Bangladesh

Nowhere people

Print edition : July 25, 2014

Bihari Muslims living in a refugee camp in Mirpur on the outskirts of Dhaka protest against the arson attacks on them by local Bengali youths, on June 14. Photo: A.M. Ahad/A.P.

At the camp, residents amid bodies of their relatives who were killed in the clashes. Photo: MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP

Urdu-speaking “Biharis”, who migrated to East Pakistan from Bengal and Bihar during Partition and who fought alongside the Pakistan Army in the 1971 war against the Bengalis, are now unwanted in Pakistan, and in Bangladesh they live in squalid refugee camps in constant conflict with Bengalis.

DEVOUT Muslims offer special prayers during the holy occasion of Shab-e-Barat every year. On the holy night and a few days before that, the police, as usual, mount a special vigil, specially in the Bihari-populated areas of Dhaka and elsewhere across the country. But this year, on the night of June 14, despite all the vigil, the police could not prevent a tragedy from happening.

Nine Biharis, including children, were burnt to death at a refugee camp in Mirpur, a suburb of Dhaka, and another died at a hospital from shotgun injuries. The police had fired shotgun pellets to quell violence between local Bengalis and the Biharis, who have been living in a slum-like camp in Mirpur for over four decades. Several homes in the camp called the “Kurmitola Bihari Camp” by the attackers.

While some saw the clashes as a sequel to long-standing “rivalries” between the local people and the Biharis, others saw them as a move by politically powerful local goons to grab the government land that houses the camp. The majority, however, believed that the trigger was a tussle over firecracker explosions to mark the holy night. Some reports said a group of Bengalis armed with machetes and hockey sticks attacked the camp.

The controversy apart, the mid-June clashes are a grim reminder of the tragedy of the thousands of people who have been languishing in substandard camps across Bangladesh for over four decades.

The Bihari camps came into being in 1971 after the birth of Bangladesh and have remained a bone of contention. The Urdu-speaking Biharis had sided with the West Pakistan Army in the war to liberate East Pakistan. In that war the Pakistani military formed paramilitary units with the help of Bengali collaborators and the Biharis to exterminate Bengali freedom fighters and their loyalists. Nearly three million Bengalis were killed. The Biharis were seen as “traitors”and they faced violent retaliatory action in many places. Soon after the war they were gathered in refugee camps for their own safety pending repatriation to Pakistan.

(Surprisingly, even after the historic surrender of 90,000 Pakistani military personnel in Dhaka on December 16, 1971, the armed Biharis kept up a unique resistance in Mirpur until January 31, 1972.)

However, after the war these “Stranded Pakistanis”, as they were called, were no longer welcome in Pakistan, alongside whose army they had fought against East Pakistan. The Bangladesh authorities too did not care for them because they allegedly saw Pakistan as their “homeland”.

The bulk of the Urdu-speaking “Biharis” had originally migrated during Partition to the then East Pakistan from Bihar and Bengal, specifically Kolkata. Soon after Bangladesh was formed in 1971, the overwhelming majority of them opted for Pakistani citizenship. But successive governments in Pakistan failed to take them in.

Although the Urdu-speaking people got some state patronage in their rehabilitation from successive governments in Pakistan, especially during the 10-year-rule of Field Marshal Ayub Khan, they became increasingly unpopular among the larger Bengali population, which considered them to be alien, specially in terms of culture. On the other hand, despite the limited efforts at reconciliation, the people who migrated from India had to overcome deep psychological barriers to integrate into the mainstream. The divide among the two communities only widened because of the partisan actions of the military and the religion-centric leadership. In the historic elections of 1970, which sealed the fate of a united Pakistan, most of the Biharis supported the pro-Pakistan Muslim League, ignoring the massive Bengali nationalist awakening.

Unofficial estimates say the number of Biharis in Bangladesh was more than half a million in 1972. Some 278,000 migrants were living in camps on the outskirts of Dhaka, and the others were in 60-odd camps in different parts of the country, including north-west Saidpur, where their concentration was the heaviest.

In 1972, when the new Bangladesh government offered citizenship, the majority of the Biharis opted for repatriation to Pakistan. They probably anticipated quick repatriation and a warm welcome in Pakistan, for which they had made many sacrifices. But their dreams were shattered.

Tripartite agreement

In December 1973, the International Committee of the Red Cross completed the registration of 539,669 people who wanted to return to Pakistan. In August 1973, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh signed a tripartite agreement under which Biharis who opted for Pakistan were to be repatriated. The first batch of 120,000 “stranded Pakistanis” was airlifted to Pakistan in 1974.

Since then, despite a strong campaign by the “Biharis”, there was no repatriation until 1980, when new initiatives were taken to resettle them in parts of Pakistan. However, these moves, too, proved futile. In 1988, the Pakistan government signed an agreement with the Muslim World League of Mecca to establish a trust, called the “Rabita Trust Fund”, to arrange for the repatriation and rehabilitation of the “stranded Pakistanis” from Bangladesh. The move was supported by the then President, General Zia-ul-Haq, but his death left the issue in limbo.

The outcome of Pakistan’s national elections in 1988 provided the Mohajir Quami Movement (MQM), the most enthusiastic supporter of resettling the Biharis in Pakistan, with an opportunity to extract concessions from the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government. It struck a deal with the PPP to ensure the repatriation of the “stranded Pakistanis”.

However, in the midst of a new hope, the first aircraft that was to carry the “stranded Pakistanis” to Pakistan was cancelled in January 1989 following protests by the Sindhi National Alliance and the Punjabi-Pakhtun Ittehad. This cancellation contributed immensely to the straining of relations between the MQM and the PPP. A new agreement signed later stated that “all stranded Biharis in Bangladesh shall be issued Pakistan passports and in the meantime arrangements shall be made to repatriate them to Pakistan immediately”.

Following this agreement, a move to transport these people to Pakistan began afresh. The first batch of 323 Biharis arrived in Lahore in January 1993, and were housed near Okara in Punjab, but the process was stalled because of opposition both from within the government and from the local people. The resistance was the strongest in Punjab and in urban Sindh.

The Biharis in Bangladesh had formed an organisation called the Stranded Pakistanis General Repatriation Committee (SPGRC), which advocated even militant action to achieve their repatriation. But the existing political realities rendered their moves futile. The community as a whole feels humiliated and betrayed by successive Pakistani governments.

In 2002, a new ray of hope emerged when the then President of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf, during his visit to Bangladesh, assured the leaders of the stranded Pakistanis that steps would be taken on a priority basis to resolve the long-pending issue. But nothing happened.

The Urdu-speaking people in Bangladesh, except for a fortunate few, live in abysmal conditions in the camps, without proper health care and education for their children. They have little hope of being repatriated to Pakistan and even lesser chance of integrating with the mainstream. Pakistani governments disowned these people on the grounds that their entry into the country might create greater racial, linguistic and ethnic problems. Ironically, neither the United Nations nor the International Red Cross and Crescent Movement recognises these people as “refugees”.

Rights of citizenship

Disposing of a petition from Bihari representatives, the Dhaka High Court, on May 19, 2008, granted rights of Bangladeshi citizenship to second-generation Biharis who were born in the camps after 1971. The court held that Urdu-speakers born in Bangladesh, or whose fathers or grandfathers were born in Bangladesh, and who were permanent residents in 1971, or who have permanently resided in Bangladesh since 1971, are citizens “by operation of law”.

The court directed the Election Commission to enroll the Urdu-speaking people who wished to be registered and issue them national identity cards. Many Biharis, reportedly, registered and received their IDs. However, among those who failed to register were those who still entertained a wish to be repatriated to Pakistan.

But the legal status could not perhaps trounce the historic realities, nor trim down the psychological barriers between the local people and the Urdu-speakers. In a Bangladesh polity that is sharply polarised on pro- and anti-liberation lines, allegations are rife that the anti-liberation camp is politicising the Bihari issue for political gain.

Despite some progress in restoring their Bangladeshi identities, the “Biharis” live in abject poverty and are vulnerable to discrimination. Their camps are classic examples of subhuman living. For years, their kids have grown up landless, dreamless, and rootless.

Ironically, most Pakistanis, in particular the leaderships at various points of time, forgot these people, who were once projected as “patriots”, mainly because of the fear that on repatriation they would finally settle in Sindh and join the ethnic political ranks of the Mohajirs. Hated by the local people for backing Pakistan in 1971 and denied by Pakistan because of its internal political dynamics, they are a people stuck between two nations, accepted by neither. They continue to spend their lives in subhuman conditions within the confines of the camps.

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