Saturday, August 18, 2012

Freedom Land

What the situation is, 65 years after independence.

·         20 crore Indians live without adequate food
·         Eight thousand die every day of starvation
·         2 crore children don’t go to school
·         20 crore Indians are illiterate
·         43% children suffer from malnutrition
·         66 crore Indians don’t have access to hygienic sanitation
·         India ranks 66th (Pakistan is 61) on the international hunger index
·         India ranks 132nd among 142 countries in terms of developmental index

These are numbers from a bunch of information links doing the rounds online. While they may not be exactly accurate, (at least, I am not sure whether they are) they are pretty close to the real situation overall. Not much cause to celebrate, if you ask me. Add to that India’s “record” showing at the London Olympics 2012, with 6 whole medals, not one of them gold, and I really don’t think there’s much to CELEBRATE right now.

And then there’s the madness going on all over the country with thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of people FROM the seven north eastern states fleeing their places of residence all over India because they no longer feel safe in those places. And why did I just put the FROM in all caps?? Because many of them have been living in those places of education, work, residence, for years, decades even. Yet, one whiff of trouble in some far corner of the country, and they are being attacked, harassed, and driven out to go BACK to this place they are supposed to belong to. Rumours are flying, threats being issued and realized, attacks made, and a large segment of Indians are feeling  threatened within the sovereign territory of India. And news channels and papers are playing up the immigrant situation and the harassment of immigrants. (are these people immigrants in their own country? By what definition? What law?)

It began as a riot/ethnic clashes in certain areas of Assam primarily between illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and the resident farmers. The trouble was over rights to the land, and the attempt to prevent sneak-over-the-border-in-the-night people from encroaching on it. As is the nature of such conflicts, things got bigger and more complicated as it was allowed to go on for longer (although local Muslims are still pretty happy there, and safe), and since the news channels didn’t bother to even try to put anything other than a religious/communal colouring on it, this territorial, anti illegal alien clash began to be seen as another of the Hindu-Muslim riots that we are getting more and more used to. That’s new, although riots in themselves are not. What is really new this time, the year of the 65th anniversary of our becoming a nation, is the backlash against people seen to be from the “north east” in far flung parts of the country -- parts that have nothing to do with Assam, and face no added pressure from the refugee movement generated by the clashes.

From flash riots in Mumbai, to threats and rumours in Pune, Bangalore, and more, the overall perceived threat level has risen sharply, especially in places with a considerable presence of students and workers from the north eastern states. People are leaving in droves, with something like 9700 tickets to Guwahati booked in a single day from a single station, and four extra trains having to be made available to accommodate the huge waves of people leaving from Bangalore on a that ONE day. So, what’s really going on here? Does a bunch of mixed ethnic, mixed community hooligans (the bunch arrested in Bangalore for rumour mongering etc include Hindus and Christians) really care so much about the trouble in Assam? Are they so emotionally invested in, and swayed by, the people rendered homeless in Assam that they have to avenge them by harassing, assaulting, and killing people from Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Assam, Tripura, and West Bengal?

What it is, is a bunch of people making a noise, lashing out, creating trouble, for reasons and motives of their own. From chauvinistic political parties looking to strengthen their communal vote bases, to ruffians looking for any excuse to indulge in a little vandalism, reasons and motives are many and varied. What concerns me however, really worries me, is how easy it seems to have become to drive a large number of people out of your city, area, state on the pretext that they don’t belong. I am concerned because, this has a lot to do with people like me. As I blogged in January 2010 in SporadicDiaspora (premonition? Foreshadowing?), I belong to the increasingly larger segment of the population who are not really FROM anywhere. Of course, this is a concept most Indians don’t seem to get. So, for me there was never a question of going BACK to some safe place where I belong.

As populations grow and resources become strained, such things are only going to get more common. The refrains of “go back to where you belong” will continue to get louder as the years roll by, as they have in the last few decades, posing a massive problem for me and my ilk. I don’t BELONG. Having lived in some six different states till date, I have no domicile, no hometown. As for Bengal, I have no roots there, I don’t have a mental emotional connection there, and I don’t belong there. Yet, I have recently acquired a flat in Kolkata, a sort of roof over the head arrangement, even though it is no secret how much I have come to dislike the place over the last few years. A childhood friend, someone I have known for the last 36 years, and who is in kind of the same predicament, was fantasizing last week about selling up Kolkata flats when we are older, and moving back to Dehradun, where we were born, to live out our retirements.

While that sounds unbelievably lovely, and nostalgia inducing, I realize it is never gonna happen. As I was explaining to my chuddy buddy, no matter how much we feel like we are not  REALLY Bengali, no matter how much more comfortable we are outside Bengal as opposed to in Kolkata, no matter how much Doon, or Pune, feels like home, like where the soul belongs, for the “other” we will always remain outsiders. People will always ask “are you a local?” and mean “are you Garhwali/Maharashtrian?” they will always ask “where are you “originally” from?”, leaving you speechless, and when push comes to shove, they will – nicely or not so nicely – ask you to leave. It happened and continues to happen in many states, and is only getting worse. The Bengalis I know who chose to remain in Dehradun after their retirement are already facing problems, and they belong to my parents’ generation. How much worse are things going to get by the time we are ready to retire? In Maharashtra too, the erstwhile muted murmurs of the “Maharashtra for Marathi manoos” political language have been getting louder over the last decade. As the focus shifts from Biharis to the North Easterners, I can only wonder how long before it shifts again…to the Bengali.

And if it does, as it eventually will, where do I go? So, I have that little roof over the head insurance in the land that I feel no belonging in, in case I have to leave all the lands I feel connected to, in case it becomes impossible for me, or my child, to live threat free, safe lives in all the places I would rather live in. what makes me really sad, angry, disillusioned, disgusted, and depressed is to see this drama unfold each morning on the news, where on the 65th anniversary of the formation of a nation people of the nation are not free to live in their choice of location in it. To see that in this free land, this secular democracy, a segment of its own citizens is being called “immigrant”, to see that they are being driven to drop educations, livelihoods, settled lives to go BACK to a state where they supposedly BELONG, makes me fear for my future and that of my child outside the mythical land of my belonging.