British Rule and Partition in South Asia: Blueprint of two Refugee Crises

When the alleged birthplace of Prince Rama of Ayodhya was given to Hindu litigants on November 9th by the Supreme Court of India, commentators on Indian politics said that a kind of muscular Hindu majoritarianism is now being displayed through India’s legal machinery. This rise of majoritarianism can be attributed to the advent of British rule in the region in the 1700s.  In August of 1947, more than seven thousand kilometer gash was slit through British India. While it gave birth to Pakistan, the socially constructed border still precipitates conflict on either side, and the region’s deep wounds have certainly not healed today. British rule in the region is responsible for a large number of refugee crises that have affected South Asia. The nature in which the British left the region not only created a refugee crisis during the Partition of 1947, but it also played a strong role in stimulating further refugee crises during the formation of Bangladesh and the situation that Rohingya refugees face today. 

The British exploited India and Burma’s cultural milieu to create differences and executed a strategy of ‘divide and rule’, sowing the seeds of the perpetual disasters where ethnic groups continue to suffer to date. To minimize potential rebellions during their rule, the British practiced a policy to polarize groups within India and Burma, ensuring that no one group became powerful enough to rebel. The British also implemented a census through which they were not only able to locate the populations of majorities and minorities but were also able to divide people further by categorizing them to break up any potential uprisings. Along with the census, in the case of India, the British instituted a communal electorate, where each religious group had at least a small portion of representation in government.  Again, this prevented any group from becoming too powerful and ensured that British rule would last. 

In 1947, the partition of British India proceeded based on the “two nations theory” which posited that Hindus and Muslims could not peacefully coexist and thus required their respective majority regions. Any other type of ethnic concerns such as those of a linguistic nature or accommodation of groups in border regions who were away from the power center was not taken into consideration. Therefore, it can be argued that the partition of India in 1947 not only triggered subsequent long-term conflicts on a macroscale such as Bengali demands for autonomy in East Pakistan (which led to the Bangladesh war of 1971), but that it also laid the seeds for displacing communities who were located away from power centers perpetually, foremost among them being the case of the stateless Rohingyas.

Let us first consider the case of Bangladesh. The identity consciousness of Bengali Muslims of East Pakistan, who had previously overwhelmingly supported the Muslim League in colonial India, took an ethno-linguistic turn when, in response to economic and cultural discrimination from the 1950s onwards, they started demanding greater regional autonomy from West Pakistani authorities. In 1971, intending to suppress dissent and stunt the growth of Bengali nationalism for good, the Pakistan military began a crackdown in its eastern wing which spiraled into the displacement of roughly ten million people, most of whom entered the border-states of India. Initially, India offered its hospitality to these refugees and trained many of the Mukti Bahini combatants, the guerrilla fighters of East Pakistan who waged a nine-month long guerrilla war against the Pakistan army. After this, the Indian army finally intervened militarily by entering the territories of East Pakistan, leading to the surrender of the Pakistani armed forces. India justified this military intervention on the grounds that allowing the refugee crisis in eastern and north-eastern India to continue risked destabilizing the region further and creating even greater human suffering. Despite backing from the Soviet Union, India’s actions did not generate substantial support in the international community as a humanitarian intervention.

In the case of the Rohingyas, as the partition of India gained momentum, the Rohingya population in the neighboring Arakan province in colonial Burma hoped to join the future Muslim-majority province of East Pakistan but were denied by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the soon to be the founding president of Pakistan. Perhaps with an expedited timeline and mishandling of the transition of power from Britain to the two countries, India and Pakistan, the daunting process seemed too complicated to create a deal in which this Rohingya population could be accepted into East Pakistan. As Arakan remained part of Burma (which gained independence from Britain in 1948), the attitude of the majority Bamar Buddhists towards the Rohingya Muslims took a turn for the worse. Increased mistreatment towards them culminated in the crackdown by the Burmese military junta in 1978 and the stripping of their Myanmar citizenship in 1982. Since then, hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh at different stages to seek asylum. 

The ongoing Rohingya refugee crisis is similar to the refugee crisis precipitated by the creation of Bangladesh in several respects. In one sense, both the East Pakistani and Rohingya refugees’ situations were partly brought on by weaknesses in the process of Partition and the failures of the “two nations theory”, which did not adequately account for the concerns of groups who were not close to the centers of power. In both cases, moreover, the successor states used the might of their armed forces to suppress the political aspirations of those who later became refugees in spite of external pressure not to do so. 

Comparing the two crises also illustrates the ease with which major governments and international institutions are able to frame refugee crises in ways that limit their liability to act in substantial ways. In the case of Bangladesh, it was apparent only a few months into the conflict that the Pakistan army had committed atrocities of genocide in East Pakistan (particularly against Bengali Hindus), yet successive governments largely dismissed the situation, which was the underlying cause of the refugee crisis, as a civil war and an internal matter for Pakistan. As with the Rohingya crisis today, for governments and international organizations to accept that state-sponsored “ethnic cleansing and possible genocide” were occurring, would have obligated more meaningful action. 

The essential difference between the plight of the Rohingya today and that of the East Pakistani in 1971, however, is the likelihood of external military intervention to alleviate their situations. While the Indian military stepped in unilaterally to ensure the creation of Bangladesh, there does not appear to be any comparable help on the way for the Rohingyas. Indifference and inertia on the part of the international community then, as now, also limits the likelihood of any sort of international coalition involving itself militarily. Indeed, that there is no such outstanding intervention waiting to happen for the Rohingyas now is all the more pronounced, given that all member states of the United Nations endorsed the principle of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) in 2005.  

Another critical difference between the two crises concerns the role of humanitarian relief organizations. While the NGO community mobilized in both cases to combat the refugees’ suffering, those organizations that have responded to the Rohingya crisis have tended to criticize Myanmar’s government more freely than their counterparts did during the Bangladesh crisis in 1971. Indeed, the belief that humanitarian relief was a politically “neutral” practice where “saving strangers” regardless of their allegiances was a defining feature of voluntary humanitarian action for much of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In 1971, therefore, major relief providers like the International Committee of the Red Cross remained relatively quiet on the political matters fuelling the refugee crisis – an indifference which younger, more radical NGOs such as Oxfam increasingly called into question as the war continued. By contrast, relief organizations responding to the Rohingya crisis have shown a much greater willingness to engage the political questions underlying the refugee situation, reflecting a broader strengthening of humanitarian NGOs’ role in international responses to such crises.

In conclusion, while the two refugee crises in South Asia were triggered by causes and events in the short term, they have roots in the geopolitical history of colonial British India and Burma, and the resulting partition in 1947. The rule of the British in the region and their subsequent departure set into motion a chain of events, such as the conflict surrounding the formation of Bangladesh in 1971 and also indirectly the events in Arakan which led to the statelessness of the Rohingyas. While Bangladesh is now an independent country and has gradually prospered, looking set to become a middle-income country in less than a decade, the condition of the many minorities in South Asia has worsened after 1947, with the extreme case being that of the Rohingyas for whom there appears to be no end to their troubles in sight.     

Disclaimer: The authors are not suggesting any kind of military intervention, rather their aim is to compare the two cases. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics


About the authors

Dr. Rudabeh Shahid is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Politics, University of York. She is working on a part of the Leverhulme Trust funded “Rethinking Civil Society” project which considers civil society in post-partition South Asia. Earlier this year, Dr. Shahid designed and taught a course at her undergraduate alma mater, Middlebury College titled “Refugee Crises in South Asia” and was awarded her PhD at the School of Government and International Affairs, Durham University.

Samuel Jaffe graduated from Columbia University and the London School of Economics with a double master’s degree in International and World History in 2019. His research interests center on international and global responses to Bangladesh’s Liberation War. His master’s thesis, soon to be published as a monograph with University Press Limited, Dhaka, examined grassroots activism in support of Bangladesh in the USA during 1971.

What is the Relevance of Networked Deterrence in the Indo-Pacific?

Deterrence has been at the center of the world’s strategic thinking for over the last seven decades. During the Cold War period, the idea...

Why Tajikistan’s Water Matters

Tajikistan is a very rich country in terms of water and hydropower potential. Its water, which is the Central Asian nation’s most widespread natural...

Being Part of the Plan: An Integrated Approach for Global Biological Diversity Conservation

The International Day for Biological Diversity, observed annually on 22nd May every year, serves as a poignant reminder to recognize and promote the importance...