1971 population movements and rise of the new state

Afsan Chowdhury
Thursday, December 14th, 2017


1971 history related studies are mostly engrossed with patriotism rather than socio-political analysis. As a result, the narrative is largely about the suffering of the people as victims – cause- and the valorous acts – effects- of the freedom fighters as liberators.  Attempts to identify the various elements which actually determined the nature and formation of the state are less.


One area that could be seen in some detail is the expansion/extension of the geographical frontiers or migrations and the consequent state. People moved from one place to another to survive or fight back. This included going beyond the borders to India.  Interestingly, although the fight by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman against Pakistan was essentially a challenge by the Margin against the Centre, and the margin didn’t triumph. As a result, the history of the margins has been largely ignored by historians seeking the Centrist space.


Population movements and social identity


Several population movements are noted in 1971. The largest movement was by people of a socio-religious identity, the Hindus. This most persecuted people of 1971 moved out of Bangladesh to India in search of sanctuary in large numbers once the Pakistan army had begun to take control by April. This was a very large migration to India which had security, diplomatic and political connotations. The refugees were victims of a social identity which became murderously political in Pakistani eyes. It was imposed upon them by the Pakistanis, who saw them as ‘enemies of Pakistan’ because India was imagined as a Hindu state and as Hindus, they had become proxy Indians.  Hence the religious identity had become a political one and ultimately a national threat which Pakistan tried to extinguish by genocide.


Sections of the elite class also moved to India at various levels. The apex element of this group was the political and bureaucratic elements that formed the Mujibnagar government. They were fundamentally different from the camp-based refugees though both went to India. What was also different was the location from which they escaped to India.


Destination was not as important as origin. Class and location were both critical factors as those from Dhaka returned to Dhaka, which became the new centre after the 1971 victory while the camp refugees returned to the villages mostly. The margins before 1971 remained as margins after 1971.  Hence the pushing or expanding of the demographic frontier was also not a monolithic scenario.


Internal movement push-pull factors


Internal movement was also a major mover of demographic frontiers.  In the first phase, upto end April people moved to safe places within the urban zones. The Pakistan army started to move towards the villages after crushing Dhaka on the 25th night after realizing that the city was only a part of Bangladesh and the one night stand approach had failed to end the cause. It was after the March 25th crackdown collapsed that the attack on the villages began when the rest of East Pakistan exploded and became Bangladesh.


In the post-April scenario, population shifts could be sudden and dramatic or over a period of time. In this case, three factors in general contributed. Many/most Hindus left as a matter of survival instinct but in case some felt very safe in their environs they stayed back.


While the army was the prime threat, it was the local threats that made such journeys inevitable. These local threats were both political and economic. Hindus were outside most rural power networks and hence attacking them carried low risks which attracted both traditional – dacoits- and newly emerged –razakars- criminals to loot and kill them.


But Muslims also ran risks and were exposed to different threats. They could be vulnerable due to a) threats from their ant-party in the rural power structure, both political and social b) for giving support to the Mukti Bahini c) for being wealthy hence as targets of looting. The last named included wealthy Hindus as well.


All these people were often moving from different places to another for safety and this movement within Bangladesh created new vulnerabilities.


The journey to and back


Those who became Freedom Fighters and moved to India to access training and weapons but returned home after this journey faced most risks. It was perilous as they left shelter to challenge the invaders in an occupied country. In the process they made many more journeys – from shelters to targets- and were also responsible for other population movements caused by their presence.


Most urban refugees to rural areas returned home, most rural refugees to another rural area went back to their own villages while some rural refugees to urban zones stayed back in search of employment. Of the external refugees, most returned home to their destinations urban or rural but, depending on the situation, stayed back. Some went back again to India. The Mujibnagar linked elite refugees who were part of the new ruling class of course came back victorious, bathed in glory.

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