On Dec. 16, Bangladesh celebrated the 42nd Victory Day – the day when the Pakistan Army surrendered to the Indian Army and the Mukti Bahini fighters in 1971, resulting in the creation of the new state of Bangladesh after East Pakistan seceded from West Pakistan. The birth of the new state marked the start of the tragedy of more than 300,000 Biharis, who migrated to East Pakistan from the eastern Indian state of Bihar during the partition of the subcontinent in 1947.
Biharis or “stranded Pakistanis” stood for a united Pakistan and they refused to integrate into the new country. Hence, Bengalis, the original residents of Bangladesh, were not ready to forgive them because of their opposition to the creation of the new state. As a result of this, Bengalis started mistreating the Biharis. The Pakistan army committed crimes against Bengalis and the Bengali militia did the same against Pakistanis in general and Biharis in particular during the days of the civil war. This war was fought between Bengalis, supported by India, and the Pakistan army together with other supporters of a united Pakistan.
The Pakistan Repatriation Council (PRC) recently held a symposium in Jeddah to commemorate the ordeal and suffering of the stranded Pakistanis over the last four decades. Several prominent figures from the Pakistani expatriate community in Jeddah as well as some Saudi personalities addressed the gathering. The speakers shed light on the extremely pathetic and destitute condition of more than a quarter of a million people who are currently languishing in squalid camps across Bangladesh. The Biharis, who have been leading a miserable life in unhealthy and unhygienic conditions, still cherish the hope of being repatriated one day to Pakistan, where they chose to live when they migrated from India’s Bihar to East Pakistan. When East Pakistan broke away from the united Pakistan and created the new state of Bangladesh, the Biharis preferred to retain their Pakistani identity.
The speakers also drew attention to the phases through which the issue of the Biharis have passed. Biharis were supposed to be repatriated to Pakistan along with the surrendered Pakistani troops, who were taken as prisoners of war by India. Later, Pakistan Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto managed to secure the release of these troops under the Simla Agreement, which he signed with his Indian counterpart Indira Gandhi.
However, the agreement did not include any specific provisions to facilitate the return of all the Biharis to Pakistan, a country for which they had made big sacrifices. Even though Bhutto promised the repatriation of all Pakistanis stranded in Bangladesh, nothing happened in this respect during his rule that ended in 1977.
Following the overthrow of Bhutto’s rule through a military coup by the Army Chief Gen. Zia ul-Haq, the Makkah-based Muslim World League (MWL) took the initiative to set up an endowment with the objective of enabling the repatriation of stranded Pakistanis. The endowment received the endorsement and blessing of Zia ul-Haq, who assumed its presidency, with a group of prominent Saudi and Pakistani figures as members. They included Prince Talal Bin Abdul Aziz, President of the Arab Gulf Program for Development (AGFUND). High hopes were pinned on the endowment especially because of the enthusiasm shown by Gen. Zia ul-Haq, who declared that he would ensure the return of the stranded Pakistanis to their country even if it had to be on his own back.
Eventually, the Punjab provincial government, headed by Nawaz Sharif, donated a large plot of land on which to construct houses for the stranded Pakistanis. But the death of Zia ul-Haq dashed all hopes of the repatriation of the stranded Pakistanis because the leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party Benazir Bhutto, who assumed power as prime minister of Pakistan after the death of Zia ul-Haq, showed no interest in the matter. Moreover, it was reported that when the issue was brought up during the visit of Benazir Bhutto to Bangladesh, she announced that the Biharis would remain in Bangladesh forever.
There were renewed hopes of reactivating the MWL endowment for Biharis when Sharif took over as prime minister of Pakistan. He took charge as president of the endowment and announced the happy news that this painful problem would be resolved soon. Sharif collected some money for the endowment and repatriated some Bihari families to the houses constructed for them. But the project was halted after the military coup, orchestrated by the Army Chief Gen. Pervez Musharraf, which ousted Sharif from power.
Musharraf gave up the endowment’s presidency and froze the endowment. He did not pay heed to calls to restore the endowment and repatriate the stranded Pakistanis during his rule which lasted for 10 years. Musharraf’s attitude created the impression among these miserable people that they had been abandoned by everyone and had been left to face lives of poverty, ignorance and disease.
Now that Sharif has been triumphantly returned to power, hopes have been renewed once again about the revival of the endowment project under the aegis of the MWL with the active participation of well-known figures from Muslim countries. It would be preferable to invite the government of Bangladesh to be a part of the project. Some representatives of stranded Pakistanis could also be accommodated.
Everyone should realize that as the forefathers of Pakistan – from Sir Syed Ahmed Khan to Allama Iqbal and Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah – struggled and sacrificed for creating a nation for Muslims, they would never have imagined that a nation such as Pakistan would not be in a position to accommodate all those people who chose to migrate there and who made great sacrifices in order to do so. Ultimately, these people found themselves not only as outcasts in the erstwhile East Pakistan but also unwelcome in Pakistan.
Everyone should realize that Pakistan was not founded easily, but only as a result of long struggles and great sacrifices. If the nation of Pakistan had not been founded, Bangladesh would never have existed.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif must complete the work that he started earlier. Perhaps, God has chosen him to be the savior of hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis stranded in Bangladesh, and hence he will be remembered in history for what he does for them. Moreover, it is also a humanitarian gesture as well as a national duty. May Allah help him and reward him for all the initiatives he makes to address this pressing problem.
– Dr. Ali Al-Ghamdi is a former Saudi diplomat who specializes in Southeast Asian affairs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Image: REUTERS/RAFIQUR RAHMAN/FILES