The civil war in East Pakistan in 1971 – which saw a massive influx of refugees into India – and which led to the break-up of Pakistan and the birth of Bangladesh, is best known in India for its impact on the geopolitical landscape of subcontinent. The consequences of the presence of these refugees on our domestic political order do not receive much attention.
The standard story is that most of the refugees returned home soon after the liberation of Bangladesh. This is partly responsible for the unfounded myth that India’s internal political order has been isolated from the influx of refugees. This is of course not how the influx of refugees into Assam and other northeastern states is remembered.
There are good reasons to doubt the account of an almost complete repatriation. Indeed, the Indian government itself has expressed serious doubts about this story on several occasions. The fact that the political effects of the influx of refugees were most pronounced in a region long relegated to the periphery of Indian politics is surely another reason why this myth persisted.
The fact that the Assam Movement (1979-1985) broke out in the same decade as the Bangladesh Liberation War is no accident. These six years of political turmoil have seen the collapse of four elected ministries, the outbreak of an armed insurgency and three periods of presidential rule. The violent elections of 1983, including the horrific massacre of Nellie, are also part of this story. The unrest that began with the influx of refugees eventually led to the advent of the hard state in Assam in 1990, when all of Assam was declared a “disturbed area” under the law on special powers of the armed forces (AFSPA).
The AFSPA regime has remained in place in Assam in part because the legacy of the Assam movement remains alive, unresolved issues in state policy. If these are factored into the effects of the Bangladesh Liberation War, the geopolitical advantages enjoyed by India must be weighed against these significant national political costs, even though they are concentrated in a single region. peripheral ”.
There would have been no Assam movement if there had not been the Bangladesh Liberation War. The sheer size of the refugee population has revived old fears that migrants from East Bengal would turn the khilonjia or indigenous peoples of Assam into minorities on their own lands. It is not just the presence of refugees or their numbers that has produced this anxiety. The phenomenon that sociologist Kamal Sadiq calls “suffraged non-citizens” has given political force to these fears. Since the exercise of the right to vote in India relies on rudimentary documents which can be easily obtained through informal means, the distinction between citizens and non-citizens is blurred. The perception that the number of voters had increased abnormally as a result of the influx of refugees became the trigger for the Assam movement.
If all the refugees had returned home, the issue of foreign nationals would not have irritated Assam and the country for all these years. Indeed, it has been conventional wisdom in Assam that the Assam Movement has failed in its primary objective. This made the Assam Accord, which ended the Assam movement, a sacred document in the state’s political discourse. When the BJP began to move forward on the Citizenship Amendment Bill, resistance to it in Assam has focused entirely on its gross violation of the Assam Accord.
A barely hidden secret about the influx of refugees was that the majority of those who fled East Pakistan to India were Hindus. This was to be expected since Yahya Khan’s regime viewed the liberation movement as an Indian conspiracy and its repressive reaction struck most of the Hindu homes in the region. Of the estimated 9.7 million refugees who immigrated to India in 1971, 70 percent were Hindus. Western Pakistani generals had calculated that by forcing millions of Pakistani Hindus to flee to India, they would weaken Bengali nationalism as a political force. Their objective, as the late sociologist Partha Nath Mukherji observed at the time, was “to uproot Hindus, not to eliminate them, and in this they seem to have succeeded admirably.”
Ironically, while Indian officials liked to describe the Pakistani military’s slaughter of East Pakistanis as genocide, “the best argument for qualifying these atrocities as genocide,” as Gary Bass of Princeton University puts it, “Was the one that India did not dare to do”. They feared that “the publicity for the anti-Hindu genocide may have divided Indians on communal lines. . . maybe start riots ”. The architects of the Assam movement, of course, saw the influx for what it was: that there were both Hindus and Muslims among the refugees, but a clear majority were Hindus.
Yahya Khan’s regime of population engineering has found its equal with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. She was determined to return the refugees. Indeed, stopping the influx of refugees and ensuring the safe return of millions of people already in India were the key objectives of the Indian military intervention.
Whatever the official justification for the Citizenship (Amendment) Act of 2019, it marks a decisive break with India’s policy of refusing to give in to the population engineering strategy of the West Pakistani generals who waged the war in East Pakistan. The CAA does take in the Hindu refugees of 1971, i.e. the majority of refugees (and also people of other minority faiths, which has been added for euphemistic reasons). But that excludes Muslim refugees. Remarkably enough, top BJP leaders continue to assert that they are working to implement the Assam Accord. But of course, they can only do so by focusing their attention on the secondary clauses of the agreement which are not linked to the issue of foreign nationals.
The CAA is built on a fundamentally different set of assumptions about the idea of India than the one that informed Indian policy in 1971. With its passage, you could say that the civil war that divided Pakistan ended up have a decisive impact on the ideological battle over India’s national identity, even if half a century later.
This column first appeared in the paper edition on December 15, 2021 under the title “The Refugees of 1971”. Baruah is professor of political studies at Bard College, New York.