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Harbingers of Bad News: What It Feels Like To Be a Refugee

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee

Speaking on immigrants to The New York Times in May 2016, the late Polish sociologist and philosopher, Zygmunt Bauman was reminded of the phrase by Bertolt Brecht: “harbingers of bad news.” He meant to say, immigrants “embody” a certain fear and anxiety in privileged inhabitants of a place, of losing one’s economic, cultural and therefore political status in the world. Refugees or migrants, Bauman explained, bring with them a certain insecurity regarding mysterious and obscure “global forces” that disturb the stable idea of a neighbourhood, a habitat. Hence the world’s resentment towards dispossessed people, who are demonised, ironically, for what they do not possesses rather than what they do. The safety of populations, ensured by their status as citizens in nation states, inflicts upon their psyche the sacrosanctity of territory. Refugees are seen as a threat to the idea of territoriality, and by logical extension, to the idea of secure life. The heightened idea of security that runs the world today, paradoxically, only manages to heighten people’s paranoia of insecurity. Nations today do not live only under the military threat from a powerful enemy across their borders. The paranoia of local inhabitants extends towards dispossessed people who are seen as encroachers upon their land.

It may be tempting to relate this intensification of fear and threat regarding refugees, to a primordial condition. But the refusal to acknowledge one’s responsibility towards others, the justification of territorial norms and the fierce demarcation of one’s sphere of prosperity, are all part of the modern condition. The political nature of this condition comes from imagining the nation as a fortress of self-preservation and its rules clearly defining who its beneficiaries should be. Though America is a nation of immigrants with enough laws to protect their interests, the sentiment of self-preservation mixed with a racial discourse of hatred towards immigrants can twist and turn those laws to suit a new nationalist order of things. Trump’s coming to power has precisely facilitated the unleashing of this phenomenon. In India, the deliberate lack of a clear policy and ethical responsibility towards people forced to be refugees by Partition, has kept the fate of these people forever tottering under the sword of Damascus. It has encouraged communal movements within the nation against people forced to flee their land during Independence. Under a right-wing regime, the refugee problem stands dangerously prone to a division among communal lines, deciding who should receive the dole of the state and who deserves expulsion.

One can switch the two most popular slogans of the current regimes in India and America to find what is clearly common between them: ‘Swachh America Abhiyan’ and ‘Make India Great Again’. The logic of exclusion works insidiously, combining prejudice with the promise of redemption. The idea of ‘swachh’ or ‘clean’ can work as a metaphor for cleaning up unwanted populations, which in turn is argued to usher in a glorious state of prosperity. Suddenly the rhetoric of being the world’s largest or oldest democracy takes a back seat, is conveniently kept aside, to announce the crudest ideas of a culturally homogenous nation being the paragon of virtues and dreams. There is a sleight-of-hand sidelining of democracy by using the rhetoric of nationalism, a Hegelian ‘cunning of reason’, where arguments are made to suit and justify selfish passions. Democracy is, by definition, the antithesis of fascism. But despite being a political value, the idea of democracy still remains under the possible and demonstrable threat of nationalist passions. The secular order of democracy, despite its history and legitimacy, can be shaken by that other buried language of history, where race and religious antagonisms prevail. Racist movements exploit the tensions between democracy and nationalism and use the crisis to its advantage. There is an obvious and unresolved hatred against the hybrid culture of modernity in all revivalist movements invested in puritan forms of cultural nationalism. How do such revivalisms affect the status and fate of refugees or migrants?

Growing up in Assam in the late 1970s and 80s, I was witness to a communal movement that massacred the idea of home. As refugee families from erstwhile East Bengal, we were also identified as ‘foreigners’ by leaders of the Assam Movement who displayed great virtue in thrusting upon the vocabulary of colonial occupation into a beleaguered people looking for a place to begin life anew. Some of these people belonging to the propertied class from the East of Bengal gained government jobs in the railways and elsewhere with little education. Their social and economic status ensured a degree of safety when the anti-foreigners movement begun in violent earnestness from 1979. Yet they were seen with equal hatred as encroachers upon the place they were told they did not belong to. I grew up listening to stories of erstwhile East Bengal, and wondering our relation with ‘the idea of India’. To know as a young boy that one is a “foreigner” in one’s birthplace can be catastrophic. It not only severed my ties with the only place I could call home, but also the relation between land and people, people and territory, territory and language, language and belonging. Torchlight processions would pass by our homes, chanting slogans in Assamese like, ‘Will give blood; not country’, ‘Foreigners get out’. Since a blackout would be declared in the evening whenever a procession was planned, we had to watch them go by through dark windows of fear. Whole neighbourhoods were infected by this communal sentiment. On one occasion, a roughish teenager, with help from his mother, murdered his childhood friend in my neighbourhood. For six years, life was disrupted by threats, roadside violence, murders and stone throwing at people who would attend work during bandhs. The word ‘curfew’ would spread like the news of a prowling wolf, as we often left a game of football midway in a hurry to rush home. We were uncomfortably used to the idea of being protected by the police, for their presence reminded us we weren’t free. Imagine the precariousness of our status and our sense of trust in the nation, as every evening we had to tune in to the Bengali radio service of BBC and Voice of America to know the fate of people in other parts of the state, belonging to our community. All India Radio censored news with the logic of ‘not aggravating the situation’. We felt like the harbingers of bad news, not only for the local community but also for the nation at large. Even the government wasn’t sending us reassurances except the central police force whenever things were going out of hand. We were out of place and out of favour.

I remember the Life Insurance Company office building at the entrance of the sprawling market area in Guwahati I used to pass by every time I visited my grandmother’s place. Its board read, ‘Insure and be secure’. But Bengali refugees had no insurance regarding their political status and were left to face the communally charged music in deep insecurity. The knowledge of being a ‘foreigner’ and experiencing liquid hate in streets and under skies one thought were one’s own, can forever disrupt the idea of belonging. But the desperation to be part of the national mainstream and having enough avenues to do so, made the Bengali Hindu middle class in Assam settle down to an apolitical existence after the Assam Accord was signed in 1984. The Nellie riots of 18 February, 1983 that preceded the accord, where thousands of Muslim peasants were butchered in a few hours, and the gradual easing off in the relations between the Bengali and the Assamese middle class Hindus, ensured that Muslims alone would be relegated to the status of permanent, political refugees in the state. It perfectly suited the ‘acceptable’ communal divide in the nation. Bengali Hindus, who had faced persecution till the other day, had no qualms in abandoning the Muslims to their lone political fate. Refugees, who fail to grow in them a sense of solidarity and empathy for less fortunate and privileged others, are selfish and disappointing victims of history. The lure of communal nationalism and the logic of economic profit have enough power to divide victims.

Any upsurge of cultural revivalism based on religion, language or race, is bad news for the harbingers of bad news, as refugees are found to be ‘natural’ outsiders to the territorial idea of nation-states. One of the trickiest features of modern democracies is the fusion of the sacral and the natural. The reading of the Bible during the inauguration ceremony of an American President merges the secular idea of democracy with scriptural nationalism. Religious nationalism further sanctifies the idea of territory in sacral terms. Trump’s evocation of “Forgotten people” is clearly not meant for the neglected working class or marginalised minorities. It is a nationalist and racist borrowing of the Jewish idea of ‘chosen people’. By naming itself, this idea also names those who fall outside the scriptural sanction. This makes migrants, refugees, become ‘natural’ outsiders, and as they fall outside the sacral idea of the nation, they are seen as less than human, a little more animal or insect like. The community suffers a narcissistic symptom where the other falls outside the discourse of love, thus ripe for hatred. In a memorable scene from Werner Herzog’s short film, The Unprecedented Defence of the Fortress Deutschkreuz, a young man wearing a World War II army uniform enjoys chasing a rat with a defunct gun. Hate is not just serious business, hate is a game. Hate is fun. It is fun to scare away the insect who enters our territory by accident or fate. Treating others like insects adds a special charm to being a fascist.

Brad Evans, in his interview of Bauman, quoted from the British-Somalian poet Warsan Shire’s famous poem on refugees: ‘no one puts their children in a boat / unless the water is safer than the land.’ For a refugee, however, the trials of land are as slippery and treacherous as water. The central problem of refugees and migrants is perhaps the articulation of a language of seeking shelter without compromising their sense of dignity. But their dignity slips away the moment they enter someone else’s territory in a world where the very idea of the ‘human’ is marked by territorial sanctity. The language of Human Rights works under the inherent assumptions of a secular democratic world-view and value-system. It may sensitise the state and its people to realise the ethical responsibility to accommodate migrants into the world, but it falls short of addressing the fundamental problem: the logic of territorialised humanity, where the birth of the privileged citizen has meant the death of the migrant or the refugee. The human being as a territorialised animal seeking self-preservation needs to welcome the refugee for any possibility of his becoming human.

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is a poet, writer and political science scholar. He has recently contributed to 'Words Matter: Writings Against Silence', edited by K. Satchidanandan (Penguin, 2016). He is currently adjunct professor in the School of Culture and Creative Expressions at Ambedkar University, New Delhi.

Original publication can be viewed on The Wire.

Feature Image: Peshawar/Flickr.