Healing deep scars
Citizenship Amendment Act is to remedy the historic wrongs that millions of refugees had to sustain
Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) has granted a new life of hope to a large number of refugees who were forced to abandon their home and hearth in India's neighbourhood because of religious persecution and to seek refuge in their civilisational motherland, India.
For decades after independence, these beleaguered minorities from Pakistan, erstwhile East Pakistan and later Bangladesh, especially during the period when the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) was in power, were forced out of their countries because they professed a faith which was different from the dominant faith of the country in which they lived.
Dr B C Roy, one of the tallest leaders of the Congress from West Bengal and its Chief Minister during those crucial years and decades, who had a mind of his own, lamented in a press conference in Kolkata, on March 20, 1951, that the "refugees have a great grievance, a very natural one, indeed against everybody in West Bengal and in India, even perhaps against Providence, because they have been uprooted, put to shame and difficulties for no fault of theirs." A few days before this, speaking in the West Bengal Legislative Assembly, Dr Roy, had candidly admitted that "neither he nor the Central Government had an idea of the nature of the influx and of the number of the migrants." He pointed out how Union Government led by Jawaharlal Nehru was fixated on the notion that the migrants from East Bengal/Pakistan "would return to their homes as soon as the situation improved in East Pakistan."
Nehru's government insisted therefore that Bengali Hindu refugees from East Pakistan would only be provided with relief and not rehabilitation. Despite realising that his "entente cordiale" with Liaquat was failing, that his Pact was falling apart, despite the fact that more and more minorities were being driven out of Pakistan, Nehru turned a blind eye to the plight of the Bengali Hindu refugees. Dr Roy pointed out how only later did Nehru realise that what the refugees from East Bengal/Pakistan needed was both "relief and rehabilitation, and rehabilitation meant not only a plot of land and a house but gainful occupation and recovery from the low psychic state produced by uprooting." Even after this, little was done in terms of rehabilitation for these refugees. The fashionable protestors in Lyutens Delhi and stone-pelters of Jamia would hardly know the agonies of these refugees.
At the time of independence, the refugees were promised protection in their countries and shelter and equal rights in India if they ever left their countries because of religious persecution and discrimination. These promises were made by a number of leaders and after independence, a number of other leaders continued to speak for their rights, continued to highlight their plight but hardly ever did they attempt to settle the issue once for all.
Interestingly, it will be relevant to mention in this context, that on August 16, 1966, veteran Jana Sangh leader Niranjan Varma, then Member of Rajya Sabha, asked three pointed questions to the then Union External Affairs Minister Sardar Swaran Singh. These questions were:
What is the present position of the Nehru-Liaquat Pact, which was concluded in 1950 after the last India-Pakistan conflict?
Whether both the countries are still acting according to the terms of the Pact?
The year since when Pakistan has been violating the Pact?
To Verma's first question, Swaran Singh said, that "the Nehru-Liaquat Pact of 1950 is a standing agreement between India and Pakistan. It requires each country to ensure that its minorities enjoy complete equality of citizenship with others and receive treatment identical to that available for other nationals of their country." Singh's answer to the second question was that "though in India, the rights and security of the minorities have been continuously and effectively safeguarded, Pakistan has persistently contravened the provisions of the Pact through consistent neglect and harassment of the members of the minority community." Swaran Singh's answer to the third question is more crucial for us since it pointed to the failure of the Nehru-Liaquat pact. Singh replied that "instances of such violations started coming to notice almost immediately after the inception of the Pact."
This is exactly what Union Home Minister Amit Shah pointed out in his speeches in both House of Parliament in December 2019 and this was exactly what Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee, had in the past, also proved in the House with facts and figures during a debate on August 7, 1950. His words uttered then on the Nehru-Liaquat Pact being a non-starter proved prophetic over the years. It is strange, therefore, that some of the loudest opposition to CAA comes from the Congress which has forgotten the facts and figures given in the past by its own leader and minister.
The Nehru-Liaquat Pact's failure pushed the minorities in Pakistan to the brink, their situation further deteriorated when Pakistan became an Islamic state in 1956 when its constitution declared that "the sovereignty of this country vests in Allah". Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya writing at that time highlighted the adverse effect that this declaration had on the minorities in Pakistan. He wrote that "as far as Hindus are concerned, they have been subject to boycott as second-class citizens. It is impossible for them to live with any dignity in Pakistan…"
It was Bharatiya Jana Sangh from 1951 and later Bharatiya Janata Party which relentlessly continued to champion the rights of the refugees to live a life of dignity and equality in India. The Jana Sangh's first manifesto in 1955 gave top priority to the problem of displaced persons. "The party believes that rehabilitation of those who have suffered from partition and come over to Bharat is legally as well as morally the responsibility of Bharat which must not be side-tracked." Leaders and parties, namely the Congress party and the communist parties paid lip service to the cause of the refugees, often used them as political fodder yet hardly ever did anything to ameliorate their lot.
By passing the CAA, Prime Minister Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah, have not only corrected a historic wrong, but they have also fulfilled a historic promise, which no other party or leader had the courage or sensitivity to do in the past. The passing of the CAA thus further strengthens India's unity, it is a historic and civilisational act which is not aimed at taking away anyone's citizenship but at granting it to the beleaguered minorities in India's neighbourhood who, for decades and for historic reasons, have been victims of persecution and discrimination.
In the immediate aftermath of partition, especially after his resignation from the Union cabinet in protest against the Nehru-Liaquat Pact, Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee extensively toured the areas of Assam and West Bengal in which the refugees had taken shelter after being driven out of Pakistan. He came in contact, in his own words in Parliament, "with lakhs of persons who have migrated from East Bengal [East Pakistan] to West Bengal and Assam" and what he saw, was extremely disturbing and distressing. "I have seen all classes and conditions of people, men, women, and children, many of whom never knew what poverty and want were. But today they are homeless; they are hopeless. Their physical suffering was great. But what struck me as most ominous and most distressing was the moral torture through which millions of people have passed."
Those who oppose CAA today, intentionally ignore and suppress this dimension of moral torture through which millions of these people were forced to pass. CAA is a step to erase and to heal the deep scars left behind by that near-unending cycle of moral torture.
Dr Anirban Ganguly is Director, Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation. Views expressed are strictly personal