ICRC in India post independence- focus on Kashmir: Role of non governmental agencies in International conflict and their contemporary relevance.

02 August, 2018

International Affairs

On 18th July, 1947, the British parliament passed the Indian Independence Bill, which created two independent states— India, a Hindu majority nation, and muslim dominated Pakistan. The aftermath of this partition was however brutal and gory.The former provinces of Bengal and Punjab were divided between the new states. In the months that followed August 1947, the northern part of the subcontinent — especially Punjab, where the tragedy had begun well before independence, was plagued by bloody, violent clashes.


In this period of post independence consolidation, the princely state of Kashmir became a matter of concern. Kashmir had a Muslim majority but was governed by a Hindu prince. Maharaja Hari Singh hoped for a special status for Kashmir and procrastinated siding with either of the newly formed states. When the news of killings in Punjab reached Kashmir, strife broke out in Jammu, which was inhabited majorly by Hindus. Muslims were massacred in Jammu and consequently, rebellion within the Hindu Prince’s army broke out. The ‘Azad Kashmir’ (Free Kashmir) movement started in Poonch, led by Muslim soldiers of the prince’s army and peasants. This movement was supported by Pakistan. In the midst of this, an invasion by Pathan warriors of the North Western Frontier Province resulted in large-scale destruction, robbery, massacre, rape and kidnappings of the Hindus. With his capital (Srinagar) under threat, the prince fled to Jammu and requested the Indian government to send troops for help. The then Governor General of independent India- Lord Mountbatten, agreed to help if the prince signed the letter of accession to India. Indian forces went into action but disputes continued throughout 1948. Along with civilian deaths, there was large scale population movement and half of the Kashmiri population (about 2 million people) migrated to the mountains. The two flows of population relocation were the Muslims crossing the border to Pakistan and the Hindus and Sikhs fleeing to Jammu. Only a handful of the the Hindu and Sikh population sought refuge in the Indian mainland.


The sanguinary dispute was brought to the attention of the United Nations Security Council in January 1948. India and Pakistan accused each other of illegally invading and occupying Kashmir. A United Nations Convention for India and Pakistan (UNCIP) was set up to investigate and mediate between the two countries. The UNCIP proposed a solution in August 1948 which involved ceasefire and armistice. The ceasefire was ratified by a bilateral agreement. India controlled two thirds, and most of the fertile parts of Kashmir while Pakistan controlled a narrow strip. The ceasefire which was imposed under the supervision for the United Nations Organisation thus led to a de facto partition of Kashmir.


 The ICRC and the Kashmir conflict  

When conflict broke out in Punjab, the International Committee of Red Cross had no local representative. However, when the ICRC’s attention was drawn to the terrible condition and plight of refugees, it decided to send Dr. Otto Wenger, who was already familiar with the subcontinent, on a fact finding mission, in December 1947.  

Post his departure from Geneva, Dr Wenger’s primary jobs were to —
1. Establish contacts with the new governments and Red Cross Societies of India and Pakistan
2. Ascertain the exact needs of the victims,
3. Make proposals for further action.

With the anxious intention of supporting the Indian and Pakistani Red Cross Societies, the ICRC along with the local red Cross Societies planned to launch an appeal to all National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to send aid for the refugees. However nobody was able to estimate that the Kashmir conflict would take up all the time of ICRC’s delegation. As soon as Dr. Wenger reached New Delhi, he was asked to act as an intermediary and aid thousands of Hindu and Sikh civilians trapped in Azad Kashmir to be evacuated. On his rather tough, back and forth trips between Azad Kashmir, Pakistan and Jammu and Kashmir, Dr. Wenger was also exposed to the threat of attack by the Indian Airforce.
The following are results of ICRC’s mission, as were achieved by February 1948-

1. Aid was immediately dispatched by the Pakistan Red Cross. Medical personnel were sent in by the Christian Relief Association to the Alibeg camp situated in ‘Azad Kashmir’, which was visited by the ICRC delegates and housed 1600 non Muslim refugees living in inhuman conditions.
2.Pakistan agreed for the evacuation of all non-Muslims trapped in Azad Kashmir who wished to go to India, and committed to supply the camps with provisions. This agreement covered about 5,000 civilians.

Dr. Wenger took this opportunity to draw the attention of his contacts to the application of the Geneva conventions. He explained the basic provisions and principles of the Conventions to the leaders of Azad Kashmir who agreed to put them into effect if the Indian government did the same. The Indian government too declared its will to act in accordance with the spirit and principles of the Conventions.
Articles however suggest that Prisoners of war (POW) who had committed offences before being captured would be prosecuted according to the laws in force. According to Dr Wenger, “this reservation was aimed at persons who joined the forces of Azad Kashmir and were considered to be rebels by India in view of the fact that Jammu and Kashmir had become part of the Indian Union”.
These declarations then resulted in the submission of lists of POWs and granting of the permission to ICRC to visit them. The ICRC delegation arranged for communication between the prisoners of war and their families and dispatched relief parcels with the help of the local Red Cross Societies.

ICRC was also instrumental in setting up medieval institutions, facilities and hospitals for the refugees and prisoners, specially in Azad Jammu and Kashmir. The ICRC was actively involved in intensifying search operations to trace women and children who had been abducted on either sides and connecting them back to their families. Under this procedure adult women were given the choice of whether or not they wanted to return to their relatives/ families. It was also stipulated that the camps could be visited by representatives of the opposing government and ICRC was to provide any required assistance in that.

Although most of his time was taken up in being a neutral intermediary in the Kashmir conflict, Dr Wenger visited several refugee camps in Pakistan and India and brought the most pressing problems to the notice of the authorities and Red Cross Societies, and gave them his advice. 

On returning to Geneva, Dr Wenger recommended that the ICRC continue to pursue its operations in Kashmir, particularly in times of war or internal strife.


Prisoners of war 

ICRC delegates made regular visits to the internment sites. These visits to prisoners of war were the subject of reports which were sent to the governments of India and Pakistan regularly. They covered the conditions of detention. Delegates brought with them, on each visit, relief supplies provided by the Indian and Pakistan Red Cross Societies

The ICRC delegates asked for the seriously wounded and sick to be repatriated, in accordance with Article 68 of the 1929 Geneva Convention. This resulted in the repatriation of around 40 wounded and sick prisoners on either sides between February and June 1949. 

Moreover, while India wanted the repatriation of all prisoners of war on either sides,  Pakistan stated its willingness to have an immediate exchange, but on a “one-for-one” condition, which would leave around 500 prisoners still with Pakistan. Pakistan also wanted India to release all Pathan warriors who were detained.
To break the deadlock, the ICRC delegates urged India to find the greatest possible number of Pathan and Kashmiri prisoners of war from Azad Kashmir and tried to dissuade Pakistan from linking the repatriation of prisoners of war to that of political detainees. 



The hostilities in Kashmir set off thousands of refugees, whose numbers had risen to two million by late 1948. A few Societies had sent relief supplies directly to the Indian and Pakistan Red Cross Societies, but the deliveries were unable to meet the magnitude of the needs. Without the means to provide material aid to the refugees, the delegates focused on helping the most affected and most vulnerable groups of individuals.
However, the ICRC considered its duty, as a neutral organisation, to carry out a full and detailed survey of the needs of the Kashmiri refugees and bring their plight to the attention of the entire world.

The investigation by ICRC delegates was recorded in a a 90-page report which was illustrated by maps and photographs that covered every aspect of the refugees’ situation. It showed that, following the cease-fire that had entered into force on 1 January 1949, several refugees had returned to their homes and resumed their normal activities, but about one million of the refugees remained homeless, living in camps or setting themselves up in small communities to which the governments were finding difficult to send supplies.  The displaced people who went home were also in a state of destitute as all they found back home, were ruins and devastated fields.

The ICRC shared this report with the two governments, the Red Cross Societies of India and Pakistan, the UNCIP secretariat in Geneva and the Secretary-General of the United Nations.  The ICRC did so with the hope that it successfully would encourage the international community, in particular the United Nations, to act in favour of these refugees, as it had done for Palestinian refugees at the end of 1948 . However, its hopes came crashing as UN launched a no relief operation.

To fulfil its part though, the ICRC sent medical supplies through the respective Red Cross Societies, to the Indian and Pakistani authorities responsible for medical services in the camps.

In October 1949, the ICRC closed down its mission in India and Pakistan. The delegates advised that the remaining problems of humanitarian nature, in the subcontinent, did not require a permanent presence of the ICRC, unless they were able to undertake a large-scale  relief operation for the refugees, which the ICRC was unable to implement singlehandedly, given the lack of  resources.
The Kashmir conflict which was at its height when Dr Wenger arrived in the subcontinent, had reached a better position post cease-fire and the start of political negotiations under the guardianship of the United Nations.

Action on the part of a neutral intermediary was no longer seen as necessary by the organisation and the reason why delegates had continued to mediate between the parties was to accelerate the settlement of humanitarian problems. They however did realise that it was becoming difficult to distinguish between problems of political detainees, refugees, abducted women, health issues, etc.

Dr Wenger’s mission was considered beneficial by both India and Pakistan. As a neutral intermediary, the ICRC delegate successfully built relations of confidence at the highest level, with all the stakeholders in the Kashmir conflict. He ensured that the main provisions of the Geneva Conventions which concerned the wounded and sick military personnel, protection of hospitals and treatment of prisoners of war, were implemented. ICRC also helped in the conclusion of arrangements to protect, assist and transfer civilian minority groups and to trace and repatriate abducted women and children, despite the fact that there was an absence of protection for such persons under the Conventions. Dr Marti and Nicolas Burckhardt further continued by checking on the treatment afforded to prisoners and making regular visits to detention facilities. In many articles and accounts, ICRC staff members recall how they were under-equipped, under informed and thus underprepared to handle the magnificence of the problem that existed in the subcontinent.



Upon reading literature available on this topic, watching interviews and documentaries, I have realised that international institutions such as the ICRC and UN have historically played an important role in negotiating, mediating and helping during wars between countries.This article focused especially on ICRC because of the nature of help and aid it offers.The relevance of ICRC has increased in  contemporary times because humanitarian issues are now screaming for attention. Both academically and in practice of International Relations, armed conflict and non armed conflict has evolved over the years. The target in such conflicts are no longer just the so called legitimate targets but also civilians. With the use of advanced military technology that does not differentiate between civilians and soldiers, the aftermath of any conflict these days is usually the death or injury of hundreds of civilians who should ideally, not be made to suffer. The conditions in Syria, Iraq, Palestine and so on, show us that it has become increasingly important to ensure the protection of human rights and civilians in conflict stricken zones. Further, as was seen in the Indo-Pakistan conflict of Kashmir, it is also important that a neutral agency, such as the ICRC is present during war times and post conflict, to assist and aid in restoring the affected populations back to health and safety, while also ensuring that their rights are not infringed upon. Humanitarian issues need to take precedence given the nature of hostilities that the world is experiencing and can experience in the future. Although the legal status of ICRC is still a matter of debate in the international community, it is important to recognise the pressing need for all countries in the world to become parties to such conventions and organisations, promote and adopt humanitarian ways of handling conflicts and solving post conflict/ post war aftermath as well as manage conflicts or wars and the way they are executed in modern times.





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