelling across different documents. See Ipsita Chakravarty and Arunabh Saikia, “The Final Count”, an archive tracking the NRC in Assam. Such stories also carried across kinship and religious networks across the region stirred up great anxieties in West Bengal. For example, in December, an Islamic community group that typically organizes religious sermons and gatherings in the winter, organized a jalsha (tradition of live performances in rural areas) to guide folks on getting their documents in order. Thanks to Abu Kalam for alerting me to this.

[3] The India-Nepal Friendship Treaty of 1952 governs this open border and mobility across the two notably Hindu-dominated sides raises little question in contrast to the paranoia around the “illegal immigrant” with which Hindutva seeks to reframe India’s officially “friendly” border with Bangladesh in increasingly religious terms.

[4] Sahana Ghosh, “’Everything must match’: Detection, deception, and migrant illegality in the India-Bangladesh borderlands”, American Anthropologist, 2019, 121: 4, pp 870-883.

[5] I write about this history, in the larger and longer context of migration histories across this border, in my book-in-progress.

[6] Rajbangshis are the second-most numerous Scheduled Caste group in West Bengal. An ethnic group that has historically lived in the region of northern Bengal spanning what is now eastern Nepal, southern Bhutan, lower Assam and northern Bangladesh. For a social history of the Rajbangshis in the 19th and 20th centuries, see Madhab Chandra Adhikary, Identity Crisis: A Study of the Rajbanshis of North Eastern India, 1891-1979, Aayu Publications, 2015.

[7] Numerous Hindu Rajbangshis who have migrated from East Pakistan/Bangladesh both before and after 1971 expressed these anxieties to me about themselves over phone calls. Still others shared memes and news reports about the vulnerability of Hindus that stemmed from the experience in Assam over WhatsApp messages.

[8] Sahana Ghosh, Chapter 2 in “Borderland Orders: Mobility and Security across the India-Bangladesh borderlands”, unpublished dissertation, Yale University, 2018.

[9] Nayanika Mathur has written extensively about the surfeits of paper and bureaucracy, see, e.g. “Transparent-making Documents and the Crisis of Implementation”, Political and Legal Anthropology, 2012, 35: 2, pp 167-185.

[10] In the District Magistrate’s office in Cooch Behar people were reminded of the fire of 1974 which had destroyed most land records and lists such as older electoral rolls and were advised to go to the West Bengal State Archives in Kolkata if they sought those particular records.

 

About Jennifer Curtis

Jennifer Curtis is an Honorary Fellow in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh: http://www.sps.ed.ac.uk/staff/social_anthropology/curtis_jennifer.

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