• Monday, Dec 06, 2021
  • Last Update : 01:15 am

Why did Hindus – and some Muslims – flee in 1971?

  • Published at 11:25 pm October 28th, 2021
Fearing for their lives, hundreds of thousands of people from East Pakistan fled to India
Fearing for their lives, hundreds of thousands of people from East Pakistan fled to India. Photo shows refugees staying at a camp in the suburbs of Kolkata in 1971 Courtesy: Photographs on Liberation War of Bangladesh

The West Pakistani rulers launched an offensive in East Pakistan to subdue the Awami League as the latter was set to form a government, its supporters as well as Hindus. This is the third of a four-part series depicting how Hindus were targeted for ethnic cleansing

The aim of Pakistani General Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan’s “Operation Searchlight” launched on March 25, 1971 was to arrest prime minister-elect Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and weaken his party and supporters.

With this end in view, the Pakistan Army disarmed the Bengali soldiers in East Pakistan Rifles and the police, killed Dhaka University teachers and students, and perpetrated brutality on the Hindus of Old Dhaka.

As soon as the atrocities spread outside Dhaka, the military and their local collaborators linked to the infamous Peace Committee and Razakar forces, formed by hard-line Islamists, massacred the Hindus systematically until the end of the war.

The barbaric cruelty unleashed by the demons on the Hindus in Dhaka, Khulna, Bagerhat, Panchagarh, Thakurgaon and Saidpur, among other places, portrays the hatred the killers had borne in their minds.

“The Hindus were apparently attacked because they were associated with India, which was thought to be responsible for the Bengali uprising,” according to a report of the US Central Investigation Agency (CIA). 

Also Read - Chronicling the mass Hindu killings in 1971

Within a period of weeks, the entire province was in the hands of the West Pakistani troops, and repressive acts against the civilian population led to a massive exodus of Bengalis—particularly Hindus—into India from early April.

Researchers say the majority of the nearly two million people who had crossed the border were Hindus. They lived in shabby temporary camps, while many others wandered the streets of the border towns in India in search of food.

"September on Jessore Road", a poem by the American poet and activist Allen Ginsberg, highlights the plight of millions of people of all ages trying to cross the border to take refuge in India.

The number of East Pakistani refugees was over 600,000 as of April 28, and it soon became a matter of concern for New Delhi that resources would be overtaxed in coping with problems of disease, food and housing.

The pro-Mujib Indira Gandhi administration was also concerned that the refugees would be exploited by the Naxalite extremists, or that news of atrocities against the Hindus in East Pakistan could spark savage communal attacks on Muslims in Eastern India.

But most of the refugees started returning to Bangladesh after the Pakistani forces surrendered in Dhaka on December 16.

Searched out and killed

On April 6, Archer Kent Blood, the American consul general to Dhaka, sent a telegram to Washington, saying that the Hindus undeniably had been the special focus of “animal brutality”.

Also Read - How Hindus were targeted in 1971

By May 17, the refugee influx, which exceeded 2.6 million, was continuing at the rate of 100,000 persons daily. 

At the time, Indira Gandhi stated that she believed there had been a fair number who avoided registration.

The US consul general received a growing number of reports that the Pakistan Army had been systematically searching out and killing Hindu males in East Pakistan.

This might be a part of a plan to rid East Pakistan as completely as possible of the Hindu community, which the “army considers to be a subversive element”, said a CIA report prepared for US president Richard Nixon.  

“There were at least 10 million Hindus in East Pakistan before the military crackdown in late March; the army may hope that a campaign of terror against them will force most to flee to India,” said the report.

Hostility in Assam

By mid-June, hostility towards the East Pakistani refugees grew among the Assamese and the tribal residents of northeastern India.

At the root of the hostility was the fear that the refugees would ultimately refuse to be repatriated and permanently alter the region’s customary way of life.

At the time, northeast India was largely populated by non-Hindu tribal people who had traditionally resisted domination by the minority Hindus. They also resented the more or less steady flow of East Pakistani and other non-tribal migrants—both Hindu and Muslim—who had entered their area in recent years.

Also Read - US report lists communal attacks in Bangladesh in 2020

According to the Indian press, animosity against the new influx of refugees caused near riots in April in Shillong and Gauhati, the two major cities in the states of Meghalaya and Assam. 

In the first week of June, an organization of tribal youths in Meghalaya called an anti-refugee general strike in a town of 2,000 people, which saw an influx of 20,000 East Pakistanis.

The CIA in a report said that the intent of the tribal agitation might have been to make the Indian environment so hostile that the refugees would be convinced to leave. 

According to the Indian press, some 6,000 returned to their homes, but it was doubtful that many more would be persuaded to return to East Pakistan in the near future.

Indian officials in New Delhi, however, described the reports of tribal unrest as exaggerated. 

The government was attempting to defuse the refugee situation by moving thousands of refugees out of the most congested border areas in the northeast to Gauhati in Assam, from where they would be sent on to less crowded locations. 

60% returned within 50 days

Six million refugees, or about 60% of the total, had returned to Bangladesh since the hostilities ended in mid-December, said a CIA report dated February 2, 1972, quoting Indian official estimates.

Most of the cost of the refugee support and repatriation had devolved on India. Only $210 million in foreign aid had so far been pledged to meet what New Delhi estimated would be a total cost of about $475 million by the end of March. 

“New Delhi is strongly encouraging repatriation, and most refugees, both Hindu and Muslim, are willing to return home soon,” the CIA said.

According to the US consulate in Dhaka, even though the returnees were proving resourceful in rebuilding bamboo homes and settling back into village life, concern was rising over the lack of organized medical assistance, food, and other programs.

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