In the Scheduled Caste basti in Gewalbigha, Gaya, about 2 km from the day-and-night dharna against the CAA-NRC-NPR in Shantibagh, a group of men, all safai karamcharis with the Nagar Nigam, cheeks smeared with the bright pink abeer (coloured powder) of Saraswati puja, talk of the citizenship issue without evident apprehension or anxiety.
“Jo bahar se aaya hai, those who have come from outside, Pakistan se, Bangladesh se, they are scared. Hindus need not fear”, says Raju Ram. “Hamaare baap-dada yahan ke hain (our forefathers belonged here)”, says Ajay Ram. “We, Dalits, don’t own any land” says Raju Ram, “but generations have lived here. Bahut sa kaagaz patra nahin hai, toh bhi. (We have very few papers, but even so.)”.
Govt will find a way
In this basti where many homes have a TV but none has a toilet, and water comes only up to the row of taps that residents say they installed with their own money by the main road outside, Raju Ram counts out what he sees as the government’s achievements: “(Removal of Article 370 in) Kashmir, Ram Mandir, Pakistan mein ghus ke maara (hitting Pakistan inside its territory in Balakot), Abhinandan ko chuda liya (India’s fighter pilot was released from Pakistan’s custody)”.
The worry and insecurity writ large in the Muslim mohalla in town and village on the citizenship issue is not visible in the SC mohalla even in neighbouring Rohtas district.
In Sasaram, the Lok Sabha constituency India’s first Dalit deputy prime minister Jagjivan Ram represented and never lost an electoral battle from, ever since the first election was held in 1952, not far from the stately red sandstone mausoleum of Afghan king Sher Shah Suri, is the Dom mohalla of Bharatiganj.
Here, Gangaram, a sweeper, says a line must be drawn, a register of citizens is necessary. “How else will we know who belongs to the country and who doesn’t?” Rohit, a student, says: “Only the behroopiye (imposters) need to be fearful”.
No one has a “colony (home)” or land of their own here, but, says Gangaram, “hamein kaun hatayega (who will turn us out)?”
Underlying the rhetorical challenge is a kind of confidence, a sense of place in the neighbourhood, even at the bottom-most rungs of the socio-economic ladder: If we don’t have the requisite papers and documents, our neighbours will speak for us, we will go to the mukhiya, pradhan, BDO or the government will amend its rules, find a way.
In the mohalla of (backward caste) Koeris nearby, on the subject of the CAA-NRC, that confidence quickly shades into something resembling majority entitlement and ownership, an aggressive majoritarianism.
“Why should anyone have a problem if Hindus from other countries are given citizenship in India? We’ve seen the attack on the gurdwara in Nankana Sahib in Pakistan”, says Abhishek Kumar, a student. “We are descendants of Chandragupta Maurya. We will not let ghuspaithiye (infiltrators) remain in our country”, says Arun Kumar Kushwaha, as he shouts down the sole dissenting voice in the group — of Sushma Paswan, Dalit social worker, who says that the “NRC-NPR will hurt Hindus too, those affected by the regular floods in east Bihar, and most of all Dalits and Mahadalits”.
Solidarity strongest among students
To be sure, there is empathy for apprehensions being expressed in the protests, located in Muslim neighbourhoods, against the new citizenship law and the proposed register of citizens, outside those neighbourhoods too. The solidarity seems strongest, everywhere, among students.
It is visible, too, in the more divided spaces outside campuses, both in West Bengal as in UP, the two states where the CAA-NRC has stoked maximum controversy.
At a tea shop in Ghusighata market in Kulti village, in West Bengal’s North 24 Parganas district, Gautam Sahu, who is in the transport business, says: “I have all my papers, we have land. But many in my village are now queuing up to get their names rectified in their Aadhaar cards (for fear of the NRC). I may be safe but my neighbour, who is a Muslim, feels he may be asked to leave. That is not right”.
In Kaulapur village in the UP district of Bhadohi, Chandresh Kumar, SC, Gram Rojgar Sewak says: “Sab Hindustani hain, sab rashtrabhakt hain, sabko vikas chahiye (everyone is a Hindustani and patriot, everyone wants development). Secure the borders by all means, but treat all those who have aastha (faith) in India’s Constitution as India’s citizens”.
From Bengal to UP, however, cross-community solidarities — that the leaderless people’s protests against the CAA are laying claim to, and also reposing faith in — seem visibly constricted and strained for several reasons.
Echo with security, economy
For one, the CAA-NRC discussion appears to have given another leg-up to the “national security” argument which flared so prominently in the wake of Pulwama and Balakot in the BJP’s campaign and mobilisation ahead of the Lok Sabha polls in 2019, and which powered its renewed majority. Except that, this time, there is a crucial difference.
Then, the locale, imagined and real, was “Pakistan”. Now, it has come home: The “ghuspaithiya” or infiltrator is now to be separated and weeded out from the “nagrik” and the “sharanarthi”, citizen and refugee.
In Mantand village not far from Dhanbad, Saroj Kumar Mahto says: “We can take in sharanarthi (refugees) from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, but not infiltrators and terrorists. Our country’s doors are open, but the government needs to be vigilant.” And in Simrahat village in Gaya district, Mahendra Kumar says: “Only those people are worried about the NRC who shelter terrorists in our midst”.
In places, the national security argument segues and slides into the majoritarian case for a Hindu rashtra or homeland: “Why would Muslims come as refugees to India? In 1947, we gave them Bangladesh and Pakistan,” says Vikas Kumar of Simrahat. “The Hindu is the elder brother in India. The Muslim must accept that”, says Prakash Kumar of Mantand.
There is sullen talk of “dual loyalties”, and of people who “are of two places”. In Krishnanagar Purbapara village in Hooghly district, West Bengal, Avik Ghoshal, who works with a private company, says: “The Hindu population is dwindling in Pakistan. Hindus who live in other countries must also be brought home.”
The CAA-NRC issue also plays upon insecurities sharpened by the slowing economy, which pit one against the other in a seemingly zero-sum race for opportunities that are perceived to be limited and shrinking.
Tyranny of certificates
In Jharkhand, long before the prospect of a nation-wide NRC posed the question of who-is-a-citizen, and threatened to place the entire burden of proof on the citizen, the imperative to protect tribal identity combined with a competition for scarce resources spawned a race to prove who-is-the-original-”Jharkhandi” or “moolvasi”. The tyranny of certificates and cut-off dates has been normalised in the state.
In Dhanbad, Rajkishore Mahto, ex MLA and MP and leading light of the “Jharkhand aandolan” for a separate state, who is now president of the Jharkhand Labour Union, recalls how Babulal Marandi made it mandatory for all applicants for Class 3 and 4 government jobs to prove their ancestral roots in the state on the basis of the 1932 khatian or land records: “No one after him touched the issue, 10 tribal chief ministers came and went, till Raghubar Das set the cut-off year at 1985. Now Shibu Soren is again talking of 1932”.
“If there can be certificates for moolvasis, why not for citizenship?” asks Madhusudan Mahto in Mantand. “If you come and earn and want to settle down here, what happens to the economy? Prices are rising. We also have to look at the future of our children”, says Ganesh Kumar Verma.
Most of all, perhaps, this CAA-NRC moment also shows up an already imperilled neighbourliness between communities.
In tiny, congested Giridih, where the Sadar Hospital sits next to the DC office which is next to the Nagar Nigam Karyalaya, the bus stand and the thana, Sonali Singh, a student at the RK Mahila College, says she has seen the anti-CAA protests in Delhi on TV, but knows nothing of the one in the Muslim mohalla a stone’s throw away, of Bhandaridih. “Bahar bahar ka sune hain, us taraf jaana nain hota (I have heard of what is happening outside, but there is seldom occasion for me to go towards Bhandaridih).”
Yet, from Bengal to UP, it is also among students like her that the anti-CAA protests find the greatest resonance across communities.
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