When Refugees Were Welcome

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.

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