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Congress wore 1971 war trophy, but left an unfinished business. CAB came out of that

The Congress and the Left decided not to give citizenship rights to then-East Pakistan refugees. The issue was left in limbo, until BJP saw it.

File photo of Indira Gandhi
File photo of Indira Gandhi | Commons

The liberation of Bangladesh in 1971 was a big trophy for India, and for Congress party’s Indira Gandhi. But it left an important part unfinished – the refugees.

And the Bharatiya Janata Party’s politics is founded on all the historical blunders of the Congress era. The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill that was passed in Lok Sabha is one more example of this.

Left in limbo

The images of 90,000 Pakistani soldiers surrendering in front of Lt Gen Jagjit Singh Arora is still cherished as one of the most enduring images in India’s collective memory. The rationale for India entering this conflict, being fought by Mukti Bahini in East Pakistan against the military rule of Yahya Khan, was that millions of refugees were entering India because of persecution and putting pressure on its natural resources.

The Congress reaped political dividends from the 1971 war and rightly so. After all, India thwarted the threat of the marching behemoth known as Seventh Fleet of the US Navy, which was sent to the Bay of Bengal to scare India into withdrawal. This marked the metamorphosis of Indira Gandhi from ‘goongi gudia (silent doll)’ to Durga, as young parliamentarian of Jan Sangh, Atal Bihari Vajpayee hailed her in Parliament.

But during this time of glory, the Indian state conveniently ignored one very important project. The rulers of India at that time, the Congress at the Centre and the Communists in West Bengal, decided not to give citizenship rights to the East Pakistan refugees. This made lakhs of sons and daughters of Partition nowhere people. To date, India does not have a national refugee policy. Although it does give citizenship benefits to refugees from Sri Lanka, Tibet and Afghanistan.

So, the issue of 1971 refugees was left in limbo. They were not even granted refugee status. These people were dumped in transit camps, as if they were in transit and would later go back to the country where they had no future. They were settled in most uninhabitable parts of the country like Little AndamansDandakaranya in Chhattisgarh, swampy lands of upper Uttar Pradesh, and so on. They were denied all the rights of citizens. They were barred from government jobs, contesting election, and even from getting ration cards.

It’s pertinent to know the reason for such an unwelcome attitude of Indian state towards the refugees from then East Pakistan. This is in contrast to the reception of 1947 refugees, who were allowed, rather facilitated to settle in good localities in big cities, given land titles and easy bank loans to start their own businesses.

So, why the discrimination?

Also read: Long queues, old papers, WhatsApp NRC scares: Hindus & Muslims in Bengal brace for the worst

A sea change

Between 1947 to 1971, the attitude of the Indian state towards refugees saw a sea change. The refugees in both these mass migrations had, however, come under similar situations.

The difference was the sociological composition. In 1971, the refugees who shifted base from East Pakistan to India initially were the landed gentry and Hindu upper caste. At that time, the Dalits decided to stay back because their political group was part of the ruling dispensation of Pakistan. Noted lawyer Jogendra Narayan Mandal was at the helm of affairs at the law ministry of Pakistan. But later on, communalism grew on both sides of the border, and fearing persecution, the Dalits decided to shift their base to India. At the same time, the military rulers of Pakistan, dominated by Punjabis, tried to curb equal rights of Bengali-speaking citizens. These two factors led to a process that finally culminated in the partition of Pakistan.

The Indian state was very hostile towards these Bengali-speaking mostly-Dalit refugees. The Left Front in Bengal was also behind the killings of several helpless Dalit settlers in the Sunderban delta of West Bengal. Author Deep Haldar has brought back to public memory the sufferings of these settlers through his anthropological book – Blood Island.

Also read: Without a pan-India NRC, Modi-Shah know Citizenship Bill is nothing but symbolism 

Not a salve

Now it’s up to the BJP to turn the table. It has decided to give these Non-Muslims refugees citizenship rights. Although all the refugees are not Hindus, but the BJP wants to grant citizenship on the basis of religion. So, the BJP is introducing the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill not to correct the historical wrong done to the 1971 refugees, but to wedge differences among people on the basis of religion. It suits the party’s Hindu Rashtra project.

Narendra Modi and Amit Shah are feasting on a project left unfinished by the Congress and, to some extent, by the Left Front.

We do not know what transpired at the level of government and bureaucracy at that time. Who were the people who decided to punish the Dalits for their decision to stay back in Pakistan at the time of Partition? But that historical blunder is now being played up by the BJP. Amit Shah is now arguing that the government at the time played a partisan role by not granting citizenship to the ‘Hindus’.

This is not entirely false.

Also read: The Left massacre of migrant Hindus in Bengal that was bigger than 2002 & 1984

The BJP will try to reap the political benefit of the NRC and the Citizenship Bill in the upcoming assembly elections in West Bengal, which has a sizable population of 1971 refugees. The Congress and the Left should say sorry to the 1971 refugees for making them persons without a post office. At the same time, better sense must prevail upon the BJP, and it should not open the wounds of Partition again.

Dilip Mandal is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi magazine, and has authored books on media and sociology. Views are personal.