For These Hindu Migrants from Bangladesh, India Proves a Bridge Too Far

Guwahati: Taha Amin Mazumder  13 Jul 2018

The ongoing National Register of Citizens of India (NRC) process in Assam has triggered anxiety among lakhs of Indian Bengali Muslims in the state who fear being classified as undocumented immigrants but also anger among a section of Assamese who resent the Modi government’s decision to grant Indian citizenship to Bangladeshi Hindus. Caught between the BJP’s Muslim-phobic ‘Hindu nationalism’ and Assam’s own anti-Bangladeshi nationalism, official policy on the ground ends up working to its own logic, as the case of  a 110-year-old Bangladeshi woman and her son demonstrated.

When Unomati Biswas crossed the border into India a decade ago, along with her son Radhika Biswas, she was already over 100 years old. Her son was at least 60 years old. Arrested in May 2017, they told the court that they had crossed the border to escape religious persecution and had been residing in India for 10 years. They were acquitted by a local court, citing a September 7, 2015 gazette notification, giving them legal status as “persons belonging to minority communities in Bangladesh and Pakistan … compelled to seek shelter in India due to religious persecution”.

Despite this ruling, they are now believed to be back in Bangladesh. And thereby hangs a tale.

May 2017: Two old people loitering at a school building seek asylum in jail

In May 2017, Arijit Aditya, editor of a leading Bengali-language Silchar daily, Dainik Jugasankha, received information that two Bangladeshis were living in the verandah of the Sarbodhay Vidyalaya school at Malugram, Silchar. He rushed to the spot with his photographer, Partha Sheel. The next day’s edition carried the news of two Bangladeshi nationals – one of whom called Prime Minister Narendra Modi his ‘father’ – seeking asylum in India. They were Unomati and Radhika. 

Radhika told Aditya, “We saw a picture of Narendra Modi with a crown on his head. Looking at the picture, I called him our baba (father). He said he would give Hindus shelter here in India and let us live with honour. Now, we are urging Modi baba to send us back to Bangladesh or provide us asylum in jail.”

Aditya later included the duo’s story in his critically acclaimed book D-Rashtrai Jakhan Nipriok (D, as in doubtful voter, When the State is the Oppressor). He remembers how the day after the news was published, local policemen arrested the mother-son duo for violating the Foreigners Act by entering India and staying in the country without proper documentation.

May 28, 2018: Acquitted by the court

After a year-long court battle, the 110-year-old (age as per court records) Unomati Biswas and her son Dhatu Biswas (as named in court records) stepped out of jail. The Silchar judicial magistrate had acquitted them, saying they “are entitled to get exemption as per the gazette notification dated September 7, 2015 and the provision attached to section 2 of the Immigrants (Expulsion from Assam) Act, 1950.”

The court also said, “it is pertinent to mention here that the Foreigners Act, 1946 is amended as per the gazette notification dated September 7, 2015, whereby an exemption provision is inserted which runs as follows: ‘3A. Exemption of certain class of foreigners – (1) persons belonging to minority communities in Bangladesh and Pakistan, namely, Hindus, Sikhs, Budhdhist, Jains, Parsis and Christians  who were compelled to seek shelter in India due to religious persecution or fear of religious persecution and entered into India on or before December 31, 2014 …’”

Where is Unomati Biswas?

Following their release by the court on May 28, 2018, the local media asked Unomati where she wanted to go. Her response was simply “Bangla” (her homeland Bangladesh). However, they were given shelter in the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s (VHP) Cachar district office at Govindabari, as per arrangements made by a Silchar-based lawyer, Rajib Nath.

They were still living there, when on June 11, 2018, the border police – responsible for detention and detection of foreigners – reportedly interrogated them for hours. VHP officials confirmed this.

On June 12, 2018, two fresh cases were reportedly registered by the border police against them at the No. 1 Foreigner’s’ Tribunal of Cachar district. The Silchar daily, Samayik Prasanga, reported that they were arrested at the behest of the BJP-run state government, which was trying to appease Assamese sentiment. There is, among ordinary Assamese, strong opposition to any  Bangladeshi immigrants – documented or undocumented, Hindu or Muslim – staying in the state. 

The tribunal, however, is reluctant to comment on the issue. It did not confirm if the cases had been filed and if they had been, that the proceedings would take time. Interestingly, they are also clueless about Unomati Biswas’s location — as is Unomati Biswas’s lawyer Ranju Deb.

The quest to find Unomati

When this reporter reached the VHP office to meet the mother and son on July 3, 2018, a VHP representative said they had left the premises on June 21. He refused to make any further comments in the absence of the VHP prantiya sangathan mantri, the local VHP chief.

Finally, on July 6, 2018, VHP officials declared that Unomati and Radhika Biswas had stayed in the shelter home for a couple of days but due to the attention of the media, the police and curious locals, they left for Agartala in Tripura, where their relatives received them. The VHP officials added that they had no further information about their present location.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, however, a source revealed that Unomati Biswas and her son had returned to Bangladesh, as per Unomati’s wish.

However, questions remain. Why did they come to India? Why were they living in a school building? What circumstances broke their dream of staying in their “baba” Modi’s India?

Glimpses of a sordid tale

Arijit Aditya gives a hint in his book as to why Unomati Biswas had to cross the border. He writes, “Old Unomatibala and her son’s tale is a quintessential one. Indian relatives of Bangladeshi Hindus lure them in to crossing the border with the promise of Indian citizenship. But their real intention is to loot the Bangladeshis.”

Aditya recounts that Dhatu had sold all their possessions in Bangladesh, including property worth about Rs 7 lakh. They paid Rs 18,000 per head to ‘touts’ on both sides of the border to cross illegally near Tripura nearly 10 years ago. Eventually, they reached his cousin’s home in Choto Dudhpatil village of Cachar district in Assam. 

Dhatu gave Rs 5 lakh to his cousin for safekeeping. However, when he discovered that his cousin was spending the money, he tried to claim it back. After discussions overseen by the local panchayat officials, he got back only Rs 1 lakh.

The cousin then allegedly drove them out of Choto Dudhpatil after beating the mother-son duo. Dhatu and Unomati reached the Malugram area of Silchar, where they rented a small hut for Rs 600 per month. Here, they met a person called Manik, who assured Dhatu that their names would be enlisted in the National Register of Citizens (NRC) if they paid him Rs 95,000. However, Manik disappeared after taking the money.

Local sources say that Manik is now dead, leaving Dhatu and his mother penniless.

Religious persecution

Unomati Biswas told the court they had come to India due to “religious persecution”. However, when Arijit asked why she decided to leave her motherland, Unomati said, “I won’t lie, the Muslims never humiliated us.” Dhatu, however, disagreed with his mother, saying, “No, they didn’t torture us physically. But not all torture is physical, sometimes the mental trauma leaves its marks.”

Perhaps Unomati Biswas has reached her homeland now. In their hope of a better life in India, they had sold all their possession. Perhaps she and her son are seeking asylum in their homeland too. Dhatu Biswas perhaps still dreams about a king with a crown on his head, who would provide shelter someday in the India of his dreams. ( The Wire )