I met him on a grey August morning in his home on the outskirts of Silchar. He was 18.
The weather reflected the mood in Assam at that time. The state was rife with talk of “NRC” – the final draft of the much-anticipated National Register of Citizens, which had been released less than a week before. It was meant to be a roster of bonafide Indian citizens living in the state. But more than 40 lakh people who had applied for inclusion in the list had failed to make it.
The 18-year-old did not have much to contribute to the discussion. He had not applied at all. Only those who can prove they or their ancestors entered India before midnight on March 24, 1971, stand to be included in the citizenry list. He had come sometime in 2014 from Bangladesh’s Habiganj district in the Sylhet region. He was what the Indian state would call an “illegal migrant” – or simply “Bangladeshi” for the people of Assam.
Growing up in Guwahati, I had heard a lot about the “Bangladeshi” who spoke a strange language, was occupying our land, snatching our jobs, and had set his sights on taking over our culture. He was as much an object of derision as of fear.
But in the first 16 years of my life that I spent in Assam before moving out for higher studies and work, I do not recall meeting anyone who admitted to being a Bangladeshi.
I am not suggesting that the Bangladeshi is a mythical creature conjured up by my paranoid Assamese brethren (I dare not). It is quite possible that my Bangladeshi-radar was just poor. Besides, I grew up in the protected urban world of Guwahati and went to a posh public school.
In any case, he was the first undocumented migrant from Bangladesh with whom I had come face-to-face. Sure, I had met people earlier whose stories did not quite add up and whose accents seemed wildly off. But he was really the first one to tell me that he was indeed the Bangladeshi I had grown up hearing about.
An unrecognisable creature
Yet, he did not tick many of the boxes. For starters, he was not a dark, wiry Miya – a commonly used pejorative for Bengali Muslims in Assam. He was brown, handsome and lean – and Hindu.
Besides, he was neither pulling a rickshaw nor growing rotund cabbages when I met him. Instead, he was working on trigonometry problems.
When I questioned about his odd intellectual pursuits, he told me he wanted to be an engineer. “I want to make cars,” he specified.
The timing of his move to India was not incidental. He had heard that a “bhalo manush”, a good man, and an even better Hindu, by the name of Narendra Modi, had become the leader of India. It was, he decided, just the opportune moment to leave the wretched life of persecution as a religious minority in the country he was born in and come to Hindustan where Modi would help him get his “adhikar [rights] as a Hindu”.
Just in case there was any doubt, his uncle told him that Modi would pass a special law just to help Hindu migrants. The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, a brain-child of the Bharatiya Janata Party, seeks to facilitate citizenship for non-Muslim minorities from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan, but is currently in cold storage following stiff opposition by Assamese groups.
The teenager paid 1,500 Bangladeshi taka – about Rs 1,250 – to a tout who helped him glide past the border fencing in Tripura.
Four years later, he now lived in the extension of a former Hindu Bengali refugee camp set up during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. He went to a government school nearby where he studied in Class 10. “I want to go to Delhi to be an engineer after this,” he said earnestly.
But with the fate of the Citizenship Bill hanging in balance, I did not tell him that he was more likely to spend the rest of his adult life in indefinite incarceration in the Silchar detention centre where foreigners like him are housed without even the benefits to which prisoners convicted of murder and rape are entitled.
He may have crossed the border, but his fate was sealed the moment he sneaked through that fence: in Assam, he will always remain a Bangladeshi, hated and feared in equal measure.
In this series, Scroll.in reporters look back at their experiences while reporting a significant story in 2018.
Read more in this series here.