During the war of 1971, the Bihari community was treated as a symbol of Pakistan’s domination due to their Urdu language. Almost 1000 Biharis were killed by the Bengalis in the civil war of 1971 on allegations of collaborating with Pakistan. The Bihari community has since then been treated inhumanely by the Bengalis and rejected by Pakistan, the nation they consider their homeland.
In the year 2008, only the Biharis who were minors at the time of the war of 1971, or were born a year later, were granted citizenship rights. Bernard Weinraub, in a report for the New York Times in 1973, highlights the predicament of the Biharis after the separation of Bangladesh from Pakistan.
He maintained that akin to Asians in British Uganda, a section of the Bihari community was used by the Pakistani armed forces to keep an eye on the native Bangla speakers of East Pakistan since the creation of Pakistan. This resulted in the rampant belief that the Biharis were West Pakistani collaborators and they became vulnerable in Bangladesh.
Biharis are still paying the price of speaking Urdu and having sympathies towards Pakistan in 1971. This stigmatization is rooted in a problematic and faulty spirit of discrimination. To the surprise of many, not all the Biharis were collaborating with Pakistan. There were different factions inside the Biharis.
A famous Urdu poet, Naushad Noori, lost his government job for publishing the poem, Mohenjo Daro, in protest of the idea of declaring Urdu as the only lingua franca of Pakistan. The stigmatization and discrimination continue and they are still treated as second-class citizens in Bangladesh. Pakistan has also declared that Biharis living in Bangladesh are not Pakistanis and have turned its eyes blind from their plight.
Stranded in Bangladesh
In the 1971 civil war, the Bihari community residing in East Pakistan faced numerous attacks as they were perceived to be a symbol of Pakistani domination due to their pro-Pakistan sentiment. Scores of Biharis were killed in these attacks. After the separation of Bangladesh from Pakistan, they were left behind while the Pakistan army and the civilians were evacuated to India.
They were told that they would also be taken to Pakistan within three years, but they are still waiting for the planes to repatriate them. Bangladeshi troops started confiscating all the weapons in January 1972, but they faced strong retaliation from the Biharis residing in Mirpur. Scores of Biharis were apprehended and imprisoned on allegations of collusion with the Pakistan Army while almost 100 individuals from both sides of the clash were killed.
The government of Pakistan had repatriated 108000 Biharis to Pakistan by 1974 and this number increased to 163000 by the end of 1981. In 1981, twelve international and national institutions resolved to create a working group to aid both countries in the transfer of Biharis at a conference conducted by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
In the very year, the Stranded Pakistanis General Repatriation Committee warned to hold mass protests including the boycott of wheat rations donated by the government of Bangladesh until and unless their repatriation was expedited. At the end of 1982, almost 4600 Biharis were resettled in Pakistan. The airlift worth $1.5 million was sponsored by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other Persian Gulf states.
This operation was taken out in collaboration with the UNHCR. A four-day clash between the Bihari protesters and the Karachi police erupted in Pakistan on 1st February 1987. The Biharis were demanding the release of Afaq Shahid, a Bihari MNA of Pakistani Parliament, who was arrested on the allegation of possessing an illegal weapon.
This clash resulted in the death of 8 people. The Pakistan government reached an agreement with a Mecca-based humanitarian group named Rabita al-Alam al-Islami to help in the resettlement of almost 260000 Biharis stranded in Bangladesh in the year 1988. Some 300 Biharis started a demonstration in Dhaka against the then Chief Minister of Sindh where ethnic violence erupted in 1990. They also burnt his effigy during this protest.
In 1995, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) urged Pakistan to approve the transfer of the Bihari community. The organization had been providing financial aid to assist the functioning of 66 residential camps for Biharis stranded in Bangladesh. Hundreds of Biharis staged a sit-in in Dhaka against procrastination in the relocation of their community to Pakistan.
The Stranded Pakistani General Repatriation Committee (SPGRC) organized protest also rebuked the Pakistani remarks that this community would not be allowed to repatriate in Pakistan in 1966. The Awami League of Bangladesh in June 1996 established a new government. The Awami League announced that it would push hard for the completion of the relocation of the Biharis.
The same year, the United Nations said that Biharis could not be perceived as refugees but rather as displaced people. They were living in dismal conditions in the sixty-six camps established for them; there were few opportunities for employment and schools in these camps. In August 1996, Najmuddin Sheikh, Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary held that Pakistan was willing to take back the stranded Biharis on the submission of a memorandum by the stranded community to him for their immediate repatriation.
Pakistan also called for a pan-Islamic endeavor to assist in resolving the Biharis issue. On August 22, 1996, Pakistan repudiated the reports that it had agreed to allow the repatriation of the stranded Biharis. Since then, Pakistan has been denouncing the claim that Biharis are Pakistanis. There are a host of reasons behind Pakistan’s new stance, but the main reason was the involvement of Biharis in illegal activities after settling in Pakistan.
The Supreme Court of Pakistan’s Decision
General Pervaiz Musharaf, during his visit to Bangladesh, straightforwardly refused to welcome the Bihari community in Pakistan. He maintained that Pakistan was not in a condition to take care of any more refugees as the country already had the burden of having Afghan refugees. The SPARC filed a petition in the Supreme Court of Pakistan concerning the relocation of Pakistanis currently stranded in Bangladesh.
In the year 2015, the then Deputy Attorney General Sohail Mahmood of Pakistan presented a report on behalf of the foreign office. The report maintained that some 400000 to 500000 Biharis were living in Bangladesh and Pakistan was not responsible for these remaining people as the country had already repatriated a huge number of non-Bengalis.
The report also held that there was a great number of Urdu-speaking people who now consider themselves Bengalis and do not want to be relocated to Pakistan. It also iterated that almost 170000 Biharis were repatriated to Pakistan before the decisions of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh. The verdicts of May 2003 and 2008 of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh stated that the Biharis were citizens of Bangladesh and should be enrolled as voters in elections.
The report also termed the plight of the Biharis, non-Bengalis, as a humanitarian issue rather than a political one. It stated that Pakistan had been assisting in improving the plight of Biharis on a humanitarian basis. Currently, the Biharis are neither being welcomed by Pakistan nor by Bangladesh despite the aforementioned decisions by the Supreme Court of Bangladesh.
Both countries are oblivious to the condition of the Bihari community. The fact that Biharis are still known as stranded Pakistanis in Bangladesh portends that the latter has not accepted them as its citizens. The Bangladeshi Prime Minister in her recent statement said that stranded Pakistanis are a burden to Bangladesh.
This sort of statement by the Prime Minister of a country is enough to depict how they are being treated. The Bihari community of Bangladesh lives in ghettos, similar to shanty towns, they are forced to live in these camps as neither the native Bengalis nor do the governmental authorities consider them equivalent citizens.
Currently, Red Cross is taking care of these people living in almost 70 camps. Geneva camp in the city of Dhaka is one of the most popular camps among all these camps with a population of almost 30 thousand people. There is an acute scarcity of toilets and other basic facilities of life in these camps. Most of the Biharis still do not hold a national identification card, negating the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that every person has a right to a nationality.
This makes them ineligible for decent jobs. Their camps have few schools and most of the Biharis are deprived of getting high-level education. The women of this community earn their living by doing embroidery jobs and very few have succeeded to find proper jobs in garment factories. Most of the Biharis have lost the hope that Pakistan would welcome them ever but the elder individuals of the community still consider Pakistan to be their actual homeland.
Given the fact that Bangladesh was created on linguistic footings, their discriminatory attitude to all the non-Bengalis is obvious. There is a colossal number of Bengalis living in Pakistan illegally. Pakistan can help the Bihari community without putting any extra burden on the country’s economy by sending illegal Bengalis back to their country while repatriating the Biharis.
Some organizations in Pakistan, with the help of philanthropists, collect donations from the general public to assist Biharis living in camps to help improve their living standards. The Pakistan Repatriation Council (PRC) – an NGO that looks after the repatriates, has been busy raising the issue of stranded Pakistanis to every successive government.
The PRC suggests that the Bangladeshi government should be involved in negotiations on this issue as it has announced that it would only issue national passports for those born in the camps, so their support is crucial for the relocation of the Bihari community. The families who were issued Pakistani nationality, erstwhile, and are suffering in the camps should be repatriated at the earliest.
It also suggests that the OIC should include the matter of Biharis on its agenda and persuade international and national aid organizations to extend their helping hand towards Biharis until they are repatriated. It is least likely that they would ever be repatriated to Pakistan, so international institutions like the UN, OIC and other such organization must play their part to elevate the living conditions of this community. They should also urge Bangladesh on a humanitarian basis to accept the Biharis as Bengali nationals.
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