While speaking in the Lok Sabha in favour of the Citizenship Amendment Bill, home minister Amit Shah repeatedly harked back to an event in 1950 to push his case for the new legislation. “Under the Nehru-Liaquat Pact, both countries agreed that they would look after their minorities,” said Shah. “But this did not happen.”

Shah then went on to accuse Pakistan and later Bangladesh of oppressing their minorities. “The Nehru-Liaquat pact failed. Had the spirit of the pact been followed by Pakistan, there would be no need to bring this bill,” Shah said.

This is not a new argument within Hindu nationalist circles. The Nehru-Liaquat Pact was signed between India and Pakistan in 1950 as a response to communal violence in East and West Bengal. Right from then to now, the Hindu right has opposed the pact, seeing it as a concession by New Delhi that allowed the further victimisation of Hindus in East Bengal and later Bangladesh.

Now the BJP is using this incident from 70 years back to push through the Citizenship Bill, which would for the first time bring in a religious test to Indian citizenship by opening it up to non-Muslim illegal migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

Two partitions

The Mountbatten Plan to transfer power from the British to Indian hands was signed on June 3, 1947. Incredibly, in hindsight, most of the people in charge then did not envisage that the partition of Bengal and Punjab would lead to mass population transfers.

While the partition of the Punjab had seen total violence envelope the province leading to a near-total exchange of populations, the situation in Bengal was different. In Bengal, with no immediate partition violence, both India and Pakistan wanted to prevent population exchanges. To this end, the rehabilitation ministers of both countries signed a pact in 1948 to “check mass exodus in either direction”. To implement this, both countries would set up minority boards.

This pact, the Neogy-Ghulam Mohammad Agreement, was a non-starter as communal violence spread in East Pakistan at the start of 1950 followed by riots in Kolkata – the first since the Great Calcutta Killings of 1946. This in turn led to riots in Dhaka. The communal violence sparked an exchange of populations in Bengal.

War drums

As a result, feelings ran high and a Gallup Poll in March 1950 taken in Kolkata saw 87% favour an armed intervention in East Pakistan to help Hindus under attack. In what is a little known episode, Nehru seriously considered the use of force and even mobilised the Indian Army in March 1950. The Indian government also prodded the United Kingdom as well as the United States to exert pressure on Pakistan to take steps to protect East Bengali Hindus.

Given reports of daily violence from East Bengal, Nehru was under pressure to act. Not only was the prime minister under attack from the Hindu Mahasabha but also many elements within the Congress. Nehru’s powerful deputy prime minister, Vallabhbhai Patel, held a private meeting with some Congress MPs where he criticised Nehru’s Bengal policy.

Eventually, on April 2, 1950, Pakistani Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan agreed to come to Delhi and conduct talks with Nehru. While it had resisted a joint agreement till now – bristling at the insinuation that it was being dictated to by India – at these talks Pakistan gave in and agreed to draw up a joint agreement. This Nehru-Liaquat Pact reaffirmed the rights of minorities. Minorities would be part of the provincial governments in East and West Bengal while minority commissions would be set up. The property of a person who has had to flee would not be confiscated and rioters would be punished.

As historian Srinath Raghavan explains in his book War and Peace in Modern India, Liaquat made sure to enquire when Indian troops would be taken off the border. They eventually remained in place for a few months after the pact.

Hindu right reaction

The pact immediately came in for criticism from the Hindu Mahasabha. SP Mookerjee and KC Neogy, the two Mahasabha members of Nehru’s cabinet resigned. SP Mookerjee criticised the pact bitterly arguing that it did little to solve the problem of East Bengali Hindus. Mookerjee now suggested radical measures, proposing that the Bengal partition be annulled – an ironic point given that Mookerjee had been a strong supporter of the Bengal partition, arguing that it was needed to keep the province’s Hindu minority safe. Mookerjee also proposed a forced population swap and even a military annexation of a portion of East Pakistan in order to settle displaced East Bengali Hindus.

Mookerjee’s ideas were outlandish – annexing part of Pakistan, then as now, was not a particularly practical solution. Moreover, Mookerjee’s proposal to forcefully deport Indian Muslims clashed directly with India’s secular ideals and would have entailed that the Congress also accept the Two-Nation theory while throwing many parts of India – most notably Kolkata – into further chaos. Interestingly, while Patel had seemed to oppose Nehru earlier, he now backed the pact fully and even went down to Kolkata to ensure the treaty was implemented.

The pact has an immediate impact. Rioting stopped in Kolkata. Historian Pallavi Raghavan notes that net migration of Hindus into West Bengal slowed down. “The agreement brought about temporary relief in the scale of migration across the border, but more importantly, its terms validated and replenished a structure whereby such a flow could be addressed, and regulated, in both countries,” writes Pallavi Raghavan.

Widspread censure

However, it would be a mistake to think that Hindu nationalists were alone in their criticism of the Nehru-Laiqat Pact. While Mookerjee’s solutions were outlandish, there was widespread agreement in West Bengal with his diagnosis: the pact would play a limited role in helping the Hindus of East Pakistan. Historian Joya Chatterjee has criticised Nehru’s insistence “that the rehabilitation of refugees from East Bengal was unnecessary, and indeed positively to be discouraged”.

This insistence, that the solution lay not in rehabilitation but encouraging East Bengali Hindus to not migrate, flew in the face of facts. This severely affected the state of East Bengali refugees, who were ignored by the Central government, which remained “preoccupied with the problem of resettling 7 million refugees fleeing the massacres in the Punjab”. Since New Delhi kept on insisting that Bengal had no refugee problem, “long after the number of refugees in West Bengal had outstripped those in the East Punjab, such funds for their relief and rehabilitation as the central government was persuaded to sanction remained hopelessly inadequate and far too belated to resolve, or even to alleviate on the margins, one of the most intractable problems which partition had created,” wrote Chatterjee.

In the long term, the Nehru-Liaquat pact was indeed a failure given that large number of Hindus continued to migrate to India from East Pakistan, which later became Bangladesh. One study by Dhaka-based economist Abul Barkat found that between 1964 and 2013, around 11.3 million Hindus had left Bangladesh.

And while Shah insists that this Union government has broken with Nehru when it comes to ignoring Bangladeshi refugees, ironically there might be more points of agreement than disagreement. The processes identified in the Citizenship Amendment Bill are so complicated that the Intelligence Bureau has itself identified that only only a few tens of thousands will benefit. And most of these will actually be Hindu migrants from Pakistan – not Bangladesh.

Further, the bill also contains a cut-off, stopping any migrant who came after 2014 from getting Indian citizenship. This means it will not help any Hindu currently experiencing persecution in Bangladesh. Like in the Nehru era, since migrants from Bangladesh cause eddies in the politics of the North East and West Bengal, the Union government prefers not to encourage migration.

Nevertheless, by constantly bringing up the Bengal partition during the Citizenship Bill debates, the BJP hopes to attract the large number of Hindu migrants from Bangladesh and their descendants currently residing in West Bengal. A 1981 estimate by the Left Front government found that one out of every six residents in the state was of Bangladeshi origin – a factor that has played a critical role in the politics of West Bengal for the last half century. Shah now seems to hope this will help the BJP in the 2021 Assembly elections.

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