The Citizenship Amendment Bill, after being signed by our president, became the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) on the 12th of December and our nation’s been up in arms since. I was in transit that day from Patna, back to Thakurganj (where my host organisation is) and was fully prepared for the backlash, the protests and general unrest. After all, Thakurganj is a border town (albeit we share borders with Nepal, which doesn’t feature on the list of countries mentioned in the CAA) and its population predominantly Muslim, so dissent was a given. Or so I assumed. I got off the train to a peaceful town, people going about their days as usual.
Even my ‘chai ki tapri’, which is usually a hotbed of political discussions, was unusually quiet. Not one word about the CAA or the NRC. It seemed that just like the Bollywood movies or development, the debate about the CAA and NRC would also arrive late to Thakurganj.
Read the entire act here
When they did arrive, the protests against the CAA and NRC, zoomed into Thakurganj like a whirlwind, on the 16th of December, quite literally, on sign posts hoisted on top of a few hundred bikes en-route to the protest organised at the district headquarters in Kishanganj. The people stopped, waited for the rally to pass through and then moved on with their lives. The next day, our teacher training session was interrupted mid-way by the passing of a similar rally, this time on foot. On asking around we found out that a protest had been organised in the main chowk of the town that evening. As the teachers gathered excitedly to watch, take pictures and videos, I was surprised to find that there was practically no talk about the CAA itself or even the protests, only the concern that they might not get tempos (shared autos) to their respective homes that evening. Even at the chowk itself, while the protest was in full swing, people quietly moved around it and carried on with their lives. Even the talk around me, as I stood on the periphery, was about the inconvenience to the shopkeepers and traffic and not the reason for protest.
Is it ignorance or apathy? I was left to wonder.
I got my answer two days later. It was neither. I entered our field office here to a flurry of activity. A few members of the team had gathered early, clearly looking distressed and strewn in front of them were various documents – Aadhar cards, Voter IDs and even some land papers. The atmosphere was tense and uncomfortable. Bit by bit their concerns emerged. Most had heard snippets about the NRC (National Registry of Citizenship) by then and there were rumours that it would be rolled out in Bihar by the first week of January 2020. Everyone was pouring over their documents to see if it would hold up to the scrutiny. The general consensus being that it might not. There was also a rumour that the government would only consider those documents that were updated or modified before 1st January of 2020. Everything else would be considered null.
The rumours of course turned out to be false. But to put things in perspective, here’s the situation in our team. A quick glance will tell us that any of the below will be grounds for disqualification under the NRC rules:
- The spelling of names is different in different documents for most people. Most notably between current IDs and land documents. This of course is a perpetual confusion when our Indian names are written in the English script.
- Several people have been aged up in their Aadhar cards. This was done to avail employment sooner and financially support their families.
- Many don’t have an official birth certificate (official of course means one issued by the health department)
- Marriage certificates are also not always official (if you have one at all)
Read the comprehensive rules that were applied in Assam here
And this is among the literate, educated section of the community. The ones who can read and identify what errors have cropped up in their IDs, the ones who understand what a legacy document means, the ones who have a practice of keeping their documents and papers in order. And even they will struggle should the NRC be rolled out here.
To add some further perspective:
- The Thakurganj block consists of 133 villages where the average literacy rate is 47%. The percentage of people who can actually comprehend what they read is even lower.
- Most of these literates are also first generation learners, which means the chances of finding legacy documents that hold up to scrutiny drops further.
- Furthermore about 70% of the population here is muslim. Which means, if they are unable to prove their ancestry, they are left with no course of action.
- The women here are on even more of a backfoot. Most are not even aware of the laws, proposals and bills being passed and even if they do, very few even have the agency to get their own IDs made or corrected. This leaves them especially vulnerable.
- Being a border area also means that there is a healthy practice of marrying across borders, mostly with Nepal but a few from Bangladesh too (albeit this practice is more so with the Hindus). The brides that come here come with no particular legal proofs in hand. Come the NRC, they will be left vulnerable and exposed.
Added to all of this is the general confusion and lack of clear information about the NRC. We can only go by what was already done in Assam, which means some sort of ancestry will have to be proven. And in the meantime the entire community is rife with rumours. This is the story of just a couple of villages, India has 2,56,000 such villages where confusion will reign. And so far we are yet to see an active effort by the government to actually clarify things, especially in our villages, whose population will be disproportionately affected.
Since then I have had many discussions like these with many people here in Thakurganj. The most common refrain I hear is that while they do believe what is happening is wrong, there is simply no channel through which they can show their disagreement. A day spent protesting or organising one could mean the potential loss of livelihood for that day or even longer. And even that doesn’t seem effective here. Case in point, the protest that did happen went unnoticed by the rest of the country and got no media coverage. If your voice is not even heard then is it really worth the cost of livelihoods lost for those days. How many such voices from our rural areas are going unheard? For now, those who can have moved to the bigger towns to continue their dissent in the hopes that they’ll be heard this time at least.
Personally also I’ve been struggling to find ways of meaningfully contributing towards the CAA dialogue. I’m hoping this blog post can be a step toward that. I’ve also held information sessions for the people in my team and organisation, so that we can dispel some misinformation at the very least. At the beginning of our info session, a young muslim woman asked me “Kya hum ko abhi nikaal denge di?” I wanted to say no but that’s a promise I can’t yet make. And that’s precisely why we fight. There is a very real human cost to this, whether some acknowledge this or not.
Someone had asked me the other day why it should be our responsibility to fight for them when they never fight for themselves. I didn’t have an answer then. I do now.
The people that this will affect the most, the rural poor, the ones in the margins, are the same ones who cannot afford to stand up for themselves. A day spent displaying their dissent would likely mean a day spent without eating for the family. Spending a few days organising protests could very well mean unemployment for the next few months. They don’t fight because they cannot afford to. And we have to fight partly because we are privileged enough to be able to. We stand up because we can, for the ones who cannot.
You said it so well, and on point 🙂
You said it so well, and on point 🙂