On December 6, 1971, Indian PM Indira Gandhi made a very important announcement
From 1968 to 1971, I was working in Bihar, India on a post-famine village development project organized by the Gandhi Peace Foundation and funded by Oxfam-UK.
In the town of Gaya where I lived, my next-door neighbour, a retired district engineer, was a Bengali, Subarnendu Gupta, whose family had migrated from Munshiganj to Patna in 1900.
When the cyclone of November 1970 took place and reports that the Pakistan government had been slow to organize relief assistance appeared, Gupta told me: “They do not care if the Bengalis die.”
After Bangabandhu’s historic speech in Dhaka of March 7, 1971, Gupta, who was later to become my father-in-law, said that he and other Bengali friends in Gaya believed that Bangladesh will very soon become a reality.
Soon after the crackdown by the Pakistani military in Bangladesh on March 25, 1971, with “Operation Searchlight,” I was visiting a Gandhian Ashram in Simultala in Jhajha District of Bihar and it was very close to the main railway line between Delhi and Kolkata.
In early April, particularly at night, goods trains rumbled through to Kolkata carrying military supplies including tanks and other vehicles. It was obvious that the Government of India was planning for future possible action.
Immediately after March 25, Bangladeshi refugees started to stream into India by the thousands. We estimated at the time that 50,000 persons per day were arriving across many border crossings. It became obvious that the Indian authorities were quite well prepared.
It seemed that after the speech of March 7, the authorities had made plans regarding deputing government officials to be refugee camp officers in charge. The efficient organization of the reception of the refugees surprised us.
On my early visits to the refugee camps, I found that the government authorities had already fixed scales of rations for adults and children according to the advice of its nutritional experts.
Thus, every adult got 300 grams of rice, 100g of wheat flour, 100g of pulses, 25g of edible oil, and 25g of sugar per head per day; and every child between the age of 1-8 years got 150g of rice, 50g of wheat flour, 50g of pulses, 12g of edible oil, and 15g of sugar per head per day.
Apart from this, a small amount was also provided for each refugee in cash per head per day for the purpose of buying vegetables, spices, fuel, washing soap, etc. Similarly, for clothes, deserving people in camps were being given these -- cotton or woolen.
India gave a substantial amount of support to the Bangladesh government in exile and set up a special liaison office in Kolkata.
I had the opportunity to meet with the Acting Prime Minister Tajuddin Ahmed on a number of occasions, and when giving his advice to me, he would also tell me when I should seek approval from the government of India.
As my organization Oxfam developed its program of supplementary assistance, covering eventually 600,000 persons, we became very impressed with the coordination being undertaken by the central government.
They deputed a retired army Colonel, Pran Luthra, who was not only efficient but remarkably cooperative. For instance, when we were having trouble with the customs authorities at the airport, he suggested that all relief supplies coming in by air or sea be consigned to “Government of India, Ministry of Rehabilitation -- for OXFAM.”
Whenever the shipping documents were available, we would just take them to Colonel Luthra’s office and the documents would be endorsed to Oxfam.
India’s contribution to taking care of nearly 10 million refugees was extraordinary, but her contribution in the training and supplying of the Bangladeshi freedom fighters, the Mukti Bahini, was equally remarkable.
The excitable and excited Bangladeshis needed to be controlled in a tactful way. The freedom fighters, as well as Indira Gandhi, wanted to move into Bangladesh as soon as possible, but the army authorities said that moving militarily into Bangladesh during the monsoon would be risky.
It is estimated that up to 50,000 Mukti Bahini were trained by India’s Border Security Force. And so, during the monsoon, a lot of diplomatic work was carried out.
The Gandhian leader, Jayaprakash Narayan, visited many countries in July on behalf of PM Indira Gandhi and she herself travelled to the US and Europe in October. One of the key Indian diplomatic achievements was the Friendship Treaty between India and the Soviet Union signed in August, which strengthened the position of Bangladesh as well.
Earlier, Bangladesh had received implied recognition from India when they set up their Bangladesh missions in Kolkata and Delhi, and in September 1971, a three day International Conference on Bangladesh took place with 150 delegates from 24 countries.
On September 20, on behalf of the conference, an appeal was made to all governments of the world to recognize Bangladesh as an independent nation and to stop helping West Pakistan with any kind of military aid.
For those running refugee relief operations, we could never be sure how long the refugees would be in the refugee camps. However, from the refugee camps on the border, we observed that, from September 1971, the Indian army gave artillery support to the Mukti Bahini in the border areas of Bangladesh. From November, some Indian army involvement took place up to 10 miles inside Bangladesh.
However, on December 3, 1971, when the Pakistan Air Force bombed six airfields in northern India, India officially declared war on Pakistan and, within only 13 days, it was all over, and on December 6, PM Indira Gandhi had announced that India had granted recognition to Bangladesh.
A month later, in January 1972, I travelled overland from Kolkata to Dhaka and was able to observe the massive and extensive damage to the country. In addition, I had a memorable meeting with Bangabandhu, and he suggested how Oxfam might help in the future rehabilitation and development of Bangladesh.
While travelling in Bangladesh in January 1972, I was able to observe how the Indian army personnel were handling things in a sensible low-key way.
Many outside observers were convinced that Bangladesh would become an Indian “protectorate,” and those same observers were quite surprised that all Indian forces had left Bangladesh well before Independence Day on March 26, 1972.
Fast forward to 2019, and in conclusion, I would like to say how surprised I was when, after her official visit to India in October this year, the PM, Sheikh Hasina, was criticized for allowing an MoU to be signed whereby Bangladesh allows drinking water to be taken from the Feni River for the town of Sabroom in Tripura.
I understand that the current population of Sabroom town is probably about 8,000. In 1971, I was concerned with supplying Oxfam supplementary relief materials to a number of refugee camps in the Sabroom sub-division of the Tripura State through a “Relief Coordinating Council” chaired by the then chief minister.
As far as I can remember, up to 20,000 Bangladesh women, men, and children were cared for by the Tripura state government and the union government authorities in the Sabroom sub-division.
Reflecting on the generosity of the citizens of Sabroom in 1971, it is only right that Bangladesh assists the town of Sabroom with drinking water at this time. It is a very humanitarian action by Bangladesh for a town where the groundwater currently has a very dangerous level of iron.
Julian Francis has been associated with relief and development activities of Bangladesh since the War of Liberation. In 2012, the Government of Bangladesh awarded him the ‘Friends of Liberation War Honour’ in recognition of his work among the refugees in India in 1971 and in 2018 honoured him with full Bangladesh citizenship.