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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2584

Bangladeshi Hindus from evacuees to stateless citizens (1971-2016) Part Three

By Rabindranath Trivedi

In other words, India had decided to realize by the use of force two of its strategic aims at the same time: alleviate the refugee burden and create a friendly neighbouring state. However, war became the obvious solution only at the end of a long process, during which India’s policy had to take into account other factors, such as ‘Great power politics’.

Return of Evacuees as Bangladeshi from India

In fact, a “combination of factors” made the military option “increasingly attractive to India”. These included the Soviet support through the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace and Friendship signed in August 1971, and the Chinese neutralization, but also the hardship occasioned by the absorption of an additional 10 million people58, and the progressive disillusionment in the call to the United Nations and the international card, as well as in the ability of Yahya to open discussions with the Awami League.

Of course, since Indira Gandhi, during her visit to Washington in October 1971, showed no interest when President Nixon offered to assume all expenses for the refugee camps, Sisson and Rose concluded that by “then, (…) New Delhi had already made the decision to take military action and dump ten million refugees back on a destitute Bangladesh by the end of 1971”. TIME, US magazine, August 2,1971 noted :“In the light of Henry Kissinger’s trip to China, however,it now seems clear that there may have been another motive for the Administration’s soft pedaling. Pakistan, of course, was Kissinger’s secret bridge to China.” ( BD,-Vol-I, P-493)

The policy had two principal implications. First, it was used by the state to justify limiting the refugees’ access to the labour market, relegating the refugees to camps, and discouraging the dispersal of refugees from the Border States to other parts of India (Statesman 21 April 1971). Second, it was employed by the newly created Bangladesh government to encourage and foster feelings of patriotism for the new state. In his tour of the refugee camps, the Bangladesh Minister of Home and Rehabilitation Mr. A H M Kamaruzzaman urged the refugees to “not stay here as evacuees but go back and take part in the national reconstruction” (Statesman 31 December 1971).

Law And Refugee In India

The legal situation of refugees in India was and remains marked by the “absence of clearly defined
Statutory standards.” India is neither party to the 1951 Convention nor to the Optional Protocol of 1967. A status and rights-based instrument, the 1951 Convention defines the term ‘refugee’ and establishes the
contours of the international refugee protection regime. It does so by outlining the basic minimum
standards for the treatment of refugees. Examples of this treatment include access to the courts (Article 16), to primary education (Article 22), to work (Article 24), and to documentation (Article 25).46
The foundational concept of the 1951 Convention and international refugee protection more generally is the customary norm of non-refoulement. Non-refoulement is the right not to be forcibly returned
to situations of persecution or serious danger. It is codified in the negative terms of refoulement as per
Article 3348 and is so fundamental that states cannot make reservations to it or derogate from it.

While this discussion focuses on the contemporary legal situation of refugees in India, the 1971
refugees fared no better. They were unable to exercise their rights under the 1951 Convention since it was a nonexistent piece of legislation in the Indian context. As a result, the state’s use of the term ‘refugee’ was merely a convenient label that did not accord the legal rights that normally flow from the term under
international law (the refugees were also labeled ‘evacuees’). The two Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights proved useless to the refugees’ situation since the refugees returned well after those Covenants were acceded to. Even had they been acceded to prior to the refugee influx, their applicability to the refugee’s plight would not have been guaranteed. Finally, the 1971 refugees would have been unable to take advantage of Article 21 of the Indian Constitution since its expanded reading to encompass foreigners is a recent legal development. ( Source : UNHCR “UNHCR.” Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. 1951. at 3.)

If Indira Gandhi’s promise of protection does indeed emerge from these tensions – past versus present, power versus care – what then is the nature of that protection, its sources, and its extension to the 1971 refugees? Specifically, in the absence of a codified international legal refugee protection regime, how did the Indian state demarcate and justify its responsibility to protect the 1971 refugees?

From the March 31 to December 3, 1971when Yahya Khan Precipitate an open war between India and Pakistan, Mrs. Gandhi’s conduct of her country’s policy on Bangladesh was a perfect example of controlled escalation. Right through the nine-month process, she showed a firm grip on India’s policy as it evolved under the heat and pressure of the tragic events in East Bengal. During the period in every speech and statement she made ,the phraseology in which they were couched ,in every step she took in the political field at home or the diplomatic arena abroad, she displayed the sureness of touch of a master and a rare sense of timing.

The policy for the 1971 refugees, as articulated by the Indian state, makes no mention of rehabilitation, integration, and absorption. Their existence in India was to be temporary and their status was to remain as foreign nationals. Their existence would ultimately prove to be temporary when, on December 16, the Pakistan army with 93,000 soldiers surrendered in Dacca. Following decisive military action led by the Indian army, the independent nation-state of Bangladesh was born. Just as the 1971 refugees made history with their arrival, so too did they set a record with their departure. Beginning in December of that year, millions of the refugees returned to a new homeland in what would be and remains the largest repatriation operation of the post-Second World War era (UNHCR 2010).

Time Magazine of its issue on December 6, 1971 wrote: “Today India's worst fear is that many of the refugees will refuse to go back to East Pakistan under any conditions. Nearly 8,000,000 of them are Hindus, who were singled out by the Moslem military for persecution. Pakistan, moreover, claims that only 2,000,000 Pakistani refugees are in India—a figure that corresponds to the number of Moslems who have fled. This coincidence may suggest that even if there were a settlement, the Pakistanis would refuse to permit the Hindus to return. A confidential report recently submitted to Mrs. Gandhi's Cabinet concluded: "The most alarming prognosis is that not even 10% of the Hindu evacuees may choose to go back. If this becomes a reality, it might be disastrous for West Bengal's economy, and this economic disaster is bound to bring in its train serious sociopolitical problems of perhaps unmanageable dimensions."

India has indeed kept its doors open for refugee populations originating in different parts of South Asia – the Chakma refugees from Bangladesh, the Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka, and the Bangladeshis from East Pakistan to name but a few examples. Allowing these refugees access to Indian soil, however, was less a reflection of state policy and more a reality of the South Asian context. Since 1947, mass refugee flows have blurred the national boundaries between Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.

Second, South Asian states perceive refugee movement as threats to their internal security and political stability.87 The rise of political parties such as the CPM and radical movements such as the Naxalites in West Bengal alarmed the central government, which had been struggling against these movements for some time.88 As these political entities terrorized cities and villages with pipe guns, bus bombs, stabbings, and brutal gang beatings,89 the central government grew concerned that the refugee camps would prove fertile spaces for radicalization and further violence.

Third, South Asian states are concerned that refugee flows transform the religious and political composition of the receiving and sending areas. The arrival of the 1971 refugees made the Indian state wary of religious identity being instrumentalized to fuel “communal passions.”92 According to one press report, the martial law administration in Pakistan was depopulating East Bengal of its Hindus in order to “create communal tension in the border districts of West Bengal once Hindu refugees start narrating the tales of their persecution at the hands of Muslims.”93 The fear, according to Schanberg, was that these tensions would“touch off a nationwide chain reaction in which India’s majority Hindus would take revenge on the country’s 60 million Muslims.”( Schanberg, Sydney. “Breaking Point is Near – And it May Mean War.” The New York Times, 10 October 1971.) India was also concerned that the sheer number of refugees crossing the border was prompted by Pakistan’s desire to alter the demographic composition of the eastern wing of its state.This thinking was predicated on the idea that as more refugees sought protection in India, Bengali nationalism would weaken in East Pakistan and mass support for autonomy would eventually wane.

Bengali refugees began returning from India even before the Pakistani forces had surrendered: an Indian Government. To facilitate their return railway communications between West Bengal and Bangladesh, which had been severed since the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965, were restored on Dec. 29, when the first train from India reached Jessore. According to an unofficial estimate, while 9.27 million refugees returned by the end of March 1972, another 1.5 million refugees continued to stay in India. Many of them were Hindus who merged with post-Partition refugees to join the swelling ranks in settlements like the Promodnagore Colony in Dum Dum.

The Government of India themselves do not know the answer to it except to go on repeating that the refugees would have to go back and that the international community must awake to its responsibilities and put pressure on Pakistan to create political conditions which would enable the refugees to trek back to their homes. The general feeling was that the rulers of Pakistan had succeeded cleverly in turning the tables on India .But India under the leadership of Mrs. Indira Gandhi, as Yahya Khan also knew, as Indira Gandhi did, that New Delhi was paying more every month simply to feed and shelter the millions of Bangladesh refugees squatting around Calcutta than it had for the entire war in 1965. It took time to make itself firm that could lead these refugees to return home as citizens of Independent Bangladesh.

Rabindranath Trivedi ,an Organiser Mujibnagar Govt & Freedom Fighter, a retired civil servant of Government of Bangladesh


-Asian Tribune –

A Relief Camp in West Bengal 1971
Bangladeshi Hindus from evacuees to stateless citizens (1971-2016) Part Three
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