Since independence, millions of Hindus have fled erstwhile East Pakistan, and now Bangladesh, escaping persecution. In the Modi government’s Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, they saw a second chance at a life of security and dignity.
Eight years ago, Sudhangshu Deb, a resident of Panchagarh town in Bangladesh’s eponymous northernmost district that is bounded by India on three sides, decided that his ten-year-old daughter Sanjukta could no longer stay in that country. The reason: she was turning into a young maiden.
Sudhangshu wanted to save his daughter from the fate that had befallen his first cousin, Meena, in 2007. Meena, then 15, had just passed her Class X and had started attracting the attention of young men. She was on her way to a relative’s place one evening in mid-June 2007 when she was abducted by some unknown persons. Her family members searched for her desperately that whole night and complained to the police. The search continued the next day, and the day after they came to know that she had been forced to marry the son of an Islamic cleric and was forcibly converted to Islam. There was nothing that the family could do.
Meena, now Sofia, has since been divorced by her first husband and married off to an middle-aged man with two more wives in another town. Last heard, she was the mother of six children. She manages to send messages surreptitiously to her parents at times, and in each she begs to be be rescued from the hell she is in. “But we are helpless. The police will not help us and if we do anything, our relatives and kin in Bangladesh will be in serious trouble,” said Sudhangshu’s younger brother Samir, who now lives in Belakoba in Jalpaiguri district of North Bengal.
Samir was the one entrusted with bringing Sanjukta to the safety of neighbouring India one cold January night in 2011. They boarded a hired car that headed straight north to the Indo-Bangladesh border and after an hour’s drive on the pot-holed Dhaka-Rangpur highway, stopped near a culvert over the Chauli river that flows from India to Bangladesh. The river also forms the border for some stretch of the international border here (see map). A tout waiting for them on the riverbank smuggled them in a boat to Sukani, a small town on the Indian side of the border. Samir’s maternal uncle, who had migrated to India in 1971, was waiting for them there, and he brought them to his house in Belakoba.
Since then, Sanjukta’s younger brother Subir, two first cousins Parimal and Biswambhar, and a young aunt, Mitali (now 23) have sneaked into India escaping humiliation, persecution and worse in Bangladesh.
Mitali, the daughter of Sudhangshu’s elderly first cousin who was killed by a radical Islamic mob in the aftermath of the demolition of the Babri masjid in Ayodhya in December 1992, would have met the same fate as Meena. In April 2013, she (Mitali) was waylaid while she was going to Nayaniburuz, a nearby village, to meet her maternal grandmother, by a group of Muslim young men who tried to abduct her. But that bid was foiled by some local people. The Debs decided that evening that she would have to be smuggled out to India to save her from doom.
The Debs were a relatively prosperous family in Panchagarh in the early 1940s. “My grandfather and his father used to own huge tracts of farmlands and also had a few shops selling garments, household items, groceries and hardware. We were a joint family living in a large house off the Dhaka-Rangpur Road. My grandfather had six brothers and two of them migrated to India after the formation of East Pakistan in 1947. At that time, some of our farmlands was forcibly taken over by Muslim families who had migrated from India. We complained to the authorities, but it was of no use. A small mandir my great grandfather had built on that land was demolished and made into a mosque,” said Samir. Samir now runs a small grocery store in Belakoba town.
The Debs suffered the next blow in 1965 when Pakistan attacked India. West Pakistani soldiers and Islamic radicals under the banner of the Jamaat-e-Islami launched attacks on Hindus. “Two of our shops near the town’s bus stand were looted and then forcibly taken over. One aunt of mine was raped, our house ransacked and the small mandir with our family deity was desecrated. Two brothers of my grandfather again escaped to India and the government took away a large chunk of our farmlands under the Enemy Property Act (which allowed the government to arbitrarily confiscate properties of all those who left East Pakistan even temporarily). My grandmother died of a heart attack then,” said Samir.
The persecution of Hindus in East Pakistan continued after 1965 and peaked six years later with the launch of by the East Pakistani army in March 1971. The operation, directed against Bengali nationalists who were seeking independence, resulted in the genocide of an estimated 30 lakh people and about one crore people (mostly Hindus) seeking refuge in India. Samir’s father Sudhangshu was barely a teenager then.
“My cousin (Sudhangshu) and his three brothers and two sisters, along with we cousins, fled to India in May that year and were housed at a refugee camp in Cooch Behar (in Bengal). But one brother of my grandfather and two of his cousins who used to stay in another house adjoining his were killed after their wives were raped in front of them. One of my aunts was taken away and we never heard of her again,” said Mallika Biswas, a paternal aunt of Samir (and first cousin of Sudhangshu) who had taken refuge in India and had stayed back. “All our shops were looted and torched. Standing paddy crops were taken away and two mandirs in the town (Panchagarh) were desecrated and razed. Marauding mobs of Jamaat-e-Islami radicals, backed by Pakistani soldiers, tortured, killed and maimed countless people, mainly Hindus, and all womenfolk were raped. Many were also forcibly converted to Islam,” recalls Mallika, who is now married to a schoolteacher in Cooch Behar.
The persecution of Hindus in Bangladesh continued after its formation in December 1971 following the surrender of Pakistani forces. It peaked in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition in December 1992. That time, too, the Debs suffered a lot. In mid-1993, the then Khaleda Zia government asked banks in the country to recall loans given out to Hindus. “My father had taken an agricultural loan and a working capital loan and was repaying them on time, but the bank asked for immediate repayment. My father could not do so, and five bighas of farmland and a hardware store he used to run were thus confiscated,’ said Samir.
The pogrom against Hindus picked up after the BNP-Jamaat alliance came to power in October 2001 and a number of discriminatory laws were passed. Jamaat radicals targeted Hindus, and two more cousins of Samir (Mridul and Sangeeta, both in their late teens then) were packed off to India along with their mother Binapani. They are now settled in Siliguri, where Binapani runs a roadside tea stall to make ends meet. The latest wave of attacks on Hindus happened in early 2013 following the sentencing of Jamaat-e-Islami vice president to death by .
Sayeedi was found guilty of war crimes by the Tribunal in February 2013. The sentencing sparked riots against Hindus who the Jamaat accused of providing evidence to the Tribunal against Sayeedi.
The families of two cousins of Sudhangshu who were living at Thakurgaon (a district adjoining Panchagarh) and Debiganj (a sub-district of Panchagarh) fled to India after some of them were assaulted and their homes and properties looted.
Madhusudan Ghosh (a second cousin of Sudhangshu) and his family of five who used to stay in Thakurgaon now live in the outskirts of Jalpaiguri town, eking out a subsistence living selling vegetables. His elder son Rajib who was in college in Thakurgaon is now a daily wage labourer in Jalpaiguri while two others sons do odd jobs. His daughter Pushpa, 18, who escaped atrocities in Thakurgaon in 2014 by a whisker, works as a domestic help. They were a fairly affluent family in Thakurgaon, where Madhusudan used to run a grocery store and used to own six bighas of farmland. The store was looted and he was forced to sell off his farmland to a Jamaat leader at a throwaway price.
Gyaneshwar Biswas, another second cousin of Sudhangshu, was an employee of a private bank at Debiganj. “In 2001 (after the BNP-Jamaat alliance came to power), I realised we could not stay in Bangladesh any longer. The daughter of a close friend of mine was abducted, gang raped and married off to a 60-year-old Muslim man after being converted to Islam. The atrocities on her continued even after that. She took her life two years later. I sent off my wife and daughter (then 8) to Fulbari (in Bengal) where a distant cousin stayed. Ten years later, my two sons also migrated to Fulbari and set up a small grocery shop there. I sold my house in Debiganj after I retired in December 2013, and came here (to Fulbari) in March 2014. We barely manage to survive from the earnings of the grocery store. My elder son has recently gone off to Delhi where he got a job through a friend as a factory worker,” said Gyaneshwar.
For Samir, Sanjukta, Parimal, Bishwambhar, Mitali, Madhusudhan, Gyaneshwar and tens of thousands of hapless Hindus who fled persecution and worse in Bangladesh, the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016, that was introduced by the BJP came as a ray of hope. “The Bill raised our hopes since we would, at long last, become citizens of India and lead lives of dignity. We had hoped that once we become full-fledged citizens of India, our children would gain admission in government schools, we would get treatment in government hospitals and other facilities would become available to us. We would no longer have to fake our identities and lead duplicitous lives,” says Samir.
Samir and all those who have fled to India and are staying on have managed to procure documents like ration cards, driving licences and voter ID cards using fake documents. Many have even changed their names and shown themselves to be offspring of Indian nationals (mostly their relatives on this side of the border) to get such documents. “But this is a double life we lead and we are extremely uncomfortable with it. We want to end this life of lies and become genuine citizens of India and lead our lives with dignity. In Bangladesh, we never led a dignified life. The Bill gave us hope that for once, we would hold our heads high. But such hoped have been dashed to the ground,” rues Samir.
Samir, Gyaneshwar and others like them blame the Trinamool Congress and the opposition parties for being unsympathetic to their plight. “The Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh come to India in search of work and are welcomed by the Trinamool leaders since they become valuable vote banks. But we who fled persecution and atrocities at the hands of these very Muslims are ignored here even in India. We thought the citizenship bill would save us and give us dignity. But thanks to the Trinamool, we have lost that chance,” said Gyaneshwar.
Meanwhile, for those Hindus remaining at Panchagarh, and in the rest of Bangladesh, the grim and painful reality of living as a persecuted helpless minority amidst a largely hostile population is something they have to face every single day there.
The persecution, and the discrimination, is both covert and overt. Most of them dream of coming to India to escape their lives as second-class citizens. Their sorry plight comes to light only when a murder (like of a Hindu priest or attack on a mandir, both at Panchagarh), a rape or a crime against them is reported. And such crimes are not uncommon.
What is perhaps worse is the insults and the discrimination they have to face every day. Those who had fled all that had thought they would find peace and dignity in India. But India, too, has now failed them.