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India's Role in Bangladesh's War of Independence: Humanitarianism or Self-interest?


Source: Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 46, No. 52 (DECEMBER 24, 2011), pp. 53-60
Published by: Economic and Political Weekly
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India's Role in Bangladesh's War of Independence:
Humanitarianism or Self-interest?


This paper assesses India's decision to intervene militarily

in Bangladesh's Warof Independence in 1971. It Bangladesh, explores awarded Indira Gandhi, former prime
On minister Bangladesh, 25 July
minister of 2011,
of India, India, awarded
the Bangladesh Sheikh
Swadhinata the Bangladesh Indira Hasina, Swadhinata Gandhi, the prime former Sammanona minister prime of
the various arguments - shared ethnicity, irredentist
(Bangladesh Freedom Honour) posthumously for her "outstanding
tendencies, lack of international involvement, and the
contributions to Bangladesh's Liberation War".1 While India's role
need to tip the balance of power against Pakistan
cannot be denied, it must be noted that- toof 1971, at a
in the winter
time when the apparent
understand the motivations behind India's cold war affected relations among states and mili-
tary intervention was largely a tool for great powers, India's deci-
aggressive behaviour, as deemed by the international
sion to intervene militarily in East Pakistan was seen as
community at the time. By analysing theaggressive
by many. of the
Many questionswomen,
key actors and reactions of ordinary men and arise as to India's intentions. Was India'
involvement on 12 Decemberand
is argued that the lack of international interest 1971 an act of aggression
the or retalia-
tion against Pakistan for an incursion on the western front two
heavy burden that India faced due to the 10 million
weeks earlier? Did India intervene on humanitarian grounds to
refugees it hosted explain the timing of and impetus
stop "a second holocaust", for
as the many speeches by Indira Gandhi
military intervention, an action with repercussions
suggest? Were concerns over hosting refugeesthatan issue as India's
are experienced even today. representatives to the United Nations (un) and various ministers
pointed out time and again over the nine-month war? Were there
security issues arising out of the fact that there were militarised
training camps for the freedom fighters based in India?
In this paper, I consider the different reasons that explain India's
behaviour: militarisation of refugee camps, irredentist tendencies
of West Bengal, shared Bengali identity, lack of international
involvement, electoral concerns over mandate, and the need to
tip the balance of power against Pakistan. I contend that these are
at best necessary conditions for military intervention, but not
sufficient ones. It is the concern over refugees that finally make
intervention justifiable, domestically and internationally from
the Indian perspective, especially in the short run.
The literature suggests that bordering host countries may
intervene militarily in refugee-producing neighbouring countries
in an attempt to stem and reverse refugee flows (Dowty and
Loescher 1996; Posen 1996; Teitelbaum 1984). Vietnam, for
example, intervened militarily in Cambodia in 1978, after support-
ing refugees fleeing Pol Pot's regime since 1975. The Vietnamese
had other reasons as well, such as, a show of power to Thailand
and ending genocide in Cambodia (Dowty and Loescher 1996). 2
However, the refugee aspect and the need to repatriate them
cannot be overlooked.

More recently in 2008, Ethiopia sent troops into Somalia

"fearing" attacks from Islamic forces there. The fact that Ethiopia
hosts 2,58,000 Somali refugees is a pertinent factor. Because the
Navine Murshid ( ) teaches intervention
at the department
failed and Ethiopia was forced to withdraw its
of political science and international relations, Colgate University,
forces, it could not reap the benefits it had anticipated. Indeed,
New York, United States.
the situation worsened as the conflict produced more refugees on

Economic & Political weekly E3353 December 24, 2011 vol xlvi no 52 53

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its soil. However, a successful intervention could end conflict first is Bangladesh Genocide and World Press , compiled and
in Somalia hypothetically, which in turn could allow refugees to edited by Fazlul Quader Quaderi, which he self-published in
return home. Dhaka, in 1972. The second is a personal compilation of news-
The Indian case has been mentioned in the literature in the paper clippings during 1971 (from East and West Pakistan as
well as international media reports) maintained by Sheikh
context of refugee hosting by Saleyhan (2008), Dowty and Loescher
Ahmed Jalal, and now held at the Liberation War Museum in
(1996), and Teitelbaum (1984), all of whom present Indian inter-
vention in Pakistan's "civil war" as one in response to refugeeDhaka. The speeches (for content analysis) were obtained from a
publication of the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of
flows, but more importantly as one of India seizing the opportu-
nity to divide Pakistan. Although the intervention took place 40India, in 1972, which was later published in Bangladesh as
Bangladesh Documents.
years ago, there appears to be little understanding of the causes
of intervention and more specifically its timing. This paper, thus,
focuses on the Indian case to provide an in-depth analysis of the2 Roots of the 1971 War and the Refugee Crisis
motivations for intervention. India's intervention in East Pakistan is one of the cases where,
arguably, the refugee issue had been instrumental in creating an
The rest of the paper is organised as follows. Section 1 describes
the methodology used, and Section 2 provides a background to
international crisis. This section provides a brief background.
the conflict that induced Indian intervention. Section 3 presents The refugee influx into India in 1971 and the subsequent inde-
pendence of Bangladesh can be traced back to a root cause -
the different arguments that explain India's intervention in
Bangladesh based on evidence from archival research, and
partition. The Partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947 created
surveys of relevant Bangladeshis as well as Indians who were in
two independent countries: India and Pakistan. Bengal was divided
into the two separate entities of West Bengal belonging to India,
India in 1971. Section 4 analyses the impact of refugees on India
more specifically, and Section 5 concludes. and East Bengal belonging to Pakistan. East Bengal was renamed
East Pakistan in 1955.
1 Methodology The borders were drawn based on a report (Radcliffe Report)
I analyse the motivations behind India's support for Bangladesh'scommissioned by the British government. On 18 July 1947, the
British parliament passed the Indian Independence Act which
War of Independence as well as intervention during Bangladesh's
stipulated which provinces will go to India and which provinces
Liberation War in 1971. My findings derive from three sources:
will go to Pakistan. The creation of Pakistan was based on the
(1) surveys and interviews of refugees and locals in India in 1971;
(2) newspaper archives; and (3) speeches by key persons, includ-
premise that Hindus and Muslims of the subcontinent constitute
two different nationalities and could not coexist, especially after
ing the different ministers as well as the prime minister of India
and India's representatives to the un. Jinnah left the Congress and joined the Muslim League to ensure a
political space for Muslims that is mutually exclusive from the
I conducted two separate surveys on Bangladeshis and Indians
Hindus (James 1990). One can argue that it was the failure of the
who were alive during the 1971 war. All participants in the surveys
were above 55 years of age and were in India during the war. Congress
In and the Muslim League to reach consensus over power-
terms of relevant sample size, I interviewed 40 Bangladeshis whosharing that created the grounds for the Partition.
were in India during the 1971 war as refugees, and 50 Indians The Partition of the subcontinent created two different countries
with most of the Muslim majority areas of undivided India going
who were locals in India during the same time (for brevity, I refer
to the newly created nation, Pakistan. This created a geographical
to the survey of Bangladeshis in India in 1971 as the Bangladesh
survey while those of Indians is called the India survey). anomaly with Pakistan made up of two distinct and unconnected
parts termed West and East Pakistan, separated by India in
The Bangladesh survey was conducted in Dhaka. Residents of
the middle.
alternate houses on two major roads in central Thana were inter-
viewed. This area was chosen because of the diversity of popula- East Pakistan was more populous than West Pakistan but
political power rested with the western elite in post-independent
tion in terms of income levels, migrant populations, and gender,
after studying the latest census report. Pakistan, who refused to hear or address the grievances of the
East. Grievances were the basis upon which several political
The India survey was conducted online using various social
networking tools to make the survey available to Indian commu-parties emerged in East Pakistan. A dominant one was the Awami
nities across the globe. This method was employed becauseLeague,
a and its leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, a very charismatic
pilot study in West Bengal indicated that 2% of the pilot sampleBengali leader, drew millions of Bengalis to demand political
rights. In 1970, Pakistan held general elections and the Awami
were near camp areas and thus unable to add anything substan-
League not only participated, but won the majority of the seats
tive to the study. Because there were no geographic barriers to
which would enable it to form the government. The West Pakistan-
the online survey, more "effective" respondents were able to par-
ticipate. Of course, the sample is self-selected. based military government dismissed the results and instead
of handing over power, began mass killings of Bengalis in East
It is difficult to access newspapers and speeches from the 1971
period in Bangladesh, primarily because the main archive locatedPakistan (Sisson and Rose 1990).
in the Dhaka Public Library was burned down during riots in The final straw was the crackdown in East Pakistan on
25 March 1971 which left thousands of Bengalis dead following
1990. However, I was able to access two compilations of local and
international newspapers that provided coverage of the war. Thewhich Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was arrested for treason. In a

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dramatic move, Sheikh Mujibur declared independence fromAlthough the refugee camps themselves were not militarised,
they served as fertile recruitment ground. The Far Eastern
inside jail. Uncannily, 24 years after independence, another "par-
Economic Review (feer) ran a story on militarisation on 2 Septem-
tition" took place because political elites did not want to share
political power. ber 1971. It reads:
As the aggression of the Pakistani forces intensified, India hadEyewitnesses report the Mukti Fauj [Liberation Force] is increasingly
to open borders to allow the (new) Bangladeshi refugees safebetter organised and claim more and younger men are joining it. An
shelter. The state governments of West Bengal, Bihar, Assam,intensive recruitment drive is on in the camps to enlist all men and
boys from the age of 14 up.
Meghalaya and Tripura established refugee camps along the
The question that becomes relevant is whether militarisation
Indian border. The conflict resulted in a deluge of refugees into
India and as the violence in East Pakistan escalated, an estimated
played any role in the decision to intervene. On the one hand,
militarisation is a negative externality. On the other, if the warri-
10 million refugees fled to India (Sisson and Rose 1990). For a devel-
oping country like India, the resource pressures were immense.ors are better trained, it increases the likelihood of success in
their war, which would entail the end of conflict, allowing refu-
The refugees had to go to India because of Bangladesh's prox-
gees to go back home (as in the current situation with Karens in
imity to India. But, what started as a humanitarian effort soon
Thailand). Was this the reason why the government was sympa-
developed political strings, given the rivalry between India and
Pakistan. There was already a conflict on India's western border
thetic towards the freedom fighters? Sisson and Rose (1990) argue
that the arms that the Indian government gave the freedom
over Kashmir. The Bangladesh "crisis" added another element
and India had to calculate its moves. It served Pakistan's purpose
fighters were of low quality, even obsolete, which shows that India's
support was more symbolic than strategic. Was the Indian
too: Pakistan claimed that these developments were part of the
Kashmir problem, arguably, to justify what was increasingly
government actually worried about the militarisation aspect?
looking like genocide. In this particular case, it is difficult to make that point either
way because the topic of militarisation had not come up during
3 Different Explanations for India's Intervention any of the parliamentary debates in India during the period.
There is mention of militarisation in newspaper reports, such as
Camp-Militarisation the feer report (see above), but nothing to reveal the negative
perceptions of the Government of India with regards to militari-
The Bengalis of East Pakistan were fighting for self-determination
and hence, the kind of rebellion the refugees in India were
sation. Thus, although militarisation in a general sense can cre-
engaged in had little to do with India's treatment of refugeesate
or aggressive tendencies, in this particular case it does not seem
the living conditions in camps, although the living situation was
that way.
very poor. Given that a government in exile was formed in Agartala,
Shared Bengali Ethnicity
India, which was also the base of operations, it is, perhaps, almost
inevitable that the nearby areas would become militarised. Shared ethnic ties were important as well. Despite the heavy toll
that refugees imposed on the economy, all the 30 respondents to
All the respondents of the Bangladesh survey (40) were upfront
about armed bases in India. In fact, 10 of them were "soldiers"
the India survey said they were sympathetic to the cause, and
(the East Pakistan regimen of the Pakistan Army formed the
over time their feeling either remained unchanged (5), or they
became more sympathetic (25). Fourteen of the 30 respondents
Mukti Bahini or Liberation Army) who crossed the border several
times and thereby did not have a permanent place to stay. Others
had "Bengali friends from East Bengal" living with them and they
were volunteers who worked in the camp hospitals as aides. all
Allsupported the formation of a new country, Bangladesh.
respondents above the age of 16 in 1971 had participated inOne respondent who was 15 at the time said,
the war efforts in one way or another, be it in terms of working
I, of course, was too young then in 1971. All I remember are blackouts in
with Radio India's Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra (Independent the evenings, our windows were painted up so that light didn't spill out
Bangla Radio Station) to spread news about the war, working asand we would hear drones of fighter planes overhead! I also remember
we gave a part of our rations (India had a ration card system where
journalists, broadcasters, teachers at camps, and so on. The war
was not merely a military war where the ex-Pakistani militaryindividuals got subsidised commodities from the state) for the refugees
from East Pakistan. It was not mandatory but most families we knew
fought - it was a war where literally everyone participated,
gave it to fellow Bengalis. So, that was the feeling - there was a pride
according to the respondents. All the respondents were aware ofin [Sheikh] Mujib and a great feeling prevailed in West Bengal that the
training camps being in existence in India alongside the govern-
nation state of India under Indira Gandhi was helping fellow Bengalis.
ment in exile. Rebels, therefore, did not have to operate out is lore that madam Gandhi asked the field marshall Maneck-

of refugee camps per se. They used secluded jungles near theshaw to send only Bengali (Indian) pilots to the war as the first foray
because she could sense the Bengali pride prevalent in West Bengal!
borders as training areas.
The respondents of the India survey who lived in areas close toIn addition, there were some concerns as to the possible collu-
sion of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) - cpi(m) and the
the refugee camps were aware of training camps as well. While
most (40) felt the camp and adjacent areas were dangerous, they
Naxalites (the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) - cpi-ml)
in West Bengal with "leftists" in East Pakistan, who together
did not deem them to be a security threat. To the contrary, many
could undermine the central government in India. West Bengal
of the respondents felt that the bases were necessary to continue
the war efforts in East Pakistan. had already undergone violence and unrest owing to Maoist

Economic & Political weekly B5E3 December 24, 2011 vol xlvi no 52 55

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did not exist to enable any form of movement to in

insurgencies support irredent- 1965
imposed. ism. Such
If talks may have had popular
the value, but there were no East
may be a
efforts catastrop
to turn the talks into reality.
were, however, beca
Electoral Mandate
as as well
Indira Gandhi had won the national elections
independence war in March 1971
many oflargely based
the on her garibi hatao (end poverty) election campaign.
shared With refugees creating a strain on their already limited
ethnicity resources
from fellow Benga
it was quite clear that she would not be able to adhere to her man-
date. Although, locals
intervened in West Bengal were largely sympathetic
towards refugees, owing to ethnic ties and would overlook Indira
Irredentism Gandhi's predicament, locals in areas such as Assam and Tripura
were rather disgruntled. The introduction of new ration cards for
Some of the respondents to the India survey mentioned that
refugees had generated inflationary pressures, raising prices of
Indira Gandhi may have feared moves towards irredentism and
basic food items, creating grievances among locals.
hence intervened to prevent that. India referred to East Pakistan/
Partly for re-election purposes, Indira Gandhi perhaps had to
Bangladesh as East Bengal (its original name before Bengal was
ensure that the refugees do not impose a long-term problem
divided into two part with the Partition of India), and many out-
(Quader 1972). It is unclear whether or not this was a major issue,
siders wondered whether that had any relation to West Bengal's
separatist interests. however. The refugee influx was an external shock and not
According to one respondent, the main reason for Indiacreated
to by her or the Congress Party. Would the voting public not
recognise the difference between deliberate and inadvertent
intervene may have been "the humanitarian and justice angle",
but "it is said madam Gandhi pre-empted the unification of
breaking of promises?
Bengal, which meant division of India, and thus stepped into the
war to have more control". India-Pakistan Power Play or Indian Hegemony
India maintained that during the war period, the international
India's foreign minister at the time, Sardar Swaran Singh,
community and, of course, Pakistan had tried to frame the
while addressing questions of irredentism and why India referred
issue as an India-Pakistan one or an internal problem of
to East Pakistan as East Bengal, argues that such questions are
Pakistan, neglecting long-term refugee concerns that brought
futile as the people of West Bengal are Indians, the implication
being that they are proud Indians and would always choose thelife in West Bengal and other border areas to a standstill.
Indian national identity over Bengali identity. Schools and universities were closed to house refugees, infla-
[T]he use of this expression does not mean that there is any risktionary
of pressures crept in.
West Bengal, which is a State of the Indian Union, at any time thinking if Pakistan could convince the world, and its
of joining East Bengal, even if it becomes independent. They know population
the in West Pakistan, that the crisis is a product of India-
value of being equal partners in this great country of ours, India,
Pakistan rivalry and not of Pakistan's military repression of its
where they have played a significant role in the political field, in the
population in the East, Pakistan could escape international and
social and economic field; and thus I do not realise that there is ever
(domestic) rebuke. Especially given Pakistan's sense of national
any risk of people of West Bengal, constituent State of India, ever
thinking of opting out of India, whatever is the future of East Pakistan.
unity that was based on anti-India sentiments, to claim that
That the question arose and the government had to respond rebels
to in East Pakistan were Indian pawns provided military and
political mileage, as well as international and domestic support.
claims of irredentism indicate that there may have been some
In Indira Gandhi's 24 May speech in the Lok Sabha (lower
fears. There existed a problem since the insurgencies of the 1960s
had alienated West Bengal from the central government to house
a of Parliament), she said it is
certain degree. Popular Bengali movies of the time in West Ben-
mischievous to suggest that India has had anything to do with what
gal also spoke of "waiting for the day when Bengal is united",
happened in Bangla Desh. This is an insult to the aspirations and spon-
failing to assuage loyalty concerns. taneous sacrifices of the people of Bangla Desh, and a calculated at-
An interesting element is how West Bengal supported the wartempt by the rulers of Pakistan to make India a scapegoat for their own
misdeeds. It is also a crude attempt to deceive the world community.
with fervour similar to India's independence struggle in the
1930s, using similar types of rhetoric about oppression and self-Samar Sen, India's permanent representative to the un, further
determination. For example, patriotic songs about the spiritcriticised
of the un bodies for allowing the perceptions of India-
Bengal were revived and played on the radio with the goal Pakistan
of rivalry to pervade the international community without
creating unity and inspiring soldiers. "In many ways", said understanding
one the facts on the ground.
respondent of the India survey, "this was our war since it wasThere
a was a great hue and cry to internationalise the problem: diplo-
war about Bangla and its survival". matic moves, various moves in the United Nations through these pro-
posals for observers, and this, that, and the other - all designed to
However, it is difficult to separate such sentiments from the
make it into an Indo-Pakistan dispute. Once it turned into an Indo-
bond of shared ethnicity. While there is much to suggest that
Pakistan dispute, people will forget what the Pakistan Army is doing
West Bengalis shared much of the ideological principles with
in East Pakistan. They can go on burning their villages, raping their
women and so on. People will then forget and say that it is an
their East Bengali brethren, the political and military apparatus

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Indo-Pakistan dispute. It is extraordinary, therefore, to find that There had been, however, some international pressure on
today, when pressure for action is so great in some quarters, this back- Pakistan to resolve the issues, although the focus was more on
ground is forgotten.
refugees instead of the legitimacy of the elected government. The
Of course, it was in India's interest to downplay the rivalry un, especially the secretary general, condemned Pakistani action
factor and focus more on the humanitarian issues involved. After in East Pakistan and asked the international community to assist
all, why shouldn't India capitalise on Pakistan's weakness and India in its efforts to provide refuge to those fleeing conflict. One
strike when victory is almost assured, more so, when they have a can see U Thant's message as one where the international com-
legitimate humanitarian reason to do so? One difficulty in assess- munity was aware of the situation and even willing to help the
ing the degree to which India-Pakistan rivalry was relevant is refugee community. However, cold war politics got in the way. In
the lack of evidence to support either story. Even if division of an appeal dated 19 May 1971, U Thant said that
Pakistan was on the agenda, it was something that was never The international community has been seriously concerned at the
expressed publicly. That they did not discuss the Pakistan factor plight of the sizeable and continuing influx of refugees... from East
may indicate strategic behaviour, choosing to focus on the humani- Pakistan into adjacent states of India. I fully share this concern.
Mindful that one of the purposes of the United Nations is 'to achieve
tarian plight because that would be more popular. However, a
international cooperation in solving international problems of a
war with Pakistan would probably be a popular war from the humanitarian character', I am convinced that the United Nations
domestic point of view. Why wouldn't such concerns be made and its family of Organisations have an important role to play in
public, then? Perhaps, the question is about a long-term versus alleviating the serious hardship and suffering which these refugees
are undergoing.
short-term outcome. While in the immediate term it was impor-
tant to focus on pressing matters of the time (refugees), India U Thant instructed the un High Commissioner for Refugees
may have realised that the long-term effect of resolving the short- (unhcr) to send a three-man team to judge the situation on the
term problem through intervention would be promising in terms ground, but a stalemate ensued as the major powers chose to remain
of gaining regional dominance. "neutral". The us did not want to antagonise Pakistan for fear of
"losing" China, the Soviet Union did not want to get involved in
Limited Concern by the International Community another embroilment; China, having fought a war with India in
During discussion in Parliament about the effect of refugees on 1962, was not willing to get involved either. It was following the
India's economy, a recurring theme was the frustration that India inaction of major powers that India decided to mobilise its embassies.
was the sole bearer of the burden. The prime minister not only On 17 June, India's foreign minister addressed the us audience
argued that it was an international crisis, but also sent emissaries at the National Press Club in Washington dc, argued that the
abroad to gain support for Bangladesh. Prime Minister Indira mere disapproval of the United States can "have a powerful im-
Gandhi felt that the international community could pressure the pact upon the military rulers... will be a strong deterrent against
Pakistani government to stop genocide. The generation of refu- the continued military action by the perpetrators." In the initial
gees, further, turned the crisis into an international one, and months, India's demands from the international community was
thus needed some kind of an international intervention, the low - strong words.
Indian authorities felt. When the embassies failed to influence world leaders, Indira
Gandhi argued that "the great powers have a special responsi- Gandhi went on a world tour. She spoke to President Richard
bility" and are in a position to bring about durable peace in the Nixon in Washington dc and also gave speeches in several cities in
Indian subcontinent through mere words. Why was the world Europe. In all her visits, she made it clear that India was running
taking such a long time to rebuke Pakistan? Interestingly, there is out of resources to support refugees and some form of inter-
no mention of cold war politics, although it did seem to constrain national action would be required. At a meeting in Germany in
world response. The United States (us), for example, wanted to November, her exasperation and will were clear. She was
use Pakistan to reach out to China in order to stem communism. frustrated that the world (mainly the us) chose to ignore the 10
At a time when the us was obsessed with communism, human million refugee population, and ignore the situation that produced
rights violations and genocides did not seem to matter. However, the refugees in the first place. India's geographic location -
many respondents of both the India and Bangladesh surveys pon-surrounding East Pakistan in the east, north and west - resulted
dered why the American public cared so little about genocide inin India being the sole bearer of imported problems. There was
Bangladesh while protesting the Vietnam War for essentially the also a shift in the language as time progressed: in June India was
same kind of issues. still hoping for "strong words" from the us; in November India's
Indira Gandhi on 24 May, while addressing the House, em-stance had become more aggressive, stating clearly that India
phatically said, will not tolerate the situation for long. Gandhi said,
The problems which confront us are not confined to Assam, Meghalaya, I very authoritatively say that I will not tolerate these refugees living
Tripura, and West Bengal. They are national problems. Indeed, the in India. I am very definite, and so is our entire country. We have
basic problem is an international one. We have sought to awaken the borne a very big burden with hardly any help from outside, and when
conscience of the world through our representatives abroad and the we drew the attention of the un, we were given the answer: 'It is an
representatives of foreign Governments in India. We have appealed internal problem of Pakistan. We cannot interfere in it.' There are
to the United Nations. However, I must share with the House, our dis- nearly 10 million people and the un just says 'we are very sorry, we do
appointment at the unconscionably long time which the world is not mind if millions of people have been killed in Pakistan 'it is an
taking to reach to this stark tragedy. internal matter of Pakistan'.

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Tracing the changes in words used in speeches, home and Table 1: Refugees In and Out of Camps

abroad, shows changes in India's disposition regarding what a Name of States

durable solution will be. As one can see, before intervening in

West Bengal

Tri pu ra

December, India had requested the un and the us to take action


that would end the refugee influx. The different speeches given

by Indian officials demonstrate that India was willing to show Bihar

restraint until December 1971. The majority of the relief opera- Madhya Pradesh

tions were planned to last six months. India rallied for inter- Uttar Pradesh

national action, and made it clear that in absence of such action, Total

Refugees as of 15 December 1
it would be forced to intervene militarily.
There were some criticisms that India did not allow the unhcr refugees entered Ind
to operate fully in the camps. However, India's concerns were to below a million a
that repatriating refugees when conditions remain unchanged 1,66,000 in Decemb
would not be a desirable solution. India wanted un support not the number of cam
only for the protection of refugees but to form a permanent solu- gees both in and ou
tion: resolving the refugee problem would be equivalent to treat- bers are large, but t
ing the symptoms only. proportion of refug
The lack of international support had multiple effects. First, it The statistic that
Table 2: Influx of Refugees Relative st

made India realise that it was the sole bearer of the refugee bur- from Table 2 is the one for to Local Population

den. Second, it signalled to India that any action she undertakes Tripura where the refugeeAssam
would probably have little consequence because of complacency. population was almost as Bihar
Third, it highlighted the atmosphere of the time: greater focus on large as the local population.
West Bengal 7,493/44,440 = 0.16
cold war issues and less on geopolitical or humanitarian issues in Not surprisingly, locals in this
regions that held little strategic importance. All of these factors region were antagonistic towards the new arrivals.
combined to provide India with the strength to pursue According to a report in the Far Eastern Economic Review on
its foreign policy based primarily on domestic policy, without 2 September 1971, Tripura's Relief Secretary expressed concerns
fearing international reprimand. over the long-term consequences of hosting such a large number,
indicating that there is likely to be animosity among locals due to
4 Refugee Concerns: An Estimate of Refugee Burden perceptions of as well as real competition.
Our local population is friendly because we have assured them the
Numbers of Refugees refugees are only here for six months. This is tribal country. Local peo-
ple... are very jealous of their land rights. If they think these people are
By sheer magnitude the effect of the refugees on the Indian econ-
here permanently, we may have serious trouble. Locals are already
omy had been overwhelming. Perhaps because India was more complaining because prices have gone up since the refugees have been
accessible to journalists than East Pakistan was, much of the cov- forced to buy in the open market after the ration cut.
erage in the international media regarding the crisis in 1971 was
on the refugees.
India allocated Rs 2.6 billion for refugees but their estimated
Figure 1: Refugee Influx into India during the Nine-Month Period
Refugees arrivals (1000s) need was Rs 4.2 billion. Not surprisingly, the authorities and the
locals both felt the pressure.3

In May, India's labour and rehabilitation minister in addition to

listing the various costs associated with refugee hosting, ex-
pressed that this burden is too severe for India to bear alone, and
2,000 urged the international community to help.
The extremely heavy expenditure involved in providing relief assist-
ance to these refugees, whose number is mounting every day, is caus-
ing a severe financial strain on India's economy. The Government of
India has, therefore, urged the United Nations and Foreign Govern-

ments, through Indian Missions abroad, to share the responsibility in

tackling this vast refugee problem which should be the concern of the
International Community.

According to newspaper sources, a ration card was given to all

0 -,

0 2 4 6 8 10 refugees that allowed them rice, dal (lentils), and vegetables. A

stipend was given as well, but that shrank from Rs 15 in April to
Figure 1 Re 1 in October, indicating a considerable
shows the drop in capabilities.
month During the nine-monthbeginnin
period period there were significant discus-
sions within India's
declaration oftwo houses of Parliament
indepe regarding the costs
was threeof hosting refugees. India's representatives abroad also i
million, tried toe,

58 December 24, 2011 vol XLVi no 52 GEC3 Economic & Political WEEKLY

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involve the unhcr and other bodies to help ease the burden. AnTheevaluation of the various factors makes one thing certain:
the need to end conflict on India's eastern border. Although there
general feeling seemed to be that India, despite its best efforts,
was overwhelmed by the costs. Even in the early phase of the have been many geopolitical and strategic reasons that
crisis, Indira Gandhi spoke of shortages of living space and sway support for intervention domestically, the immedi-
essentials although many schools and universities becameate cost that refugees imposed had been overwhelming - both in
ignated refugee camps. Addressing the Lok Sabha on 24terms
May of the numbers and in terms of the finances involved. Even
1971, she said: in June, as a result, India's foreign minister Sardar Swaran Singh,

...every available building, including schools and training institutions, told a reporter during his tour to the us,
has been requisitioned. Thousands of tents have been pitched and There are other ways of enforcing [action without] declaring war.
temporary shelters are being constructed as quickly as possible in the And, I hope we will not be compelled to resort to those other means,
335 camps which have been established so far. In spite of our best which perhaps you cannot expect me to spell out at this stage.
efforts we have not been able to provide shelter to all those who have
So, even in June 1971, India was hoping that international
come across, and may are still in the open. The district authorities are
under severe strain. Before they can cope with those who are already pressure would bring an end to Pakistan's military regime and
here, 60,000 more are coming across every day. Medical facilities in force them to accept the election results. It also becomes clear
all our border States have been stretched to breaking point. that by May/June 1971, India's resources were stretched thin and
On 15 June, addressing the Rajya Sabha again, Indira Gandhi they were already overwhelmed by the masses of refugees com-
reiterated the pressures felt by the country. She pointed out that no ing in. India responded by trying to mobilise the international
developed country in the world has had to face such a situation so community to take some form of action. When diplomatic talks
far, and yet expected impoverished India to carry the burden alone. failed, the prime minister herself went on a world tour to garner
support. In all the speeches, whether by Indira Gandhi or any
When any country has to face a large influx - not an influx over a long
period, but a sudden influx within a few weeks, of nearly six million other minister, India's representatives were clear and consistent
people - it is not a joke; it is not a small thing. I would like to know in saying that India would be unable to support refugees for
from hon'ble Members: Do they know of any country in the world longer than six months, even though they were not very specific
which has faced even one-tenth of this situation before? It is very easy
about what would happen after that six-month period was over.
to sit in this House and just criticise and criticise. If even ten thousand
Perhaps, the intervention did not surprise anyone after all.
refugees arrive in any European country, the whole Continent of
Europe will be afire with all the newspapers, the Governments; and
5 Conclusions
everybody will be aroused. We are trying to deal with nearly 6 million
human beings who have fled from a region of terror, who have come In the short run, intervention for India meant refugee repatriation,
wounded, with disease, with illness, hunger, and exhaustion.
and in the long run, it meant a divided Pakistan and regional
She stressed that, dominance. While the long-term incentives can be deemed con-
stant for a country such as India seeking preponderance, they this country we have a shortage of practically everything which
they [refugees] need. We have a shortage of tarpaulins; we have a have little explanatory power in terms of explaining the timing of
shortage of corrugated iron sheets; we have a shortage of every possible intervention. It is this gap that an explanation based on refugees
thing you can think of. We have tried to round these items from every fulfils. Having ensured that the international community will
part of the country; we are rushing them to the camps. But no matter remain deaf to the calls for help, India was able to utilise a cost-
what we do - 1 am sorry to say - we cannot keep [supporting the] refugees.
benefit analysis based purely on national interests (refugees,
Despite the support of local Indians, especially in West Bengal, costs, inflation, living space), realising that at the systemic level
Indira Gandhi's words show the desperation at the national level: there will be gains to be had without the costs as an externality
it was no longer about the will, but the capacity to support such a (regional dominance). In this light, intervention was certainly
large group. India's best response to the crisis.
India's representative to the un, Samar Sen, in a speech to the Critics would probably argue that it was India's rivalry with
un Security Council on 4 December 1971 (eight days before India Pakistan that brought India to war. Others would argue that
intervened) expressed India's inability to sustain the refugee Pakistan's incursion on India's western border (Kashmir) provoked
burden at a time when the international community refused to India's action on the eastern border. In response, I would point
believe that the situation in East Pakistan was, indeed, dire. He out that India and Pakistan had gone through a series of border
also expressed that India will no longer "tolerate" the situation. disputes over Kashmir since 1947. India could have used its ethnic
It is difficult to assess whether his words appeared as threats or ties to East Pakistan to destabilise Pakistan during those times as
expressions of frustration. Perhaps India's state of development well. Why did India wait until 1971 to use East Pakistan/East
did not make its implicit threats of aggression very credible.
They [the refugees] are coming because they are being terrorised, they
are being butchered. That is why they are coming. And we cannot take available at
any more. We have told the international community time and again
that we have come to the end of our tether. The situation is intolerable. Ganapathy Agencies
3/4, 2 Link Street, Jaffa rkhan pet, Ragavan Colony
Even if other factors such as India-Pakistan rivalry had a
Chennai 600 083, Tamil Nadu
contributing role, the sudden and immediate cost that India felt Ph: 24747538
could not be overlooked.

Economic & Political weekly B259 December 24, 2011 vol xlvi no 52 59

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Bengal as leverage? I would argue that the refugees created
1971 acould be justified along such lines, at least in retrospect.
unique situation that required Indian action in order to end the Pakistan has maintained that East Pakistan did not add
crisis and ease the burden on India's economy. The refugees were
much to its economy, as a result of which its secession did not have
more than a pretext for war because the 10 million burdenmuch
that impact. In contrast, one can argue that the loss of East
they imposed had dire consequences on the average Indian Pakistan
living meant the loss of cultural and ethnic diversity, the loss of
in camp areas. The rivalry with Pakistan may have been aa con-
moderate voice in an Islamic state, and the loss of democratic
principles which eventually stunted Pakistan's rise, despite reach-
tributing factor, but not the primary reason why India intervened
in Bangladesh's Liberation War. ing nuclear parity with India. Moreover, in 1971 India signalled to
In the last 40 years, India has risen dramatically, both the in
world that it will not sit idle when its national interests are at

stake. Even though India's action at the time was based on the
economic and military terms, especially relative to its neighbours,
most notably Pakistan. Did Pakistan's demise or division aid thatof the economy affected by the refugees, the longer run
process? If the answer is a definitive yes, then India's action in has been to establish itself as a credible regional power.

rupee was pegged to the gold standard until and World Press, Self-Published in Dhaka,
December 1971.
i The Hindu, 25 July 2011, http://www.thehindu. Bangladesh.
com/news/international/article22930i6.ece Salehyan, I (2008): "The Externalities of Civil Strife:
2 There were many refugees in Thailand as well,
REFERENCES Refugees as a Source of International Conflict",
but Thailand did not intervene. Part of the reason American Journal of Political Science, 52: 787-801.
that Vietnam did and Thailand did not may be
Dowty, Alan and Gil Loescher (1996): "Refugee
Flows as Grounds for International Action", Sheikh Ahmed J alai Collection : Liberation War Museum,
that the refugees in Thailand were better looked Dhaka, Bangladesh.
International Security, 21: 43-71.
after by international NGOs and the UN. Refugees
Sisson, Richard and Leo E Rose (1990) : War and Secession:
in Vietnam were less privileged and had little James, Lawrence (1990): The British Raj: The
access to international NGOs or UN. So, while Making and Unmaking of British India. Pakistan, India, and the Creation of Bangladesh
Thailand benefited monetarily from hosting Posen, Barry R (1996): "Military Responses to (University of California Press).
refugees, Vietnam did not. Thailand did, however, Refugee Disasters", International Security, 21(1): Teitelbaum (1984): "Immigration, Refugees, and
use low-scale violence to force repatriation. 72-111. Foreign Poicy", International Organisations, 38(3):
3 $1 = 7.50 rupees approximately in 1971. The Indian Quader Quaderi, Fazlul (1972): Bangladesh Genocide 429-50.

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