The passport is red, not the familiar inky-blue. Inside, on a yellowing page, the photograph of a boy, fresh-faced and unrecognisable: my father. On its cover, below the insignia of the Ashoka Chakra is written: “India-Pakistan passport (east zone)”. That hyphen is unusual. It is not quite barbed wire between antagonist countries, being on a document meant to help hop borders. I imagine it as a narrowing path, one my father and his brothers took often in the years following 1947, from an old country to new, from India to East Pakistan — and back. Till they could do no more.
As in the north, so in the east. Partition had drawn a line through homesteads and belongings. My grandfather remained on the other side in Mongolpur village, Sylhet, adamantly rooted to the land of his birth. The sons, some of whom had travelled a few hundred kilometres to find work in the tea estates built by the British, suddenly found themselves in another country, with different destinies. Even after Partition, it was possible to travel through those checkposts with some paperwork. In the early 1950s, the first of these passports began to be issued — congealing an older, fluid cartography, turning desh and tribal homelands into nations, or even antagonistic provinces.
Before the July 1947 referendum which awarded it to Pakistan, the populous Sylhet division, famous for its tea gardens, was a part of Assam. In the run-up to the referendum, Assam’s leaders, wary of Bengali dominance, had made it amply clear: colonial ambitions of greater revenue in the 19th century might have led the British to attach the Bengali-majority division to Assam, but they were happy to see it parcelled off. Most of it was, except the fragment of the Barak Valley. Today, its edge, the town of Karimganj, in whose slushy fields my father played football barefeet, dips its toes into the Kushiara river. Across the waters, lies Sylhet.
But the idea of a new nation, of citizenship, is an upstart compared to the stubbornness of old ties. And so, my father and his brothers returned often, to meet their father and family, many unconvinced of the need to transplant themselves — even if waves of Hindu-Muslim riots continued to send Hindus across the border.
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Off they would go, on the train to Pakistan. To Mahisasan, the railway station on the Indian side, and then over to Latu, cheek-by-jowl, but a foreign land. These trips petered off by 1959. When the sons would not return, the father came visiting — on a Pakistani passport. On his last visit to Karimganj, my grandfather grew anxious about returning, even as he was surrounded by his children. He walked off to the rail station, impatient to board a train home. He was in panic: “I don’t want to stay here. I don’t want to die here.” He made it back. He didn’t have to die on foreign soil.
That soil became home to his sons, at least one of whom — a police officer in Ayub Khan’s East Pakistan — came around to the view that it was no longer safe to stay on. One night in 1967, he arrived at the Ali Nagar tea garden, herded his brother’s family, turned on the radio and the light in their quarters — and walked off into the darkness, all the way to India.
For a people tangled up in a fair amount of history, I heard none of these stories growing up. No nostalgia for a lost homeland at the dinner table. No yearning for people left behind. No poring over the paraphernalia of Partition. A people in denial, ready to move on, refusing the risks of memory. My father had made his way to the hills of Shillong, where he found work and made a home. The hill station offered the community an encounter with modernity, but also the poetry of its dripping pines and bewitching skies. If the promise of citizenship, stamped in that passport, could be fulfilled, surely it was in this town of dreamy mists?
The Shillong I grew up in was a far more divided town. As children, we absorbed the fact of our landlessness, it hobbled our sure-footedness on those streets. In a few decades, the Bengali (as well as the Bihari, and the Nepali) had become the unwanted dkhar in a tribal land — shrunk by muggings, riots and the certainty that there would be no record, nor justice for the violence we experienced. It drove us to cut our losses and depart, and prepared my parents’ generation for a second exodus.
“At least, ekhane aamra second-class citizen na (At least, we are not second-class citizens here).” In tiny apartments in smoky Calcutta, where many elders of the community scattered, I heard this often from bewildered aunts and uncles, sometimes stunned into anxiety and depression by the yawning loneliness of a big city, by the loss of friends, by the inability to strike root, again.
The red passport turned up, thanks to a cousin who had preserved it, when I began pestering my father for ancient documents — what could we offer at the altar of the National Register of Citizens (NRC)? As the Assam NRC dredged up questions of who belongs to these frontier lands, and as the northeastern states erupt in anger about the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), I wondered: what was 1947 — independence or betrayal? The CAA is an illusionist’s hoodwink — decades since Independence, millions of Hindus persecuted for their religion in what is now Bangladesh have found refuge in India, for better or worse. That is the history of West Bengal’s reshaping after 1971. That is the history of my family, some of whom have thrived in India, some of whom have struggled.
Despite years of relative peace and amity, the present turmoil threatens to bring us back to the chasm between “refuge” and “refugee”, especially for the Bengalis in the Northeast, whose presence has been contested in largely tribal lands. To many, we were the offending people who stood in for the savarna nation-state that militarised the region — even if our history, too, is of displacement and loss, of being minorities dismissed as Bangladeshis. For the Assamese and indigenous peoples fighting against the CAA, the suspicion of the Bengali and memories of the language riots have not waned. For the liberal left, we are a community of savarna Hindus, to admit whose past violations upsets too many equations. The Hindu right-wing acknowledges the wounds. But, as their imploding calculations in Assam show, they offer a delusion in the guise of reparation: Give me your trauma, and I will offer you more hate to quench your anger. Unfortunately, many Hindu Bengalis, including those in my family, accept this bargain.
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While watching the fierce, non-communal protests in Assam against the CAA, I had felt the envy of the exiled: what if we had a land to fight for? Would belonging be more certain, since human dignity is defined by territory? But, no. The promise of citizenship was made even to those without any ground beneath their feet, whether Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian or Buddhist. It was not a pledge always redeemed in full measure, shot with betrayals and compromise, but it was the best bet we had against history.
In Bengaluru, far away from the roiled northeast, my father chances upon a newspaper report on apartments trying to filter “illegal Bangladeshis” from the workers. How do they know? Those who say, “aami kheyechi (I have eaten)” are kosher, those who say “aami khaisi” are not. He looks up, a speaker of those offending dialects. A wry laugh. “Amraar aar ufaay nai (We are done for).”
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