Lessons from Bangladeshi Hindus

Updated: 16 December, 2019 07:41 IST | Ajaz Ashraf | Mumbai

In chats with eminent friends in Bangladesh, who had refused to bow before malevolence in previous decades, it is clear CAA will alter India's secular fabric, and trigger persecution of those it wants to save

A protestor agitates against the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Bill at Santragachi in Howrah district of West Bengal. Pic/PTI
A protestor agitates against the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Bill at Santragachi in Howrah district of West Bengal. Pic/PTI

Ajaz AshrafI spoke to three prominent Bangladeshi Hindus — Rana Dasgupta, Pankaj Bhattacharya and Debapriya Bhattacharya — who are an argument, in life and blood, against Muhammad Ali Jinnah's two-nation theory. They are networked into India, which they could have made their home, as did most of their family members. Instead, they joined the secular, democratic forces in their battle to remove the grip of communal-authoritarian elements over the Bangladeshi state. The Indian model of secular democracy was undeniably their beacon.

This is why they were stunned at India's decision to enact the Citizenship Amendment Act, which is the Bharatiya Janata Party's response to Jinnah after seven decades. They think the Act tacitly encourages Bangladeshi minorities to migrate to India, which now offers citizenship to all non-Muslims who entered India from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan until December 31, 2014. The cut-off date will have little sanctity as India has been portrayed as the land of refuge for Hindus, who cannot be morally turned away simply because their claims to persecution date after 2014.

Hindus comprise 9.7 per cent of Bangladesh's population. They should have been 16-18 per cent today, but their number dwindled as they fled Bangladesh to escape religious persecution. A further decline in the Hindu population will render the community even more vulnerable. Islamic fundamentalists, on the backfoot in recent years, will feel emboldened to retaliate against the Hindus for the discrimination that Indian Muslims will suffer on account of the Citizenship Amendment Act.

These were some of the points the three Bangladeshi Hindus made to me, even as I wondered what had made them eschew the option of migrating to India. Rana Dasgupta's family history influenced his choice. His grandfather's sister, Pritilata Waddedar, belonged to the band of the legendary Surya Sen. She died in an attack, in 1932, on the European Club in Chittagong. The family, not surprisingly, rejected the two-nation theory, dismissing the Partition violence as a passing madness.

The family's faith was shaken when communal mayhem engulfed East Pakistan in 1964. It was essentially a state pogrom against the Hindus. One of Rana's two brothers migrated to India. After a stint in jail in 1968, Rana joined the war of liberation against the Pakistanis and fought in Chittagong. Bangladesh was born in 1971. Rana's jubilation was, however, tinged with his second brother too leaving for India.

Even the dream of creating a secular democracy was dashed with the assassination of Mujibur Rahman, the founding father of Bangladesh, in the military coup of 1975. The dictatorial regime, emulating the pre-liberation Pakistani government, continued to appropriate the properties of Hindus under the Enemy Property Act, triggering their exodus.

Rana, however, stayed put. "How could I abandon the fight for a secular, democratic Bangladesh? It was and is as much my fight as anybody's," he said. Rana, now 71, is the general secretary of the Hindu-Buddhist-Christian Unity Council, an umbrella organisation of religious minorities.

Pankaj Bhattacharya is the 81-year-old president of the United Awami National Party. Arrested in 1964, he was taken to Chittagong railway station for a transfer to Comilla Jail. On the platform was his entire family — his parents, seven sisters and two brothers — waiting to take the train to India. His ancestral five-acre house was confiscated, compelling him to finance himself by giving tuition.

In 1971, Pankaj was tasked with organising the Mukti Bahini, the guerrilla resistance force, in Agartala, Tripura.

Before joining his post, Pankaj went to Asansol, West Bengal, where his family had settled down. His parents said to Pankaj, "You should work for the people." That is what Pankaj has been doing since then, enduring a year of imprisonment under the military regime and, thereafter, going underground.

"I believe in social transformation, in the ideology of socialism, which transcends religion. Leaving Bangladesh would have meant betraying myself," he said.

Economist Debapriya Bhattacharya belongs to the erstwhile zamindar family of Tangail-Mymensingh. The family had a country house and another in Calcutta. Yet his father, Debesh, who later became a Supreme Court judge, was the only one among four brothers to choose Pakistan, under the influence of the communists who supported the partition of India.

Calcutta was where Debapriya and his sister went during the 1964 riots. He stayed there for three years; his sister never returned. He was back in Calcutta in 1971, for six months.

Debapriya went for higher studies to Moscow, married a Russian, and had several opportunities to settle down outside Bangladesh. "To do so would have meant abdicating my social responsibility towards my community, particularly the Scheduled Castes and Adivasis. Mine has been a conscious decision to work for a secular, progressive, democratic Bangladesh," Debapriya said.

These stories of Bangladeshi Hindus warn us that it takes only a few missteps to alter a nation's personality. Yet their lives also convey a message: Quitting in the face of malevolence is never an option, whether you are Hindu or Muslim, in Bangladesh or India.

The writer is a senior journalist

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First Published: 16 December, 2019 07:25 IST

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