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OP-ED: A question of returning home

  • Published at 02:26 am June 6th, 2021
Bangali refugees 1971
Bangali refugees in 1971 PHOTO: COURTESY

Recounting the mass exodus of the Bangali population, 50 years ago

International refugee law defines refugees, subject to minor variations across different illegal instruments, as persons who have been forced to flee the country of their origin and are unable or unwilling to return due to the fear of persecution on account of their race, religion, ethnicity, political beliefs, etc.

Bangladesh is a refugee-receiving country, and it has been protecting more than 700,000 from the persecuted Rohingya community, who have been fleeing from Myanmar to this territory since 2017. Bangladesh has always been considerate towards refugees as it too has an emotional attachment to a similar kind of situation.

It has been 50 years since that incident, and Bangladesh still recalls the horrific stories of crimes against humanity against the Bangali population by the Pakistan regime.

An overview of the situation

Back in 1971, the Pakistan army launched military operations in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and led to millions of its population fleeing to the neighbouring country of India due to serious fear of persecution. From March 1971 onwards, each day around 10,000-50,000 Bangalis fled from their own motherland and sought refuge in India.

On March 29, 1971, FL Pijnacker Hordijk, who was then the UNHCR (The UN Refugee Agency) representative in India, warned the UNHCR Headquarters in Geneva about an approaching refugee crisis in India.

The Indian authorities registered the refugees on their arrival at the border, where they were given an entry document. But those who did not register at the border were presumed to be living with friends, relatives, or other host families in different states, mostly within 
West Bengal.

The country received refugees who had been victims of internal displacement in East Pakistan once the war broke, moving from the cities to the villages. Thereafter, with the help of locals in the border, they could end up seeking refuge at the Indian border. The overall journey could take up to 15-20 days, and most of them made it by walking or taking a boat ride shared with other persecuted Bangalis.

Many civilians directly participated in hostilities to save the lives of others, became wounded, and carried the bullet marks of the Pakistan Army. The rest of the wounded were civilians who were apparently unarmed and often fleeing when shot. While fleeing, they had to leave elderly family members at home with heavy hearts as they were unable to take up the restless journey. Many women and children died during the long walk because of hunger and extreme hurdles.

By mid-April 1971, the Indian Ministry of Labour and Rehabilitation, which was coordinating the relief operation of refugees coming from East Pakistan, decided to establish 50 camps, each equipped to accommodate 50,000 refugees, to be run by officials from the central government of India.

Between May 6 and 19, the UNHCR mission visited numerous refugee camps in West Bengal, Tripura, and Assam, the Indian states which had been most affected by the sudden refugee influx, and held immediate discussions with high-level Indian officials, UN agencies, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

In May and June, cholera began to spread through the camps. By the end of September, the cases had risen to over 46,000. With the spread of disease amongst the refugees, the pressure on the Indian authorities increased. It was quite difficult to deal with limited foreign aid and the growing tensions in East Pakistan.

On May 19, 1971, UN Secretary General U Thant launched a global appeal for emergency assistance to refugees in India and appealed to the international community to respond generously. Within weeks of the appeal, $17 million had been pledged.

From June 1971 until the end of the monsoon, the weather created more operational problems for the administration of relief, and the incessant rain caused more disease. The number of deaths in the camps due to malnutrition and cholera was rapidly increasing; the situation became uncontrollable.

Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was determined to deal patiently with the refugee crisis in her country; however, she was mentioning in different public forums about their temporary existence in India and safe repatriation once the war was over. India was creating pressure on  the Pakistan government to end the war and ensure the safe return of the Bangali refugees. 

On June 28, 1971, Pakistani President Yahya Khan even appointed a Bangali officer, AM Malik, as special assistant to deal with the displaced Bangalis in India. But the human rights situation in East Pakistan did not improve, and refugee migration increased exponentially.

India’s legal position

The policy for Bangali refugees in 1971, as articulated by the Indian state, made no mention of rehabilitation, integration, and absorption. Their existence in India was to be temporary, and their status was to remain as foreign nationals as per the Foreigners Act 1946 that deals with the matters of entry of foreigners in India, their presence in the territory, and their safe departure.

The other municipal laws that provided refugee protection in a distant manner were the Registration of Foreigners Act 1939 and the Passport Act 1967. 

The challenge of situating the refugee influx and state response within the legal conceptual framework was that India was not a party to the 1951 convention and its 1967 Protocol. It had no national refugee law specifying the rights and governing the treatment of refugees, except some constitutional guarantees which complied with international law and customary international law.

The key standards underlying repatriation of foreign individuals in a state are the right to return (as codified in Article 13(2)[2] of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) and the right not to be forcibly returned to situations of persecution or serious danger, ie the Principle of Non-Refoulement (as codified in the negative terms of refoulement in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees).

India has been a refugee-receiving country and it has been safeguarding these rights even without ratifying the 1951 Refugee Convention. This means that its refusal to the convention did not discourage it from keeping the basic commitments to the humanitarian protection of the refugees.

Till date, India has not ratified the 1951 convention and several observers (Suarabh Bhattacharjee, “India Needs a Refugee Law”) have argued that the reason for India’s refusal to sign the convention was that it viewed the convention as a Euro-centric legal framework which was not appropriate in the Third World approach.

Later, Bangladesh also followed the same path and did not ratify the convention. India had also adopted a very sceptical outlook on the role of UNHCR as the Refugee Agency.

The way back to a newly independent state

In Geneva, the High Commissioner Sadruddin Aga Khan established and chaired a UN Standing Inter-Agency Consultative Unit to assist communication between the components of the UN system most directly concerned with the refugee problem. This body facilitated inter-agency cooperation and the framing of a common UN position on issues of assistance, and took up offers of assistance by governments, inter-governmental, and non-governmental organizations.

On December 16, 1971, Pakistani troops surrendered to the Indian army and Mukti Bahini (freedom fighters of East Pakistan). Bangladesh was a newly independent state that emerged with the motto of returning peace, solidarity, and secularism, and it started the procedure of returning the refugees from India as a promised task.

In his tour of the refugee camps, the Bangladesh minister of home and rehabilitation urged the refugees to “not stay here as evacuees but go back and take part in the national reconstruction” (Statesman).

The Indian government’s figures showed 6.8 million refugees living in camps, and a further 3.1 million living with host families. Funded by the Indian state and coordinated with international relief agencies and the administration of Bangladesh, over 6.8 million of the 10 million refugees returned within two months of the end of the conflict.

By the end of January, some six million refugees had returned home, and by the end of February 1972, over nine million refugees had gone back to Bangladesh. On March 25, 1972, the Indian government estimated that only 60,000 Bangladeshi refugees still remained in the country.

There had been several estimates about the total death toll among the 75 million Bangladeshis during the 1971 war. Any estimate of wartime mortality must include these refugee death toll figures as these refugees were the direct consequences of the war itself.

Also, it is time to revisit the practicability of 1951 Refugee Convention on its 70th anniversary this year, when India and Bangladesh, two independent states in South Asia, are safeguarding the refugee protection in their territories without acceding to the convention.

Naureen Rahim is the Coordinator at the Centre for the Study of Genocide and Justice, Liberation War Museum. She can be reached at [email protected]

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