NRC in Assam: India ignored 'Atithi Devo Bhava' tradition, 'Hindu humanity' in citizenship verification process
Even if someone is the child or grandchild of a Bangladeshi or even a Bangladeshi migrant themselves, then so what? My culture and my religion tells me that I must treat them with humanity. I don't think we are showing this Hindu humanity in the process of NRC, writes Aakar Patel
Over the decades I have travelled to many countries, perhaps 30 or 40 or so. But never have I seen the tradition of offering a guest or a stranger who has come uninvited to your house, a glass of water, as in India. My mother did not specifically teach me to do this, but because she did that every time someone came home, I developed the habit.
These days, most of us have more strangers knocking on our doors than what was seen four decades ago. The courier delivery people, the cable television repair guys, and several other such other people drop in almost every day. They do not expect to be treated as guests at each house they go to, but because it is my habit I still ask them if they want to sit down and have a glass of water.
When some years ago I read the Valmiki Ramayana (the version I read is an excellent translation by my friend Arshia Sattar and published by Penguin), I was surprised to see that this tradition existed in the time of Shri Ram as well. Every time Shri Ram would go to a new place, whether some rishi’s (saint's) hut in the jungle or some poor person’s place in a village, he would be offered a glass of water as part of a ceremony. This is our Indian tradition and we should be proud of it, especially because as I have said, I do not think anyone else around the world seems to have it.
We are all familiar with the line Atithi Devo Bhava, which comes from one of the Upanishads. The exact line is ‘Matru Devo Bhava, Pitru Devo Bhava, Acharya Devo Bhava, Atithi Devo Bhava’ and we were taught this sentence in our school in Surat. It means that the mother, father, teacher and guest must be respected like God. Those of us who think of ourselves as Hindus, must consider what the true meaning of being Hindu is in the light of such instruction from our texts.
Have we seen any such respect or even sympathy, in this business of the disenfranchisement that is going in Assam? The allegation is that many of the 40 lakh people who have not been able to identify themselves as being Indian citizens from before 1971 are actually Bangladeshis.
There has been some sympathy for those, like former president of India Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed's relatives, who have not been able to prove their citizenship. But the assumption has been that these are genuine and deserving Indians who are being left out.
My concern is for all of them. Even if someone is the child or grandchild of a Bangladeshi or even a Bangladeshi migrant themselves, then so what? My culture and my religion and my upbringing tells me that I must treat them, and especially those of them who are poor and weak, with humanity. I do not think that we are showing this Hindu humanity and humaneness in the process of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which to me seems inherently cruel.
What do we imagine those who are born in Bangladesh or those whose parents were born there are doing in India? The knee-jerk reaction will be casual allegations like they are taking part in terrorist activities, are infiltrating our society, and taking advantage of the things that India has.
Such a similar allegation is also happening in the US under the American president Donald Trump. He has said he does not want immigrants from ‘shit-hole countries’ but only from places like Norway. Meaning he does not want people from Africa and India (even though many Indian immigrants apply for the highly valued H1B visa which adds to the America economy) but from white countries.
The main anger is directed towards the Mexicans who are thought to come because they want to 'mooch'. This is an American expression which means someone who lives off the benefits of the state, such as free housing and cheap public transport, and unemployment benefits but is generally lazy.
I know America well, and in my experience the Mexican immigrant is, along with the illegal Gujarati Patel immigrant, among the hardest working people in that country. We know of Patel Motels but we should also know that most of these people migrated without proper visas and began their careers cleaning motel rooms, which requires hard physical labour. Something similar is happening with Bangladeshis, or those people who may be Indian but are thought to be Bangladeshis.
If we look around, at the service staff in restaurants, the watchmen and other such people across all parts of India, we would realise that many of them are from Bengal, either east or west.
In Italy, there are many illegal Bangladeshi immigrants across the country, but they are without question enterprising and hardworking and have come there because they think it is a good and decent place to live in. Why should we spit on such people who come to us because they actually like our nation more than theirs?
One hardly needs to tell a reader what he/she already knows, that unlike America and Europe India does not have free or subsidised public housing, Indians do not get unemployment benefits and India doesn't have good public health care either. India is a hard place to live in for someone who is poor.
We should keep this in mind we debate what's the next stage is in this journey towards declaring these people foreigners and figuring out what to do with them.
And we should, especially those in positions of power who take pride in our culture and tradition and religion, ask ourselves who are we to interpret Atithi Devo Bhava for such individuals.
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