On 7 December, 1970, the first general election of Pakistan at the federal level was held. The Awami League bagged 167 out of 169 seats allotted to East Pakistan in the National Assembly, the strength of which was 313. Even after securing absolute majority, the Awami League was not allowed to form a government. Further talks took place at the highest level to bring about a solution to the apparent stalemate, but on 25 March, 1971, the West Pakistan army engaged in a brutal onslaught on Bengali civilians and military/paramilitary forces of the erstwhile East Pakistan.
Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was arrested; a section of the prominent Awami League leaders escaped capture, crossed the border, and eventually formed the Mujibnagar government in exile.
Inside East Pakistan, a section of the population rebelled, and as soon as the declaration of independence was made, Bengalis were at war!
Within a few days of the onslaught, cross border movement by refugees was noted at the highest level. On 29 March, 1971, in a correspondence to Sadruddin Aga Khan, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), FL Pijnacker Hordijk, the representative in India, warned of an imminent global refugee crisis.
Even such early cautionary responses failed to predict the scale of the mass exodus. The people and the government of India had, from the early days of the conflict, empathised with sufferings of the population of East Pakistan.
Since the start of the conflict, the diplomatic position of India to the exodus was clear; although borders remained open on humanitarian grounds, they would, under no circumstances, allow the refugees to settle in the country.
Samer Sen, Permanent Representative of India at the United Nations, met Secretary General U Thant on 23 April, 1971, and requested international aid. Subsequently, between 26-27 April, Sadruddin Aga Khan of the UNHCR met with Secretary General U Thant at Berne, Switzerland, to discuss the situation.
In order to seek a peaceful, humanitarian solution to the problem, the UNHCR was entrusted with the role of general coordinator.
In May 1971, a team visited several camps located in the Indian states of West Bengal, Tripura, and Assam — the regions that had experienced the highest insurgence of refugees. It held talks with authorities, other United Nations agencies and non-government organisations in order to prepare a working plan, ensuring that the different agencies provide a coordinated effort towards a common goal.
The end result, however, failed to yield any significant result.
On 28 October, 1971, Oxfam UK, the renowned humanitarian organisation published the now famous, ‘the Testimony of Sixty,’ eye-witness accounts of the tragic situation in Bengal (East and West) at that time.
It featured testimonies of world leaders, humanitarians working on the field, and journalists covering events unfolding in the Indian subcontinent.
Gerald Scarfe was a little-known illustrator working in India for the Sunday Times. He was asked to send his testimony for the Oxfam publication, and his reply was, “I am not a man of words” and sent two of his sketches.
The refugee crisis of 1971 was one of the largest humanitarian crises the world had ever seen. As days are passing by, we are seeing more and more information coming to light on that aspect of our struggle for liberation. Yet, in the near 50 years that has passed, what remains most overwhelming are the shocking images of death, and human plight that we see, and the eyewitness accounts we read today.
All souls with a conscience were shaken by the events that began on the fateful night of 25 March, and ended almost a year after victory was finally achieved.
Dignitaries visiting the refugee camps in India sent cables back to their base offices stating, “[they are] depressed by situation and reign of terror which is obvious in faces of people which are stunned and, in some cases, almost expressionless...”
Some wrote — Many of the refugees are suffering from infectious diseases. Some 626 doctors and 60 refugee doctors are trying to cope with this overwhelming situation, aided by some 800 paramedical personnel. Over 2700 beds have been added to the existing 42 hospitals, but what will the situation be tomorrow? On this day, a further 100,000 refugees have arrived in the Nadia district alone.
Death and disease were the words in every mouth, in every words writers penned.
“Cholera is a horrible and humiliating way to die” one wrote. And continued, “The only mercy is that it is comparatively quick. The cholera wards are two buildings behind the main hospital block. There are no beds. The patients lie on metal sheets covering a concrete floor. The disease produces uncontrollable diarrhoea and vomiting, the result of which are everywhere. Those who still can fan themselves quickly; those who are too far gone to do so are black with flies. There are men and women of all ages.”
And amidst all this, Scarfe’s sketches perhaps narrate a very different version of the plight. They focus on the desensitised look of the refugees. How their suffering can be read from their eyes, more so than through their vocal narratives.
His sketch of patients lying flat on metal beds on concrete floors do not speak of disease, but the lack of hope that victims felt in their last hours, finals minutes, and the passing seconds.
Gerald Scarfe is known as a caricaturist. A pop icon known for his illustrations that accompanied Pink Floyd’s iconic The Wall tour, or the animation featured in the film that followed the release of the same album. But his illustrations done in 1971 tell a different story, albeit in his chosen medium. Scarfe is a glaring example who has shown that it is not always necessary to be a man of words, and at times, silence speaks more than any uttered speech. Only thing that matters is that our conscience remains the driving force in the language that we have chosen to speak with — in his case, his drawing pen and the paper.
By Mannan Mashhur Zarif
Parts of this article has appeared earlier in The Daily Star. The writer wishes to thank Gerald Scarfe for allowing to publish some of his sketches for this article.