The Green Passport
Zakir Kibria muses over the intricacies of travelling with a Bangladeshi Passport.
It was 4 o'clock in the morning in Guwahati, northeast of India. The Kanchanjangha Express arrived on time. I landed on the platform and tried to reboot my senses after a twenty-one hour journey. I didn't expect the train to arrive on time (for a moment the face of the 'crazy' politician Lalu flashed in my mind. Defying the experts as he turned around the massively corrupt and under performing railway in India into a profitable, efficient system).
What I experienced for the next few hours was beyond my anticipation.
I slept intermittently on my berth in the 2AC compartment. The air conditioner worked too well, and even early in the morning it was hot and humid in Guwahati. I was trying to adjust to the sudden change in temperature. I can't say that I liked the smell of the station but the crowd of passengers sleep-walking looked surreal. For a moment I felt disoriented and didn't know where I was. There was an announcement in a language very similar to Bangla, and yet it sounded different. But I didn't have time to think about the origins of the Assamese language or its relation to Bangla. I still had a three-hour taxi ride to Shillong.
Bargaining with taxi wallas at train stations and airports is never easy. I knew that I had to pay more than the usual fare. Early morning traffic was thin and it took only a few minutes to get to the Shillong taxi stand. Frustration about paying a steep fare to the taxiwalla vanished in a moment when I was told that political parties in Meghalaya had called a bandh till the evening and there was no taxi to Shillong till evening. It was election time in India and Sonia Gandhi was scheduled to address an election rally in Meghalaya. Apparently, she wasn't welcome in the hills.
I bought all the English newspapers I found in the newsstand. News and information suddenly seemed urgent to me. Its always a little uncertain in the northeast, I remembered my friends had warned me in Kolkata. I opened my Lonely Planet travel guide. Its not that I ever follow
travel guides, but I carry my Lonely Planet wherever I go because it does come handy. I leaf through the pages. The first hotel I found in the budget section was only a few paces away. I climbed the stairway with my carry-on luggage, which started to feel heavy. I had to wake up the old man at the reception desk. I couldn't understand what he said in Hindi. I was used to being taken as an Indian. I replied in English. He showed me a room. It was nothing fancy but the rate was lower than my estimate. I started to fill in the registration form. Sleepy but friendly the old man asked for my ID and I gave him my passport and showed him the visa. My green passport usually doesn't bring a smile on the faces of airport immigration officials. It took a long time, but over the years I became used to the indifferent and often hostile reactions to my passport. The sleepy-friendly old man suddenly became alert as if he woke up for the second time and astounded me, you are a Bangladeshi? We can't allow you to stay here. For a moment I was blank. I asked, why? There is instruction by local police. He replied, we have problems in Assam all the time and Muslim militants from Bangladesh often come and plant bombs. There are also Pakistani agents carrying Bangladeshi passports. I could argue with him and tell him that till date the Indian state hasn't convicted a single Bangladeshi for acts of "terrorism" in India. Nor have they even arrested one! I could implore him to let me stay but somehow I had the feeling that it was not going to work even if I play nice.
I turned my cell phone on and tried to call my friend from Manipur who was going to join me Guwahati. I bought an Airtel sim card in Kolkata (had to submit a photo and xerox copy of my passport and visa page). There was no signal. I remembered the cell phone advertisement on TV. Air? Yes. Water? Yes. Network? Always. Was it an Airtel ad or was it Vodafone? I turned off the automatic network selection and tried manually. It showed several networks available. None of them recognised my sim card. For the next couple of hours I roamed around the area near the train station and tried to check in to nine different hotels. Lonely Planet lost its relevance. They have no section on surviving when you are profiled as a potential Muslim terrorist. I tried every decent looking hotel (even a few not-so-decent ones). I was just going in and asking if they were taking in guests from Bangladesh. They all parroted the same instructions from police.
I thought that I should go back. The next train to Kolkata was in the evening. Tickets are rare. I could afford to fly back to Kolkata and I decided to take one last chance before I took a taxi to Guwahati airport. One early rising guest at a hotel lobby was kind enough to find a hotel for me. How did I know that it would be one of the expensive ones? By now the taxiwalla has become sympathetic to me and confessed that he is from Chittagong. His family has been living in Assam for three generations. They still have relatives in Chittagong. He started to speak in Bangla but the Chittagong dialect was not familiar to me.
The exterior look of the hotel confirmed that it must be in the league of star rated hotels. The reception desk was manned by a person speaking "standard" English and was wearing a nice suit. He seemed familiar with the miseries of travelers carrying Bangladeshi passport and told me that probably they are the only hotel in Guwahati that allow Bangladeshis. But I have to report to local police station as soon as possible. I started to fill in the registration form and tried to imagine what awaits me at the police station. What if they are not satisfied with my explanation that I am going to meet friends in Shillong? Is it wise for me to tell them that a friend from Manipur will join me? The Indian media blames Bangladesh all the time as a safe heaven for militant groups fighting for freedom in Manipur and other states in Northeast. I leave my passport at the desk to be xeroxed and check into my 2,000 Rupee-a-night non-ac room.
I couldn't figure out how to make a call outside the hotel. I called the PABX operator to connect me to the cell phone number of my friend in Manipur. I felt happy to hear his voice. My ordeal seemed not to have surprised him too much. He told me that we are lucky that I could call him because he will enter Guwahati in three hours and his cell wouldn't work here. If I called him later I may not have reached him and he didn't know where I was staying.
I turned on the television and browsed the channels for a few minutes. Its all election news and bollywood songs and dance routines. Some of them familiar to me as the cable operators provide the same channels in Bangladesh. I browsed for a few moment, perhaps trying to find a Bangladeshi channel.
I couldn't find one.
Zakir Kibria is Executive Director, Bangla Praxis and Co-ordinator, Solidarity Workshop.