On midnight of March 25, 1971, the Pakistani Army began 'Operation Searchlight' to suppress the independence movement of Bangalis. On that fateful night, the Pakistan Army unleashed a brutal wave of monstrosities against mostly innocent and unarmed civilians of Bangladesh.
Following the Pakistan military's heinous barbarity - murder, rape, torture, arson - a spate of people made a journey to the neighbouring nation of India. An estimated nearly 10 million Bangladeshis left their motherland in an attempt to find a safe haven in India.
They mainly took refuge in the bordering states: West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura. The exodus of millions quickly became a massive burden (and/or responsibility) for India, both in terms of economic and societal impacts.
The Indira Gandhi-led government of India, however, did welcome the refugees. The general public also did not stop short of receiving them with open arms.
While only a small number of escapees took shelter with friends and families, most of them swarmed in makeshift camps. Some international organisations ramped up actions to placate the misery of the people who sought refuge in India.
The magnitude of the influx of people – the biggest refugee crisis in the latter half of the past century – was staggering enough. Managing them, from giving shelter to feeding to clothing, was a daunting task.
India is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol and does not have a national refugee protection framework. While the Government of India deals differently with various refugee groups, in general it respects the principle of United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) documentation.
Though India was not obliged to in 1971, however in practice, it respected the rights of the refugees.
In the 1950s UNHCR's preoccupation was with the events in Europe and in the 1960s with events in Africa. But what further increased UNHCR's operation and activities was the 1971 refugee crisis.
It was not until this problem that UNHCR engaged in large-scale relief operations.
On 29 March 1971, India's UNHCR representative notified the Office of High Commissioner of people crossing the border. However, the scale of the influx was underestimated as refugees only in thousands were fleeing.
But within a month, nearly one million refugees took shelter in India. At the end of May, the scale reached new heights with 100,000 refugees entering on a daily basis.
The Indian government quickly acknowledged that international assistance was needed to manage. There was also urgency from the international community to coming forward to assist the refugees.
In a discussion, High Commissioner Sadruddin Aga Khan and UN Secretary-General decided that UNHCR would be coordinating all UN assistance. With this role, UNHCR was delegated as general coordinator for the first time in a humanitarian crisis.
The responsibility of being 'Focal Point' was distinct from its earlier responsibilities. It included mobilisation of international aid, procurement of funds, delivery of relief materials and coordination with the Indian authority.
Despite India's moderate food reserves, the nation faced a serious economic burden. New Delhi wanted the international agencies to bear the big share of the expenses.
In May, an UNHCR mission stressed that it was unrealistic for the UN to bear full financial burden. Nonetheless, UN Secretary-General U Thant initiated an appeal to the global community to come forward for emergency aid. Initially, some $17 million was pledged and by June the amount of donation reached $70 million.
The complexities such a huge influx posed required substantial coordination among UNHCR and branches of Indian government. To facilitate the process, the 'Central Coordinating Committee' was established. It was supervised by the Indian Ministry of Labour and Rehabilitation.
The UNHCR, which just established an office in India, played a vital role in fundraising and coordination with governments, NGOs and international agencies.
However, the perspective of the individual refugees is not a popular one, partly because of our gratitude to the Indian support. But the condition in the camps was no less than 'dire'.
Camps were swarmed with people. There were in total 825 camps where about 6.8 million were settled. Each of these impoverished camps, there were about 8,000 refugees. Moreover, nearly 3 million of them stayed with host families. West Bengal alone housed 492 camps, a desired choice because of similarity in language and ethnicity and also because of better access to roads.
The crisis of such magnitude of influx of refugees was intensified by severe health problems in the camps. An UNICEF report showed that the children in particular had to suffer harshly. Many of them were critically mal-nourished.
Moreover, sanitation facilities were of extremely rudimentary level. Soon dysentery became a big problem, especially for children. In May, a Cholera outbreak began. By September the disease spread and the cholera cases jumped to over 50,000.
A July 23 press report, quoted by the Director of West Bengal Health Services, alerted that 300,000 refugee children could be on the verge of death from starvation and diseases. Again in Eastern part of Tripura, at a certain time the number of refugees even outnumbered the local population. Some refugees even took shelter in Calcutta's dilapidated drainage pipes.
The welcoming reception for the refugees was not, of course, unrestrained. As Partha N Mukherji noted in his book 'The Great Migration of 1971' that they were accorded with warmth "only until such time as they were able to go back to their country of permanent residence with dignity".
It was also demonstrated by the Indian government's policy related to refugees. The policy statements excluded any mention of rehabilitation, integration and/or absorption.
Repatriation, resettlement and integration are the 'three durable solutions to any refugee problem recognised by the Office of the UNHCR.
Their shelter was not to be long-lasting. And indeed, it was not. The Pakistan Army surrendered on December 16, 1971. With the birth of a new nation, the refugees set to departure before long.
Millions of refugees' 'return exodus' for their liberated homeland marked the largest instance of repatriation in the post-WWII period.
Within two months of victory, over half of the total refugees returned home. An Indian government's estimate in March said that only 60,000 refugees remained.
Kasturi Rangan wrote in the NYT on 8 January 1972, every returnee family got relief worth sustaining for two weeks, including rice and a small amount of cash.
The thirst for going back to the homeland clearly eclipsed the practical problems such as they had no immediate means of supporting themselves once they were in Bangladesh.
By May 1972, UNHCR received $14 million for the repatriation operation and of which $6.3 million was given to the Bangladesh government to provide relief and rehabilitate the returnees.
The experience of handling the refugees came in handy for the UNHCR as the organisation continued to engage in other refugee crises. These included the management of sudden mass refugee influxes involving millions of refugees, the use of large and hastily constructed refugee camps, and the difficulties of procuring and distributing food and other basic relief supplies.