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Volume 6 | Issue 12 | December 2012 |


Original Forum

Photo Feature
-- Lives in Ruins

Missed Euphoria
-- Udayan Chattopadhyay

The Story of December 1971
-- Syed Badrul Ahsan
Surrender at Ramna Racecourse -- Break
of a new dawn after endless nightmares

-- Ziauddin Choudhury
Seeking Refuge
-- Tawheed Rahim

Photo Feature

Geneva Camp:
Holding Together a Torn Community

Bangladesh media: Caught in censorship's crossfire?

-- Hana Shams Ahmed

Weak Father, Strong Mother and
(In)visible Nation: Genre and narrative in
Bangladesh popular cinema

-- Zakir Hossain Raju

Bowling Chinamans with
Shehan Karunatilaka

-- Quazi Zulquarnain Islam
Bolstering Country Image through
Consular Services: Perspectives from
the Bangladesh Embassy in Washington, DC

-- Syed S. Andaleeb and M. Humayun Kabir
-- Kajalie Shehreen Islam


Forum Home

Nizamul Karim Joy

Seeking Refuge

As refugees ourselves in 1971, should we not be more empathetic towards the same groups now, ponders TAWHEED RAHIM.

There is a familiar scene that repeats itself on nature documentaries where the deer bathing in the hot sun suddenly spots something move in the corner of its eye. The deer freezes into position, desperate to confirm the cause of the rustling. Its heartbeat and breathing accelerate as it starts to shake and just another glimpse is all it takes before the deer takes flight for dear life. Faced with a threat, animals in the wild can respond by either confronting the threat or fleeing. And perhaps humans too, when it comes down to fundamentals, have but the same fight-or-flight choices.

Confronted with the threat of the Pakistani military machine, Bengali women and men could but either rise up against the threat or seek refuge from it. Those who chose to fight, stayed back and used guerrilla warfare tactics to do battle against an adversary several times its military capability. These were the extraordinary women and men of the Mukti Bahini who through their courage and sacrifice accomplished the impossible. Yet what of the millions of Bengalis who chose flight over fight? Perhaps there is something to be recognised and learnt from their ordeal too.

Escaping hell
I wonder if those fortunate enough not to have been through the experience of having their own government launch a military campaign against its own people, can truly understand what it must have been like after President Yahya Khan authorised Operation Searchlight. At first the people fled the violence erupting in their cities and towns for villages yet to be affected by the killings. The Pakistani military presence was not as great in rural areas, and so for a while there was the hope that one could save one's loved ones by fleeing there. Yet when the military began to successively burn down villages, the people ran once again fleeing from village to the village while holding fast to their loved ones the best they could. One testimony reads:

“We spent a night in a village but next morning we heard that the troops were headed for that village... After a couple of days when we returned, we found the whole village burnt to ashes. Many of the people who could not escape were killed. The carcasses of livestock were strewn all over. The stench was unbearable. It was hell!”

“War is hell”, declared General William Tecumseh Sherman during the American Civil War. With shelter becoming increasingly scarce within hell, many came to the same conclusion: "we must get to the border". Reports vary on the numbers of people that sought refuge in India, though some records suggest that at one point 60,000-100,000 refugees were arriving in India everyday with the total being 10 million refugees. The exact figures are a matter of historical debate, but whatever they may be, what is clear is that this exodus was unlike anything ever witnessed before.

Twenty-four years prior, during the 1947 partition of India, another exodus had taken place, though then the people crossed both ways. With Jinnah and the Muslim League sure to emphasise the Muslim character of Pakistan, many non-Muslims were brought to wonder what place they could have in a Muslim homeland. Meanwhile, many Muslims in West Bengal and other neighbouring Indian regions fled to East Pakistan fearing the ensuing sectarian violence and hoping for a new future. Though accurate records weren't kept of that population exchange, it is estimated that 800,000 people migrated from East Pakistan, while a million migrated out of it. Whatever the validity of these estimates, the figures shy in comparison to the sheer magnitude of the 10 million estimated for 1971.

India's dilemma
It is the magnitude of the refugees that made the dilemma all the more vexing for the Indian government. On the one hand, their customary opposition to Pakistan -- which had already resulted in two wars in the space of 24 years -- had made them natural supporters of the cause of Bangladesh, and yet this meant sheltering millions. Could an India, dealing with the issue of widespread poverty of its own citizens, afford to spend its resources on these foreign nationals? Wouldn't the government be failing its people if it decided to put the welfare of others before the welfare of its own population? These were serious questions for the Indian Government, which knew that despite it all, in their hands was an opportunity like no other to break Pakistan in two. Having just been re-elected as Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi played cautiously at first. Though it wouldn't be long before she decided to lay her cards on the table, by moving a resolution in the Indian Lok Sabha (lower house) that read:

"This House cannot remain indifferent to the macabre tragedy being enacted so close to our border… This House expresses its profound sympathy for and solidarity with the people of East Bengal… The House wishes to assure them that their struggle and sacrifices will receive the whole-hearted sympathy and support of the people of India."

It's strange to think that in a very significant way it was the Bengalis who fled that tipped the balance in favour of the Mukti Bahini. For even though they had fled the scene, these women and men did not leave the cause of liberation behind them. They arrived in India with stories that helped catch the eye of the world's media and in such numbers that forced the Indian government to take decisions. Without their efforts, there may well have been no international support, no aid, no Concert for Bangladesh, and most critically, perhaps no Indian intervention. With the neighbouring Indian states unable to bear the burden that the millions of refugees had placed on them, it was clear that India could not afford a protracted war where neither the Pakistani forces nor the Mukti Bahini are able to deliver the final blow. Mrs Gandhi needed a quick solution, and so India intervened in the war.

Admit or deny entry?
The dilemma of whether to admit or deny entry to those seeking refuge is something that today faces Bangladesh with regards to the Rohingya. This would not be the first time that refugees have sought shelter in these lands, as indeed the Rohingya have come during previous incidents of sectarian violence too. Of note also is the estimated 300,000 refugees that found their way here after the Japanese forced the British retreat from Burma during the Second World War and the influx of the Bihari (who in fact originated from Assam, Tripura, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar) during the partition of India. Though in the case of the Bihari, our hospitality was of course cut short when we found them guilty of collaborating with Pakistan during the liberation struggle. We would cause them persecution and internal displacement, forcing them to become refuge seekers once again. Our hospitality now seems to have found its limits with regards to the Rohingya too.

Here then is how the record reads in a nutshell: a people who were once refugees themselves, who went on to deny refuge to others. Bangladesh is something of an "exit only" country. Though perhaps the sign could read otherwise. Perhaps for a nation so defined by the events of 1971, it should read otherwise. Bangladesh is not a political entity that emerged from a void, but rather something which had to be fought for through blood, sweat and tears. Like India, we too cannot afford to house refugees when our citizens are cramped below the poverty line. Though be it for humanitarian reasons or political ones, the fact is that in the end India didn't refuse the refugees entry. While we have no clear possibility of political gain through housing the Rohingya, the question remains: can we as a nation so defined by the events of 1971 when millions of us were in need of refuge, now turn away others seeking refuge?

Tawheed Rahim is a Staff Researcher at the Institute of Educational Development, BRAC University.

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