|Volume 6 | Issue 12 | December 2012 ||
Nizamul Karim Joy
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.
“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.
"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?
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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