Why Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 Matters: Moving Beyond Binaries

HM Amit Shah during discussion on CAB. Source: Business Today

The year 2019 will be remembered in contemporary Indian political history as a tectonic temporal phase, for a few political reforms which were thought off as unthinkable even a few years back have been written in to law in the last few months. 

The Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) helmed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah have delivered on long standing political aims of its core voter base by delivering the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir, and Citizenship Amendment Act. 

The politics of the Bhartiya Janata Party is anchored in the ethos of the Hindu Nationalist Sangh Parivar and has an aggressive agenda focused on tilting the socio-cultural needle away from the perceived status quo of the Congress. This political agenda includes acknowledging the persecution which Hindus and other minorities have faced in three Muslim majority countries in our neighbourhood. 

The partition, which was implemented out on religious lines, led to millions being displaced and killed in Punjab and Bengal. The impact of the partition on the southern part of the country was minor however cities such as Kolkata, Amritsar, Mumbai and Delhi were irreversibly transformed by refugees; Sindhi Hindus in Mumbai and East Bengali Hindus in Kolkata. 

The consecutive two terms won by the BJP in 2014 and 2019 on its own has given the government the political capital to unleash reforms which have been there on its electoral manifesto for years. A Culture War is being played out through the parliament and in the university corridors such as JNU, AMU, Hyderabad Central University, Jadavpur University and now Jamia as India is being remade with the focus on majoritarian sentiments and aspirations, probably for the first time after independence in such an unapologetic manner. 

Pakistan in 1950 had 23 percent minorities (which includes present day Bangladesh) as per Author Farahnaz Isphahani’s book ‘Slow Genocide of Minorities in Pakistan’ which has now plummeted to 3-4 percent of the population. Bangladesh has a slightly bigger Hindu population in between 8-9 percent. 

Pakistan’s existential moral compass has been guided by a triple distilled hatred of the Hindu majority Indian State and its perpetual quest for relevance feeding its oversized military apparatus intent on ‘Death by a Thousand Cuts’ strategy. Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan have faced incessant persecutions including forced conversions. Pakistan’s first Law Minister Jogendernath Mandal who ran back to India in 1950 said this:

“I have asked them to wait for a few weeks more and that I too am prepared to accompany them to India,” he said, the only Hindu member of Pakistan’s federal cabinet. 

“It is only a matter of time before the last Hindu reaches India from East Bengal.” He lamented that “every Muslim feels that there should be no Hindus left inside Pakistan,” and pointed out that after driving out the Hindus, Pakistan will not be able to live in peace with India.

On a personal note, my family has a history of Partition, and my relatives had to rebuild everything post 1947 when they came over from Barisal in present day Bangladesh to Kolkata. The population of Kolkata doubled after partition and a similar surge happened after the 1971 Bangladeshi War of Liberation aided by the Indian Military. 

They were persecuted for being Hindu, lost their home, identities and never forgot what happened to them. I grew up on these stories, and it is even more poignant to my Mother, a Mumbaikar- never forgot the trauma which her Father and her Uncles and Aunts faced. 

My relatives spoke Bangla in the distinct East Bengali dialect which made them vulnerable to the receiving end of taunts from other Bongs from the districts in West Bengal (who were not impacted during the partition or ‘Desh Bhag’ in Bangla) Home is sometimes found in the ‘Matri Basha’ or Mother Tongue/Dialect and the food prepared at home, whose flavour profile reminds one of lost lands, that one cannot go without a visa. Even then, the elusive ‘Desher Bari’ or Village Home is too painful to remember. 

The reality is that people were thrown out for property, so that their neighbours could grab them under the legal cover of the Enemy Property Act. There was no love lost sadly. Every time some infraction with India occurred, the 1965 war or major communal disturbance such as the tragic 1992 Babri Masjid Demolition (which also received legal closure from the Indian Supreme Court this year) or the 2002 Godhra Riots, Hindus in Bangladesh were targeted by the fundamentalist forces which led to displacement and migration to India. 

The treatment of Hindus in Bangladesh is/was contingent upon communal relations in India, which meant Hindus are by default second class citizens. In such a circumstance, India as a country with a majority Hindu population with a secular constitution should welcome these Hindus and other minorities to India and give them requisite protection. 

The Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 is specific in its articulation. It seeks to create a safety net for the persecuted to find home in India and addresses the need for closure for generations of those persecuted for their faith. This piece of historic legislation has very little purchase with existing Indian citizens. 

In 1979, thousands of Dalit Hindu refugees from Bangladesh were killed by the Left Front government (so much for secular Marxist credentials) when these already persecuted refugees moved from their camps in Dandakaranya, in Central India to closer home in the Sunderbans. 

The island on which the persecuted were living was declared ‘reserved forest’ overnight so that the police could moved in and purge the refugees out in the name of ecological protection. These heart wrenching narratives are documented in Journalist and Author Deep Halder’s pithy book ‘Blood Island’ where he uses the oral history method to recover these voices before they are lost forever in to the abyss of the black box of subaltern histories. 

If we remember the Rohingya’s today, we should also remember Bengali Hindus from East Pakistan and Tamil Hindus and Christians from Jaffna, who are not included yet under the legislation. Every time I have spoken to a Bangladeshi Hindu or Christian in Muscat, Dubai or Singapore; the conversation has centered around religious persecution, and how many of their relatives live in Kolkata.

Dignity is a value which cannot be sacrificed at the unholy alter of charged political polarisations. East Bengali/ Bangladeshi Hindus suffered tremendously and it cannot be fathomed by sheer numbers. Lived experiences are transmitted through generations and thus these are realities in the form of stories that reside within me. 

I am glad that the present dispensation has taken note and the long deserved have been given respect, to restart their lives in honour. India has a place for the persecuted like the Tibetans and the Parsis earlier in history. The joyous celebrations of Refugee Bangladeshi Hindus in a camp in Karnataka and Pakistani Hindus in Jodhpur are a testament to that reality. Let us not erase these communities in the name of pseudo secularism and vote bank politics. 

Manishankar Prasad

Manishankar Prasad is an environmental engineer, sociologist, researcher and writer. He has studied at the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He has published across numerous national and international platforms such as the New Indian Express and the Huffington Post, been a panellist on Al Jazeera International and BBC World, and has been interviewed by Forbes and The Guardian.

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.

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