Pranab Mukherjee would probably have supported the Citizenship (Amendment) Act which provoked such furious clashes all over the country as the BJP was edged out of governing yet another state, raising its tally of losses this year to five. So would Syama Prasad Mookerjee and KC Neogy, who quit Jawaharlal Nehru’s cabinet protesting that the 1950 pact with Liaquat Ali Khan encouraged the dispossession of Hindus in Pakistan.
Their interest, like the former President’s, would have been humanitarian. They would all have recognised that whatever political and propagandist motives Narendra Modi and Amit Shah might have in adopting the CAA, the law itself cannot be faulted. It will bring some hope of relief to the orphans of Partition. Since Afghanistan has a mere thousand Hindus, and Pakistan less than 2.5 million, the 17 million Hindus in Bangladesh stand to gain the most. Mr Mukherjee once contrasted Delhi’s niggardliness towards them with the generous gifts of land, houses, licences, grants, loans and jobs (to say nothing of the new city of Chandigarh) to West Pakistan refugees. The Centre even paid to send a Punjab evacuee family’s sons to India’s most famous boarding school.
But while the Nehru-Liaquat Ali pact’s ban on selling evacuee/enemy property protected minority groups in India, this ostensible “protection” only provided the majority group in Pakistan with an additional means of bullying and robbing a vulnerable minority. In his famous resignation letter of October 8, 1950, JN Mandal, one of Pakistan’s founding fathers, although a Hindu, wrote of 200 to 300 Hindus whose properties were seized and not returned even though the Custodian of Evacuee Property certified the owners were not evacuees. The worst victims of partition’s dislocation, suffering and loss of moveable and immoveable possessions were the peasants and fisherfolk of East Bengal, the Hindu Namasudra and Majhi castes. The new law promises security for those among them who fled to India before December 31, 2014, and implicitly assures those who didn’t that they have not been abandoned.
Everything is shrouded in suspicion as CAA has been bracketed with the National Register of Citizens and the National Population Register. The fear is the government will use the information to keep tabs on all Indians, especially Muslims. At present, only Assam has an NRC but Nagaland is reportedly creating a database called Register of Indigenous Inhabitants and the exercise may be extended to other states. NPR will contain demographic and biometric details of all residents of India and facilitate an eventual National Register of Indian Citizens. Together, CAA, NPR, NRC and NRIC could also be signposts on the road to the Hindutva of the BJP’s dreams.
However distasteful people of a liberal bent might find being earmarked and identified, the point is that all modern states store such information. It’s necessary for social services, economic planning and all forms of national tabulation. Of course, the information can be used to create a police state but that depends on the political leadership and public mood. As has been said, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” As for crowding Muslims out of India, the new law will immediately benefit no more than 31,313 refugees: 25,447 Hindus, 5,807 Sikhs, 55 Christians, two Buddhists and two Parsis. But even if the CAA one day bestows citizenship on all 17 million Bangladeshi Hindus, 2.5 million Pakistani Hindus and the thousand Hindus in Afghanistan, it cannot deprive 200 million Indian Muslims whose rights are part of the history, culture and very soil of this land of any of their entrenched privileges as Indian citizens. The Hindutva objective is a different matter. It probably is the BJP’s long-term goal – shared by both rich if opportunistic industrialists and a substantial section of the unlettered masses — but that goal will not be thwarted by objecting to rational or humanitarian reforms.
The remedy lies in denying the BJP a popular mandate, as voters have done in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and, now, in Jharkhand. It would be counter-productive to oppose the CAA. However, New Delhi has no residual obligations to Afghanistan’s persecuted minorities since it was not part of British India. Nor can Parsis or Christians claim the sympathy to which Bangladeshi Hindus or Pakistani Sikhs are entitled for they did not figure in the Partition drama. The exemption of the tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura seems a matter of pragmatic politics. The exemption of those areas of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram where the Inner Line Permit under the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulations of 1873 applies (Manipur’s inclusion in the category was announced on December 9, 2019) seems like a historical anachronism.
Some complain by not including Pak’s persecuted Ahmadiya and Hazara Muslims, Sri Lanka’s Tamils (Hindu and Christian), Myanmar’s mainly Muslim Rohingyas and Tibetan Buddhists, CAA betrays our secular constitution. But Indian secularism is not an aggressive global mission. It means only the state has no particular religious bias, and all the religions in the country operate on an equal footing. It’s more an attitude, a state of mind, than an official fig-leaf. That attitude explains why without fanfare, India allowed 29,500 “hill country Tamils” (Malaiha, as they are called in Lanka) fleeing the systemic violence Sinhalese Buddhists began in 1983 to settle in Tamil Nadu. India also provided asylum to 100,000 Tibetan Buddhist refugees. Britain practises a similar unostentatious form of secularism. The UK has its own religion, the Church of England, whose “supreme governor” is the head of state. Yet, in practice, the UK’s is an entirely secular society.
This muted secularism has enabled the Indian authorities always to take a sympathetic stand vis-à-vis Hindus in Pakistan, tacitly acknowledging that these residual communities – an unfinished legacy of Partition – are India’s moral if not legal responsibility. After all, they were Indians once. So, the Hindu lawyer or landowner escaping East Pakistan on what was called a “jungle passport” paid a bigger bribe to the Pakistani guards than to the Indians. The Custodian of Enemy Property told me after the 1971 war it would be monstrous to seek documents for compensating Hindu peasants who had escaped alive. “A man has fled for life only in clothes he stands up in, he has left everything behind, and we should ask him for pattas?” he exclaimed in righteous outrage. Perhaps that tacit helpfulness should have continued. Perhaps the real reason for the law is with states slipping out of its control, BJP finds it necessary to assure voters Hindutva remains its holy grail. But whatever the CAA’s possible uses and abuses, it does formalise sympathy on a legal long-term basis.
The writer is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.