It was the spring of 2015. I was on my first trip to a foreign country and landed in Germany, where Anne Frank was born and killed and which was once ruled by Adolf Hitler. I was taking a city tour of Frankfurt by metro when a German gentleman sat beside me and asked, “A Pakistani?”
I smiled and said, “No.”
He asked again, “A Bangladeshi?”
I again said no.
So he smiled and asked, “So, which part of India?”
I replied, “Assam.”
The gentleman had an idea about my native place. He asked about tea gardens and said that he briefly visited Jorhat. He then introduced himself as a senior business-class flight attendant. He said that he had got ample opportunity to serve “big, big” politicians from India and had even become friends with a few of them.
I nodded in response.
His next question was pretty straightforward. “So madam, are you a Hindu?”
I don’t remember how long it took to register the question. Responding took even longer.
While filling up forms, I tick on a particular box without thinking much. I always knew it was necessary for me to place a tick mark somewhere. The forms didn’t really wish to know if I was Hindu or not. This was the first time someone had specifically asked me if I was indeed a Hindu.
I hesitated, “Umm, I was born to a Hindu family.”
But was my family Hindu, I immediately thought? I suppose. I suddenly found myself hoping I hadn’t upset a relative’s sentiment by saying this.
In my mind, I went through everything my family members did on a daily basis – yes, most of the members in my family did some insignificantly significant everyday things that could suggest that they were Hindu.
“So, by default you are a Hindu?!” the gentleman asked.
“It was a privilege to know some of your Hindu sadhus and learn about India and Hinduism…I have seen a diverse India. My earlier stays were all about recognising the immense diversity…however my recent visits, meetings with the sadhu and big politicians…,” the gentleman trailed off.
I felt genuine curiosity as to how he got in touch with a ‘Hindu sadhu’ and what he learned about Hinduism and a diverse India.
I asked, “May I know how you met the sadhu? And what did you find out about diversity?”
The gentleman took a deep breath. He looked thoughtful and replied, “I met them through some of the big politicians I got to serve in my flights…when I would be in Delhi for a few days I would visit them. One such politician took me to a sadhu…”
Once again he trailed off, leaving the question of diversity untouched.
I waited. This was 2015 – a point of serious transition in the history of Indian politics and I was just a mere observer. I was not even a participant, as I didn’t vote in the election of 2014. I was living in Delhi then and couldn’t travel to Assam to vote. Assam had a popular Congress government then, which was in power until April 2016. Much was, of course, left to happen.
“Meeting that sadhu was an enlightening experience as I learned ‘Hindu’ is actually a way of life rather than a religion,” the gentleman said, ending the pause.
I said the phrase ‘way of life’ to myself. Before I could launch into thought, the man was speaking again.
“Soon ‘this way of life’ is going to be ‘the only way of life in India’…you better become a Hindu rather than being a person born into a Hindu family,” he said, smiling.
His stop had come and he left.
I had no clue then that Assam would have a new government in 2016; that the process of updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC) would start; that residents of Assam would start filling up innumerable forms; that the state would ask if they are “Hindu, Muslim or Other.”
Soon I would begin my research on citizenship and witness how these forms, these questions would transform everyday life in Assam; how these questions asked by the state would become a part of everyday discourse and how this everyday discourse in Assam would redefine the course of legal citizenship in India.
In April 2016, while conducting fieldwork in Nagaon, I met the 21-year-old Hasmat, who was struggling with legacy data forms, as his family had no document to establish blood ties with the earlier generation who migrated from East Bengal before 1947.
“This looks like the only way..,” he said.
‘This’ was a bhang cigarette. We were sitting near a small Shiv temple which had come up silently and almost overnight in his Muslim-majority village.
“You’ve got to surrender to Shiv…for legacy data…that’s the only way,” he said. Chaos reigned around him over the NRC. Suicides were reported.
Hasmat’s situation reminded me of the German gentleman’s suggestion. I wondered if Hinduism was indeed becoming the only way of life in India.
Hasmat’s family eventually made it to the NRC without the help of Shiv. A land deed helped them establish lineage.
Prarthana Saikia is a writer and a researcher based in Delhi.