My classmate at Jadavpur University in Kolkata, Saraswati Narayan, who went by the pet name Chachu, asked me, “Are you from Bangladesh?”
“Where are you from?” I ask her.
“We are from south India.”
She didn’t say, “Indian”. Which means, Saraswati Narayan’s identity was of a south Indian.
She was from Kolkata, but her family was internally displaced, in a manner of speaking. Her father had moved there for professional reasons. Maybe, one day, he’d go to some other city. But their identity would always be “from down south.”
People from different parts of India live in other parts to work or do business. In a sense, they are homeless too. They identify themselves as belonging to some state — “I am from that state”; “I am a Bengali, a Bihari, a Punjabi, an Odiya”. This is their identity even though they are citizens of India. Maybe, one day, they would return to their land, each to his home. In that sense, they are not unmoored. But their main identity is regional.
I first became acquainted with the term “refugee” in the Fifties. I had come from Pabna to Dhaka. The Mirpur region of Dhaka, the capital of East Pakistan, and Santahar in north Bengal’s Dinajpur district were home to refugees from two areas of Rangpur.
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These “refugees” came from Bihar to East Pakistan after the Partition in 1947. They were Muslim. Most of them had lived in Kolkata’s Howrah.
We knew them as “Biharis”. They also identified themselves as “Bihari Muslims”. They never used the term “refugee”, the way the Bengali Muslims from West Bengal never used the term after the August 1947 Partition. The reason they didn’t was because they were Bengalis, and Muslim ones at that. They were part of the same cultural and religious tradition. It was almost like a division of land and property among brothers and acquaintances.
I have been homeless since 1947, in exile in Kolkata, and, by extension, in India. No one asked me if I was a refugee in Kolkata, having come from Bangladesh. Because no Bangladeshi Muslim has ever identified himself as a refugee in Kolkata. But, I have had to hear other things after the Partition, from those coming from East Pakistan (“East Bengal”, to them) to West Bengal or India. They say, “We are refugees”. This identity is now at an ebb, thanks to the new generation. But their grandfathers and parents still say it with pride, “Our roots lie in East Bengal.”
February, 1979. Zia-ur-Rehman confiscated my passport through the embassy in Kolkata. There’s a long back story to it, we can return to it some other time. I lived in India till July 27, 1987 without a passport. My Bangladeshi identity wasn’t stamped on my countenance. I was an invited guest in various parts of India, at poetry reading sessions and lectures. All my expenses, including tickets, stay and food, were taken care of. I travelled across Mizoram, Nagaland, Assam, Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh, Kashmir, and even Nepal without a passport. No one asked me if I was Indian. My skin tone was Indian enough.
The trouble began when I asked for Indian citizenship. I don’t know what madness had taken hold of me for me to have written to the centre — to the home ministry.
It was rejected immediately. Not just that, I was ordered to leave India within a month. In fact, it wasn’t just an instruction. Under orders from the home ministry (the same order was sent to the home department of the West Bengal government too), my flat was surrounded by eight policemen with vans. I informed Annada Shankar Ray (the poet, author and ICS officer) about the incident. I had been living in his house for 13 years. He called up the concerned departments in Delhi and Kolkata to ask about me. “Oh really, is that it?”
Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, journalist (Frontier)-poet Samar Sen, Jnanpith award-winner Mahasweta Devi, Magsaysay award-winner journalist-writer Gourkishore Ghosh and Annada Shankar Ray took up the case for Daud Haider. MJ Akbar wrote an article under his byline protesting my deportation. It created a nationwide stir. West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu became proactive. There were debates in Parliament. Parliamentarian Indrajit Gupta raised questions. Minister of state, home affairs, Ram Dulari Sinha gave an assurance, “Daud Haider will be allowed to stay back in India.”
There wasn’t much certainty in that promise. In the meantime, UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) became involved. The incident created a stir across the world. Günter Grass became a part of it. Not just him, Susan Sontag led a petition by 2,000 American writers and wrote to the Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi demanding security for Daud Haider.
The incident assumed such proportions that Daud was no longer under the Indian government. Daud moved to Europe, to Germany. His life as a refugee began there. The first step in this life was with a passport from the UN. I had to write at the beginning of that life:
“Even I don’t have a home, only a journey towards one,
Wherever I go, the dusty winds of twilight blow.”
The meaning of homelessness is to be without a home, without a nation. It’s known in the German language as “Heimatlos (a person without a state)”. Whenever they see foreigners now, Germans say, “asyl, auslander (asylum-seeker, foreigner)”. Meaning, refugees without nations. Meaning, non-whites.
In the last two years, more than 2.5 million flüchtlinge (refugees) have sought refuge in Germany. About 1.2 million have made their homes here. All foreigners, even if they have been awarded citizenship. On trams and buses, trains and streets, in good times and bad, “Auslander” is now a term of abuse. It wasn’t so pronounced earlier. In this culture of not being, all foreigners are exhausted.
In the time after World War II, Germany has the highest number of refugees. They don’t call white people from eastern Europe asyl or auslander. Even Turks are not addressed by the term. They are known as gastarbeiter or guest workers.
Taken in as a poet in exile. Respected. Living in Germany since 1987. Now, the Germans are saying auslander, flüchtlinge. That’s our identity. All this talk about global citizenship is just a lot of vapid talk.
Refugees are always eager to return to their homes, to their lands. But it’s nearly impossible in today’s world. I wrote a poem recently on the identity of the global human:
My village is the five continents
No stopping anywhere. The lifelong refugee,
I have forgotten the arc of my stars
And have chosen the habitation of the refugee.
Maps are complicated here, the races many
Slowly forgetting the songs of home
They shall forget the perfume of the earth, like the refugee forgets
Come, humankind, let us live together under the black veil.
I am no longer a world citizen, nor a writer in exile. In the last two years, I have felt, “Ich bin nicht exil schriftsteller.” I am not an exile writer. I am a refugee, my features are clear, distinct.