Recently, the image of a food menu from a restaurant in Guwahati went viral, not because of the items listed on it, but because of a certain customer service precondition – some would call it a warning – printed at the bottom.
“We don’t serve people of doubtful citizenship/illegal immigrants,” the restaurant declares, right below “Ethnic food only”. It almost appears as if the second pronouncement follows from the first.
The menu, posted on Facebook by user Partha Protim Borkotoky, is from a restaurant called Kharoli. Without reading too much into a random sentence printed on the menu card of a nondescript suburban restaurant in Assam, it is important to break that notification down.
“Doubtful citizenship” and “illegal immigrants” are not generic terms. They are legal-bureaucratic phrases used by the Indian state to profile a particular set of people living in Assam – usually those with origins in Bangladesh. The term “Doubtful Voters” or “D Voters” appears in electoral registries, while the appellation “illegal immigrant” is deployed in executive and judicial documents to refer to those who have entered India without valid papers.
In Assam’s context, these institutional vocabularies of doubt, suspicion and segregation have been in operation for many decades in one form or the other.
On this menu, however, there is a spilling over of the process of “doubting” beyond the state’s institutional spaces. By making that declaration, Kharoli Restaurant attempts to co-opt the precise bureaucratic language of citizenship determination and step into what should strictly be the remit of the state.
Only a border police constable, electoral officer, National Register of Citizen official, Foreigners Tribunal member or a judge can officially categorise individuals as “doubtful citizens” or “illegal immigrants”. But, no more, it seems. Now, everyone can doubt – and all can be doubted.
This also creates a deeper transformative possibility where everyday social spaces in Assam such as restaurants can become institutions in themselves. In order to refuse service to “doubtful citizens” or “illegal immigrants”, the restaurant will first need to actively identify them with a degree of certainty.
By making that declaration on its menu, the restaurant instantly transforms itself – or at least, seeks to transform itself – into a de facto Foreigners Tribunal or NRC authority. Its owners also become self-declared tribunal judges and NRC officials. The line between the state and the non-state becomes blurred.
What is especially unsettling is the restaurant’s usage of the term “doubtful citizenship”. In Assam, the state can “doubt” an individual’s citizenship and use that to strip them of voting rights or refer them to a tribunal. Despite this, a citizen whose citizenship is doubtful, in a strictly legal sense, is not an “illegal immigrant”. In Kharoli, however, that crucial distinction does not seem to matter. Here, doubt is served as a side dish.
As redundant as it may be, the question does arise of how the restaurant actually plans to identify “people of doubtful citizenship/illegal immigrants”. Do they have a document verification kiosk or biometric machine in their compound? Do they ask every customer for identity proof?
It is important to ask these questions because they help us understand how social othering works in Assam. The restaurant does not need to set up extensive identity verification systems to cross-check the citizenship status of customers. They do not need to. There is a pre-existing social script woven around deep-seated cultural and phenotypical biases that guides this process of profiling.
In plain words, customers who have certain names, and look, dress and speak in a specific manner will most likely fall through this restaurant’s profiling system. It is easy to guess who the first targets are likely to be: Bengal-origin Muslims who are reflexively branded as “Bangladeshis” in mainstream Assamese society.
Beyond this, it really does not matter how Kharoli Restaurant’s owners implement their own customer service notification. In fact, they have told Times Now that they won’t be checking documents of customers and that the key idea was to just “give a message”. They have even said that they wouldn’t refuse food to a customer who is an “illegal immigrant”, and only wanted to make their “intentions clear” by putting up such a warning on their menu.
So, what really matters here is the act of putting that notification, which helps the restaurant proudly project itself as a socially sanitised and ethnically unadulterated space, and its owners as vanguards of Assamese society. In fact, its discriminatory notification seeks to lend an added layer of authenticity to the “ethnic” nature of its food. This works as a tacit invitation to Assamese society to come and dine at Kharoli.
At the same time, it serves as a status-elevation tool wherein the restaurant becomes a solemn repository of the majoritarian consciousness. It is, thus, hardly a surprise that the menu garnered support from certain sections of the society days after it was first posted.
Prominent Assamese television anchor, Nandan Pratim Sharma Bordoloi, praised the restaurant’s declaration on Twitter, calling it an “exceptional step” and noting that he “respects the dignity of the institution”. Others lauded it as a “need of the hour”.
There is a strong vigilantist flavour in the food that this little-known restaurant on the outskirts of Guwahati is serving. But this is a flavour that one can discern far beyond Kharoli, seeping deep into the region’s social and political life.
Even as state-led demographic filtering processes like the National Register of Citizens entered the mainstream discourse over the last half a decade, so did a popular tendency to heckle and harass common people for proof of identity. The arbitrariness of the state’s institutions and processes began to reflect in everyday life. Foreigner detection became a social sport.
Whether this marks the process of vigilantes snatching the state’s mandate or the state implicitly sharing its own mandate with them will depend on how the state responds to individual acts of vigilantism. So far, there has been no action against Kharoli Restaurant for making a service distinction that arguably violates Article 15 of the Indian Constitution that forbids discrimination on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth.
No state official or elected representative has made any comment, either. No court has taken suo moto – of its own accord – cognisance of this menu. This could, of course, be read as plain ignorance of an inconsequential matter. But, the other possibility is a disturbing one – the state putting its imprimatur on vigilantism. One truly hopes this is not the case.
Angshuman Choudhury is an Associate Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.