Narendra Modi’s Citizenship Amendment Bill implicitly proclaims India’s responsibility for the future of Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. The new law will make them eligible for Indian citizenship after six years of residence instead of the 11 now necessary. The dispensation aroused surprise and provoked resistance because India is not officially a Hindu country. But since more than 80 per cent of Indians are Hindu, the Hindu ethos has always been the dominant culture even under the agnostic Jawaharlal Nehru when government was said to be secular.

Even then, New Delhi didn’t deny a certain moral obligation towards Hindus in Pakistan although Nehru would have rationalised this on humanitarian grounds. K M Munshi, the freedom fighter and diplomat who later started the Akhand Hindustan movement, helped Chakravarti Rajagopalachari to launch the right-wing Swatantra Party, and eventually joined the Jan Sangh, called it India’s “collective consciousness”. If India is thus sublimally Hindu, the United States is similarly Christian. But the private faith of presidents like Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan has not been allowed to impinge on the State.

Any attempt to give Christianity official status is at once struck down as transgressing the First Amendment of the Constitution which forbids Congress to make any “law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” A 65-ft cross near Pearl Harbour in Hawaii was dismantled in 1988 when a court upheld objections by the American Civil Liberties Union and Jewish War Veterans that it violated the constitutional separation of church and State. It was replaced with an 80-ft flagpole flying the American flag.

History was repeated in 1997 when the Hawaii Citizens for the Separation of State and Church charged that the 37-ft steel cross at Schofield Barracks, built with public funds, was a “blatant and obvious violation” of the First Amendment. When the court ordered the dismantling of the cross, the Hawaii attorney declared that “the wall between state and church stands tall and forbids government from endorsing Christianity in particular over other religions.”

Members of parliament like Mohammed Salim of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Javed Ali Khan of the Samajwadi Party cannot, however, complain that the Citizenship Amendment Bill erodes the wall between State and church (or temple) because the government is only making explicit what has always been implicit. However, with Lok Sabha elections due in four months, critics can accuse Mr Modi of exploiting India’s moral obligation for electoral purposes (like 10 per cent reservation for the defined poor) or to further the Hindutva agenda.

The opposition of the Asom Gana Parishad, which has snapped ties with the Bharatiya Janata Party, is more local, recalling the state’s violent “Bongal Kheda” (Reject Bengalis) campaign in the 1940s. An editorial in Guwahati’s Sentinel newspaper recently condemed the Bill as proving “a diabolical determination of the Centre” to flood Assam with thousands of Hindu migrants from Bangladesh and erode Assamese identity and culture.

East Bengal Hindus are the victims of history. Not only were they discriminated against in East Pakistan, but as Pranab Mukherjee wrote long before becoming President, they received very little Indian help: the Centre determinedly denied them the funds and facilities that enabled West Pakistan refugees to start life anew. One reason for this unfair treatment probably was that India didn’t expect East Pakistan to survive as long as it. Bengali culture was regarded as a stronger bond than Islam, and it was assumed that the two Bengals would be united sooner or later.

That may have one reason for the pact Nehru signed with Liaquat Ali Khan on 8 April 1950 freezing the status quo. Theoretically, Hindus in East Pakistan and Muslims in West Bengal could not dispose of their property rights. In practice, East Pakistan Hindus lost control of their properties. An agreement that was supposed to prevent an exodus by guaranteeing minority rights turned into the cruel farce of a fig leaf that barely covered loot, dispossession, rape, murder and eviction.

With East Pakistan Hindus denouncing the pact as a device for despoliation under the pretext of protection, Shyama Prasad Mookerjee and K C Neogy quit Nehru’s cabinet in protest. The citizenship Bill will not right the wrongs of the past. But it might help to ensure that the long shadow of the past does not forever darken the future of Hindus abroad. It suited India to believe in 1971 that the distinction between Hindu and Muslim had vanished, and that all East Pakistanis — 91 per cent Muslim — were united in a common cause. My first tour of refugee camps, therefore, came as a shock.

Most refugees were Hindu peasants. When the war was over, they were forced into trucks at bayonet’s point and sent back across the border. “First, they (East Pakistan Muslims) killed the Biharis (Urdu-speaking Calcutta Muslims who had migrated to East Pakistan)”, one of those Hindu refugees told me. “Then, when the Pakistanis (soldiers) came, all three turned on us!” Contrary to the popular narrative, not all East Pakistan Muslims supported the break with Pakistan and emergence of Bangladesh.

Among celebrities who didn’t were Fazlul Quader Chowdhury, a former acting president of Pakistan, Abdul Motaleb Malik, East Pakistan’s last civilian governor, Shah Azizur Rahman, a future prime minister, and Raja Tridiv Roy of Rangamati, who became an ambassador. Khondakar Mustaque Ahmed, a future president, may have played ball with any winning side but he couldn’t have revoked Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Collaborators (Special Tribunals) Order, passed an Indemnity Act, and bestowed high military rank and diplomatic appointments on Mujib’s killers without wider endorsement.

If it was revealing that more than 37,000 war crimes suspects were rounded up under the Collaborators Order, it was even more revealing that they were all freed when a general amnesty was declared in November 1973. Mujib himself revived the Islamic Academy, mended fences with Pakistan, and joined the Organization of the Islamic Conference and Islamic Development Bank. Those who knew him say “Khuda Hafiz” replaced “Joy Bangla” as his preferred greeting towards the end. Even Sheikh Hasina baulks at repealing the constitutional amendment making Islam the state religion.

Given this national temper, it isn’t surprising that Hindus were persecuted. The surprise is that their only escape route was formally closed. Of course, the Hindu population wouldn’t have dwindled from 22 to 9 per cent between 1951 and 2011 without escape hatches. The “jungle passport” (as it was called) operated on much the same principle as Modi’s proposed dispensation: Hindus paid more to the East Pakistan/Bangladesh border guards and less to India’s. The opposite applied to Muslim economic migrants whom Indian officials apparently called evacuees as opposed to refugees. That was a form of natural justice.

Sunanda K Datta-Ray is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.

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