At the beginning of 1950, resulting from the religious persecution of Hindus in erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), lakhs of Hindus left their homes and came to India forever. (Express Archives)
The Lok Sabha witnessed a historic moment at the stroke of midnight on December 9 with the passage of the citizenship amendment bill (CAB), 2019, which seeks to further expand the ambit of religious freedom by enabling illegal migrants to become Indian citizens— those who had earlier fled from the neighbouring countries, that is, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, because of religious persecution and a terrible life.
India has a long history as a secular democracy where religious communities of every faith have thrived. The CAB has emerged as “rights and relief giver” to these religiously persecuted illegal migrants including Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. The exclusion of Muslims from the ambit of the Bill flows from the obvious reality that the three countries -- Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan -- are Islamist, as stated in their own constitutions. Over the course of history their actions, of targetting minorities for conversion or harassment, is clearly visible from the fact that the minority population in Pakistan has decreased from 23 per cent in 1947 to 3.7 per cent in 2011. Similarly, the minority population in Bangladesh has decreased from 22 per cent in 1947 to 7 per cent in 2011.
At the beginning of 1950, resulting from the religious persecution of Hindus in erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), lakhs of Hindus left their homes and came to India forever. Syama Prasad Mookerjee, then minister in the interim government, urged strong action against Pakistan, but Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru signed a pact with Liaquat Ali Khan, Pakistan’s Prime Minister. In protest, Mookerjee resigned from the central cabinet two days before the pact and devoted himself whole-heartedly to the cause of the refugees. After resigning from the Union cabinet, during the statement in provisional Parliament on April 19, 1950, Mookerjee pointed out the concerns of refugees: “At that time (Partition) little knowing that I would join the first Central Cabinet, I along with others, gave assurances to the Hindus of East Bengal (then East Pakistan and now Bangladesh)”, stating that if they suffered at the hands of the future Pakistan government, if they were denied elementary rights of citizenship, if their lives and honour were jeopardised or attacked, free India would not remain an idle spectator and their just cause would be boldly taken up by the Government and people of India”. He further said: “Let us not forget that the Hindus of East Bengal are entitled to the protection of India, not on humanitarian considerations alone, but by virtue of their sufferings and sacrifices, made cheerfully for generations, not for advancing their own parochial interests, but for laying the foundations of India’s political freedom and intellectual progress.”
At this juncture, it is important to recall the noted scholar, activist and voice of the Dalits, Jogendranath Mandal, who travelled to Pakistan and returned to India very soon due to the growing hostility of Pakistan on minorities. Born on January 29, 1904, in the Namasudra (untouchable) community of erstwhile Bengal, Jogendranath Mandal became an elected member of the Bengal legislative assembly from Bakarganj North East General rural constituency in 1937. He had also established the Bengal branch of the All India Scheduled Caste Federation, which was led by B R Ambedkar nationally.
After Partition in 1947, Mandal became a member of the Constituent Assembly and then highest-ranking Hindu Minister, first law and labour minister of Pakistan. His time as a Hindu minister in the Muslim-majority Pakistan remained one under suppression. Such dynamics, eventually, led to a situation where, in his resignation letter dated October 8, 1950, and addressed to Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan, Mandal highlighted the plight of Hindu minorities, their forced conversion and suppression, and their general dismal future: “I can no longer afford to carry this load of false pretensions and untruth on my conscience and I have decided to offer my resignation as your Minister, which I am hereby placing in your hands and which, I hope, you will accept without delay. You are of course at liberty to dispense with that office or dispose of it in such a manner as may suit adequately and effectively the objectives of your Islamic State.”
On April 8, 1950, the Nehru-Liaquat agreement was signed regarding the security and rights of minorities in India and Pakistan in New Delhi. It clearly says, “The members of minorities shall have equal opportunities with members of the majority community to participate in the public life of their country, to hold political or other offices, and to serve in their country’s civil or armed forces.” India has constantly ensured the protection of minorities and a testimony to this fact is that the Muslim population in India has increased from 9.8 per cent in 1951 to 14.8 per cent in 2011. Pakistan did not honour its commitments though, and religious persecution of minorities continued there.
Also, after exactly six months from the date of the Nehru-Liaquat agreement, Mandal resigned from the ministerial post of the Pakistan government and returned to India, which clearly became an example of the failure of the treaty. During a detailed discussion on the citizenship-related Article 5 and 6 in the Constituent Assembly on August 10, 1949, Ambedkar pointed out that:
“It is not possible to cover every kind of case for a limited purpose, namely, the purpose of conferring citizenship on the date of commencement of the constitution. If there is any category of people who are left out by the provisions contained in this amendment, we have given power to Parliament subsequently to make provision for them.”
Similarly, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from neighbouring nations fled to India and are facing hardships as they reside ‘illegally’ in various parts of India. Many institutions, NGOs and civil society groups are continuously deliberating and advocating the easing of the lives of minority refugees who still believe that “the partition is not yet over for them”.
However, the passage of the Bill in both Houses of Parliament will give relief to these minorities (illegal migrants) who have entered India without valid documents. In the border areas of Rajasthan, more than 25,000 refugees who have migrated from Pakistan will be benefitted. It will empower refugee communities to improve their living conditions and also provide a more secure future for their children, besides promoting communal harmony in the border areas of Rajasthan by highlighting shared traditions and encouraging collaboration in the preservation of culture by adding more colour to the diversity of India. Now, they will not only get citizenship rights but also a legitimate shot at rehabilitation, livelihood and education, with dignity. An opportunity to rebuild their lives.
Under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the government has sought to complete what the “Nehru-Liaquat” pact could not do so far. Home minister Amit Shah has explained the intent of the bill in Parliament and meticulously clarified how the proposed CAB is going to complete this unfinished agenda, and how it will become a boon for all the victims of Partition. This historic move of granting citizenship rights to all these minorities will bring them under the umbrella of mainstream development and various welfare programmes of the government. It is a moment of pride for all of us as this step will further strengthen India’s centuries-old ethos of assimilation and belief in humanitarian values.
(The writer is Union minister of state for parliamentary affairs, heavy industries, and public enterprises and is a member of Parliament representing Bikaner constituency, Rajasthan.)