Over the last two decades or so, I am looking at the erasure of how some 3-400,000 stranded human beings are existing in an extraordinary mess. It is relevant to identify correctly as to who are these unfortunate people, what went wrong with them and why are they trapped in the shabby spaces also decoded as ‘camps’ in various parts of Bangladesh.
Very briefly, the people from Bihar region of India are called Biharis. This province faced some of the worst communal riots of the era of the British Raj in 1946 and this accelerated the process of the independence of our beloved country. In 1947, some one million Bihari Muslims were forced into migration into East Bengal, where they worked as traders, civil service officials, railway/mill workers, teachers and doctors.
The then Pakistani Bengali sisters and brothers no doubt were rightfully disturbed by the elitism of our perpetual civil/military bureaucracies. They did not start as “traitors” or “anti-army.” Who can forget the love and respect extended to the people-centric Governor Gen. Azam Khan (hailing from KP) by the East Pakistanis?
For their part, the Biharis settled in the former East Pakistan. Later they came to be seen as symbols of West Pakistani ascendancy. But it was not always so. Initially they relished gracious relations with Bengalis and most of them were speaking Bengali with native proficiency. However, due to a combination of many disruptions crafted and countersigned by some players in the politics and the army, the resentment within a vast majority of the Bengalis nurtured. The compassion and consideration that existed among ordinary people in East Pakistan was squandered by political and power interests. The resultant vindictiveness and violence were not targeted against Biharis alone, who were speaking out for a united Pakistan and supporting its army. But the victims included even those Bengalis who were not pro-liberation.
I grew up hearing about the torments of the citizens of the East Pakistan and moral courage exhibited by all-too-few venerable visionaries. Those who want to really understand the making of Bangladesh must read Prof. Syed Sajjad’s Hussain’s The Wastes of Time (1995) and Letter to a Pakistani Diplomat by Dr. Eqbal Ahmed published in the New York Review in September 1971. Witnessing Bangladeshi youth, civil servants and activists communicating in Urdu/Hindi (Bollywood impact?) in the workshops/meetings held in Dhaka Sheraton or marriages among the elites or urban middle class of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, even as I was getting enlightened and emancipated with US, Canadian etc. nationality, I often pondered what exactly happened that led to “sanctioning” of sexual and gender-based violence and many other forms of injustice and inhumane acts.
The politicisation of rape is one of the most painful dimensions of 1971. The bodies of women have always become a battlefield and rape has been used as an instrument of war. By no means do I exonerate those who approved and or actually executed crimes of rape against unarmed women. But somehow the rape of Bihari women (many of them were slaughtered before their husbands and children thereafter) had been evasively shelved even by the feminists. General Pervaiz Musharraf (retd.) as the President of our country did a rightful act in 2002 when he apologised for our atrocities in 1971 and took a morally bold step by stating, “Your brothers and sisters in Pakistan share the pain of the events in 1971. The excesses committed during the unfortunate period are regretted. Let us bury the past in the spirit of magnanimity. Let not the light of the future be dimmed.” He should have apologized for raped women (of any ethnic origin) and returned the citizenship to these unfortunate patriotic Bihari people, because the past can be buried but not the people who are still breathing.
In 2020, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) sketchily recorded in its annual report its position on the stranded Pakistani Biharis. There is no informed and empathetic mention of this group during various activist projects or on International Human Rights Day. The lack of any uproar about the official non-disclosure of the complete and original Hamoodur Rehman Commission Report says a lot about our collective moral foundations. However, I do not blame poverty-stricken bonded labourers or unattended affectees of floods and other humanitarian crises for the tragedy. The actual location of this tragedy lies in the criminal silence within the community of the Nobel peace laureates, various nominees of this prize and highly acclaimed scholars on peace, security and human rights issues.
The selective activism of many rights champions and many renowned personalities wearing the hats of intellectuals and thinkers; marvels of the fields of diplomacy politics, journalism, feminism and literature, is no longer a secret.
Those who stood sincerely with the cause of the stranded Pakistani Biharis, subtly but surely (each in her/his own way) with their limitations must be held in high regard. The legendary writer and poet late Jamiluddin Aaali, journalists like Raza Rumi, late Manzoor Ahmed and late Ziauddin, author and Group Captain Hali (retd), human rights activists late I. A. Rehman and Nasreen Azher, and public intellectual late Dr. Eqbal Ahmed are some of those who lamented this purposeful and inhumane amnesia.
Recently, I came to know about a newly founded Army Institute of Military History. Its leadership and capable team must be accredited for owning and honouring Pakistani Biharis in the military as well as many civilians through their different initiatives. I hope its initiatives would have an extended inclusiveness, as well as strong social and mass media presence. Besides these, many lesser known educationists, charity workers and kindhearted people from diverse lines of work have been supporting the Biharis’ cause, but voices of sanity and peace are neither game-changers nor news-makers.
Being a Pakistani by default and being a Pakistani by choice are two unique experiences with dissimilar outcomes. Posting patriotic messages in response to atrocities and human rights violations against Muslims in India on social media while sitting safely in our homeland or enjoying dual citizenship somewhere else by no means can be compared with those who experience hell, homelessness and statelessness on a daily basis. Those who migrated by choice or due to the circumstantial pull of 1947 (when the partition of India happened) faced different fates in the western and eastern wing of Pakistan. While wishing all the luck to Bangladesh and valuing its astounding advancements in the economy, I would like to draw the attention of the governments, civil society including human rights defenders, champions of women’s rights and children’s rights, and above all the media of the two countries, towards the plight and predicament of the stranded Pakistani Biharis.
I close this piece with a quote from Dr. Usha Mahajani’s (1933-1978) research paper “Comment on Eqbal Ahmad’s ‘Notes on South Asia in Crisis’,” published in 1972 (though not accepting its entire content) that the “The new reality in South Asia is not a defeated Pakistan nor a victorious India nor a triumphant Bangladesh. The reality is the need for peaceful coexistence between three close neighbours, all of whom have a legitimate right to be where they are and who have much to gain by building a common future among them instead of destroying the common heritage that they all share.”