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‘Are you a Bangladeshi?’

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By Mosarrap H. Khan

When the Assam riots broke out in 2012, it got an increasingly communal hue, as is the case with any riots centering on religious identity. However, some of our well-meaning media experts had averred that the issue was never communal in the first place. Rather, they affirmed that the conflict must be viewed in its proper context – Indians versus the illegal immigrants. To put it bluntly, the term ‘illegal immigrants’ denoted the Bangladeshis, who supposedly had clandestinely, and often not so clandestinely, crossed over the porous border in the North East.

Some had voiced legitimate concerns about how these riot-affected people could possibly prove their identity as Indian citizens. When ‘Bangladeshi’ has become the new code word for exclusion, how could even a legitimate Indian citizen in Assam prove her/his identity? Could any amount of paper and plastic – e.g. the much touted aadhar card – prove one’s citizenship if the government agencies chose to ignore them?

Now that almost a year has elapsed since those tumultuous events that severely tested Indian polity, I would like to offer a personal story of state-sponsored identity-crisis as a counterpoint to some of the hypothetical, rhetorical, and legal debates about illegal immigrants in India. This story is offered NOT as an example of victimization but as an instance of an individual’s crisis of engagement with the secular, democratic state, which might be overlooked from the vantage point of a theoretical understanding of the Indian state.


I joined Kurseong College in the Darjeeling hills as a Lecturer-in-English in 2002. The interview for the job was conducted by the West Bengal College Service Commission (WBCSC) in Calcutta and I was recommended for appointment in Kurseong College after about six months. At the time, I was conducting research on Bengali Partition (1947) literature at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. I left my doctoral research mid-way and decided to plunge into teaching.

I was born at Kotulpur, a nondescript mofussil town (you can call it an extended village) in Bankura district in the southern part of West Bengal. Even though I was born there, I had spent only a few years there. As is the practice with most rural families that want to see their children educated, my parents sent me off to a boarding school run by the Ramakrishna Mission at Rahara, on the outskirts of Calcutta. From then on I lived in Calcutta, Burdwan, Hyderabad, and Delhi for my education.

When I landed in Kurseong, I was certain that it was merely a temporary arrangement before I managed a transfer to a college near Calcutta or move to another job in another college or, better still, in a university.

As it often happens with teaching jobs in India, one feels a sense of stagnation because of a lack of adequate research infrastructure in the colleges located away from the city. In late 2005, I decided to apply to a few North American universities to complete my doctoral study.


Instead of putting in a passport application in Bankura Regional Passport office, I decided to submit it at the Siliguripassport Passport Office. As I was living in Siliguri at the time, I thought it would be easier to get the police verification done. I received a phone call from the local police station within a couple of months. On the day of the appointment, I carried all my documents including voter identity card, ration card, PAN card, college appointment letter, and a letter from my college Principal. Even before verifying any of my documents, the inspector asked: ‘Are you a Bangladeshi?’

My wife, who had accompanied me, and, I were left speechless. I lost my sense of composure for a few seconds. I failed to understand how an officer could ask me such a question when I had all the relevant documents to prove my Indian citizenship.

In addition, all my documents had already been verified by the West Bengal government before regularizing my service and putting me on the payroll.

I took the officer’s question as a hint of seeking a bribe and, with hesitation, I handed him some money, as few friends had suggested this as a common practice during police verification.

The matter ended there and the officer promised to send the documents to the Calcutta Regional Passport Office which was supposed to issue my passport.


I waited expectantly. When it was about six months, I became a little restless as the usual time-frame for issue of a passport was about six-months at the time. When it was about a year and there was no trace of my passport, which was supposed to be delivered at home by post, I decided to enquire at the Calcutta office.

To my horror, I found that my passport application was withheld because the space for citizenship verification had been left blank in my police verification report. The report neither confirmed nor denied my status as an Indian citizen.

The officer in Calcutta suggested that I approach the Bankura office to get my police verification done. It took me another six months to get the passport from Calcutta. But not before I was asked to grease the palm of the officer in Calcutta quite generously. I had no other option as I had already registered for my TOEFL exam in early 2007.


When people speak of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, I am reminded of my engagement with a secular, democratic state at a time when the leftist government ruled. Even if the Assamese Muslims were Indian who settled in the Bodo administered territory, would any amount of proof serve to uphold their citizenship? If a tax-paying citizen on the government payroll could be denied his Indian citizenship so easily, what chance did many of these daily wage earners have?

Once ‘Pakistani’ used to be the code-word for suspension of Indian Muslims’ claim to natural citizenship. The new code-word seems to be ‘Bangladeshi’.

A note: I had written this piece after the Assam Riots and the subsequent Mumbai violence in 2012. I had sent it to quite a few ‘mainstream’ Indian newspapers and Magazines (among them a few that are supposed to be very sympathetic to Muslim causes). None of them ever got back to me. Probably, it didn’t suit their sanitized version of the critique of the Indian state. Perhaps, they might have felt, this story reeked of ‘victimhood’ so strongly that it would have offended the genteel sensibility of their middle-class readership.   


Mosarrap H. Khan is a doctoral candidate in the Dept. of English, New York University. He researches in the area of Muslim everyday life in South Asia. He is an editor of Cafe Dissensus.

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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Lucknow’s Many Muslims”. Edited by Prof. Nadeem Hasnain & Aseem Hasnain. The rich array of essays explores various facets of Lucknow, a ‘Muslim city par excellence.’

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