December 16 is a significant day in the history of two nations — Pakistan and Bangladesh. It was on this date, 42 years ago, that the eastern province of Pakistan broke away to form an independent country called Bangladesh. Bangladesh, which held almost a quarter of the land of which Pakistan was made of, was also home to the majority of the population, as an estimated 53 per cent of the total populace resided within its borders.
Following the split, which saw the people in the eastern province achieve an independent nation, many Pakistanis who had settled there saw themselves as unwelcome. Some were the Biharis, forgotten remnants of the Indo-Pakistan partition, and there are very few voices that bring their destitute conditions to the fore. In pre-independence India, they were a Muslim minority in the region of Bihar. The people known in Bangladesh as “Biharis” or “stranded Pakistanis” are the Urdu-speaking descendants of Muslims who lived mostly in Bihar and who, during India’s partition in 1947, moved to what became East Pakistan. When civil war broke out between East and West Pakistan, many Biharis sided with the West. Subsequently, in 1971, East Pakistan became the independent state of Bangladesh and these ‘Biharis’, who had been loyal to Pakistan, were denied citizenship because they were deemed as collaborators and had “supported the enemy”.
While the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states every person has a right to nationality, these “stranded Pakistanis” enjoy no such luxury. For the past 42 years, they have been spread across Bangladesh in 66 squalid camps, each no bigger than a football field, with poor sanitation and shortages of running water. The conditions are miserable and large groups of families are often forced to share their living area with animals. They have no rights, limited job options and few economic prospects. They are refugees. Although they did not desert their country, their country appears to have forgotten them.
Their first choice was to leave the new nation and go to the west, the part of Pakistan that still existed. They expected to be welcomed and they waited. Almost four decades later, they continue to wait in silence and despair. Pakistan initially denied them permission to emigrate, fearing a massive influx that could destabilise the country. The legal limbo they find themselves in predicts an even more despondent future.
There have been a few groups that have tried to break free from this limbo and come up with a worthy solution. On of them was the Rabita Trust established in 1988 under the auspices of the then Pakistani president, the late General Zia-ul-Haque, and Dr Abdullah Naseef, the ex-secretary general of the Muslim World League. They put forth a proposal to organise repatriation of “stranded Pakistanis” and domicile them in the Punjabprovince of Pakistan. An estimated 50,000 homes were to be built and were to be freely allocated to those “Biharis”, funding coming primarily through donations. More than 3,000 destitute families were issued Pakistani identity cards back in 1992 and more than 1,000 housing units were built in Punjab to accommodate them. Unfortunately, the political changes in Pakistan over the recent years and the rising ethnic violence slowly pushed this issue to the back-burner. Meanwhile, the camp dwellers suffer in silence.
The Pakistani Repatriation Council (PRC), a non-government organisation made up of moral and dedicated individuals, has been feverishly trying to reverse this travesty of justice by highlighting the issue of “stranded Pakistanis” to each successive government. Currently, there is a hint of optimism since Pakistani leader Nawaz Sharif was supportive of this cause during his tenure as the chief minister of Punjab and when he took over as the prime minister in 1997.
In August 2013, the PRC urged Prime Minister Sharif to solve the ‘national issue of stranded Pakistanis since in the past two tenures he took concrete steps — in 1993, thousands of housing units were built; and an executive board meeting of Rabita Trust was held on December 26, 1997’.They also appealed to Sharif to “order reactivation of the Rabita Trust to restart the process of repatriation and rehabilitation of ‘stranded Pakistanis’ from Bangladesh. We suggest implementing the PRC proposal of ‘settlement of stranded Pakistanis on self-finance basis’ in case of paucity of funds. Bangladesh should be included in Rabita Trust and also play its role in solving the issue”.In a November meeting with Raja Zafarul Haq, the leader of the House in the Pakistani Senate in Jeddah, the PRC once again reiterated its demand that the repatriation of those families who were previously issued Pakistani nationality cards and who still suffer in the camps should be regarded as a matter of national priority.Absorbing this large number should not be an impossible task as low-income housing over vast tracts of land can be made available for their use. They are considered industrious in spite of their living conditions and can contribute with their skills. Gulf countries facing a shortage of semi-skilled labourers can offer meaningful employment to these people living beyond hope.
Although the Bangladeshi government has taken steps in recent years to validate their existence by the issuance of national identity cards to camp dwellers who were minors or born post-partition, 42 years of non-recognition has left the “Biharis” living in abject poverty and vulnerable to discrimination.It is the moral obligation of any nation to ensure the security and sanctity of its entire people. Pakistan’s challenge today is to resolve the issue of these forgotten camp dwellers expeditiously. While NGO teams, such as the PRC, continue highlighting the plight of these impoverished “Biharis”, the matter needs government intervention for its progress.
By Tariq A. Al Maeena, a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.