| An Iranian in Murshidabad. Picture by Amit Datta
Murshidabad, Aug. 18: Sabar Ali has a driving licence, but the government of India is denying him voting rights. His wife, Naurang Begam, has an electronic photo identity card, but the couple’s five-year-old son Haidar, a student of Joseph Day English School, is not recognised as an Indian citizen.
They are among the people a recent survey had covered under a pilot project of the multipurpose national identity card and found not to meet any of some 20 criteria to qualify as an Indian citizen, though Sabar Ali’s grandfather migrated to India some 70 years ago.
Ghulam Ali did not come from what is now Bangladesh either. His voyage to India started from Iran, a piece of which still lives in a community of some 400 people in a corner of Bengal’s Murshidabad district, unknown to many.
“Money talks and that’s why I got the licence from Calcutta,” smiles his 36-year-old grandson Sabar. The resident of Killa Nizama in the Lal Bagh area, adjacent to the historic Hazarduari Palace in Murshidabad, flashes his sole legal document that allows him to ride a brand new Bajaj Pulsar.
His wife grew up near Chittaranjan, in an industrial belt, also in Bengal, and got her photo ID card before marriage. Sabar’s father Anwar Ali was born in Burdwan and the family shifted to Murshidabad in the 80s.
“But still we don’t have ration cards and our names do not feature on the voting list,” says the strongly built spectacles salesman with sharp features, standing out amid his Bengali neighbours.
Not just Sabar, the story is much the same for the entire community, who are Shias and whose ancestors came from Iran at the behest of the nawabs of Murshidabad to add variety to Muharram processions.
“Ali Sher Irani was the first to come here (Murshidabad) and he stayed back. Then others came and now all of us live in the area which was given to us by the then nawabs,” recounts local resident Mosharraf Hossain, related to Nawab Jani Mirza, who was the prime force behind settling the Iranians.
“I was born in India. I have never visited Iran and neither do I intend to go there. But no one considers me an Indian,” says Soni Begum before rushing back to the dimly-lit kitchen that needs an electric bulb even in broad daylight.
The Soni and the Sabar families are fluent in Persian as well as Bengali, which is not as good as their Hindi, though.
Surveyors of the national ID card project recorded their names, collected their fingerprints and photographed them as part of the pilot project that is going on in border districts of 13 states.
“But no one came for verification. We were told that we would never get the cards as we are Iranians,” explains 30-year-old Sanjay Ali, who deals in semi-precious stones.
Sanjay is a strange name for an Iranian. But government-appointed surveyors will not take notice of such niceties and have clubbed him along with the over 90 per cent people who they found not having citizenship proof in the area they covered in this district bordering Bangladesh.
It also shows the lack of authenticity of data thrown up by such surveys that apply qualification criteria blindly.
Politicians and administrators ' from Murshidabad’s MP Mannan Hossain to former municipality chairman Biswajit Dhar ' scramble to find an answer to why Sabar and his community are not counted as Indian citizens.
“Murshidabad municipality was included in the pilot project just because of the existence of the Iranian community. Earlier also, we took up their case with the Union home ministry, but nothing happened,” says Hossain.
While their identity has become an issue, the people live in abject poverty. Almost all the male members are engaged either in selling semi-precious stones or spectacles.
They are not the only remnants of Iranians who migrated to India, but are unique in their close-knit ' almost ghettoised ' existence.
Not a single girl has married outside the community and educational opportunity is limited to the madarsa in the mosque Munni Begum, Mir Jafar’s wife, had built.
Education is last on the agenda also because getting admission to schools is difficult without citizenship proof. Munawar Ali, a matriculate, is the most educated male member of the community and its second representative on the coveted voters’ list.
Deprived of education, the community has fallen behind the times. Girls are married off at a young age and birth and death rates are high.
No one has ever sought formal employment ' “Humlog kisi ki naukri nahi karte,” chorus Sanjay, Samir and Shabbir, who have relatives elsewhere in India.
But they all understand the relevance of an identity in this infiltration-prone district of Bengal.
Sabar sums up the community’s sentiments. “Our relatives in Bengal and other parts of the country are Indian citizens, but we are not. People from Bangladesh have come and got ration cards and voter ID cards. But we have always been denied our rights. If we are not Indians, please deport us to Iran.”