My country’s slide towards fascism makes me feel more and more like a refugee in my own land.Refugee is a political term, connected to, but not quite the same as, a person seeking refuge. The term ‘refugee’ is inseparably connected with international borders and internal strife in the country of one’s birth. In the 1951 Refugee Convention, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) defined the term as someone who, “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” Elucidating further, the same Convention emphasises that “Refugees have to move if they are to save their lives or preserve their freedom. They have no protection from their own state—indeed it is often their own government that is threatening to persecute them.”
The UNHCR was founded in December 1950 by the United Nations General Assembly to deal with the crisis of Europeans displaced by World War II, with the optimism that the crisis would be sorted out in three years and the body could be disbanded. That optimism has proved to be a pipedream, of course, with the UNHCR very much in existence till date. In a report entitled Global Trends—Forced Displacement in 2014, published on 18 June 2015, the UNHCR states that the total number of people forcibly displaced by the end of 2014 was almost 60 million, the highest since the second global war.
On 11 September 2015, the UNHCR posted that nearly one million asylum seekers had crossed the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe since the beginning of the year. European Union’s struggles to deal with the refugee crisis have continued to be in the news; especially since the tragedy last April when five boats sank in the Mediterranean, killing more than 1,200 people trying to reach the European shore.
These stories on “terror” reminded me that the Ministry of Home Affairs recorded 630 communal incidents between January and October 2015, against 561 such occurrences during the same period in 2014.
As it happens, I’ve had to travel to two different countries in two different continents within a short span and the word “refugee” has been in my mind constantly. I was merely a visitor to both London and Nairobi, far from being forcibly displaced in my own country, obligated to seek shelter elsewhere. But as I boarded the flight to London on 19 November, the editorial in the day’s The Hindu—“Defining terror, evolving responses”, obviously on the Paris killings that had happened six days before—occupied my thoughts. So did one of the front page headlines that day on The Telegraph, Kolkata edition: “Sweden launches manhunt after intelligence alerts on Paris-type attacks by the IS”, followed inside by a report on the mastermind of the Paris attacks being killed in police raid.
These stories on “terror” reminded me that the Ministry of Home Affairs recorded 630 communal incidents between January and October 2015, against 561 such occurrences during the same period in 2014. I’m not sure if there is any publicly available record of how many of those 561 had happened post-May 2014, but I was reminded of the rising debate on growing intolerance in the country, with the government at the Centre rubbishing it as “politically motivated”.
As I got airborne to fly out of my country of birth and residence, my mind was preoccupied with the question as to why these incidents in India were not labelled “terror attacks”. In common parlance, ‘terrorism’ means the unauthorised use of threats and violence for political gain. The use of intimidation and violence was unquestionable in all these incidents, but no one called them “acts of terror”. Was the use of force authorised, then? Authorised by the politics of majoritarianism?
Born a Hindu, a humanitarian atheist by faith, my feeling of disconnect with this country was boundless at that moment. I was ceased by a fear of India being declared a Hindu Rashtra within my lifetime, with atheists such as myself being mercilessly persecuted by the Hindutva brigade (perhaps more so than believers of other faiths because of my lack of belief). An imaginary fear, certainly, but I was a refugee in my mind at that moment.
Not all my fears of becoming an alien in my own country are that imaginary, though. On 13 December 2014, the Supreme Court had re-criminalised same-sex attraction by overturning the July 2009 verdict of the Delhi High Court, which had made Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code inapplicable to consensual adult sexual encounters in private. This law makes “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” a punishable offence. The law does not define what all is to be considered “against the order of nature”, but it does have a history of being used more for persecution than for prosecution. As a queer person, therefore, I am already a criminal in my own country—an unwelcome outsider—though this country had never made any attempt to outcast queer people till the British enacted this law.
The same feeling of being an unwelcome outsider encompassed me for a moment at the immigration desk at Heathrow when a rather rude, obviously British, policewoman asked me why an organisation like Amnesty International would want anyone from India as a resource person. I felt enraged; snapped my response back at her and emerged on the streets of London with a bitter feeling against our one-time colonisers.
I was ceased by a fear of India being declared a Hindu Rashtra within my lifetime, with atheists such as myself being mercilessly persecuted by the Hindutva brigade. An imaginary fear, certainly, but I was a refugee in my mind at that moment.
The bitterness was short-lived, though. A smoker myself, I was happy to see many white women and men puffing at their cigarettes outside the airport. I felt at home immediately and that feeling stayed with me throughout my seven days in London. The proverbial stiff upper lip of the British was experienced only once through that offensive rhetoric by the policewoman. The liberty of moving around on my own till late hours of the night, a fabulous public transport system that allowed me to cover the length and breadth of the city before and after work, the absolute pleasure of sipping a beer alone without being looked at like an animal in the zoo, the liberty to eat beef pie without having to hide it—all of these contributed to my feeling of utter comfort.
The skyline of London resembled the skyline of the Calcutta of my childhood and youth, with few skyscrapers to assault the eye. So did the broad sidewalks, the many parks, and the tree-lined avenues. A miniature Big Ben only makes the Kolkata of my middle age (and beyond) seem more unknown than ever before, as do the ubiquitous blue and white everywhere. Nizam’s not selling beef rolls, beef and pork vanishing from the restaurants in the city’s Chinatown, a Chief Minister smiling from every hoarding, every banner and festoon in a state that scoffed at Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh for this very phenomenon—all of these often make me feel that I no longer know the city I’ve been born and brought up in. I felt more at home in London, nearly 8,000 miles away from home.
The vibrancy of Indian winters, with everyone dressed in bright colours, was the only thing I had missed amidst the brown, grey and black of Londoners. Nairobi more than compensated for it with its riot of colours. Except for the greenery and the open spaces, Nairobi is much like Kolkata, with construction going on everywhere and malls coming up, skyscrapers raising their ugly heads above beautiful looking colonial style buildings, and traffic snarls requiring one to spend half an hour or more to travel a distance of five kilometres during rush hours.
The more I identified with this right to openly critiquing the government, the less I felt part of my own country where intolerance is the order of the day, be it religious faith or political belief.
But my feeling of being a refugee in my own country struck me once more when I visited the National Museum there. In the Kenya Room of the museum stands a structure signifying the country, its eight provinces that existed before the recent devolution into 47 counties, and the various tribes that inhabit the country. There are three twisted prongs that come out of that structure, signifying the three negative sides of the government: corruption, tribalism and nepotism. It is this explanation that made me feel an alien in my country, for I realised at that moment how impossible it would be in this biggest democracy of the world to accommodate any such obvious voice of dissent in a museum thronged by citizens and tourists alike. The more I identified with this right to openly critiquing the government, the less I felt part of my own country where intolerance is the order of the day, be it religious faith or political belief. Home, at that moment, was “the mouth of a shark . . . a sweaty voice in your ear saying . . . anywhere is safer than here.”
The day I returned from Nairobi, the newspapers carried the front-page story of how a noted Member of the Parliament had sought to present the issue of repealing Section 377 as a Private Bill only to be booed out even before he could present it. I had returned home, to a country that brands me a criminal for who I choose to love. A refugee—an unwelcome outsider—in my own country, for not towing the normative line.
The title is taken from the poem ‘No Search No Rescue’ by Jehan Bseiso, a Palestinian poet, researcher and aid worker based in Cairo, Egypt.
 From Warsan Shire’s poem ‘Home’.