The CAA is the only hope of survival that the 17 million Hindus still left in Bangladesh can clutch at
East Pakistani refugees at a food distribution centre on the India-East Pakistan border, April 1971
IT IS SAID the Royal Bengal tiger in the Sundarbans was not a natural maneater. It became one only after gorging on the corpses of thousands of Bangladeshi refugees who had settled on Marichjhapi island in the Raimangal river, 75 kilometres east of Calcutta. Many of the men, women and children died of starvation after West Bengal’s Chief Minister, Jyoti Basu, ordered a blockade of their settlement on January 26th, 1979. Others fell to police bullets. Grim tales were told of official launches ramming the boats of those who tried to escape dense clouds of tear gas while Marxist cadres set fire to their rickety huts. Bodies were dumped in the river. The nightmare lives on. It’s one of the most gruesome of many horrendous refugee images that come to mind amidst the turmoil over the ferociously attacked Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 (CAA). Yet, the CAA is the only hope of survival that the 17 million Hindus still left in Bangladesh—according to a Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics estimate for 2015—can clutch at.
As an old English saying has it, a picture is worth a thousand words. But although the authorities didn’t allow photographs of mauled and half-eaten corpses or bloated drowned bodies, images keep alive the East Bengal refugee’s painful trek to nowhere, victims always “of promises made and not kept, of excuses made and an extraordinary tendency to shelve blame on others and to find scapegoats” as the feisty Renuka Ray, West Bengal’s Rehabilitation Minister from 1954 to 1956, lamented. But, first, a word about the backdrop to the hysteria captured in NDTV’s bold headline projecting Kanhaiya Kumar’s thunder, ‘Attempt to Snatch Citizenship From People’. Attempt by whom? What citizenship? Which people? London’s The Observer proclaimed the story behind the story on June 13th, 1971 when it gave my report on the run-up to the Bangladesh war an even bolder headline across the top of the page, FLIGHT OF THE HINDU MILLIONS. The communal dimension to East Bengal’s trauma was so determinedly suppressed that although living just across the border in Calcutta, I had no idea until I visited the refugee camps that 99 per cent of the 10 million men, women and children who had fled East Pakistan were Hindus. “First they killed Biharis,” an inmate from Noakhali explained. “Then, when the Pakistani military came, they joined hands and attacked us!”
I can understand Sheikh Hasina Wajed’s query about the CAA for Indira Gandhi’s Government determinedly presented 1971 as a secular democratic upsurge against a theocratic military dictatorship. The Noakhali man’s version contradicted the official liberation narrative of midwife India easing the birth of a non-denominational Elysium from the womb of Islamist dogma. Later I learnt that for Pakistanis, the Bangladesh war still remains a ‘Hindu conspiracy’. Noting the drift to sectarian exclusiveness, my Observer report claimed that ‘for a time last year, the Hindus still inside East Bengal rallied to the heady promise of an equal life for people of all religions offered to them by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.’ The death of that dream was the only reason why a secular agnostic like me with no time for the mumbo-jumbo of ritual but with ancestral roots in the soil of East Bengal cheered when I read five years ago that New Delhi had at last decided to grant citizenship to Hindus who had fled Pakistan/ Bangladesh and were reportedly living in 18 Indian states.
The cut-off date makes no sense. Afghanistan’s inclusion is just as absurd. But a variant of the Law of Return which invites Jews worldwide to establish a home in the Promised Land formalises reality on the ground. It’s no secret that East Bengal Muslims travelling to India on a ‘jungle passport’ paid less to the East Pakistani/ Bangladeshi border guards and more to the Indian. The reverse applied to Hindus to whom India’s border personnel were tacitly sympathetic. The late President Ziaur Rahman flew into a rage when I mentioned this illicit traffic, vehemently denying the existence of economic refugees from his booming country. There were always other complications too. Assam’s ostensibly anti-foreigner agitation didn’t target Hindus or Muslims but Bengalis to continue the old “Banga Kheda… Expel Bengalis” campaign that paralysed the state. Although Rajiv Gandhi bought peace in 1985 by agreeing that all those who came from Bangladesh after 1971 should be deported, it was never a desirable or feasible objective and is even more meaningless today. Moreover, since the devil looks after its own, the hordes of Muslim Bangladeshis that Basu’s Marxists and their allies imported to inflate their vote bank must have long ago been rewarded with Indian papers.
India is not a Hindu state. But having given refuge to Chakmas, Tamils from Sri Lanka, Tibetans, Nepalese, Afghans and perhaps also some Rohingyas, India cannot ignore the basis of partition and spurn people who were once Indians and now need protection
India is not a Hindu state. But having given refuge to Buddhist Chakmas, 29,500 ‘hill country Tamils’ from Sri Lanka, 100,000 Tibetans, millions of Nepalese, thousands of Afghans and perhaps also some Rohingyas, India cannot ignore the basis of Partition and spurn people who were once Indians and now need protection. The first inter-Dominion conference on minorities held at Writers’ Buildings in April 1948 acknowledged India’s responsibility for them with Pakistan’s Finance Minister, Ghulam Muhammad, complimenting Sri Prakasa, India’s High Commissioner, for looking after Hindus in Sindh. Soon afterwards, the chairman of Jessore municipality in East Pakistan appealed to Bidhan Chandra Roy that Hindus were being persecuted in his district. West Bengal’s Chief Minister promptly instructed India’s deputy high commissioner in Dhaka to take up the matter with the Jessore administration. Then Pakistan’s deputy high commissioner in Calcutta sought permission to visit Silchar in Assam to investigate charges of Muslims being evicted. India-Pakistan relations were always hostage to the plight of stranded minorities.
Given this background, the furore over the CAA has no moral justification even if it promises political dividend. Even this may be limited for the opposition’s need for a battering ram against the Government plays into the hands of crude bullies like West Bengal’s BJP chief who threatens to throw out “the lungyi brigade”. It also stokes the fires of communal animosity and invites the police to even greater violence against innocent young protestors who cling in their ignorance of the basis of Partition to the idealistic notion that any privilege based on religion violates the ‘idea of India’. There is no Jayaprakash Narayan to legitimise popular anger or weld objections to the National Population Register (NPR), the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the rumoured National Register of Indian Citizens in an effective movement. The real reason to criticise the BJP is not its belated generosity to Hindus stranded abroad but the suspicion that its eyes have always been set on the domes and spires of the gleaming Hindutva of its dreams. With one state after another slipping out of its control, the BJP may also feel the need to placate voters. It appears to conceal more than it reveals about the NPR and NRC, and fudges figures for Hindus in Pakistan and Bangladesh. JP might have coherently exposed this posturing and opposed the creation of a monolithic majoritarian state.
The worst victims of dislocation were Jogendra Nath Mandal’s kin-East Bengal’s peasants and fisherfolk of the Namasudra, Majhi, Kaibartya, Mahisya and other humble castes
HINDUS IN THE original Pakistan are the unfinished business of Partition. Millions of what used to be called the ‘Depressed Classes’ stayed back in East Pakistan in 1947 for two reasons. First, they had nowhere to go. Second, their most influential leader, Jogendra Nath Mandal, fervently advocating Dalit-Muslim unity and Pakistan’s Law Minister under Muhammad Ali Jinnah, believed that the lowest Bengali castes were better off in East Pakistan than in a West Bengal ruled by the landowning elite where Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das had refused to appoint Birendranath Sasmal chief executive of Calcutta Municipal Corporation lest it offend the city’s powerful and propertied Kayasthas. The job ultimately went to Subhas Chandra Bose of impeccable lineage.
The scales didn’t drop from Mandal’s eyes until 1950 when, like Syama Prasad Mookerjee and Kshitish Chandra Neogy in India, he denounced the infamous Nehru-Liaquat Ali pact as “absolutely hopeless” in securing the Hindu future and listed 200 to 300 Pakistani Hindus whose properties were seized despite Pakistan’s Custodian of Evacuee Property certifying they were not evacuees. He knew—what Jawaharlal Nehru chose not to know— that the ban on alienating property which protected Muslims in law-abiding India gave Pakistan an additional weapon for bullying and robbing a vulnerable minority. In a long and anguished letter to The Statesman, Pranab Mukherjee contrasted Delhi’s niggardliness towards Bengali refugees with the generous cornucopia of land, houses, licences, grants, loans and jobs (to say nothing of the showpiece of Chandigarh) in the west. He might have added that the Centre even paid to send a Punjab evacuee family’s sons to India’s most famous boarding school. The worst victims of dislocation, suffering and loss of moveable and immoveable possessions, were Mandal’s kin—East Bengal’s peasants and fisherfolk of the Namasudra, Majhi, Kaibartya, Mahisya and other humble castes who make up more than 80 per cent of the residual Hindu population.
Returning to the images, if we leave aside Partition bloodletting, Marichjhapi probably presents the most hideous picture of all. But the others are not much prettier. An altercation I witnessed in the dusty outskirts of Raipur, then in Madhya Pradesh, exposed the clash of values and perils of miscommunication. The burly Sikh driver of an open truck flatly refused to drive to Mana camp in the Dandakaranya resettlement zone with a Bengali spread-eagled across the bonnet of his vehicle. The Bengali flatly refused to climb down, protesting in a dialect I barely followed that as a fisherman, a Majhi, from Khulna district in East Bengal, he had ridden the prow of his boat in the Rupsha and Bhairab rivers all his life. So had his father and grandfather. It was only fitting therefore that he straddle the bonnet until he had another boat when he would again ride the prow. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that lush riverine Khulna was a far cry from the hills and jungles of Dandakaranya, the mythological ‘dark forest’ where Rama was exiled. Or that Ashoka Gupta, the veteran social worker, reported to the Central Social Welfare Board, that the abandoned World War II military camp of Mana was ‘a large treeless stretch of land, unfit for agricultural purposes.’ It was ‘extremely hot in summer’ with ‘a great dearth of water.’
Dandakaranya sprawled across what were then the states of Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. It was rich in coal, iron ore, limestone, bauxite, dolomite, tin, manganese, gold and copper. Given the promise of generous funds and technical expertise, it could have been India’s Ruhr. Nehru’s vision had already created the Damodar Valley Corporation. It had harnessed the genius of Le Corbusier, Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry, the skills of the Polish architect Maciej Nowicki and the American planner Albert Mayer, to shape in Chandigarh what the BBC called one of the few master-planned cities in the world to successfully combine monumental architecture, cultural growth and modernisation. Nehru’s daughter was soon to usher in Punjab’s Green Revolution. The glitter and glamour of Khan Market, where the rent per square foot is the highest in India, was also designed for refugees, but from West Pakistan, and named after ‘Dr Khan Sahib’ whose younger brother, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the Frontier Gandhi, never got over what he regarded as India’s betrayal in the Northwest Frontier Province. Cruel though that political betrayal was, it was not more cruel than the plight of Bengali Hindus who were packed off to the mercy of the Dandakaranya Development Authority (DDA).
The tragedy of Marichjhapi followed when a refugee leader led some 10,000 Namasudra settlers from Dandakaranya to the supposedly less inhospitable Sunderbans. Marichjhapi was placed out of bounds for journalists, opposition politicians and even a parliamentary committee
The DDA allowed the three state governments to lop off most of Dandakaranya’s mineral-rich areas. It also generously gave them for their Tribals 25 per cent of the land it had reclaimed for refugees. What was left was arid and barren. Even river basins with scope for generating power were not under DDA control. Industry was ruled out. Ashoka Gupta’s husband, Saibal Kumar Gupta, a seasoned Indian Civil Service officer, noted that ‘six per cent of the plots were basically unfit for agriculture, 32 per cent were poor and sub-marginal, 53 per cent could be of medium quality if their moisture retention capacity could be improved, and only nine were of good quality’. The title deeds that the thousands of refugee families settled there were promised were still being grudgingly doled out 36 years later by the government of the new state of Chhattisgarh carved out of Madhya Pradesh in 2000. Far from turning out to be a journey to the land of hope, what I witnessed in Raipur was the beginning of banishment to exile.
The tragedy of Marichjhapi followed when a refugee leader led some 10,000 Namasudra settlers from Dandakaranya to the supposedly less inhospitable Sunderbans. I am told Shaktipada Rajguru’s novel Dandak Theke Marichjhapi (From Dandak to Marichjhapi) describes that pilgrimage to disaster in graphic detail. But the book has been out of print for many years. Likewise, Marichjhapi was placed out of bounds for journalists, opposition politicians and even a parliamentary committee. Those who tried to investigate police atrocities faced official harassment.
My third image is more vocal than visual. It was late one evening when strolling past Khudiram village in Diglipur in the Andaman Islands I caught the sound of cymbal and kirtan. It was a celebration of the Matua movement at a shrine dedicated to Harichand Thakur (1812-78), the Matua patron, where enthusiastic and entranced performers sing all night. ‘Among the participants, there are old settlers from East Bengal as well as later migrants born in camps and refugee colonies in West Bengal,’ wrote Carola Erika Lorea, a researcher at the South Asia Institute in Heidelberg. ‘There are also the new generations of Bengalis born and brought up on the Islands, who have often never visited the mainland or the ancestors’ district of origin.’ Their cultural umbilical cord severed, marooned on the fringes of the Indian Ocean, these early victims of official ‘colonisation schemes’ ordered to battle it out with untamed tribes and cultivate and domesticate jungles probably suffered the worst fate of all. They were deculturised, their children speaking only the pidgin ‘Andamani Hindi’ that generations of convicts and the riff-raff of Indian life had evolved.
One final image. When the refugees who inundated West Bengal in 1971 were being sent back—sometimes at gunpoint—to the promised land of communal bliss that was said to have risen from the blood-drenched battlefield of East Pakistan, I asked a grizzled old peasant in a camp near Kalyani if he regarded himself as Bangladeshi or Indian. The man shot back without a pause, “You can call me an Indian national residing in Bangladesh!” In fact, Indian citizenship was mooted at one time for all Hindus in Pakistan. Babasaheb Ambedkar believed a population exchange as between Greece and Turkey under the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne which uprooted two million people would be a better solution. “That the transfer of minorities is the only lasting remedy for communal peace is beyond doubt” he declared. A third proposal for East Pakistan to cede territory west of the Padma river as a homeland for its unwanted Hindus might have aggravated subcontinental tensions.
Common to all three proposals is India’s moral obligation to residual communities of Hindus whom Partition left stranded abroad. Even when Indira Gandhi vowed to send back the 10 million 1971 refugees (and nearly seven million were repatriated), she stressed that their return could only be “in safety and dignity”. It is India’s right and responsibility to ensure that. Regardless of laws and constitutions, the earthy wisdom of that grizzled old peasant in the Kalyani camp must determine the conduct of any government that claims to be civilised and compassionate.