March 1971. Pakistani army launches “Operation Searchlight” to carry out a genocide of Bengalis from the erstwhile East Pakistan (present Bangladesh), resulting in a liberation war and a mammoth refugee crisis. An estimated 10 million people from East Pakistan seek refuge in India.
Julian Francis, a 26 year-old employee of Oxfam, UK, was working on a Gandhian village development project in Bihar when the refugee influx started. The news of the grim condition of refugees reached his team in Bihar. Soon the then Oxfam’s Field Director for Eastern India and East Pakistan, Raymond Cournoyer, contacted his team and requested their assistance in Kolkata. Francis was given the charge of coordinating relief for refugees. He used to organize and handle the supplies of material. Oxfam worked with 600,000 East Bengali refugees according to his estimates. In an interview with Utsa Sarmin, Francis recalls the refugee crisis of 1971 and Oxfam’s role.
How would you describe the situation of refugees in 1971?
Extremely morbid. We were first intimated about the crisis by the Oxfam team working in East Pakistan. They told us the way people were leaving or trying to leave for India. They also informed the Oxfam headquarters as soon as the influx started. But no one believed that the situation was so dire. You had to see it to believe it. Initially, the enormity of the crisis wasn’t reported properly. But Brother Raymond Cournoyer (the then Field Director for Eastern India and East Pakistan) assembled a team. He called us from Bihar. Soon Oxfam became one of the main organizations working with the refugees. Not only in Kolkata, but we also worked in the camps of Tripura, Meghalaya, Assam, Balurghat, Bongaon, and West Dinajpur.
What was Oxfam’s role in the refugee camps?
Oxfam was responsible for 11,000 refugee camps of various sizes. It used to provide medication, food, clothing, blankets etc. to the refugees. The camps were extremely unsanitary and the refugees suffered from various health-related issues. We hear more about the cholera epidemic of 1971. It was a big threat but cholera did not kill as many people as expected. Oral rehydration therapy (ORT) successfully managed the epidemic. The first success of ORT was witnessed in the Cholera Research Lab, which is now known as International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh (ICDDRB), in East Pakistan but wasn’t mass produced. American doctors, who at that time, were working with the research lab, were evacuated in April 1971. Some of them came and trained the paramedics working in refugee camps in West Bengal. They were taught how to make saline. In the camps, where cholera took hold, 30 per cent of the infected people died. However, after the use of ORT, the deaths came down to 3 per cent. But we need to remember the other diseases also. Monsoon was extremely heavy that year. Refugee camps were flooded. It was a breeding ground of typhoid and different gastrointestinal diseases. The sanitation systems were problematic. In some of the camps, social workers from different relief organizations had managed the latrine situations as well as they could. But it was difficult. Finally, Oxfam came up with the idea of a “Super Latrine”. Oxfam is currently more famous as a water and sanitation organization in the times of disasters, providing safe drinking water in emergency situation. But in 1971, we were experimenting to provide proper sanitation to refugees. Our team tried out this super latrine or what we used to call it, the “super loo”. It had a system where a butyl rubber septic tank was linked to line of 10 latrines. I do not have the technical data of how the system worked but it was such a success that a number of units were brought to Bangladesh and used in Bihari refugee camps later.
The cholera epidemic and other needs were not only exclusive to the refugees during 1971. Did the host population show signs of discontent? Did they demand help from Oxfam?
The local population were very generous the first few months. We received genuine help from them. Gradually, however, they stopped being so welcoming. We did not refuse medical aid or any kind of help to the host population even though the refugees were more vulnerable. For example, refugees could not get any medical help from the government hospitals or dispensaries. They were told to get it from the camps. So the camps and relief agencies were their only hope. But if the local population came to us for help, we provided them, especially the lower-class non-refugees. We used to provide food, clothing, and blankets along with medical help. We were very scared when winter was approaching. There was not adequate supply of material to support so many refugees during winter. But, Bangladesh was liberated in December. So we did not have to think about the camps and focused on repatriation.
Did Oxfam address issues specific to women refugees?
Oxfam did consider the situation of women refugees but we were not very good at handling the issues specific to the women, like supplying sanitary napkins etc. It was the final year women students of Nil Ratan Sircar (NRS) medical college and hospital who pioneered the work with women refugees. They worked on a rotational basis in different camps with us and took care of their sanitary and health needs. There were a surprisingly high number of women medical students in Kolkata. As the news about refugees spread across the country, many medical students started coming from different parts of India, like Cuttack, Bombay etc. But they did not have as many women students as the Kolkata group did. This is of course, due to the fact that these teams were travelling far and many women students’ families did not allow them to travel. Sanghamaitra Desai, now Dr. Sanghamitra Desai Gadekar, the daughter of the Gandhian leader Narayan Desai, was one of the students of NRS. She mobilized the medical students and arranged for them to work with the mobile teams of Oxfam on a rotational basis.
How did the Indian government or the West Bengal government react to the relief work?
We rarely faced any objection from the government. In fact, when we were facing obstruction while trying to bring our supplies duty free through the Kolkata airport, the government of India created a special office of the ministry of rehabilitation. They instructed Oxfam to send their supplies addressed to “Government of India, Ministry of Rehabilitation for Oxfam”. This way they circumvented the taxes on the relief packages. We always worked with the local community and took permission from the government anywhere we wanted to go.
There were many relief organizations working in 1971. How did Oxfam differ from them?
Oxfam was instrumental in bringing international attention to the refugee crisis. In October 1971, it published the “The Testimony of Sixty on the Crisis in Bengal”, a collection of eye-witness accounts of the crisis. Mother Teresa, the then US Senator Edward Kennedy, journalists such as Anthony Mascarenhas, John Pilger, Nicolas Tomalin, Clare Hollingworth and Martin Woollacott– all provided their statements and accounts for the testimony. The testimony was distributed to foreign government heads, to the UN. Edward Kennedy also introduced it to the US Senate-which was supporting Pakistan- after it was published.
Secondly, majority of the organization were focusing only on Salt Lake area where around 250,000 refugees took shelter. Oxfam differed there. We covered border areas extensively and other states. Oxfam did not want too many foreigners in the relief team. The field team did not want white faces to fly in and save the refugees. We always wanted to find local people or people from refugee camps to work with us. Oxfam was close with many Gandhian organizations like the Sarva Seva Sangh and the Gandhi Peace Foundation. They helped us with our work. In fact, most of our team members were refugees themselves. Uday Shankar Das came from Chattogram or Chittagong as a refugee with his family. One day he came across the former principal of his alma mater, St. Placid’s School, Chattogram, Brother Raymond Cournoyer in a refugee camp in Kolkata. Raymond introduced Uday to Oxfam. Soon Uday started working with us. He later became a journalist and worked with BBC Bangla. Many young refugees like him were working with us. That was a big achievement of Oxfam. Our head office argued against that because other relief organizations were getting all the attention from press. In those days, there were staircases to board or de-board the flights. People coming from UK for relief work used to get photographed on those staircases by London Times, The Guardian, or Telegraph. Oxfam was losing that publicity because we were strict about not wanting many foreigners here. But this policy actually proved to be beneficial for us. Foreigners were initially allowed to visit the campsites near border but by the end of June 1971, the government of India banned the movement of foreigners near border due to security reasons. There were occasional shelling and cross-border firing from Pakistani army and to protect the foreign aid workers and journalists, the government banned us from going there. This did not hamper Oxfam’s work. Other organizations could not work in those camps and only stuck to Salt Lake, whereas, Oxfam monitored the border areas with the help of their local staff. The language was also a big barrier which we could break by employing local population and taking help from local organizations.
In fact, the Rohingya refugee relief program in Bangladesh suffers from the same issue-having too many foreigners. There are a ridiculous number of foreigners in Cox’s Bazaar. Even Oxfam had around 50 foreigners there. After the COVID 19 pandemic started, many left but still 20 are still there. That is a complete waste of money. Bangladesh is very experienced in relief work. They have first-class relief organizations which worked for food drives or after cyclones. Some are working with smaller number of Rohingya refugees. But maximum camps are controlled by foreigners. I am actually very proud that I was a part of a team of people who were clear on the fact that they did not want lots and lots of white faces.
Context: The Bangladesh liberation war of 1971 witnessed 10 million people from the erstwhile East Pakistan (present Bangladesh), fleeing the persecution by Pakistani soldiers and coming to India seeking refuge. The refugee influx was a direct result of “Operation Searchlight” by the Pakistani army. The operation was initiated in March 1971 to carry out a genocide of Bengalis from the then East Pakistan which was administered by West Pakistan in the aftermath of the partition of India in 1947. The 1947 partition of India resulted in the formation of India and Pakistan, the latter of which was further divided between East and West Pakistan. Ill-treatment, constant economic exploitation, and imposition of Urdu as official language in a Bengali speaking region of East Pakistan, led to their struggle for independence since the 1950s. The struggle reached its climax in 1970 when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League won a landslide victory in national elections which gave him a right to form a government. However, the then President General of Pakistan Yahya Khan refused to accept Mujibur as the Prime Minister of Pakistan. On March 25, 1971, Mujibur declared Bangladesh as an independent country and the same day Pakistani army launched “Operation Searchlight” with an aim to exterminate the Bengali population leading to the Bangladeshi Liberation war which continued for nine months i.e. till December 1971 until the Pakistani army surrendered.
Utsa Sarmin is a research fellow at Calcutta research Group. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org