The NRC-CAB is the RSS’ new Ram Janmabhoomi issue — it will last for as many years as they are in power and continue to divide the people of north India, not because Muslims will be denied citizenship instantly, but because of the social processes that have already been unleashed. As the most immediate response, we see death — in Bengal and Assam we have seen death, either caused by one’s own hand, borne of the possibility of losing one’s home and family, or the death caused by state repression. But we shall see other deaths too, equally swiftly, of social processes that have somehow kept this highly unequal and unjust society we have, from descending into sheer anarchy, from the possibility of a civil war breaking out.
We have witnessed such an extended moment in the subcontinent once before when the country was partitioned. We are in the process of seeing it once again. We shall see the syncretic traditions of people’s faith shredded and torn asunder from each other, and we shall see the old RSS weapon of proselytism by fear — “shuddhikaran” or purification deployed with state backing. We shall be utterly powerless in the face of these strategies, because Muslims will either have to accept this shuddhikaran or go to camps. It will not matter whether they have been ruled as citizens by the NRC or not.
I am sharing the story of what happened to the Muslims of Khirki village in 1947, according to Anis Kidwai’s In Freedom’s Shade, which I have always found the most heart-rending because of the failure of the activists to achieve any resolution. In the text below, I don’t know what place-name you can read instead of “Pakistan” but I do believe that the rest of the situation will not be very different today.
“In February, two men escaped from Khirki village to Humayun’s Tomb camp. Their shorn heads with chotis caused much consternation. Groups of Muslims would form around them, hear their story and disperse to recount it. Some old villagers finally brought them to me. I was told that in many villages in Mehrauli, Najafgarh and Narela, Muslims were being forcibly converted. Now pretending to be Hindus, they were biding their time for an opportunity to escape. The two men asked us to help the trapped Muslims: “Have them brought out and send them to Pakistan, please.”
I said, “My brothers, that would be wrong. I ask all of you not to leave, and you expect me to send them away? I can bring them to Delhi for a month or two until things normalise and they can return to their villages. Some houses in the Muslim Zone are empty, so they can stay there but they must return as soon as peace prevails.”
My inexperience had deluded me into believing this impossible scheme to be an easy solution. The two men, however, immediately agreed and left for the village. Shortly after, armed with security guards, the police and trucks, we began the programme of rescuing the terrified Muslims. The truth behind the conversions was that though Hindu brothers had no objections to Muslims of their own class, zamindars, or artisans leaving for Pakistan, when it came to skilled labourers, carpenters, blacksmiths, oilmen — they felt it to be a question of their own survival. If these people left, how would their fields be ploughed? If these Muslims had been allowed to live in the city, they wouldn’t have been without work. They would have been able to earn by their labour. However, once the trend of “purification” of rural Muslims began, it spread like wildfire; Jamiat too received numerous requests for rescue; in some villages, hundreds of Muslims had been forced to convert.
On the one hand was the Muslims’ insistence that not one “purified” Muslim be left behind, on the other, the government’s injunction that no one be forced to leave and all assistance be accorded to the wronged. This order had been in existence for some time but was being implemented vigorously by the police and the administration now, under their own unique interpretation of it. The intent behind the order had been to enable those who wanted to stay to do so without fear of religious conversion or eviction, but the administration’s implementation meant that in the presence of the collectorate officials, a panchayat of forty villages was held and two whole villages of Muslims converted to Hinduism. For this dedication to duty, they were applauded by the local government, which commended them for maintaining such peace that no person felt the need to flee to Pakistan!
I accompanied the rescue team to Khirki, where fifty to sixty Muslims were being forcibly held. There was some apprehension of trouble, so the police surrounded the village. On just one call, all the Muslims rushed out. Three said that they had been converted and did not want to leave either the village or the religion. We accepted their decision; we didn’t want to take up cudgels on behalf of either religion, provided the conversion was voluntary. We would fight against what was unjust.
How wrong we had been to think that it would be easy to get the Muslims out! When we announced our decision to take them away, a barrage of objections arose. There was the question of the Muslims’ houses, on which they had spent a lot—but how could one hope to rent out a house in rural areas? Then there was the issue of their land if they left the village, how would they retain control? And what about their livestock—the price they were getting was a quarter of its worth!
On top of all of this was that eternal debt, the fate that a farmer of those times brought into the world and carried till his dying day. Each owed something to another and the mahajans got their ledgers out at once, lest even a straw be left unaccounted for. Some clamoured for the settlement of other obligations; even wedding invitations were seen through the prism of indebtedness: “I gave so much to your brother when he married. But you are leaving before there has even been any talk of a marriage in my house—so pay up your dues!”
Luckily, one of our companions was a Congressi lawyer, Mr Parkash; his legal acumen proved useful. He had the ledgers thrown open and his examination of dates and sums exposed the extortion. Many of the “outstanding” sums had long been repaid. This gave the departing villagers some reprieve. Though property didn’t hold any value at the time, he managed to at least thwart attempts to snatch away ploughs and cattle. Working in concert with the police—Mr Parkash through reasoning; Mr Button through scolding—the departing farmers got some money after all. The matter of wedding “debts” was dismissed too.
I had thought that ultimately these people would refuse to leave but they remained firm, even as the baniyas displayed their meanness. Meanwhile, all the children had jumped into the trucks, Hindus and Muslims together, laughing in excitement, as if they were off to a village fair. The moment of departure came. As aged Hindu and Muslim women clutched each other and wailed loudly, many young girls sobbed quietly in each other’s arms. An old farmer gazed at his chana fields, wiping his tears, “See that keekar tree over there, I planted it myself. Look how big it has grown, nearly ready now . . . Who will harvest it, I wonder?”
Caressing beloved walls and embracing doors one last time, the farmers left, and were scattered like fallen leaves all over the city. I met some of them again but failed to soothe away their heartache. Some days later, I heard that love of the land drew them to Nizamuddin but there too, they were disappointed. This longing ultimately drove most of them to Pakistan, but who knows whether their desire was sated there, or indeed whether they survived at all.
I couldn’t endure the farewell. I told the officer, “This is terrible work. I won’t be able to do this again. Please ask someone else to accompany you.” I did not go again.
… the Khirki village experience taught us a great lesson. We had failed in making the villagers content in what they had. We couldn’t stop them from going to Pakistan. We couldn’t fulfil our promise of returning them to their villages after a month. We were the reason that a village was deserted. To this day, I am ashamed of this mistake but I also ask myself, what else could we have done?”