Refugees from the civil war in East Pakistan (later Bangladesh) in India, 1971.
Alan Leather / Oxfam Archive, Bodleian Library

Europe’s response to waves of refugees from the war-torn Middle East raises serious questions about its commitment to humanitarian values. To be sure, Europe is facing a very difficult set of challenges. But these pale in comparison to those confronting India’s policymakers in 1971, when New Delhi was faced with a refugee surge orders of magnitude greater than the one now on Europe’s borders.

The crisis arose out of an election gone wrong. In 1970, Pakistan, which then comprised an eastern and western wing, held its first free and fair elections. The more populous eastern wing of the country voted down West Pakistan’s political parties. The election should have led to a genuine power-sharing arrangement between east and west, but that outcome was anathema to the Western-based military regime and to West Pakistan’s leading party, the Pakistan People’s Party.

For three months after the vote, the parties were at an impasse; the military regime and the winning party in West Pakistan, the Pakistan People’s Party, stalled on creating a new and equitable federal mechanism. As secessionist sentiment rose in East Pakistan, the Pakistani military unleashed a reign of terror against the Bengali population. The military systematically targeted university professors, students, and political activists, killing substantial numbers in Dacca (later Dhaka). Faced with widespread atrocities, the Bengali population of East Pakistan, both Hindu and Muslim, fled to various parts of northeast India. By May 1971, some ten million individuals had found sanctuary on Indian soil. As the refugees poured in and an incipient insurgent movement emerged in East Pakistan, India’s principal intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing, provided training, weaponry, and logistical support to the rebels.

Refugee camp in India.
Refugee camp in India. 
As the refugees poured in, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi made several visits to Western capitals to ask for support and for them to pressure Pakistan to halt its repression in Bangladesh. Tea and sympathy aside, she returned home empty-handed. In fact, no other country in the region, let alone the international community, accepted any refugees or provided much in the way of assistance, placing the brunt of the crisis on India’s shoulders.

And so, with little external assistance, India, a desperately poor country, set out to provide a huge refugee population with basic necessities such as shelter and food. The government paid the bulk of these expenses from its own treasury. The cost of caring for the refugees for a period of six months, according to Indian government sources, amounted to over half a billion dollars. The task of hosting the refugees fell almost solely upon local and national governmental agencies with some support from India’s civil society. After the crisis and the war ended, the government was forced to impose some temporary taxation measures to recoup its massive expenditures on the refugees.

Within two months of the start of the refugee surge, India had built hundreds of camps that sheltered nearly ten million refugees. To be sure, the camps were squalid, but they nonetheless met the basic subsistence needs of the refugees, and mass vaccinations were handled effectively. (Indeed, India prevented any major outbreaks of disease among the migrants.) Given that the same could not be said of much of the rest of India’s own population, the protection India provided the refugees was all the more remarkable.

Refugee woman.
Refugee woman.
Raghu Rai / India Quarterly
The country did have its fair share of discontents, who urged New Delhi to force the refugees back across the border; these people were fearful of the consequences of yet another partition in the subcontinent. They also worried that few, if any, of the refugees would be repatriated. In the end, though, these voices did not dictate government policy. The government ignored these sentiments for two compelling and intertwined reasons. At one level, a significant number of the members of India’s attentive public argued that the situation in East Pakistan presented a clear-cut case for humanitarian intervention. At another, more pragmatic members of the government also saw military intervention in East Pakistan as a prime opportunity to break Pakistan apart.

After the war ended, India repatriated nearly all of the migrants back to the newly independent Bangladesh. A few, seeing better economic prospects in India, stayed on, but the vast majority were happy to return home, swept up in a nationalist euphoria about the creation of a new homeland state for the Bengali population of the erstwhile East Pakistan.

HELPLESS

Today, most European countries have abjectly failed those fleeing violence in Syria. The one exception might be Germany, which has announced that it will allow asylum seekers to apply directly in Germany and that it can support up to 500,000 refugees for the next several years. The record of other major European states is far from exemplary. Only under significant international pressure did British Prime Minister David Cameron declare that Great Britain would accept 20,000 refugees over the next five years. Meanwhile, France recently created an emergency fund and an aid program for refugee camps in the Middle East, and announced that it would be willing to accept up to 24,000 refugees.

Meanwhile, European right-wing politicians have vehemently opposed refugees entering Europe. Hungary has been heavily criticized for its handling of the situation; it has provided the thousands of migrants waiting to enter processing centers with few amenities and it has constructed fences to stop additional refugees from entering. Apparently, Hungarian leader Viktor Orban is suffering from a bit of historical amnesia: he seems to have no memory of the plight of his countrymen who received sanctuary across Western Europe when they fled in the wake of the ruthless Soviet suppression of the Hungarian uprising of 1956.

There are certainly differences between the East Pakistan crisis and the situation in Europe today. The porous border between India and East Pakistan meant that there was little chance of stopping the millions of asylum seekers from getting to India, and, of course, East Pakistan had been part of the British Indian Empire until 1947 when the subcontinent had been partitioned.
Despite some progress, Europe’s reaction to Syrian asylum seekers has been woefully inadequate. Added up, Western Europe’s commitments simply do not accommodate the more than one million migrants who are expected to arrive there. Why not, especially when India was able to handle a similar situation in 1971?

There are certainly differences between the East Pakistan crisis and the situation in Europe today. The porous border between India and East Pakistan meant that there was little chance of stopping the millions of asylum seekers from getting to India, and, of course, East Pakistan had been part of the British Indian Empire until 1947 when the subcontinent had been partitioned. More to the point, the Bengali-speaking population of East Pakistan had far more in common with its counterparts in the Indian state of West Bengal. In this regard, India’s situation was more akin to the one that Jordan and Lebanon now find themselves in following the civil war in Syria. Europe simply does not have similar ties to the Syrian refugees.

The international dynamics at play were also considerably different. The Nixon administration, dependent on Pakistan for the opening to the People’s Republic of China, turned a blind eye to the plight in East Pakistan. Furthermore, in the wake of the Balkan and Rwandan tragedies in the 1990s, global norms about humanitarian intervention and refugees have evolved. Even though the United States and its allies in Europe have failed to forge a common strategy to deal with the crisis in Syria, high-level policy discussions are under way, including with Russia, to find a way out of the present imbroglio.

Bangladesh army soldiers participate in a ceremonial parade in Dhaka as the country celebrates "Victory Day" on, December 16, 1971.
Bangladesh army soldiers participate in a ceremonial parade in Dhaka as the country celebrates "Victory Day" on, December 16, 1971.
Reuters
Still, both cases involved the same basic principle of the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. Both involved civil wars in which an oppressive regime was willing to kill huge numbers of civilians to stay in power. In both, millions of people fled their homes to the relative safety across the border. The real difference is in the reception the refugees got once they arrived at their destinations.

What can be gleaned from the Indian response to the civil war in East Pakistan and the sheltering of millions of refugees? First, at the time many Indians shared the concerns now animating much of Europe’s citizenry. They feared that the country would be forced to absorb a substantial Muslim population into parts of the country that already had a history of religious tensions. Also, quite like their European counterparts, they had misgivings about the likely economic burden of indefinitely sheltering the refugees. The repugnant existence of anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe is sadly all too real, so it is not unreasonable for European policymakers to think seriously about maintaining political order and social cohesion in the face of a substantial and abrupt influx of people from another faith. However, if Europe is to uphold the rule of law and live up to its own postwar traditions of cultural and religious pluralism, it cannot allow those concerns to prevent them from doing anything. Furthermore, despite persistent economic woes in some European states, they are surely in a far better position today to absorb a portion of the total refugee influx than India was in 1971.

Second, to stop the flow of refugees, it is important to resolve the underlying violence. For several months, India sought a diplomatic solution to the crisis in East Pakistan, despite the unremitting hostility of the United States and China and the indifference of much of the Western world. Even as it pursued a diplomatic resolution to the crisis, it demonstrated some military mettle. It trained, armed, and provided sanctuaries to the indigenous Bengali rebels to enable them to harry the Pakistani armed forces. And, when all diplomatic options reached an impasse, it resorted to war. The war put an end to the mass killing that had characterized the civil war and also ended the refugee exodus.

Today, the West likewise has to stem the slaughter. At the very least, NATO should mount an effective “no-fly zone” against the Syrian Air Force to end the barrel bombing of a defenseless population. Further, if they can’t topple the Assad regime, Western officials can at least isolate it through a raft of embargoes, sanctions, and threats to prosecute key regime members should they travel abroad.

India’s bold choices during the East Pakistan crisis stand as a stark reminder that action is possible. Like India, the West can provide safe haven for those fleeing violence and, like India, it can help address the root causes of that violence. 

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • SUMIT GANGULY is Professor of Political Science and holds the Rabindranath Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington. BRANDON MILIATE is a graduate student in the Department of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. 
  • More By Sumit Ganguly
  • More By Brandon Miliate