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  Opinion   Columnists  16 Feb 2024  Sunanda K. Datta-Ray | CAA won’t target anyone, it corrects an old injustice

Sunanda K. Datta-Ray | CAA won’t target anyone, it corrects an old injustice

Sunanda K Datta-Ray is a senior journalist, columnist and author.
Published : Feb 17, 2024, 12:05 am IST
Updated : Feb 17, 2024, 12:05 am IST

A comprehensive analysis of CAA's legal, social, and political ramifications

Demonstrators voice concerns against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, reflecting the ongoing debates in India's socio-political milieu. (PTI File Image)
 Demonstrators voice concerns against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, reflecting the ongoing debates in India's socio-political milieu. (PTI File Image)

The long-overdue Citizenship (Amendment) Act of 2019 should have been spared the taint of vote-seeking opportunism which the humanitarian measure has acquired from the timing of Union home minister Amit Shah’s announcement about its notification and implementation. Contrary to the furore by some Muslims and most Opposition parties, the CAA does not make any substantial difference on the ground. India has always been Hindustan in a larger philosophical sense, and Hindus in neighbouring countries are viewed differently from people of other faiths.

That difference was obvious after the Bangladesh war, when the camps for mostly Hindu refugees around Kolkata were being closed, and inmates forced almost at bayonet point to board military trucks to take them back to the villages of Jessore and Khulna from which the Pakistan Army had brutally evicted them. “Do you regard yourself as an Indian, a Pakistani or a Bangladeshi?” I asked a wiry Hindu peasant who made no secret of his extreme reluctance to be repatriated. “You should regard me as an Indian citizen residing in Bangladesh”, he shot back.

Bearing in mind the sad history of the Hindus of East Bengal, now Bangladesh, I could understand his dilemma. Most East Pakistan Hindus were cultivators and fishermen from the more depressed castes. They were also relatively poor.

East Bengal’s big zamindars were also Hindu landowners, professional men, bureaucrats and academics who comprised the gentry in undivided Bengal. It was to oust them that the Muslim peasantry voted overwhelmingly for Pakistan.

Significantly, while West Bengal in India did not abolish zamindari until 1954, in East Bengal, the system was done away with in 1950.

Jogendranath Mandal, one of Pakistan’s 96 founding figures, epitomised the anguish of this contradiction. As a Bengali Hindu Dalit freedom fighter, he thought he would get a fairer deal in supposedly egalitarian Islamic Pakistan. Muhammad Ali Jinnah thought so too and made him Pakistan’s first minister for law, justice and labour. But Jinnah’s death in September 1948 left Mandal vulnerable. He could not cope either with the West Pakistani bureaucracy’s bullying or the Muslim majority rioters in East Pakistan supported by the police and, ultimately, by the rich and aristocratic Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan.

Helpless in the face of atrocities against Pakistan’s non-Muslim minorities and subject also to family pressures, Mandal eventually resigned his job and escaped to India.

Other attempted solutions also failed. One was a proposal to exchange religious minorities, like Greece and Turkey. Another was for a new Hindu homeland in a strip of Bangladeshi territory to the west of the river Padma. The 1950 Nehru-Liaquat Ali pact was a third plan to recognise the rights of the Bengali Hindu peasantry to their ancestral fields. However, whatever the Pakistan government agreed to in formal discussions was often negated by local officials who were quick to list the Hindu owners as “evacuees” and their lands, after the 1965 war, as “enemy property”.

Nor was there ever any question of replicating in the east the rehabilitation plans that accounted for the west’s prosperity. Muslims in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh abandoned substantial properties that the Indian government took over to create a compensation pool for Hindus from West Pakistan. There was no such divisible property pool in the east. Nor did the Centre’s generosity extend to building an equivalent of Chandigarh city, setting up industrial townships for refugees such as the one at Faridabad, or developing areas like New Delhi’s fashionable Khan Market, established in 1951 by India’s new rehabilitation ministry to create economic opportunities for Partition victims, especially from the North-West Frontier Province and named after Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, an icon of the Independence movement and NWFP chief minister from 1945 to 1947. Long before he became President of India, Pranab Mukherjee contrasted New Delhi’s generosity to West Pakistan refugees with its parsimony to Hindus from East Pakistan who were left to fend for themselves. The CAA belatedly attempts to correct that injustice.

The result of the BJP’s campaign promises in 2014 and 2019, the CAA provides a fast track for non-Muslim immigrants from Muslim-majority Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan to Indian citizenship. One objection is that selective access militates against the secular ideal and violates Article 14 (equality before the law) of the Constitution. Another is that it will be exploited to disenfranchise Muslims. The renewed call by Akhil Gogoi, an Assam Opposition MLA, to protest against what he calls the “unconstitutional CAA”, is a reminder of how deep-seated such fears can be. Sadly, the rhetoric of some Indian politicians only go to fan these fears.

It's not forgotten that Mr Shah had referred derisively to illegal migrants from Bangladesh as “termites”. Uttar Pradesh’s BJP chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, had promised to cleanse India of other religions, calling this the “century of Hindutva”. Another BJP MLA from the same state, Surendra Singh, warned in 2018 that India would be a “Hindu Rashtra” by this year and that only Muslims who “accepted” India’s Hindu culture could stay on. While the Kerala government challenged the CAA in court, several chief ministers refused to implement the law in their states.

Actually, India has moved with circumspection on the question of migrants. The informal term in Bangladesh that migrants without proper papers travel on a “jungle passport” means that a Muslim pays less to the Bangladesh border police and more to the Indian guards, and vice versa if he is a Hindu. Far from turning away Hindus in need of asylum, India operates a tacit equivalent of Israel’s Law of Return. Similarly, when the Custodian of Enemy Property compensated Indians who were originally from East Bengal for lost property, he sought no proof. Asked about evidence, the outraged custodian snapped: “A man has escaped with his life and you want me to ask him to produce title deeds?” Under the CAA, no Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan who arrived in India on or before December 31, 2014, will be treated as an “illegal migrant”. He/she will be allowed time to apply for Indian citizenship, the qualifying length of residency being reduced from “not less than eleven years” to “not less than five years”.

Reservations by some American and international organisations reflect the stand that favouring one group can only be at the expense of other groups. This is a charge that India must strongly rebut. The government can do so most effectively by being impeccably even-handed in its treatment of all communities and curbing the tendency to indulge in abuse, vituperation and majoritarian bullying.

Tags: citizenship amendment act (caa), amit shah, chief minister yogi adityanath