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Detention Camps

Detention Camps

In the mid-nineties, my son applied for a domicile certificate which was necessary to get admission to a medical college at Ludhiana. He was born in Kerala, grew up and studied, first, in Kerala, and then in Bihar and Delhi. He had all the certificates to prove that he had been living in Delhi.

We also submitted a personal letter from an IAS officer, who happened to be a friend, vouching that he was a ordinarily a resident of Delhi. However, we were not ready to pay any bribe. My son went up and down the Teez Hazari court building without any result. Finally, he decided not to apply for admission.

Why did I mention this? President Donald Trump said that all those who came illegally into the US would be sent back legally. For the first time, he said something in elegant English. When he said this, he forgot that he himself was a third-generation immigrant, who got divorced from a second-generation immigrant, and is currently married to another second-generation immigrant.

Let’s leave Trump and his bad English and return to India. A friend is on a visit to Germany. One of the highlights of his journey is a visit to a concentration camp there. In fact, I too have chilling memories of my visit to Dachau, the second largest concentration camp after Auschwitz. 

The camps were set up by Hitler to find a final solution to the problem of Jews who were demonised then like the Muslims and Christians are demonised now in India. Today the concentration camps are tourist destinations fetching Germany precious foreign exchange. 

I told him that he did not have to go that far to see a concentration camp. All he needed to do was to take a flight to Guwahati, for there are six such camps fully functional in the state at Goalpara, Kokrajhar, Tezpur, Jorhat, Dibrugarh and Silchar. Alas, they cannot be accessed easily, as they are part of jails.

The Hindustan Times has reported that 10 more camps would be built to accommodate the illegal migrants. No human rights activists and no investigative journalists have visited these camps and described the living conditions there. The Supreme Court, which is the repository of all legal wisdom, is also not bothered. True, they are not called concentration camps but detention camps. 

There is a saying that a cage is a cage, even if it is built with gold. A concentration camp is a concentration camp even if it is christened a detention camp.

The camps get public attention only when a veteran soldier who fought for India in the Kargil war is detained there or when a detainee dies for want of medical attention. 

Who are the detainees? They are Bangladeshi Muslims. We are a secular nation but we have a government which believes that we should welcome all Hindus who want to migrate to India from Pakistan and Bangladesh but not Muslims, Christians, Buddhists etc.

The law in India allows arrest and detention in jails of those who violate the law. It is for the state to prove that they committed a crime. But in the case of the illegal migrants, it is they who have to prove that they are residents of India. The whole Muslim community in Assam who speak Bengali faces the challenge that my son faced in Delhi in the nineties. The challenge is to prove their nationality.

The laws say that a person can be detained but for a specific period. In the case of the Jews, who were sent to Auschwitz or Dachau, no period was mentioned. Similarly, the detainees in Assam are there for unspecified periods. 

The Supreme Court has in a magnanimous gesture gave them the option of applying for release but the conditions for such release are so tough that few would be able to fulfil them. Just a simple question, how can a poor man raise Rs 1 lakh when his family finds it difficult to have a square meal a day? This is only one condition. They will rot there for the rest of their lives.

What are the government plans about them? Bangladesh has said time and again that they will not accept those people. The only option is to push them physically into Bangladesh or allow them to die in the camps for want of food and water.

Union Home Minister and BJP Chief Amit Shah has already threatened that illegal migrants living in other parts of India, too, would be identified and sent, probably, to detention camps. Everyone will have to prove that he is a citizen of this country. 

One of my friends has in a Facebook post written that he is safe as he has proof of his parents’ marriage in India. In short, those who are non-Hindus and have no proof of their parents and grandparents’ marriage face a threat!

At an informal discussion in New Delhi’s India International Centre a few years ago, I heard the then Bangladesh High Commissioner speak from his heart. First of all, he made a reference, in glowing terms, to the role India played in the liberation of his country in 1971.

Dhaka has on umpteen occasions thanked India for midwifing the birth of Bangladesh. But what bothered him was that every time, he interacted with an Indian group, he would be reminded, not necessarily gently, about how grateful Bangladesh should be to India. How long could he go on expressing his gratefulness? He found such frequent references quite irritating. It is easy to rubbish him as the representative of an ungrateful nation but will that lead us anywhere?

As a matter of fact, no man would like to be grateful at the expense of his dignity and no woman at the cost of her chastity. Bangladesh is no exception. Another thing that bugged Bangladesh was the constant reference in the political discourse in India to the “influx” of Bangladeshis into India, particularly the Northeast.

An impression had been allowed to gain ground in India, he said, that given an opportunity the people of Bangladesh would migrate en masse to India. But is that the case? Should our political parties demonise Bangladesh just because it is a poor country?

Migration is an indisputable fact. Civilisations have been built on migrations. As sociologist Myron Weiner has remarked, “migration is the story of our world”. Moses was one of the greatest leaders the world has ever seen. He led the single largest migration to the “promised land”. I come from a state where people take pride in joking that when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon this day 50 years ago, he was astonished to find a Malayali already there selling black coffee and dal vada.

Jokes apart, people from poorer countries want to migrate to developed countries. Is it not a fact that Punjab is the best place to fly away from? Travel around in Punjab and you will find in every nook and cranny offices of travel agencies offering huge discounts. It is a different matter that some of their clients eventually return to Punjab after a stint in Pakistani jails.

How will we react if the European Union or the US or Canada or Australia make a statement about the threat of influx of what they call “aliens” from India? How will we react if a foreign scholar quotes the 16th century Italian, Machiavelli, to suggest that “sending immigrants is the most effective way to colonise countries because it is less offensive than to send military expeditions and much less expensive”?

Imagine what would happen if the indigenous people of Mauritius, Malaysia, Singapore, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, Fiji and Suriname ask the Indians to return to the land of Ganga and Yamuna. Will we not write thunderous editorials? Even when Britain plays in the World Cup Cricket, the Indians who live in London cheer the Indian side, not the country which gives them bread and butter. What kind of nationalism is this?

I belong to a church which has a special prayer for the President, the Prime Minister, the MPs and the judiciary, though not for the Fourth Estate. But when I attend our church service in, say, the US, the prayer is for the President of the US and the US Congress. 

The Mar Thoma Church does not have a parish in Pakistan. If it is there, the prayer there would be for the Pakistani President and the Pakistani government.

Our political leaders routinely make allegations of infiltration against Bangladesh. Assuming that Bangladeshis infiltrate in large numbers, how do they manage to do so when the Border Security Force is present there? I will just quote Mahesh, the protagonist of Sanjoy Hazarika’s  Rites of Passage: Border Crossings, Imagined Homelands, India’s East and Bangladesh (Penguin), “I went to the border and paid ten rupees to the police and walked across”.

The point is we have only ourselves to blame for the “illegal migration”. Our media think that Bangladesh is a land of flood, pests and pestilence but is that the case? Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, who originally belonged to that part of undivided Bengal, has been writing about how Bangladesh has achieved phenomenal success in literacy, healthcare, women empowerment, to name a few.

A girl child has a greater chance of being born and brought up in Bangladesh than, say, in one of the most developed states in India like Haryana and Punjab. Let me quote from Amartya Sen’s book,  Argumentative Indian (Penguin): “The precipitate fall of the total fertility rate in Bangladesh from 6.1 to 2.9 in the course of two decades (perhaps the fastest decline in the world) is merely one illustration of the dynamic power of women’s legacy and the consequential correlates of gender equity”.

Can this be said about any state in India? To return to the subject of migration, MGS Narayanan was chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) during Atal Bihari Vajpayee's period as Prime Minister. He along with BJP leader and, now, MLA, O. Rajagopal made a courtesy call on the then Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi.

After exchanging pleasantries, Joshi asked MGS a straight question: "Tell me how we can push the Vedic period back by about 5,000 years?" MGS was taken aback by the minister's demand. Without batting an eyelid, the well-known historian, who specialises in ancient Indian history, told the minister, "What nonsense are you talking, Mr Joshi?" 

Now, you may ask me how I came to know about this conversation which happened within the four walls of the minister's cabin. This was narrated to a friend of mine, who is a historian, by Rajagopal himself. The purpose of revealing this to my friend was to buttress O Rajagopal's point that MGS was a fearless person who would call a spade a spade. Joshi and company thought that MGS was a fellow traveller and he would do their bidding. 

If anyone has not understood the significance of Joshi's demand to MGS, let me clarify for their benefit. The Vedic period is believed to be 1500 years old. Historians of ancient India assert that the Aryans arrived in India and settled down on the banks of the Indus. Over the years, the settlers began to be known as Hindus, a corruption of Sindus. This theory, based on research and archaeological findings, is unacceptable to the Sangh Parivar of which the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is a constituent. 

That is because it equates the "Hindus" with Muslims and the Europeans like the British, the French and the Portuguese who ruled India or parts of India. In other words, all are "foreigners" in this country. 

No, there is one section of the population which can be described as "sons and daughters of the soil". They are the  adivasis, which means the aborigines. The BJP does not call them adivasis. Instead, they call them  vanvasis (those who live in the forests). I find the term derogatory because it reduces the tribals to the status of jackals, hyenas, monkeys and other beasts which also live in the forests.

To harp on illegal migrants is to create a sense of insecurity among the minorities. It serves the ruling party’s strategy of dividing people on communal lines and deriving political mileage. Those who clamour against the illegal migrants in Assam should know that the single largest number of “illegal” immigrants in the world consists of Indians. What right do we have to speak against migration, when we are all migrants in India?


(Published on 22nd July 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 30)