Shabir Hossain, 39, has his tasks cut out for the day. Along with some of his acquaintances, he will visit the person who had promised to prepare documents for them and inquire into the status of the papers needed to prove that India has been their country of residence since before the cut-off date mandated by the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. “It will take a lot of time,” the ragpicker and father of three says quietly.
In a slum in Odisha's Bhubaneswar, which is home to hundreds of Muslim migrant families, like Shabir's, scores of children are busy playing near a large cluster of dingy, muddy structures with polythene sheets serving as roofs, while others are sitting on tricycle rickshaws. One of them is Shabir's son Imtiaz, long-haired, aged around 10 years.
Shabir claims to have migrated from a village near Mecheda in West Bengal’s Medinipur district a couple of decades ago. Others in the colony, he says, hail from Medinipur, Bardhaman, Malda, Bashirhat and South 24 Parganas districts. Many of them lack any document to prove their domicile status, he concedes.
Unlike Shabir, others don’t mince their words on the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. Their stark eyes and stoic silence fail to conceal the pain, insecurity, anxiety and apprehension they feel. Sadat Khan, 57, a farmer in Kendrapara district’s Rajnagar, blames last month’s tropical Cyclone Bulbul for all his woes. “First, it (cyclone) badly damaged our paddy crops. Then came CAA."
Zaheer Khan, a 50-year-old residing in Mahakalapada block, says that local Muslims had come to the Kendrapara district from Medinipur in search of livelihood. They have been living in the district with their families for several decades, in many cases for generations. He thinks it’s very difficult to ascertain who is staying illegally and in case one is labelled an illegal immigrant, “Where will he go, which country will allow him to enter and stay?”
Interestingly, in 2005, 1,551 ‘suspected Bangladeshis’ had been issued ‘Quit India’ notice (under the Foreigners’ Act, 1948) by the Kendrapara district administration. However, none of them was a Muslim.
In 2007, a Bangladeshi national Khokan Sheikh was reportedly convicted by a court on charges of illegally staying for more than three years in the port town of Paradip without visa or citizenship documents. Ranjan Kumar Das, sarpanch of Kharinasi Panchayat under Mahakalapada block, which is dominated by Bengalis from Bangladesh, welcomes the CAA and NRC and believes it is for India's betterment.
In the sea side Hariabanka village under Kharinasi Panchayat of Mahakalapada block, 87-year-old Subodh Chandra Samanta was one of the earliest migrants to arrive in the area from Mahisagote in East Medinipur district of West Bengal in 1948.
Even though age seems to have had an impact on his memory, Subodh recalls that when he reached Hariabanka, the entire region was dense forest and while walking, they had to keep their eyes fixed on the ground to avoid snake or scorpion bites. “Only 120 families lived in this Panchayat then,” Samanta says. Today, its population has grown to over 12,000, with a majority of the inhabitants being from Bangladesh. According to the octogenarian, the process of immigration (both Hindus and Muslims) continues on a regular basis.
Subodh has heard from the villagers about the CAA. Gathering his experience, he says, irrespective of religion, caste, creed or wealth, India will never be unfair to anyone. “At my age, people don’t lie,” he says.
However, after the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill got the Parliament and President's nod, migrants went on an overdrive to procure as many documents possible to prove their domicile status. “In the process, they are being looted by touts, who charge hefty amounts. They can’t read and hence, would not know if the papers they receive have any authenticity or legal value,” a Bhubaneswar-based entrepreneur says, adding that the touts are "having a field day".
According to this businessman, over 2,000 Muslims from West Bengal reside in Bhubaneswar. Most are into jobs like ragpicking, scrap collection and stitching of mosquito nets. Some are pheri wallas, selling commodities door to door. Their average daily income is Rs 400-450 and most can’t even sign their names, he says.
According to senior journalist Manoj Kar, a migrant can be easily recognised from his language, accent or attire. Most have availed necessary documents, including Aadhaar and Voter ID card, over the years. “A stricter mechanism and constant vigil can help identify who is legal and who is not,” says Kar. However, not a single innocent person or family should suffer, he added.
After the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) lent support in the Parliament to the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, which has since become an Act, its leader and Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik announced that his party doesn’t support National Register of Citizens (NRC). Meanwhile, anti-CAA rallies have been held in different parts of Odisha.
Even though Patnaik had informed the Odisha Assembly in 2015 that 3,987 Bangladesh nationals were illegally staying in the state, unofficial estimates have pegged the figure at 7-8 lakh.
Senior Congress leader Mohammed Moquim says roughly 15-16 percent voters in his assembly constituency Cuttack-Barabati are Muslims. Alleging that CAA singles out only one community, he says, “That’s why, not only the Muslims, but people from all communities and intellectuals across the country are opposing it.”
Human rights activist Pradipta Nayak goes a step further as he says, “Religion should never be the basis of any policy. CAA is unconstitutional and the government should scrap it unconditionally.”
However, others like Bhubaneswar-based electrical goods supplier Ashok Jena, 49, believes CAA was essential for the country. Based on his experiences of frequent travels across Kendrapara and Jagatsinghpur districts, Jena opines that illegal Muslim immigrants take the sea route and arrive at Jambu in Kendrapara. “Not only has their number spiraled, they are also committing a lot of mischief,” Jena argues.
Names and locations of some people have been changed on request for anonymity
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Updated Date: Dec 29, 2019 15:56:26 IST