I am a displaced Bangladeshi and Muslim gay man. I am a survivor of religious violence. And I fled to India in 2016. I would like to tell the Bharatiya Janata Party and its president, Amit Shah, that I exist. Their construction of all Muslims as hegemonic oppressors is outrageous and demonises India’s own dispossessed people. I have experienced this first hand in 2016, but this year BJP has gone a step further. In the form of passing the Citizenship Amendment Act, the BJP has set out to reduce Muslims into a monolith entity erasing their class, caste, sexuality, gender, and ethnic complexities in order to achieve their fascist fantasy of transforming India into a Hindutva nation.
Despite being born a Sunni, the majority Muslim sect in Bangladesh, I was forced to make an overnight decision to leave Bangladesh in fear of state persecution and third-party violence in 2016. My “crime” was my involvement and editorial role with an LGBT magazine entitled Roopbaan. In Bangladesh, homosexuality is a criminal offence under the Penal Code Sec 377 (similar to the law that had been recently struck down in India) and heteropatriarch members of the society largely stigmatise it.
The situation escalated in 2016 when machete-wielding “Islamic” attackers killed dozens of bloggers, writers, political activists, and members of the atheist community. Amidst online and offline intimidation against frontline LGBT activists, I chose to temporarily relocate to India in April 2016 after the police detained some of our volunteers and a fellow organizer.
A gay friend in Kolkata generously hosted me. Needless to say, Kolkata is known for sheltering Bengladeshi intellectuals and political leaders during the War of Liberation in 1971. On day four, while I was strolling through College Street’s second-hand book market, my then-partner called me and informed me that Xulhaz Mannan, the publisher of Roopbaan, had been attacked in his apartment. By the time my Indian friends shoved a hysterical me inside a yellow cab, I received a second call that Xulhaz Mannan and another gay activist friend, Mahbub Tonoy, had been hacked to death together.
Later, Al-Qaeda of Indian Subcontinent claimed responsibility for hacking the two of them inside Xulhaz’s protected apartment in front of his 70-plus-year-old mother. Their crime? Promoting “homosexuality” in Bangladesh. I still remember numerous messages I received on Facebook from people who initially thought I had been killed, too. My mother, who had no idea about my sexuality, was completely shocked as she believed I compromised the safety of my entire family, for hosting the publication in our family home.
After the initial shock of loss, my Indian friends, many of whom I had just met, started helping me to explore options of citizenship and asylum in India. We found out Muslim citizens of Pakistan and Bangladesh are not entitled to any kind of legal protection there. We also learned about black market citizenship, where a person could forge Indian Aadhaar card (unique identification number of Indian citizens) with a completely new name, title, and religion in exchange of money.
My visa was expiring soon, and the tourist visa type for Bangladeshi passport holders was non-renewable from India aside from those who have serious medical conditions. We discovered that if I converted my tourist visa to a student visa, I would be able to stay in India for a few more months. After managing to get an admission offer, I was able to submit a full application package to the Indian Immigration Office, requesting a change in my visa type. It came as a relief when it was approved but in the long run asylum in India wasn’t possible and chances of getting citizenship were bleak. Despite having a strong support system, I eventually left India and traveled to a completely new country.
Amit Shah has long argued that non-Muslims (mostly Hindus) are at risk in Muslim-majority countries, highlighting the Citizenship Amendment Act as a platform for refuge and fast-tracked citizenship for illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. But for people fleeing from these majority-Muslim countries, Muslims are not eligible for this protection.
To understand the law’s political context better, we have to look at India’s north-eastern state of Assam. The BJP is testing the National Register of Citizens to identify illegal immigrants in Assam, publishing a list that will strip citizenship from 1.9 million people. BJP’s long-term agenda is to implement NRC nationwide. The Citizenship Amendment Act will safeguard non-Muslim (mostly Hindu) illegal immigrants from deportation while stripping citizenship from “illegal” Muslim immigrants.
It appears that BJP’s passion for saving religious minorities from neighboring countries stems from getting rid of its own. At the most basic level, this law destroys the secular fabric of the Indian Constitution by making religious identity as a basis for citizenship. The law further delegitimises Muslim citizenship. It is not only catering to an existing anti-Muslim sentiment, but setting minorities against minorities. Indigenous communities in Sikkim and north-eastern states are protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens, as historically their lands have been used to rehabilitate Hindu refugees and undocumented immigrants.
Oppression is complex and systemic, and we cannot address it with simple solutions. My story is one of hundreds of uniquely complicated migration narratives of Muslims coming to India from neighboring countries. While I used my class capital to maneuver an immigration emergency, my religious status in Bangladesh did not erase other parts of my identity nor did it provide unconditional protection.
As I was watching a viral video of Jamia Millia Islamia students Ladeeda Farzana, Ayesha Renna, and Chanda Yadav at confronting and rescuing their friend from handkerchief-wrapped police officers and an unidentified attacker with a baton and helmet, I saw an uncanny resemblance with a 2018 mass student protest in Dhaka. In that video, armed police and pro-government goons injured scores of school going teenagers.
In recent years, there is an unimaginable and violent subjugation of dissent in Bangladesh. The BJP’s identical tactics of controlling mass protest and dissent shows an alarming pattern of rising political authoritarianism in this region. While writing this piece, to my horror I came to know that my friend who housed me in Kolkata was brutally assaulted by a group of eight men shouting Jai Shri Ram (Hindu nationalist chant). He was attending a peace rally organised by Feminists in Resistance. The police banned public gatherings in parts of India and at least 17 people have been killed in BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh. We must resist this saffron terrorism.
Rasel Ahmed is a community-based filmmaker, queer archivist, and exiled founding editor of the first Bangladeshi LGBT magazine Roopbaan.