Biharis and their sacrifice for Pakistan

Dr. Ali Al-Ghamdi

At the outset, I would like to apologize for using the label “Biharis” to refer to the “stranded Pakistan” in Bangladesh” in Bangladesh who hail from the Indian state of Bihar. I know that they do not like to be called by this name in view of the fact that they became Pakistanis after making a choice to leave their state and migrate to Pakistan during the days of Partition of the subcontinent in 1947. But I am using this label now to highlight the origin and development of their problem.

Bihar is one of the largest Indian states in both geographical and demographic terms. Situated in the eastern part of India, it has

borders with Bengal state in the east, Utter Pradesh in the west, Orissa in the south and the Republic of Nepal in the north. Muslims are a minority in Bihar where Hindus are the majority.

Under the two-nation theory, which was the basis of India’s partition and the creation of Pakistan, the Muslim-majority regions joined Pakistan and Hindus-majority regions remained part of India. In accordance with the theory, Bihar had to migrate to the country of their choice.

Because of the religious, cultural, social and ethnic differences between Hindus and Muslims, intense sectarian unrest and horrific massacres of Hindus and Muslims took place, as an aftermath of the Partition, on both sides of the subcontinent. As a result of the agreement to divide the country, the largest mass exodus in history took place and nearly eight million people were displaced. Muslims in India fled to Pakistan while Hindus left Pakistan for India.
Among the Muslims, those from Bihar suffered the most and made sacrifice for the Partition in terms of loss of life and property.

Large numbers of Bihari Muslims fled to both the western and eastern wings of the newly created state of Pakistan. Most Biharis fled to East Pakistan because of its proximity to Bihar. They were largely instrumental in the creation of Pakistan to the extent the Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan who was determined to end British colonial rule in India on the basis of the two-nation theory, once declared: (“Massacres the took place in Bihar led to the creation Of Pakistan”).

The Muslims of Bihar played a major role in rescuing East Pakistan from collapse, both financially and administratively, filling vacuum caused by the flight of large numbers of Hindus to India. The Bihari Muslims proved their expertise in the field of railway operation, as well as in running jute and paper mills for which the raw materials were available in abundance in East Pakistan, while the factories were mostly located in the western part of Bengal that became part of India.

The problems for Biharis began to erupt in the year following the creation of Pakistan when Jinnah announced that Urdu would be the official language of Pakistan, provoking Bengalis to rise up in protest against the decision. They felt that this was aimed at belittling their cause, including their language and culture. Moreover, they felt that they would be at the mercy of the people in West Pakistan in cultural, political and administrative fields.

Things became worse when Pakistan Prime Minister Khawaja Nazimuddin announced in Dhakka in 1952 that Urdu was the sole official language of the country. This sparked extensive protests among the Bengali-speaking majority of East Bengal. Mass protest rallies, large scale arrests and disturbances resulting in the death of several people followed as part of what was known as the language Movement.

Biharis supported the move to make Urdu the official language for all of Pakistan because this was a language that they could understand. This resulted in widening the gap between Biharis and Bengalis, and that rift deepened when Biharis voted in favor of the Pakistan Muslim League in the provincial elections in which the United Front coalition of East Pakistan, dominated by Bengalis, had a sweeping victory. The front won almost all the seats in East Pakistan’s Provincial Parliament, sweeping the Muslim League from power. Eventually, the feeling o f discontent against rulers based in West Pakistan intensified in East Pakistan and Bengalis started demanding autonomy for the eastern wing of Pakistan.

Instead of realizing the demands of East Pakistan, the central government emphasized that was no difference between the central and provincial government because the central government was made up of representatives of the provinces. It also asserted that regionalism must be suppressed as it would undermine the solidarity and integrity of a united Pakistan.

Biharis, unfortunately, did not integrate with the Bengali community and learn Bengali language. They held fast to Urdu as a symbol of the Pakistan which they loved very much and for which they had worked hard and made sacrifice. They did not know then that they would have to pay a heavy price for this love and sacrifice and felt that the goals and values for which Pakistan was created had not been put into practice in a proper and fair manner. They also was quite different from them in term of language and culture.

In the 1965 presidential elections, Field Marshal Ayub Khan defeated Fatima Jinnah and questions were raised about whether the election had been conducted in a fair manner. After the elections, the Awami League chief Sheikh Mujibur Rahman outlined a six-point autonomy plan that many observers considered virtually a demand for secession. Accusing Mujib of treason, the central government put him behind bars on charges of spying for India in what became known as tha Agartala Conspiracy Case. But later Ayub Khan was forced to drop the case because Sheikh Mujirbur Rahman refused to attend the Round Table Conference convened by Khan unless all the charges against him were dropped.

(Next week I will discuss the suffering and ordeal of stranded Pakistanis (Biharis) in Bangladesh.)
Dr. Ali Al-Ghamdi is a former Saudi diplomat who specializes in Southeast Asian affairs. He can be reached at