Amid today’s mass migration from some of the world’s most troubled regions, Imran Chowdhury recalls his own experiences as a refugee who fled the 1971 war to free Bangladesh from East Pakistan.
Once a refugee, always a refugee. You could probably call me that, because on the fateful day of April 11, 1971, my family and I lost everything and became exiles.
My story cannot be painted in the few words of a magazine article; it needs a very wide canvas. But I shall try to give a glimpse into my life in 1971 and show how, through this prism, I view today’s refugee crisis that is gripping the heartland of Europe.
Some readers may, for their own personal or political reasons, loathe the country that I, as a refugee, came to love: India. But it is always prudent to read all sides of a story.
The exodus of humanity pouring into Europe over recent months is astonishing. I know only too well the plight of these people, the culture shock they feel at leaving their homelands, their uncertainty and fear.
Today’s situation in the Middle East must be addressed frankly and impartially. The violence affecting this region is a war of Islam. Yet as inhumane, medieval atrocities continue, no one seems to have any interest in negotiating a long-term peace.
I have first-hand experience of this type of inhumanity in the name of religion. When I was a boy of 11, the war of liberation in my country—previously East Pakistan and now known as Bangladesh—reached its climax with the annihilation of my Bengali race by the Pakistan army and government, along with their collaborators. The barbaric Pakistan army cracked down on the nation of Bengal under cover of darkness on March 24/25, 1971, indiscriminately killing people until the day they were made to surrender, December 16, 1971.
We used to live in a town called Brahmin Baria (a place chosen for Bengali Brahmins to live), some 90 kilometres from the capital city of Dhaka. The Pakistani air force had been bombarding the town in order to root out freedom fighters, and on April 11, a squadron of F86 Sabre jets laid waste to the whole place—something the peace-loving Bengalis of this sleepy suburban township had never before experienced.
When the drone of the planes stopped, everyone began to panic as they were sure Pakistani land forces would be marching towards the town from two different directions, intent on flushing out the rebels. But in our eyes, those ‘rebels’ were saviours, the best sons of our motherland.
A mass exodus began as people started to evacuate the town, heading chaotically in all directions, except the suspected route of the Pakistani army. Never could we have known that simply asking for independent nationhood would so endanger our lives, and never did we think that our own country’s air force would bombard and kill its own citizens.
Suddenly one of our brothers came running and shouted that we had to leave. We all panicked. My younger brothers were crying out of fear as we fled our clean, safe home with all its comforts and memories: bookshelves full of books collected by our parents over the years, pictures hanging on the walls. We took very little luggage, leaving behind most things of value. In the midst of the panic, my mother forgot to take any money.
We had no prearranged destination. We just wanted to escape from the town before the army arrived. From 5.30pm till midnight, we walked and walked through the pitch black night. Heaven alone knows how many miles that long walk was. We could hear artillery shells pounding as, behind us, Brahmin Baria burned. The flames could be seen for miles.
Finally, we took shelter and slept in the house of generous strangers. Those last hours had made us destitute, and we were to suffer terrible privations for the next nine months.
Over the next week, the Pakistan army joined hands with collaborators, who acted as their eyes and ears. They discovered our father has revolted in the Sylhet area and was now in India, and that my brother had joined the fight for freedom. On a few occasions, the Pakistan army marched near the village we were staying in and we all had to go and hide in the jute fields and bushes.
Two of my younger brothers were weak from hunger and dehydration, and our mother had sunk into a deep depression. By now even many of our relatives were too afraid to shelter us and we decided that staying in East Pakistan was too dangerous.
In the last week of April 1971, we set off on our hazardous journey to India. The nearest Indian border was about 20 miles away but there were two major obstacles to cross: the B. Baria to Comilla C&B road, and the Kasba to Akhura railway line, both of which were heavily and constantly patrolled by the Pakistan army.
So our journey began. Our mother urged us to recite verses from the Quran, but I wondered why—after all, our enemies were also constantly reciting the Quran. If we were all believers in the same holy book, why did they want to kill us? To this day, I have no answer to that.
It was the most exhausting and fearful of journey of our lives. Finally, the C&B road appeared. It looked like a ghost’s paradise. Taking cover in a nearby field, we inched nearer to it. At last we managed to cross the road and headed east towards the railway line.
We came upon an abandoned Hindu dwelling area, burned to ashes. Still we travelled on to the unknown amid silence and solitude, through what we later learned was one of the major battlegrounds in our great liberation war, stretching from the Salda Nodi-Kasba-Akhaura axis. No wonder the villages were all deserted.
Eventually, exhausted and hungry, we reached the Pakistan-India international boundary. A moazzin gave the call to prayer. We were standing in peace.
We were in India.
There were no border checks, no heavy-handed policing. But the next question was: where would we stay? The border was far from the nearest habitation and we had no strength left to walk.
Yet we had to carry on. Eventually we came to a village and saw an outpost with a Border Security Force. My mother approached the guards and, to our amazement, spoke to them fluently in Hindi. (She was born in Calcutta and had her early schooling in India before she moved to East Pakistan.) She told them our story and they immediately bid us to sit down and rest. Then a Sikh BSF soldier was sent off; soon he returned with news that a room had been arranged for us in a nearby house. They gave us some food and then took us to the home of DAS Babu, an affluent landowner, who let us stay in his outhouse, despite our lack of money or worldly goods.
This was generosity at its best. The BSF soldier and others brought us blankets, pillows, etc, while DAS Babu’s family and neighbours brought us many other things and made us feel at home.
India was a safe haven for us all. The barbaric Pakistan army and its collaborators could not touch us now. We felt enormous, indescribable relief, and a huge sense of gratitude towards these people who embraced us with open arms and made us feel so welcome with their compassion and humanity. Even after 44 years, all the fear, followed by our relief and gratitude, remains vivid.
Our initial trepidation at crossing into India was unfounded. To us, Bengali refugees, India and her people offered the warmest welcome during our subsequent stay in Suryamaninagar special camp near Agartala, until the day we were liberated.
India was not the richest country in those days, its infrastructures were not the finest, yet it gave us so much help. I am eternally grateful to the Indian Government, The Tripura people, the BSF and the Indian army. They helped us when our fellow Muslims in Pakistan were killing us indiscriminately, raping our sisters and mothers, burning our homes, carrying out mass ethnic cleansing.
The crisis in East Pakistan in 1971 was one of the worst cases of sectarian cleansing inflicted by one group of Muslims on another. The Pakistan army recruited in Pakistan for jihad in East Pakistan-jihad against fellow (Bengali) Muslims. Ironically, the so-called Muslim Ummah turned a blind eye and they all sided with Pakistan. Maybe to them, we Bengali Muslims were less Muslim than Pakistani Muslims. The epitome of the Muslim Ummah, Saudi Arabia, did not even recognise Bangladesh till years after its independence.
Today, so many Middle Eastern and North African refugees are failing to find sanctuary in other Muslim countries, which have space, wealth and low populations. To save their lives, they have no choice but to make treacherous sea crossings to reach the shores of a Europe that is also proving less than welcoming. Twenty-seven European countries are reluctant to shelter fewer than 1 million of these refugees who are fleeing extreme danger.
Imagine if the same fate had awaited us in 1971. I would probably not be alive to tell you my story. More than 1 million Bengalis, around 80 per cent of whom were Muslims, poured into India’s poorest three states—West Bengal, Assam and Tripura—and the Indian public and politicians did not complain, despite the country’s own dire economic state. They fed, sheltered and clothed us, gave us medicine and trained our freedom fighters, and ultimately joined our war. They helped us liberate our country from the brutal Pakistan army. No question was ever asked about our religion. We were simply people, like them.
No wonder I am so indebted to India.