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Retention Camp: A Sympathetic Critique

Bhaskar Majumder

If everything goes normal or goes as we like it then social scientists become redundant. This is not to claim that all social scientists at all time are relevant for the society. But that creates more confusion for the society may not be homogenous at any point of time and hence some of the social scientists may seem more relevant and some less. So, it is prudent if the social sciences and social scientists are looked at from the angle of ‘’less and more’’ and not as totally irrelevant. The question also gets linked with media and state, assuming the media is not a direct component of the state.

Let me come to the question direct rather than my habit of beating around the bush. The base is the National Register of Citizens (NRC) for Assam, exclusion of some from the list and hence declaration of the excluded from the citizenship of India (that is illegal immigrants at some point of time in history). The option for the state is to deport them but in absence of credible information on their root like Bangladesh or Myanmar or elsewhere, for innocent people being innocent always, the state took what it thought as a judicious decision to rehabilitate these excluded. By this the excluded will be included.

Even if the innocent adult people could have reported their root country by political sovereignty of the latter, it would have been difficult to deport the NRC-excluded for the other sovereign countries are India-neutral “sovereign’ not much willing to get back their non-listed citizens. The idea of double citizenship of the NRC-excluded is obviously ruled out.

The problem is on two fronts: one is on nomenclature, why ‘retention’? In glossary of words it means custody, preservation, and maintenance. In each of the situations the self-decisions of the persons retained are not allowed. This may mean by elasticity of imagination that these excluded people are adversely included by the state. Adverse inclusion may be natural like the scavenger or the sweeper in public works – so, nothing new in the system; the other dimension is the adverse inclusion of some persons is planned by the state. The second one refers to the NRC-excluded people in Assam. The second problem is beyond nomenclature – it is in the operational domain: what these excluded but adversely included people are supposed to do in the retention camps? For the time being it covered the state of Assam but it may encompass other areas/states in India any time.

In my understanding people are in continuous move from region to region without caring for the boundary of a state or even the geographic boundary of a country. Pre-1914 there was no Passport-Visa for such movements and post-1914 many such people not only did not stop to move out but also were drawn to other regions and countries not less by the state. For example, the people seen as indentured labourers drawn from India. One fine morning it cannot stop notwithstanding the pious decision of the sovereign state. Innocent people hardly understand the intricacies of the time compartments in history of time.

So, the problem now becomes bigger – it is from self-determination to state-determination. Of course, self-determination cannot escape the authority of the state for the state keeps a vigil on who does what. Also, state-determinism is not to be seen in negativity like the virtues in Hindu arranged marriage when the marriageable individuals fail to understand what is good for them. The guardian decides who to marry by some perceived indicators. Same or similar is in ‘’guardian mode’’ when the state decides what is to be done with the nation, that is, people.

For the time being I leave the questions like permitting the NRC-excluded people to re-apply for inclusion in state citizenship or allowing these people to apply for Passport to go for Visa to get resettled in other countries which seem to be remote possibilities. We also reject the possibility of these NRC-excluded people to knock the door of the Judiciary to get justice. We accept for the time being that the state will rehabilitate these NRC-excluded people in the Retention camps.

As a layman I fail to locate the geographic space where these Retention camps are going to be set up, if already these do not exist. I believe these are not going to be like central jails (though I don’t have any idea how the jails look like from inside). But I understand there is an oceanic gap between the forests-parks and the jails. After the geographic question of location of these Retention camps are solved, the question comes on the nature of labour where these people may be engaged by the state for these people may for sure not get the opportunity to be ‘free labour’. Are they going to be forced labour like in labour camps or prison labour?

Once the geographic locations and labour-related issues are solved, there come the subsequent issues like maintaining a Register of all the persons/households rehabilitated in the Retention camps and an authority specified to look after the Register. But these are cosmetic questions. The major question remains, once the persons are plonked in the Retention camps, can they ever in lifetime get the chance to be freed? If not, then Retention camps become an assembly of bonded persons. The bonded persons look like slaves. Of course, India that is Bharat had no history of slavery in European tradition. Other than one basic indicator like individual being bought and sold by masters, the neo-bondage may work through the state.

Some of the questions are pre-mature like the right to life of the people in the Retention camps through right to food and right to education. The other rights like right to information are not imaginable at this point when the very human survival of the people is at peril for their being stateless.

Events in human history are too vast to be proved with evidence in each case. To make that history precise, I may mention that the forced Partition 1947 made people across border on the east directionless – some moving towards the west (West Bengal) and some moving towards further east (undivided Assam). Again the 1971 War that caught people in East Pakistan unaware many of who moved out to West Bengal and some might have moved to further east. The subsequent political turmoil in Bangladesh is known for the whole of the 1970s. The newly created Bangladesh geographically is between West Bengal on the west and undivided Assam on the east with a chicken neck of West Bengal on the north linking India’s extreme east and the rest of India. The current year 2019 is too late in history to accuse the forced Partition 1947 or 1971 War for all human disaster. More so, it was not partition of two geographic areas, it partitioned the people. Once mistrust was engineered since 1947 that culminated in 1971 and subsequent phenomena that further divided people on the axis of religion, people became more nervous for they continued to experience phenomena inhuman by any indicator in human civilization. What innocent people need is a village where they can maintain their livelihood. These innocent people have no idea about who runs the state.

Had people understood the cut off year as declared by the competent authority in India, the innocent people could have sold all their meagre possessions like land and house to move to India (probably to get space in slums to start with or railway platforms). My parents moved in to West Bengal in and around 1946-47 empty hand but education-weighted following the Partition-led Riot of 1946; still my grandfather was willing to go back to East Pakistan! But then ignorance is bliss up to a point. The war-partition point often truncates the benefits of ignorance post what these people become geographic refugees or illegal immigrants or development refugees. I stretch my imagination to understand that the innocent people living happily in the villages-forests in undivided Assam started feeling the heat not abruptly but since the size of undivided Assam got narrowed down by creation of seven sisters. What a large size could accommodate or could hide came to be visible by ethnicity and competing claims over public utilities over last few decades. The state took note of that and applied its mechanism called NRC to arrive at a conclusion what it intended.

Of late, one question has been floated out of proportions – it is nationality. Both the questions are important – nationality and humanity. In a trade off, I shall go for the triumph of humanity. The problem is, nationality is not only to be respected but also to be displayed, the latter in a state frame. The human beings with humanity as currently excluded from NRC need human space that may be different from Retention camps. It may be difficult for the agencies to conceptualize humanity in a state frame. It is now for the civil society to ponder over.              

Bhaskar Majumder, Professor of Economics, G. B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad - 211019

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Sep 21, 2019


Bhaskar Majumder [email protected]

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