Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, NRC: Why history of Partition holds key to our understanding of today's political moves

  • To understand what is happening with the National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill today, some knowledge of Partition history is essential.

  • The events of that tumultuous past include forced migrations not only in 1947 due to Partition but also in 1971 following the Bangladesh Genocide.

  • The region had moved on from this very painful past and was on the path to recovery when the NRC and Citizenship Bill came along.

Joining the Dots is a weekly column by author and journalist Samrat in which he connects events to ideas, often through analysis, but occasionally through satire

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A massive debate has broken out over the passing of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in Parliament. The arguments are no longer restricted only to words on social media and drawing room conversations. There are already violent street protests in parts of Northeast India. Internet services were suspended in Tripura on Tuesday following stray incidents of violence and rumours of communal riots. The rioting there, as in many parts of the Northeast, is not between Hindus and Muslims, but between tribals and non-tribals.

Much of the region is tense due to the passage of the Bill, which is seen as providing a route for Hindu Bengalis to settle in the region. The history of ethnic tensions in Northeast India is a long story of violence and ethnic cleansing of Bengalis, both Hindu and Muslim, after the drawing of borders in 1947 turned what had been neighbouring districts and provinces into foreign countries. The parts of India which did not experience the Partition do not understand what this means.

 Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, NRC: Why history of Partition holds key to our understanding of todays political moves

Activists under various student union outfits protest against Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019, in Khumulwng, West Tripura. PTI

Imagine that you are, say, a Gujarati living somewhere in Maharashtra, or a Maharashtrian living in Gujarat, and suddenly, in the space of two months, they become different countries – and hostile ones at that. Entire populations of people who suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of a new boundary would then be forced to migrate. If, say, some of these people move to Delhi, and the locals there don’t want this influx and start attacking the refugees – that would be something a little like the fate that has befallen those affected by Partition in Northeast India.

The Bengali-speaking district of Sylhet in Assam went to Pakistan in a controversial referendum in 1947. The Bengali Hindus from there were displaced and moved to other parts of Assam, of which province they had been a part since 1874, when the territory had been taken out of Bengal and appended to Assam by the colonial British administration. They found themselves unwelcome in Assam. A large part of the subsequent history of tensions between the Bengali and Assamese linguistic groups, and the hostility towards Bengalis in Northeast India, resulted from the maps drawn in 1874 and 1947.

To understand what is happening with the National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill today, some knowledge of that history is essential. The events of that tumultuous past include forced migrations not only in 1947 due to Partition but also in 1971 following the Bangladesh Genocide in which an estimated two-three million Bengalis, mainly Hindus, men, women, and children, were killed by the Pakistan Army in one of the worst massacres in world history.

The region had moved on from this very painful past and was on the path to recovery when the NRC and Citizenship Bill came along. Now, tensions that had subsided between communities are again high. The Assamese and tribal groups are opposed to the Bill, despite its exemptions for Sixth Schedule tribal areas and states covered by the Inner Line Permit regime that require Indians from other parts of India to apply for a special permit from the state government to enter certain states.

Many Assamese and tribal chauvinists support the NRC, despite the fact that it is quite clearly riddled with errors – so much so that the Assam BJP has rejected it and the officer in charge of the exercise is now facing FIRs – because they see it as a means of evicting “Bangladeshis”, a term often applied to all Bengalis of East Bengal origin, and especially to the Muslims among them. They oppose the Citizenship Bill because they see it as a backdoor for giving citizenship to the Hindu Bengalis, whom they also want evicted.

There is a considerable history of attempted ethnic cleansing targeting mainly Bengalis, Nepalis and Biharis in Northeast India, though other communities such as Marwari have also faced attacks and been subjected to extortion at times. Some accounts of this history can be found in a book called Insider Outsider of which I was one of two editors. The region had seemingly moved on from those dark days when we began work on the book, circa 2015. There was a sense of peace and what is usually called progress, and the talk was of things like music festivals in Shillong, fancy five stars opening in Guwahati, and the Act East policy in the region.

Now all that stands jeopardised. The Indian and Japanese Prime Ministers are scheduled to meet in Guwahati in a few days to talk about Act East. It is an empty gesture. There cannot be Act East if all the communities in the region are fighting with one another. That is exactly what the unnecessary and divisive politics of NRC and Citizenship Bill threatens to do.

Those who live far away from the region and have no clue about its realities will not be affected by whatever happens. They may be benefiting from the cynical politics. This is just like the years leading up to Partition in 1947, when extremists among the Hindus and Muslims who calculated that they themselves had nothing to lose pushed the two-nation theory. They were largely right in their reckoning; the price of India’s freedom was paid by the one million ordinary folks, mainly in Punjab and Bengal, who died in Partition, and the millions more who lost their roots and became unwanted refugees. VD Savarkar, who first proposed the two-nation theory, and MA Jinnah, who took it forward, did not die or become refugees.

The NRC and CAB are now reopening many old wounds. They are doing so for no reason. The NRC as a process is impossible to execute in a country such as India with any degree of accuracy, especially when the cut-off date in question is from decades in the past, and this is clear from the experience of Assam. The CAB as a Bill to give citizenship to “persecuted minorities from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh” is completely unnecessary now.

Had it been passed in the 1960s or 1970s, it would have made sense. This is 2019, and the Hindus displaced by Partition are mostly dead. Their descendants, like the descendants of those who arrived up to 1971, are citizens. Even those who arrived up to 2008 should have got citizenship by now, because the period of residency required currently to obtain citizenship is 11 years. CAB only proposes to bring this down to six years – not to give citizenship where none was being given.

There is no information at all about how many people will be benefited by this amendment. The only information available so far, from the Joint Parliamentary Committee report on CAB, suggests that the number of such people is 31,313 individuals, mainly Hindus from Pakistan, who are living in camps in Rajasthan, Gujarat and Delhi. However, District Magistrates in those places are already empowered under existing laws to grant citizenship and there is no need to mess with the basic structure of the constitution to help those people. They can be helped without unleashing the dangerously divisive politics of religion and community we are now seeing across the country, and most of all in its sensitive Northeast.

The only reasons for CAB and NRC now are political.

Samrat is an author, journalist and former newspaper editor. He tweets as @mrsamratx

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Updated Date: Dec 12, 2019 17:05:29 IST