It’s past two on an unusually cloudy day in late December. Asit Mirdha, 54, with stacks of paddy loaded on his shoulders, arrives at his two-room thatched house in Hariabanka village of Kharinasi panchayat under Mahakalapada block of Odisha’s coastal Kendrapara district.
"There are chances of rain, so we are busy harvesting. Once it’s over, we wouldn’t have to worry about food for the next year," says Asit with a wide grin.
Like Asit’s, all the 1,551 families of Mahakalapada and Rajnagar blocks in Kendrapara which had been served ‘quit India’ notice (under the Foreigners Act, 1946) by the district administration in 2005 are all smiles. For them, the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019, enacted earlier this month, is a long-cherished dream come true.
Many other families in Hariabanka, a Bangladeshi majority village, had received the ‘quit India’ notice as well. Now, with the term illegal immigrants gone, and with it the fear of deportation, they are about to set out on a new life.
On the night the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2019 was passed in the Rajya Sabha, they had thronged on the road. Kharinasi Sarpanch Ranjan Kumar Das informs: “They danced, burst crackers and hugged each other. Joy, tears... everything was there in abundance. For them, it is the greatest (post) Diwali and New Year gift.”
Das’ grandfather too had come from Bangladesh in 1949.
“You can’t imagine how much relieved we are today. We will remain ever grateful to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, he can make anything possible,” says a villager.
“Humiliation and the ghost of ‘quit India’ are permanently away from us,” he adds.
Even days before the dawn of the New Year, celebrations, though muted, have already begun in Hariabanka village, and frantic congratulatory calls are being exchanged among the residents.
“After we receive the government’s letter in this regard, we will celebrate,” informs Asit, still apprehensive that things might take a U-turn, again. A classic case of once bitten twice shy.
Asit’s expression changes abruptly, the frown lines on his face become easily visible, as he recalls how the notice had crashed his and others dreams.
“The blow was too heavy and hot to bear. We were in tears,” Asit recounts.
“We stared at uncertainty. No one should ever go through such a painful experience,” he says, trying to brush his right palm on his face. Not to wipe the dust, but the drops of tears welling up in his eyes.
According to Asit, excessive torture and brutalities had forced his grandfather to flee from Kumkhali village under Khulna district of erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1948. He says he was born in Hariabanka.
Pointing to a tiny tin trunk, tucked in a corner of the room, he says, it contains his documents — voter identity card, PAN and Aadhaar card, etc. “I don’t know how I was served the notice,” he exclaims. Others say the same, too.
“Now, we can live peacefully till death,” hopes Asit.
“Next time you visit here, please let me know in advance, we will have a small party,” he adds.
“I will serve bhaat (rice), mishti (sweets) and maachher jhol (fish curry),” says his wife, Ashalata (49), holding the two toddlers of her daughter Ashima.
Not all, though, are as ecstatic. A few houses away, Bhabotosh Ray (65), is busy cleaning grass on a small rectangular patch of land, bordering the boundary of bamboo and sticks around his muddy house. He has forgotten that the fire on the bidi in his lips has been doused since long.
On being repeatedly asked if he’s happy today, Bhabotosh’s stony face doesn’t evoke any response or emotion. A minute later, he raises his head, and replies curtly, “It (CAA) has little meaning for me, at this ripe age."
His daughter, Sulochana, 37, is standing by the entrance of the house. Bhabotosh has five daughters. All of them are married.
"Let the government implement National Register of Citizens (NRC). For fifteen years, he has undergone too much trauma. If he is thrown out of the country, he will not complain," a visibly angry Sulochana intervenes.
She goes on and on till Bhabotosh’s wife Sobharani (54) comes out with a tall and wide-eyed Siba Prasad, in tow. Bhabotosh and Sobharani’s last hope, their son, Siba Prasad, 28, is mentally challenged.
Bhabotosh says he is originally from the Malda district of West Bengal but his in-laws are from Bangladesh. Sobharani, unlike her daughter, however, is calm. She complains that Bhabotosh had been wrongly slapped the 'quit India' notice.
Interestingly, years ago, Sobharani had tried her luck, though unsuccessfully, as a Biju Janata Dal (BJD) nominee in the panchayat election (for the post of Panchayat Samiti member). Though she hasn’t flirted with electoral politics after that, she claims no one can change her loyalty to Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik and the BJD.
“BJD ku chhaadi paribini (Can’t leave the BJD)," she says.
The uncertain future though hasn’t deterred the community from their allegiance to political ideologies — left, right or centre — and the parties. According to septuagenarian Niranjan Panda of Jagatsinghpur, politicians too, use them as loyal voters.
Asit says that the 1,551 families slapped with the 'quit India' notice had challenged it in the Odisha High Court in 2016 for not being provided with ration card and other such government schemes. The court had given a ruling directing the authorities to not take any coercive action against them.
Most of the Bangladeshi’s settled in the different districts along the Bay of Bengal eke out their living by fishing; invariably all of them are dependent upon agriculture as well. While many have bought land, others cultivate on government land and are sharecroppers.
While some of them are into small-time unorganised businesses, a few are in government jobs. In 2009, Kendrapara administration had suspended primary teachers Gouranga Baidya of Baulakani panchayat and Laxmirani Mistri of Ramnagar under Mahakalapada block after they were served with 'quit India' notice.
There is no accurate figure as far as the number of Bangladeshi’s residing in the state is concerned. In 2015, Naveen Patnaik had informed the state Assembly that 3,987 Bangladeshis were illegally staying in the state. The highest (1,649) were in Kendrapara followed by 1,112 (in Jagatsinghpur) districts. In other districts, the number was far too less. However, unofficial estimates put their numbers somewhere between 6-8 lakh.
According to a Mahakalapada-based journalist, seven of the 31 panchayats in Mahakalapada block alone are dominated by Bangladeshis. Some of them are refugees, while others claim to have migrated from West Bengal. "That’s grossly true," he says, adding, "Majority of these people are Hindus, Muslims are few in number."
“Odisha in general and the coastal districts, in particular, have been a favourite destination for the Bangladeshis. The sea route, which provides easy passage, has been conveniently used by them. No agency has ever kept any count on who comes or goes,” believes a retired headmaster from Kendrapara, adding, "You simply can’t know who is staying, legally or illegally."
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Updated Date: Dec 28, 2019 21:44:20 IST