WITH EYES WIDE OPEN
D. N. Bezboruah
People of my generation were born as British subjects who had every reason to regard themselves as slaves born in a land ruled by alien conquerors. This is not to suggest that people were stopped on the streets and treated in a manner as to make them feel like slaves. But the struggle for freedom under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi was at its peak, and it was quite possible for any adult even remotely connected with the Freedom Movement to get arrested and to spend a long time in prison. On August 15, 1947, I was just a student of Class VIII and therefore quite a few years short of being an adult. But the rejoicing of Independence and the fact of being free Indian citizens was celebrated with song and slogan and much else. The song that is etched in my memory was in faulty Hindi grammar, but we sang it nevertheless with great gusto. The words of the refrain were “Eisaa hai sarkaar zaalim, hi rakhni; hi rakhni, hi rahkni, sarkaar zaalim hi rakhni.” As far as I was concerned, it felt good to be a proud citizen of independent India. And that is what I have been ever since.
I spent four years at Baras Hindu University and even won the odd election or two during my student days there. No one ever made me feel like an outsider because I was from Assam. In fact, in the 1950s and 1960s, BHU had a sizeable number of students from Assam. Some of them excelled in academics and others in games and sports. Amulya Hash Goswami was a University blue in both football and cricket and was also the University football captain. Since 1965 I have travelled abroad several times on an Indian passport. There have been several occasions where my Indian citizenship has been the only aspect of my perso that has counted.
On Tuesday, I was shocked, saddened and terribly angered to learn from television that the vision document of the BJP (issued in place of an election manifesto for the Delhi Assembly elections) spoke of the people of the Northeast as “North Eastern immigrants” who had to be protected in one of its subheadings. Lower down, in the text, people from the Northeast were referred to as “North Eastern migrants”. The next morning, all the newspapers of the State had this major insult to the people of the Northeast on the front page. One of them even carried a photocopy of the relevant part of the vision document. Such a perverse and horrendous distortion of facts has turally angered everyone in the region. Kiren Rijiju, Union Minister of State for Home Affairs, hailing from Aruchal Pradesh, expressed his surprise by wanting to know how he could be a Union minister if people from the Northeast were all immigrants. We have yet another Union Minister of State—Sarbanda Sonowal—who is from Assam. And lest we have people in the NDA government bending over backwards to pass off this monstrosity as being no more than a typographical error, even the Concise Oxford Dictiory is quite clear about what the word immigrant means. An immigrant, it says, is a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country. Quite obviously then, an immigrant cannot be anything other than a foreigner. It is, therefore, difficult to believe that the person responsible for using the word immigrant in the vision document of the BJP could have been guilty of no more than a typographical error or an error in the choice of words. He has been irresponsible enough to characterize everyone from the Northeast who visits Delhi or lives in the city as a foreigner. People cannot be blamed for regarding this terrible blunder as premeditated and motivated by mischievous intent. Since I cannot possibly furnish facts of life related to other people without making some mistakes, my readers will have to pardon me for having to dwell on my own life and activities that identify me very clearly as an Indian citizen. But before that, let me me a few students of mine of whom I can be justly proud. One of my former students, Justice Mukundakam Sharma retired as a judge of the Supreme Court. (There had been other Supreme Court judges from Assam too before him.) Another student, Dr Robin Dev Choudhury, rose to the position of Director General of Museums. Yet another student, the late Prashanta Sharma was Chairman of the Central Board of Direct Taxes. Quite a few my former students have retired as IAS and IPS officers. How could they have been in responsible positions of the government of India if they were not Indian citizens?
In 1989, I was selected, along with the late Shridharan of Kochi, Editor of Veeksham, for a media exchange programme that involved a 12–day visit to the United States. I am not aware of the Union government selecting immigrants for such programmes. In 1995, I was elected president of the Editors Guild of India for a two– year term. This is a prestigious association of well educated editors of the country who would certainly not dream of electing an immigrant as president. I have been a delegate of India to the SAARC Media Summit. I have been a trustee of the tiol Book Trust. I have been on the governing body of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication. I have also been a member of both the media advisory committees of the tiol Foundation for India. Quite obviously, these positions cannot be open to “immigrants” or foreigners. I had the honour of being part of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s entourage to the M Summit in Durban in 1998. I have been privileged to receive three tiol awards for excellence in jourlism, one of them given by Prime Minister Vajpayee himself. I am quite sure that none of these privileges are extended to “immigrants”. And quite abruptly, early in February this year, I find myself, along with quite a few million people from the Northeast, referred to as an “immigrant” or a foreigner in India! As an octogerian citizen of India, I cannot recall when else I have been quite as angry.
The State unit of the BJP was quick to make amends and apologize on behalf of the party. On Wednesday, Prime Minister rendra Modi too regretted the terrible “immigrant” faux pas at a poll campaign rally in Ambedkar gar in Delhi. “No one should play with the unity of the country for political benefits,” he said. But whoever was responsible for printing that vision document of the BJP was doing just that. If anything, the unity of the country was worse affected by the person(s) responsible for printing the BJP’s vision document than by those who reacted to the insult. The Prime Minister’s regrets will doubtless be accepted by the people, but the insult will rankle in the minds of people from the region. A more acceptable course of action for the Prime Minister would be to identify the offender of the BJP responsible for the mischief and to punish him for the grievous sin of playing with the unity of the country. Such a course of action will not only convince people that the Prime Minister is genuinely sorry about the error (or mischief) but also send out a strong message to his party men not to fool around with citizens from any part of the country in future. Anyone even casually familiar with the Indian Constitution must be aware that Assamese is the first language listed in the Eighth Schedule which also includes Bodo and Manipuri—all languages spoken by the people of the Northeast. How can speakers of these languages listed in the Eighth Schedule and living in India not be Indian citizens. In any Indian currency note the first language used to indicate the denomition (apart from Hindi and English) is Assamese. Would Assamese have been there at all if it was not a language spoken by Indian citizens living in some part of the country? So when someone from the ruling party at the Centre puts out a vision document and the wretched document gets widely circulated without editing or corrections, people begin to wonder whether by denying citizenship status to the Indian citizens of the Northeast, the government is planning to give that status to the Bangladeshi immigrants who are in the region in large numbers and increasing much faster than real Indian tiols because they are also permitted to be polygamous.