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A different tragedy - The future of diminishing communities

Author: Sunanda K. Datta-Ray
Publication: The Telegraph
Date: June 6, 2015
URL: http://www.telegraphindia.com/1150606/jsp/opinion/story_24127.jsp#.VXKF49DVXf9

Narendra Modi might reflect in Bangladesh this weekend that the local Hindus he won't meet are a diminishing community. Their share of the population dwindled from 12.1 per cent to 8.2 per cent between 1981 and 2011. Jogendra Nath Mandal, whom Mohammed Ali Jinnah chose to chair Pakistan's constituent assembly and be the country's first labour and law minister, possibly foresaw this extinction when he wrote his bitter 8,013-word letter of resignation to Liaquat Ali Khan. But cruel as it may sound, the community's disappearance might one day have a beneficial impact on secular ties between India and Bangladesh.

As a rule, India is careful not to interest itself in the plight of Indians/Hindus in countries such as Fiji, Guyana, Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh. But Modi's visit and his government's ability and readiness to assist Bangladesh in its development programmes cannot but have some impact on the internal communal equation there. Soon after Pokhran II, an elderly Singaporean Sikh lawyer told me how proud he was of India's achievement. "I'll never go back," he added, "but anything that strengthens India strengthens my position here!" A grizzled old Hindu peasant made a similar point when the refugees who fled East Pakistan in 1971 were being sent - sometimes at gun point - to Bangladesh. Asked if he regarded himself as Bangladeshi or Indian, he replied with earthy wisdom, "You can call me an Indian residing in Bangladesh."

That's how Pakistanis/Bangladeshis regarded Mandal and how others of his faith will always be viewed. But New Delhi rejected the wisdom of that peasant's claim until recently when it was belatedly announced that Hindus from East Bengal living in 18 Indian states would be granted citizenship. Many of them have probably already acquired Indian papers. I have no doubt that many East Bengal Muslims will also benefit from the government's action, if they haven't done so already. But setting aside negligence and abuse, the decision implies belated official acceptance of a principle akin to the Law of Return that allows any Jew anywhere - whether Ethiopia or Mizoram - to seek a home in Israel.

The religious aspect of East Bengal's tragedy was so determinedly suppressed that although living in Calcutta I had absolutely no idea until I actually visited the 1971 refugee camps that 99 per cent of the men, women and children were Hindus. That revelation placed a somewhat different complexion on what had been presented until then as a non-denominational democratic upsurge against a theocratic military dictatorship. My article in London's Observer newspaper of June 13, 1971 under the headline, FLIGHT OF THE HINDU MILLIONS, in bold capitals across the top of the page contradicted the official and liberation narrative of a secular Elysium emerging from the womb of Pakistani theocracy. Liberal lobbies here and in London denounced it as communal.

"First they killed the Biharis," the Hindu refugees explained. "Then, when the Pakistani military came, they united and attacked us." The drift to sectarian exclusiveness had to be pointed out because, as I wrote, "for a time last year (meaning 1970), the Hindus still inside East Bengal rallied to the heady promise of an equal life for people of all religions offered to them by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman." The fundamentalist murderousness that has recently taken toll of three bloggers - Avijit Roy and Ananta Bijoy Das, both obviously Hindus, and a free-thinking Muslim called Washiqur Rahman - exposed the futility of that dream. Sheikh Hasina can't undo the past in which the 1950 Nehru-Liaquat Ali pact and the Vested Property Act (the old Enemy Property Act) were powerful drivers of Hindu migration.

At one time, the notion of another state for dispossessed Hindus to be carved out of East Pakistan/Bangladesh territory was mooted. It wouldn't have worked because of the level of resources of the residual Hindu population. Even if land had been available, others would have exploited it. There is no alternative to absorption in India as is already happening. It's no secret that some distinction has always been made between Muslim economic refugees and Hindus seeking security. An illegal Muslim migrant paid less to the East Pakistani/Bangladeshi border guards and more to the Indian. The reverse applied to Hindus. India's border personnel were expected to be tacitly more sympathetic to Hindus.

Bangladesh, however, denies that anyone leaves the country illegally. The late Ziaur Rahman flew into a rage once when I raised the subject and cut short our conversation in Dhaka's Bangabhaban. The Assamese objection was more to Bengalis than to Hindus or Muslims, being really a continuation of the old "Bongal Kheda... expel Bengalis" movement. Rajiv Gandhi bought peace in 1985 by agreeing that all those who came from Bangladesh after 1971 should be deported. Such a blanket prescription was never desirable or feasible. It is even more irrelevant after 30 years.

Another complexity is that many Muslim migrants were brought by the Left parties - the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and its allies in West Bengal - to inflate their vote bank. The devil looks after its own, and those sponsors probably long ago rewarded their protégés with Indian citizenship. Finally, all governments, state as well as Central, understandably hesitate to act on the basis of religion. However, the time has come now to set aside counter-productive squeamishness, and right one of the remaining wrongs of Partition. But it must be done without discrimination against Indian Muslims. Justice and the logic of Partition demand that only infiltrators who have a legal home in Bangladesh should be deported.

Modi might baulk at the implications for his neighbourhood diplomacy. Yet, a parallel of sorts does exist and enjoys international sanction. Greece and Turkey are not exactly friends. Greece expends a great deal of persuasive energy in thwarting Turkey's ambition of joining the European Union. The proxy confrontation in Cyprus continues. But the genocides and wars of the past have not been repeated since the population exchange under the 1923 Lausanne convention involving approximately 1.5 million Anatolian Greeks and 500,000 Muslims in Greece. Most were forcibly uprooted and compelled to relocate in the other country.

A point of relevance to the two Bengals with their unifying language and culture is that this compulsory population exchange was based only on religion. Language and ethnicity played no part in the expulsions. Native Turks who belonged to the Orthodox Christian Church had to leave Turkey. Greek-speaking Muslims were similarly evicted from Greece. As a result, not a single mosque is to be seen today in a Greece that was for four centuries an integral province of the Ottoman empire which was also Islam's supreme caliphate.

A familiar situation was thrust upon me last year in the Athens office of Turkish Airlines. My Greek host commented on the different accent of the airline's obviously Greek staff. Questioned, they admitted they had all been born in Turkey and gravitated to Greece as adults. Why had they risked the uncertainties of migration to a country that wasn't doing too well economically? They were quick to deny any persecution in Turkey. But Greek-speaking Christians had more opportunities in Greece, especially given the quiet Islamization under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister for 11 years who became president in 2014.

It's unlikely that the old peasant who called himself an Indian resident in Bangladesh had ever heard of Jogendra Nath Mandal whom Pakistanis and Bangladeshis predictably denounced as a deserter. But the long indictment of the Pakistani regime Mandal wrote on October 8, 1950, and his despairing return to India, anticipated what was to come. There can be no future in East Bengal for the Hindus who comprised about 28 per cent of the population in 1941.
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