Abandoned And Forgotten: The Stranded Biharis In Bangladesh

Dr Rakhshinda Parveen writes about the plight of Biharis that are stranded in Bangladesh since 1971. We are not only erasing the memory of 16 December, 1971 but have forgotten the community that lives in miserable conditions despite its unconditional support for Pakistan.

Dedicated to the unconditional patriotism of all ordinary Pakistanis and to the everlasting love and friendship of those who have risen above all biases and do not despise us.

Once upon a time in history, following Jinnah's declaration of 16 August 1946, as the Direct Action Day the Muslim League Chief Minister of Bengal Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy requested Governor of Bengal Sir Frederick Burrows to declare a public holiday on that day, to which the governor agreed.

The day was aimed to show the strength of Muslim feelings towards its demand for an "autonomous and sovereign" Pakistan. Lamentably, it resulted in the worst communal riots that British India had seen.

When Pakistan emerged on the map of the world on 14 August,1947 many told and untold stories of lost identities, integrity and humanity were also constructed. One million Muslims from Bihar were forced into migration into East Bengal who worked there as traders, vendors, clerks, civil service officials, skilled railway/ mill workers, teachers and doctors.

Bengalis who were subdued and maltreated by the military and civil elites of West Pakistan classed them as symbols of West Pakistani ascendancy and became inimical towards them.

In the December 1970 elections, most Biharis supported the pro-Pakistan Muslim League rather than the Awami League, which was largely a Bengali nationalist movement. The fall of Dhaka in 1971, also beached thousands of this community who escaped rape, murder and other atrocities.

The surrender of our army grimaced the status of nearly 300,000 Biharis. From equal citizens and owners of their houses, properties and business, they became stateless refugees. The planes that were supposed to take them to (West) Pakistan never arrived and they remained stranded in one-room houses.

Due to political sensitivities, their repatriation process that was started in 1974, never got completed. Dishonored and deceived by successive Pakistani governments, the community continues to live in horrifying conditions, with no sense of security and self-worth. Around 400,000 Biharis are currently housed in 116  “camps” in the 13 different districts of Bangladesh.

Of these, the capital Dhaka hosts 100,000 Biharis in 45 settlements. Pakistani government took away their Pakistani citizenship in 1978, but the Supreme Court of Bangladesh granted them Bangladeshi citizenship in 2008. Then they were entered in the national voters' list that also enabled them to obtain documents proving their identity.

However, most Biharis are not eligible for Bangladeshi passports because they live in temporary settlements and according to the rules, an applicant needs to provide a permanent address for getting a passport. Deep psychological barriers are always difficult to overcome and most Biharis who experience social stigma fear further retaliation and could not get reintegrated in Bangladeshi society.

By all yardsticks they are the most marginalized people in Bangladesh.These most ill-fated people (as Rohingyas, Syrians, Iraqis ,Afghans refugees, war affectees, displaced people at least command attention of the world) are continuously being punished for the “crime of standing with Pakistani army and being pro-Pakistan” by their elders during “liberation movement “ of Bengalis.

They are not at all acceptable to Sindhi, Punjabi and Pashtun nationalists in Pakistan.

I have full regard for their reservations. I might have exactly thought, acted and reacted like them if I were from their ethnic origin/s and had inherited similar limitations. By this time, life has taught me that Sufi culture is meant for commercial cultural concerts and not to be applied in politics and governance.

The Mehsooreen/ stranded Biharis, are perhaps misguidedly mixed up with Urdu speaking Karachiites and beneficiaries of politics of different faces and phases of MQM that once stood for them. 

Since I have always lived in Islamabad, I do not feel myself eligible to comment as an authority on the dynamics of  relationship between Urdu speaking “muhajirs” and ancestral Sindhis. However, as a conscious Pakistani, I believe that the outcome of this political (in)enactment is zero attention to practical needs and psychological trauma of generations of these Pakistanis entombed in Bangladesh. I still fail to accept that there is not any collectively allowable and innovative riposte to this decades-old conundrum.

16 December, 1971 should not be seen and treated as just any other date on a calendar by us, Pakistanis. This day, no matter how gloomy, heartrending, mortifying, difficult to define and defend must never be expunged from our memory and conscience.

Unpardonably, it has been successfully wiped out from the mainstream. I have personally met, seen and heard many highly educated people who do not know the contribution of Bihar in making of Pakistan and mince no words in loathing these Biharis.

Not many know the ethnic difference between Bengalis and Biharis. Many surely believe that our 1965 war hero M M Alam was a Bengali and that’s why (rightfully) he was barred from performing his official duties in PAF in 1971. The “treatment” he received in Zia’s regime merits a separate discussion.
In my younger days, very often, I used to hear “you are fair complexioned, speak clear Urdu and quote pieces from Punjabi literature. You do not look Bihari” as a compliment. I was also ridiculed and scorned (bullied will be more intense) in school and college in Islamabad  by some  of my influential classmates (from  both intellectual and ruling elite classes ),who  were instructed at home that Urdu Speaking are Hindustanis, Biharis are beggars and do not belong to this soil. Several times my family and myself endured this question by many of our goodhearted neighbours, friends and acquaintances that what were we doing in Islamabad and when would we leave for Karachi to live there permanently.

I was a science student and had little interest in reading History (especially from the day when the  History’s subject teacher told us that we would skip “The East Pakistan Tragedy” (a short section in a chapter)  as it was not important for the  board examination of matric). The admission process to any public medical college, then required, to produce a record of forefathers, declaration of  one’s caste, sect and mother tongue. I personally went through this agony (I would be comforted to know if this requirement no longer exists). Surely, this very experience about the biases (conscious and unconscious) in the selection process was not the last that I encountered later in my career.

This ensconced structural and societal prejudice is not only a source of personal hurt to many of my likes but constitutes a formidable foundation for fostering social and national cacophony and crumbling.

Explicit acceptance of many prejudices and discrimination rooted in ethnicity is yet to be included in our conversations.  Functioning doctrines describe a State. Isn’t it paradoxical if not uncouth that we are hosting more than 3 million Afghan refugees and Pakistan remains a transit/destination point of millions of illegal immigrants and trafficked people?

However, our rulers could not create an enabling environment (read political will) to bring back our own citizens whose only wrongdoing was allegiance with the motherland. Past cannot be renovated but it can always be given a new interpretation through the valor to vamoose abhorrence and apathy.

Let sanity, equality of citizenship, veracity and diversity be permitted to prevail. Dr. Helen Reiss, at Harvard Medical School, has recently established that Empathy can be taught. I prescribe this very module for all Pakistanis who are in the corridors of power.

On emergency footing it should be introduced to our military and civil services academies.

Baḳht se koī shikāyat hai na aflāk se hai -yahī kyā kam hai ki nisbat mujhe is ḳhaak se hai 
(Ms. Parveen Shakir-a Bihari ,a polymath and an Internationally acclaimed Urdu Poet from Pakistan)

Dr. Rakhshinda Perveen, is a physician turned development practitioner and public intellectual. Her  25 -plus years careers include public policy advocacy on gender, youth & disability issues, research, community work, organizational development, training, mentoring and social entrepreneurship. She has been a professional broadcaster (in fact first woman anchor for live current affairs morning shows from the state owned PTV/Pakistan Television Network). She tweets @dr_rakhshinda and can be reached at founderkafekaam@gmail.com