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The ICRC since 1945: post-independence violence in India and Pakistan


How the ICRC tried to protect and assist the victims of the bloodshed that followed Indian independence and the creation of Pakistan, in August 1947: its efforts to assist civilian victims, its work as a neutral intermediary and its visits to prisoners.

Millions of desperate people were thrown onto the roads in the chaos and violence following Independence – Muslims crossing from Indian to Pakistani Punjab, Sikhs and Hindus going the other way, all of them fleeing massacres.

Clashes spread to the neighbouring territory of Jammu and Kashmir, where the state's princely ruler had been delaying a decision on whether to become part of India or Pakistan. However, he had to appeal to Delhi for military support when fighters from Azad Kashmir ( " Free Kashmir " ), backed by Pathan warriors from Pakistan, threatened the capital, Srinagar. The price was allegiance to India.

In January 1948, the dispute was brought before the United Nations Security Council, which established a commission to mediate between India and Pakistan.

The violence continued throughout 1948, resulting in the displacement of some two million people – around half the state's population. Many of them died atrociously while hiding in snow-bound mountain passes. As in Punjab, columns of refugees passed each other while seeking safety.

 UN-backed ceasefire  

The special UN commission proposed a ceasefire and an armistice; the ceasefire came into force in January 1949, followed by the establishment of a demarcation line, effectively cutting the territory in two.

Shortly after the start of the violence, the ICRC had decided to send a delegate, Dr. Otto Wenger, to the region to assess the needs of the victims. His mission was to work with the national societie s in India and Pakistan to make an overall survey of refugee needs in both countries and gather information for a fund-raising appeal.

However, the particular situation in Jammu and Kashmir – which required a neutral intermediary to help address specific humanitarian problems – demanded more attention than expected.

Within two months – by February 1948 – Dr. Wenger had arranged for medical assistance to be sent to a camp for some 1,600 non-Muslim displaced people in "Azad Kashmir", secured Pakistan's agreement to facilitate the evacuation of around 5,000 non-Muslims to India and obtained the "Azad Kashmir" authorities'agreement to allow them to leave.

 Urging respect for the Geneva Conventions  

He also pressed the various parties involved to respect the Geneva Conventions. Information offices were set up, lists of prisoners produced, visits were made to them, mail exchanged and relief parcels forwarded.

By January 1949 Dr. Wenger had been replaced by two other ICRC delegates, Dr. Roland Marti and Nicolas Burkhardt. They made the plight of prisoners of war their first priority, carrying out several visits to places of detention on both sides. By August 1949 ten visits had been made to the principal places in India, and six to the main camp in Pakistan; hundreds of prisoners were seen on these occasions.


The horseback delegate 

  Nicolas Burckhardt had to ride ten days to reach an area he wanted to survey. “…An hour after the rain started, rocks and avalanches of sand began to fall, carrying off the most exposed parts of the road. (...) Even eddies of wind are enough in some particularly dangerous spots to set off rockfalls.
"From time to time you can seek protection behind large rocks, between which you have to gallop at top speed. In the saddle this can be rather fun, as you are quite mobile, but the mules carrying your luggage are more exposed to the dangers with their huge loads.”

Another area of concern for the delegates was the repatriation of seriously wounded and sick prisoners of war, as laid down by the 1929 Geneva Convention. As a result of their approaches to the belligerents, about 40 individuals were sent home. Some civilians held in POW camps were also freed.

Civilians were another concern - both sides traded accusations of hiding groups of women and children, or of failing to search thoroughly for them. In January 1949 the delegates were able to supervise the return of 140 women and children from Pakistan to India, while 256 women and children, and 167 other refugees, were transferred to Pakistan from Jammu.

The ICRC team visited a number of transit camps to make lists and to urge the authorities concerned to speed up the repatriation process.

The ICRC, together with the League of Red Cross Societies, had launched an appeal to national Red Cross societies at the end of October 1948, calling for aid to refugees in Pakistan and India, and especially in Kashmir. Their situation was increasingly difficult, particularly for those in mountainous places that were difficult for suppli es to reach – in one location relief goods had to be brought by mules over a snow-covered pass.

As one delegate described it: " We saw a great many refugees going down to the valley in search of food… we were able to see the lamentable state of undernourishment of these people… Oedemas resulting from hunger are common among the children… "

 Appealing for help  

The ICRC was alone in having an overview of the problems facing the Kashmiri refugees, and in an attempt to raise awareness among the international community about the scale of their needs – which it could not meet alone – it published a report in mid-1949; this stated that there were still around one million people living in camps or with relatives. The hundreds of thousands who did return faced great difficulties, as their homes and fields were devastated.

But no international relief operation was ever launched; the ICRC sent medical supplies through the Indian and Pakistan Red Cross societies (the national society in Pakistan adopted the red crescent emblem in 1974), for use in the refugee camps.

In October 1949 the ICRC – facing funding difficulties at the time and believing that its specific role as a neutral intermediary was no longer needed – closed its delegation on the sub-continent.