Equal treatment of similarly placed citizens as an inalienable State obligation is a well recognised facet of India’s consitutional philosophy. However, the tale of two different set of refugees- the Punjabi Hindu and Sikh refugees in North India and the Bengali Hindu refugees in the East, blatantly violates the ideal of equal treatment of those who enjoy an equal status. Both these communities bore the brunt of the communal violence triggered by the partition of India and Pakistan. Both of them witnessed gut wrenching violence radiating from the same historical blunder.
However, while the Indian-ness of Punjabi refugees has never been put in doubt and they have also effectively risen in India with the government largely taking due care and compensating them, the Bengali Hindu refugees continue to struggle for securing nationality.
For Punjab, the partition meant an instant exchange of population. The Hindus coming from Western Punjab- the region that now falls within Pakistan into India and the Muslims from what is now the Indian state of Punjab into Western Punjab. However, there was no such sudden exchange of population in the case of Bangladesh. The influx of Bengali Hindus from what had then become East Pakistan and subsequently Bangladesh in 1971 continued for many years after Partition. However, this phenomenon was completely different from the infiltration of illegal immigrants who enter India for better livelihood and economic opportunities. And this is where the essence of the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016 lies.
The Citizenship Amendment Bill seeks to provide Indian citizenship to members of communities, in minority in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, that have fled religious persecution. These communities include Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, Jains and Parsis, all of whom are in minority, and whose numbers have fallen drastically in each of the three countries.
This bill aims to end the politically motivated obfuscation of the terms ‘illegal immigrant’ and ‘refugee’ as the two are very different. The bill seeks to undo the historical injustice that has been meted out to Bengali Hindu refugees, among others.
The Marichjhapi massacre captures the plight of the Bengali Hindi refugees fleeing religious persecution in Bangladesh. Jogendra Nath Mandal, an ardent supporter of Dalit-Muslim unity convinced the Namasudra (Scheduled Caste in Bengal) to stay in newly created East Pakistan. However, Mandal himself left Pakistan in 1950 and accused the Pakistani government of anti-Hindu bias. But the poor Dalit community stayed there until 1971 when Pakistani army carried out the genocide of Hindus. The Communist party promised permanent settlement for the refugees in the state of West Bengal if they are elected to power. Jyoti Basu, who later became first Communist chief minister of West Bengal wrote to Congress leaders and asked for the rehabilitation of refugees in islands of Sunderbans. By the month of June in 1988, more than 30,000 refugees settled on Marichjhapi Island. The increasing refugees soon became problematic for the Communist government, which went back on its promise ultimately resulting in a deadly massacre of the Bengali Hindus at the hands of the Communists.
According to records, more than 1,700 people were killed in the Marichjhapi massacre and thousands of women were raped. However, the massacre is mentioned as an ‘incident’ in academic writing, a testimony to how the Communist influence in the Bengali intellectual circles managed to ensure total neglect of the Bengali Hindu refugees.
Moreover, the very thought that the exodus of Bengali Hindus into India was temporary and that they would ultimately go back to their original homes, that is Bangladesh, only worsened the situation. This misconception stemmed out of the Nehru-Liaquat Pact of 1950 and our policymakers lived in this illusion till 1972. The official neglect too arose out of this illusion. There was no effort put on initiating rehabilitation programmes for the Bengali Hindu refugees and other communities fleeing persecution in Bangladesh. In fact, they have not even been considered as Indian citizens.
The observations of Hon’ble Justice SR Sen of the Meghalaya High Court in a 37 long page judgment raked up the issue of citizenship for refugees fleeing to India from neighboring countries ever since partition of India took place. He stressed for the need to save their live and their dignity.
Justice SR Sen said, “It is an undisputed fact that at the time of partition, lakhs and lakhs of Sikhs and Hindus were killed, tortured and raped and forced them to leave their forefathers’ property and compelled them to enter India to save their lives and dignity.”
Without mincing his words, he went on to state, “Pakistan declared themselves as an Islamic country and India since was divided on the basis of religion should have also been declared as a Hindu country but it remained as a secular country.” He further observed that, “..till day, Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Christians, Parsis, Khasis, Jaintias and Garos are tortured in neighbouring countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh and have no place to go and “those Hindus who entered India during partition are still considered as foreigners, which in my understanding is highly illogical, illegal and against the principle of natural justice.” This is an apt, realistic analysis of the historical issue of Partition and the maltreatment of those who were fleeing religious persecution at the hands of extremists in countries that named Islam as the state religion.
The Communists, left-liberals, have systematically managed to blur the difference between the Bengali Hindus who bore the brunt of the religious violence triggered by the Partition and the illegal immigrants who infiltrated into India solely for securing a better livelihood or other economic reasons, and not on account of persecution of any kind.
The leftist lobby, therefore, went almost into celebration mode after reports suggested that a majority of those left out in Assam NRC were Hindus. This obviously gives rise to the apprehension that Bengali Hindu refugees face an imminent threat of being deported to Bangladesh, as the Indian state struggles to recognise the stark difference between ‘refugee’ and ‘illegal immigrant’.
One has to understand the difference between those who entered India for economic or other needs and those who were compelled to enter India as refugees followed by the religious persecution that was triggered in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) along with the present day Pakistan. The latter ought not to be treated in a like manner with the illegal immigrants rather it is the State’s obligation to first confer nationality upon them followed by providing them appropriate economic and infrastructural avenues and ensuring that the two set of refugees who were compelled to enter India are not treated in a detrimental manner.
The Bengali intelligentsia dominated by the Communists has till date blacked out this stark difference between the refugees of religious persecution and illegal immigrants. They have been acting as if they are totally oblivious to the reality of Bengali Hindus facing persecution in Bangladesh. This has come in way of justice for the Hindu refugees. It is a gross failure and miscarriage of justice to not treat Bengali refugees with their Punjabi counterparts and also to treat them at parity with illegal immigrants who are unequals in the sense of the root cause behind their existence in India. And the Citizenship Amendment legislation is the only glimmer of hope which can prevent this travesty of justice.