Tuesday, 6 February, 2007

Beyond Neelganj - understanding the crisis

After nearly three months of internship at the Neelganj camp, I spent a week in Ranchi, Bihar, at the Ramakrishna Mission Ashram and their farmers’ rural training centre, Divyayan. The ashram was part of the Tagore family property and was run by Swami Yuktananda, a radical monk for whom ‘adviasi empowerment was higher priority then teaching Vedanta'.

During this week I met a young East Pakistan refugee - Abul Kalam, who had decided to become a Mukti Fauji and was spending some time preparing himself for the training in guerilla warfare. Abul knew very little English and my Bengali was just basic but he managed to give me a completely different picture from the one I had picked up in 3 months of volunteer work. The deeper crisis of genocide and ethnic cleansing needed an understanding of the socio-economic, political and cultural determinants of conflict and of ill health. I had not been trained for this in medical school. The chat with Abul on the top of Tagore hill was my first lesson. The week with Swami Yuktananda was my second.

Today, as I look through the notes of these discussions, I recall some of my early insights into the refugee crisis.

  • While the exodus had been mostly of Hindu families initially, a significant number of Muslims Bengalis had to flee as well. The local population of Hindus and Muslims shared a common Bengali culture which was a strong bond. Both were oppressed by Punjabi Muslims who were in the army as well as in control of the few industries that were established in a predominant agricultural country.
  • The number of younger women in the refugee camp communities were much less than expected. I learned that this was because many of them had been taken prisoners by the Pakistan army for exploitation.
  • Although the Indian Government and the Indian Army would never openly admit it they were actively supporting and transporting the young volunteers (Mukti Faujis) to special camps where they were being trained to return to their country and fight back .
  • Abul had fled from Narayanganj, a few miles out of Dhaka where he had lived. He had walked a long distance to Agartala in Tripura, to the safety of the Ramakrishna Mission. While villagers had provided him food on the way, he had seen first hand the atrocities of the army genocide, the burning of whole villages, the shooting of innocent people, the looting of houses and property.
  • When their leader Mujibur Rehman of the Awami league won the election, the people had expected that he would become Prime Minister of East Pakistan. When this was not allowed he rallied the people in a Gandhian spirit of non-violent Satyagraha. The Army to put down the non violence protests ruthlessly.
  • The Bangladeshi intelligentsia was specially targeted especially the young protestors at Dhaka and other universities.
  • The refugee exodus of over nine million people over the worlds longest border became one of the worst the humanitarian crisis of recent history.

All of this was an unusual formative experience for a young medic. I discovered that health was also about people and their culture, their politics, about class and conflict, about gender bias, community histories, about migration and loss of roots – dimensions I knew little about at the end of 5 years in one of the country’s best medical colleges!

It was a experience that challenged me to face up to the complexity and diversity of refugee health, the inadequacies of medical education and the challenge of going beyond a bio medical framework. A new professional journey had begun!

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