Jabeda Begum

The sale of George Orwell’s dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-four, has reportedly surged 10,000 times since a New York property developer was elected to the world’s most powerful office.  It would be interesting to know how the groundbreaking book has fared in India since the man from Gujarat moved to Delhi. For more than the land of the free or the Western hemisphere, it is in India that all the things that Orwell feared and warned about seem to be coming true under the current order.

Considered the most powerful critique yet of authoritarian systems and the mindset that spawns them, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, coupled with his equally iconic, Animal Farm continues to be invoked every time there is a suppression of freedom and civil liberties are attacked.

Perhaps no other author, with the exception of Kafka, with his very name evokes such powerful emotions and a whole world of word associations across the globe.

Orwell’s insights are recalled every time there is an assault by authoritarian individuals, states and ideologies on freedom of thought and action, basic rights, and human decency.  The very word ‘Orwellian’ has come to denote so many things — tyranny, oppression, surveillance by intrusive states and totalitarian systems, and fear of conformism, and much, much more.

The English author and activist, who rebelled against British imperialism as well as against Stalinist socialism and authoritarianism was incidentally born in Motihari, Bihar. “In a time of deceit,” Orwell once wrote, “telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”

I wonder what Orwell would have thought of Modi’s India and how it is being dismantled and taken apart under this order in the name of pretexts like nationalism, citizenship, immigration and identity.

I guess even Orwell would have scratched his head at this new notion of people being declared ‘stateless’ and ‘illegal’ overnight after living for centuries and generations in India.

Look at the case of Jabeda Begum from Assam who has been running from pillar to post to prove she is an Indian citizen.  It is not as if Jabeda does not have any documents to prove her Indian identity.  She has as many as 15 documents to prove she is not a Bangladeshi ‘infiltrator’ or ‘termite’ – in the words of Home Minister Amit Shah.

Following the dreaded NRC (National Register of Citizenship) exercise, her mother and two of her brothers have been recognised as Indians.  Yet she was declared ‘illegal’ by the infamous Foreigners’ Tribunal in 2018. Her repeated trips from her remote village in Baksa district to the Tribunal in Guwahati failed to impress the heartless officials.

A daily wage worker, whose husband is bedridden and daughter is a class 5 student, Jabeda spent everything she had to fight the case in Gauhati High Court. And now the High Court has upheld the Tribunal’s decision saying there is no “conclusive evidence” to prove she is an Indian citizen!

According to the NDTV, which first reported the heartbreaking story of the 50-year old Jabeda Begum, she submitted 15 documents, including the record of her father’s name in voter lists of 1966, 1970 and 1971, before the tribunal. But the officials rejected them all saying they offered no “satisfactory proof” of ties to her father.

She expected justice from the venerable judges of the High Court. But the court in its wisdom has chosen to dismiss her appeal. Rejecting all the documents, she submitted — land revenue receipts, bank statements and PAN card – the Court said they were not “conclusive proof of citizenship.”

Her last hope may be India’s Supreme Court.  However, Jabeda has already spent whatever she had and has nearly given up. “I am left with no more resources for legal battle,” she told reporter Ratnadip Choudhury, breaking into tears.

In any case, there is little hope of remedial action from the SC considering it was the top court under Justice Ranjan Gogoi, now retired, that had ordered Assam to conduct that disastrous NRC exercise in the first place, rendering two million people ‘illegal’ and with an uncertain future. Thousands are being incarcerated in detention centres in Assam and elsewhere in appalling conditions, reminding many of Hitler’s concentration camps for Jews.

In democracies across the world, the courts come to citizens’ rescue when their rights and liberties are threatened by the state or power-intoxicated politicians. In India’s case, unfortunately, the courts are increasingly providing fig leaf of legitimacy to the unprecedented assault on the rights of the poorest of the poor and marginalised minorities.

What has happened to Jabeda Begum is not an isolated incident or an exceptional case of one lone individual falling through the cracks of a gargantuan, indifferent Kafkayesque system. This can happen to anyone of us if the BJP and its fanatical Parivar has its way to push ahead with its openly discriminatory laws like the Citizenship Amendment Act and the dreaded NRC and NPR (National Population Register) throughout the country.

If anyone thinks only India’s Muslims, who are manifestly the chief target of this whole vicious campaign, would suffer, they need to think again.  Everyone would have to go through this ordeal although it is the poorest of the poor who would suffer the most.

Already banks across the country have been demanding compliance with NPR, considered the prelude to NRC. In my hometown Hyderabad, there has been growing panic after 127 people were issued notices to prove their citizenship saying their ‘Aadhar’ (identity) card is no proof of their Indian nationality.

The NRC in Assam, which the BJP long demanded and its paid media zealously supported, raising the bogey of “Bangladeshis” invading the Northeast, was meant to throw out the Muslims.  Ironically though, after the epic exercise that cost the exchequer thousands of crores of rupees, the Hindutva brigade discovered to its horror that the majority of those identified as “illegals” happen to be Hindus, its core constituency of course!  Talk of unintended consequences!

And now the BJP wants to declare the whole NRC exercise in Assam null and void to save its support base of Bengali Hindus.  Yet, ludicrously, despite the unmitigated disaster that the NRC has turned out to be in Assam, the ruling party wants to unleash the same disaster on the rest of the country!

Defying the relentless protests that have been rocking the country for the past two months and more against the CAA and the brazen attempts to change the secular character of the republic, the Dear Leader insists there is no question of going back.

This despite the humiliating defeat that his party has just been handed in Delhi. This regime’s contempt for public opinion and its propensity to obsess over the peripheral, non-issues is breathtaking.

At a time when the Indian economy is in a coma, jobs are disappearing and farmers are killing themselves in thousands, its continues to fight endless battles with its own shadows. On the one hand, we are desperate enough to sell the family silver like Air India and the LIC of India. On the other hand, we are prepared to throw away lakhs of crores of rupees on pointless exercises like the NRC and NPR that are nothing but the BJP’s fascist fantasies, fuelled by its long-festering hatred of all things Muslim.

Aijaz Zaka Syed is a journalist and former editor. Email: Aijaz.syed@hotmail.com. Twitter @AijazZaka


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