Friday, April 26, 2013

Close Encounters

Personally, I feel that the Delhi metro has been a revolution for the city. It connects the north and south, east and west corners of the national capital region. It, regretting, also connects sweaty office staffers, wailing children and families who always seem to have heavy luggage. On crowded rush-hour evenings like today, those suitcases become living organisms and occupy a rather large segment of space inside the coaches.

Violet line has always been my least preferred metro rail-line. Bustling crowds aside, the route is famous for its small coaches and unusually low air-conditioning. Now, before all you ‘traditional’ folk start cribbing that we Indians were born without A/C’s and that this degenerating youth will cease to exist with cool, humid-free air, I request all you ‘Non-A/C and proud’ group members to hop onto a coach on the said metro line. It’s a warm, very warm summer evening and you set into the metro expecting that gust of cold air, ruffling your hair as you walk through the gates, and it does. You grab an overhead handle for support and so does the person beside you. Now, apart from the deep stenches his arm carry, inconveniently, inappropriately designed cooling system also carries the smell from where the man just walked in. Be it the bus, the fish market, his home or even a reeking wall where he took a leek – you can sniff it all.

Even after you successfully evade the horrifying odours and rescue yourself to negligent corner near the door, the train stops for the next station. Here begins my main concern. You see, unlike other routes where people get on and off at multiple stations, the violet line has become a route where people only board (for Central Secretariat and Badarpur). There is hardly any de-boarding. The few souls who do want to get off at say Nehru Place or Khan Market have to wade through a sea of human body (and sweat, mind you) to the door and shove himself and a few other passengers out of the coach. It is quite a fascinating sight to see an average 100-pound trying to make it out. No one is willing to step aside and they are not to blame. The floor screams for surface area.

One remarkable thing I observed about being squeezed to pulp by other people in crowded coaches is that people are really comfortable touching each other, even though it is forced upon them. People offer vague smiles and say, “Beta, kya karein? Jaga hi nahi hai. Metro kitna crowded ho chukka hai”. “Haan uncle ji,” came the prompt reply from somewhere ahead. “But crowd to hum jaise log hi banatein hain na.”

Another interesting thing is that the passengers morph into a single entity. This is a feature brought out by the constant harsh brakes of the train. I happened to be cramped with no space to even twist my leg. My nose itched and I had to turn my face sideways. I couldn’t bear to the alcohol-ridden breath of the “uncle” beside me. I fear the safety of my wallet and phone. So with one hand on my back-pocket and the other pressed against the phone pocket, I relied on my terrible balance to save me from falling. Interestingly, each the time the train jerked due to braking, the entire cabin of people swayed ahead and then back again. It happened every time we braked. Sway towards the front and back again. Front and back.

Finally, Central Secretariat arrived and the sea of people broke into a menacing wave as people just rushed out. Probably it was the crowd and the smells, or perhaps it is the simple metro-gene we Indians now possess and launch out of the train every station, even if it terminates there and won’t move ahead. The incoming passengers have a saga of their own, eyes transfixed on the seat they want to capture. Avoiding any major injuries to myself and my olfactory lobes, I headed to the violet line’s sister track, the yellow line. The ‘8’ coach train arrived; the last two bogies were virtually empty. I wondered why there weren't similar trains on the former one, where footfall is the highest every evening as per Delhi metro statistics.

Well, some questions go unanswered. But the rest of the evening was not fun either. I sent out a bunch of tweets about #DelhiMetro on the way, but that was it. We missed the show for Iron Man -3 and I’m left with some irritating friends texting me how good it was. Curse them. Anyway, I’m at my friends for the night and really have the feeling that I’m missing something, someone rather. It feels odd not to see that cute little face reading a novel aloud while I listened intently, or that cup of tea with maggi or that warm goodnight hug.

Ah, close encounters are rare. I almost suffocated in the metro today, almost watched a movie and almost thought I could pull out a night all by myself without a certain special person. Some days are funny, some are funnier still. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Assam’s lost identity

Ghulam Ali still cannot sleep peacefully at night. The cries of those barbaric tortures till torment him so much so that he still slept with a khukri under his bed at night. Nellie was barely 20 kilometres from his village and the horrific scenes from 18th February, 1983 still plagued him. 

Thirty years ago, the small sub-division in Assam witnessed perhaps India’s worst genocide. Situated almost 50 miles from the capital Dispur, Nellie was a bustling community with a large section of its population belonging to predominantly Muslims originating from the erstwhile East Bengal. Ghulam Ali was a young 20-year-old then, who had just learnt the art of driving a jeep. He earned a scanty Rs. 10 a week, but was delighted in being a full-time employee for one of Nagaon district’s top dry-fish mongers. On the chilly February morning, he set off to work like many of his friends and family. Ali had to drive all the way to Nagaon, which was 40 kilometres from Nellie, and would be returning late at night after delivering the fresh stock of dry fish. 

Thousands of Muslims inhabitants fled the Bodo-populated areas in Western Assam during the rioting last year.
“Assam was gripped in state-wide panic at the time”, narrated Ali, who was currently employed for a gas agency. “The elections were upon us and several Muslim populated areas in Central Assam were declared too hostile to hold any polling.”

In 1978, Hiralal Patwari, a Member of Parliament to the Lok Sabha, passed away leading to a necessary by-elections for the Mangaldoi constituency in Central Assam. The following elections saw a huge increase in the voter base, prompting the All Assam Students Union (AASU) to call for postponement of the voting till a fair calculation of the populous was done. They suspected that the inflation was caused primarily due to a large number of ‘foreign nationals’ who had migrated from East Bengal and East Pakistan at the time.

The AASU, led by their ambitious new leader, Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, demanded the state government to differentiate among Indians and non-Indians. They formed a document called the Assam Accord where 25th March 1971 was set as the demarcation date to judge if a person was an Indian citizen or not. All registered voters and people born after the date were eligible to attain Indian nationality; the rest would be termed migrants and hence could not be allowed to vote.

Dr K. Rahim was pursuing his doctorate in sociology from the University of Guwahati at the time Mr Patwari passed away. The 69-year-old retired professor vividly recalled the happenings of the year. “The AASU were determined to protect the Assamese culture. The instilled a sense of Ahom pride in the Assamese people by chanting slogans and holding campaigns explaining how the Bengali Muslims were eating into their land, their jobs, language and corrupting their culture”, recalled Dr Rahim. He explained that the Western districts of Dhubri and Goalpara were used as references to describe the growing encroachment by the now Bangladeshi migrants.

The Government of India under Indira Gandhi rejected the Assam Accord from being passed in the Lok Sabha. The Congress was looking to appease Muslim voters in the country and saw 14 easy Parliamentary seats from Assam. This triggered mass outrage amongst the AASU and other conservationists or so called protectors of Assamese integrity. Revolutions broke all over the state. Even Assamese Muslims, whose families had roots in Assam for decades far before 1971, like Ghulam Ali’s and Dr Rahim’s, had to retreat to areas of concentrated Muslim population to escape harm. Incidents of ethnic clashes were common up until 1985 with Nellie being ground zero for the conflict.

In 1983, the Central Government ordered the State Assembly elections to be held without any fail despite the brewing tensions between the different sections of society. The AASU called for nation-wide bandhs on the final day of filing for candidacy and demanded a 24-hour strike to veto the voting. Mr Mahanta warned the state of dire consequences, and raised him hands off any “incidents” that might occur. “It was a shame that the Government was ineligible to ensure adequate protection on the day of voting”, said Ghulam Ali. “All our civil liberties died that day.”

According to the then Assam Inspector General of Police, KPS Gill, 63 constituencies were given a green light to hold polls under the protection of the recently deployed paramilitary forces and Indian Army. 23 constituencies were declared red zones or hostile areas with Nellie being labelled on of the troubled spots. Nellie 1983 was one of the few books published about the barbaric massacre that followed that day. The cover page of the book, written by Diganta Sharma, recites a brief summary of the day:

A mass burial of children after the massacre at Nellie.
On February 17, 1983 two truckload police contingents came to Borbori and assured the inhabitants that they are patrolling nearby and full security has been provided to them. Being assured of security by the security personnel, Bangladeshi Muslim residents of Nellie went to work outside as usual the next day. At around 8:30 am, suddenly the village was attacked by mobs from three sides surrounding the villagers and pushing them towards river Kopili. People armed with sharp weapons, spears, and a few guns, advanced towards Nellie in an organized manner. The attackers encircled the whole village and left open the side that ends towards river Kopili. There were attackers in boats too. Killing started at around 9 am and continued till 3 pm. Most of the victims were women and children. The survivors were taken to Nagaon police station. Most of the survivors were put into Nellie camp at Nagaon and they returned to their village after 14 days upon restoration of normalcy. Police filed 688 criminal, of which 378 cases were closed due to "lack of evidence" and 310 cases were charge sheeted, and all these cases were dropped by Government as a part of Assam Accord and as a result not a single person got punishment.” (Translated from Assamese)

The Illegal Immigration Act (IIA) was passed as a result of the signing if the Assam Accord with fences being set up and guarded round the clock by the Border Security Force. The AASU leader Mahanta, went on to lead the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) to victory in 1985 becoming one of India’s youngest Chief Ministers. The Nellie massacre had been buried as a miniscule event in North-east India. Like countless other stories, “mainland” India was unaware of Assam, and sympathy was scares, more so due to Mrs Gandhi’s fatal shooting the same year. Ghulam Ali was one of the fortunate few who were away from Nellie that day. 2000 others were not.
The reasons for rapid immigration from Bangladesh:
Immigration into Assam was common among the poor Bengali Muslims in East Bengal during colonial times. Many did it to escape ruthless money lenders, while some from savage floods. The Bramhaputra valley was an ideal location to start afresh – abundantly fertile and unoccupied lands, devoid of the zamindari system. The partition of Bengal in 1905 caused many rich Hindu Bengalis to migrate to trade areas in lower Assam like Hailakandi and Karimganj, where they still thrive today.

The 1972 war in Bangladesh propelled more refugees into Assam and then it became a cult to shift of Assam in search of better fortunes.  1978 was in many ways a turning point in Assamese nationalism. Though the immigrants from 1901-1951 had by and large become Assamese, with their children and grandchildren being the product of being provided education in Assamese, as well as the policy of assimilation that their grandparents had adopted for survival. Many poets and writers also emerged from their midst. But, there was another angle to it. People among them who stressed more on their religious identity allowed illegal immigration to continue unabated even after independence, and with increasing numbers the compulsion to assimilate them into the melting pot that was Assam gradually diminished. Assam was slowly losing its identity, because the sheer magnitude of this migration was perhaps unprecedented.

Last year, Assam saw its fair share of violence yet again. Ethnic clashes between Bodos and Muslims resulted in the death of over a 100 people. The districts of Dhubri, Goalpara, Mangaldoi and Kokrajhar, where the clashes took place have a large Muslim population today, hovering about the 40% mark. The Bodo militancy, and the lack of law and order in these areas means that the struggle might get a bloodier in the days to come. The Bodos and the Tiwas were the first victims of illegal immigration. They turned perpetrators of unseen violence under provocation, in Nellie in 1983 and Kokrajhar in 2012. In many unheard of cases in areas where they are in a minority, the Bodos are also victims. This is not a justification, but a mere reason. The density of population in minority dominated districts of Assam which border/include tribal areas is high. : Dhubri has a density of 1171, Barpeta 632, Nagaon 711, compared to Sonitpur which has 365, and Dibrugarh 393. All these districts have almost similar (physical) geographical characteristics. Dhubri borders Kokrajhar whose density of population is just 280. This gradient is a reason enough for ethnic diffusion. Ethnic diffusion is the reason for ethnic tension. Does it take a soothsayer to predict that? At least it takes an insensitive and incompetent government to ignore that.

As the Assamese singer Zubeen sang in his 2009 song:
“Kokaalotey tongaali khon bandhiboley hol, Aako aebaar Aakhomiya jaagibole hol”.
Meaning: It is time to tie the traditional scarf on our hips again; it is time of the Assamese to rise again.
The question is – which Assamese?