Repatriated or stranded in Bangladesh, Biharis still divided and without a home

Zeeshan Haider
Feb 21, 2012

MIAN CHANNU, PAKISTAN // When Mazhar Hussain left Bangladesh – originally East Pakistan – 20 years ago, he expected his six-year-old daughter would follow him to Pakistan soon.

But he has lost hope that he will ever see her again. She is now married and living with her three children in Bangladesh.
His daughter was living with her grandparents in Dhaka when he boarded a plane with his wife and two sons fleeing to Pakistan in 1993. They were moving as part of a scheme effort to repatriate Biharis – stranded Pakistanis – from Bangladesh to Pakistan.

“I thought she will come on another flight but that flight never came,” said the 60-year-old, frail Mr Hussain, sitting on a bench outside his two-room apartment in a slum in Punjab province.

“I don’t know if I will see her in my life,” he said, as tears rolled down his cheeks. “Half of me still lives in Dhaka.”

The Pakistani Biharis are now a lost people who belong nowhere. Unwelcome in Pakistan and cut off from Bangladesh.

Mr Hussain’s family is one of millions separated by the bloody partition of the subcontinent in 1947 into mainly Muslim Pakistan – which then included Bangladesh, called East Pakistan and – and mainly Hindu India.

West and East Pakistan were cut off from each other, on either side of India.

When the British Raj carved up its Indian empire, up to 12 million Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs relocated across the borders between India and Pakistan.
The split along religious lines triggered some of the world’s worst communal violence. Up to a million people were killed.

The bloodshed and mass migrations happened again less than 25 years later when East Pakistan, with the military backing of India, broke away from West Pakistan to form Bangladesh in a war in 1971.

In 1947, Mr Hussain’s father had been among those Muslims who migrated to East Pakistan from the northern Indian state of Bihar.

But despite being Muslims, the Urdu-speaking Biharis did not share much culturally with the mainly Bengali people of their new country. They had more in common with West Pakistan on the other side of India.

When Bengalis launched their war of independence, the Biharis sided with Pakistan. After the bitter war, the Biharis suffered discrimination in the new nation and wanted to move to Pakistan.

About 126,000 Biharis were resettled in Pakistan between the war in 1971 and 1981, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
Most settled in Sindh province in the south of Pakistan where many of the Muslim migrants from India had settled.

But the repatriation stopped after riots broke out in Karachi between Urdu-speaking settlers and the native Sindhi-speakers.

But in the 1990s, Pakistan resumed repatriation with the financial support of the Muslim World League, a non-governmental Islamic organisation.

This time they were settled in Punjab province, far away from Sindh to avoid more clashes.

The government set up a large neighbourhood called”Bihari Colony, 370 kilometres from Islamabad, to accommodate the new families. More than 150 two-room apartments were built for them.

But Bihari Colony is now a slum where most of the apartments are occupied by local Punjabis. Three narrow lanes are still inhabited by the Biharis. And many of the houses on those streets are in ruins.

“It’s no different from Dhaka,” 40-year-old Tahira Bibi said as her three-year-old barefoot son played nearby in the dirt.

“We sacrificed everything for Pakistan but got nothing in return,” Abul Hasan, a former soldier who fought alongside Pakistan troops in the 1971 war.

“Look what I did for Pakistan,” he said as he pulled up his shirt to show scars from war wounds.

“And look what I have got in return,” he said, pointing to his dilapidated apartment where his grandson, wrapped in a tattered blanket, lay on a cot under the sun.

Next door, lives 65-year-old widow Salma Begum along with her widowed daughter.

One of the rooms is stuffed with dry bushes for firewood, so Ms Begum lives with her family in just one room.

“I was begging in Dhaka and I am begging here too. Life is no different for me and my children,” said Ms Begum, wearing a traditional Bihari sari.

Raja Zafarul Haq, a minister in the Pakistani government during the war, said the government originally planned to bring all Biharis from Bangladesh, but couldn’t afford it.

Also, Pakistan saw little need for the programme after the Bangladeshi Supreme Court in 2008 granted citizenship rights to Biharis living in the country. UNHCR officials said they too changed course after the court decision.

“The UNHCR’s role currently is to help ensure that the Urdu-speaking community is able to access their rights as citizens of Bangladesh without being discriminated against,” Jing Song, a UNHCR spokesperson in Bangladesh said in an email.

Maryam Bibi, the wife of a jobless man with three children, said they have accepted separation from their loved ones as their fate.
“What else can we do?” she asked, wiping away tears with her scarf.

“I have spoken thrice to my mother over the telephone since I came here [in 1993].

“I don’t know when I will speak again to her.”