Bangladeshi Refugees of 1971
Many years back, I was working in a primary health centre. I had just finished my internship then.
The PHC catered to a large population and I being the lone Allopathy doctor; my hands were quite full always. I was also sent for training to do tubectomy operations and once my hands became deft; I literally was instructed to travel far and wide twice every week. This was done after completion of my routine out patient duties at my posting place first. Many times I returned in the wee hours of the morning. Needless to say that; I wished for some respite every day.
Under such circumstances, when a letter arrived with orders to do a health camp every month or so at a place, almost seven hours away, my face fell.
We set off early morning at about 6.30 a.m. After a long arduous journey, we reached a village in the midst of a jungle. Rows of thatched houses stood one after the other on either side of the roads. It was a small colony with almost all residents growing some vegetables and flowers.
I saw a huge well surrounded with dry trees there. Since it was summer season then; the land was parched and seemed panting with tiredness and thirst.
A few ladies were drawing water from the well.
The examination room overlooked it. Soon patients started flowing in and my team set to work earnestly. One thing constantly intrigued me.
There were no children and adults. The village seemed to be only having many old people. I, in my life, had never seen such a village.
Once we finished and the medicines and other paraphrenelia had been packed, I inquired about it. My staff knew not the answer.
I had felt another very disturbing thing too. There was a distinct animosity in the air. It was so palpable that it kind of unsettled me to the core.
I had watched my other staff all along.
“This is a different kind of a village, isnt it?” I had asked one of the nurses.
“Ya, it is. They are not Maharashtrians.” She said, nonchalantly, shrugging her shoulders.
That, of course, I had understood long back. They seemed Bengalees to me. I can recognise one of my clan, if I might say so.
Besides their language was a mix of Bengali, Hindi and some spicy Marathi sprinkling.
I was overcome many a time with the urge to break into my mother tongue; but the invisible wall had stopped me.
But now I wanted to go into the crux of the matter. We had brought ample medicines and calcium, vitamin tablets and iron tonics. We had served them to the best of our capacity. What exactly was wrong there?
I called an old lady and asked her gently.
” Why did no kid and adult attend this camp here today? This was meant for all.” I asked her, gently.
I had inadvertently opened a Pandora box.
She said angrily,” How can they come if they are not here in the first place? We came here way back in 1971; to escape the riots in our country, Bangladesh. From then onwards; you people have kept us here. You only give 12 kgs of rice and a few kgs of wheat and some lentils.( I have forgotten the exact figures here.)
You think that is enough? Have you given jobs to our children? How can they survive here?The situation is back to normal now. They have all gone back to our own country. Why will they stay here? They have jobs, land everything there. What have you Indians done for us?” She asked angrily.
I was at a complete loss of words.
” Now they have come here to please us with medicines! As if, we need those medicines of yours. You can take them back.” Another added in anger.
I started feeling angry within. Incidentally, we had a Senior Additional District Medical Health Officer with us. He quickly signalled me to move away from there. He took over.
” We are so sorry that we have not been able to live upto your expectations. I will definitely take up the matter with the concerned administration at the earliest. Please follow the advice regarding medicines. Thank you so much for the co_operation.” He said, smiling, his head down with folded hands.
It was too much of a spectacle for me to witness. I made my way towards my own vehicle.
I saw a few of them smiling.
” We will come back again. Probably in the next month…” He informed them before leaving.
I sat quietly in the back seat of the Gypsy. The Director sat in front. Still seething with discontent; I maintained a stoic silence. My stomach was growling and the vehicle seemed to be burning at the 45 degree ambient temperature. My throat was parched and my bottle was empty. Those were the days, when waterbottles and chips and other foodstuff were not available everywhere.
So all added up to my seething anger within.
” Young doctors need to grow a heart.” He spoke after some time.
” You need to understand them.They have no one.” He added.
“Ungrateful beings! We let them stay here, give them regular ration, hold camps for them..and God knows what…and what do they do? They address us as ‘YOU INDIANS’! They have been here for close to twenty five years and they know no loyalty , no respect for my country?’I thought all this but did not voice it.
“Why don’t they go back to their own country then? Why don’t they go back to their own children? Who needs them anyway?” I said, as calmly as I could.
But it probably was not enough, for the Director turned towards me with shock on his face.
I turned silent again.
I remembered my own Grade 4 attendant back in the PHC. He was M.A. in two subjects. Such was his aura of dignity and knowledge; that I hated telling him to bring this and clean that kind of a thing. We were not able to give jobs to our own country men. There were lakhs and lakhs of educated people waiting for jobs and here were they, demanding them.
” You have a long way to go if you really want to be a competent government official. Learn to think wearing their shoes.” He said and departed when we reached his destination.
” I have no wish to be that. I will not bend over backwards to please prople. I will leave this job at the next opportunity.” I thought at this.
It was already 9.30 pm by then. I was another one and a half hour away from my destination. We stopped at a dhaba and had some snacks and water. It cleared the cobwebs out of my brains, a bit.
As the vehicle moved again; I was thinking that if one person from each such refugee family; had been given a job; they would have regained some dignity. Their children and kids would have been with them. It would have been a complete village; not like an old age home.
But would they have been happy? Well, that was a debatable issue. The roots of their own motherland were so deep, that new ones could never replace them. When roots of big trees are cut off, most of them die.
But then, there are those trees who strive to grow new roots, spread out, thrive and prosper and give shade and solace too.
I remembered many people like that, of my own family tree, with gratitude. I owe my life to them.