The sad saga of stranded Biharis


Sultan M Hali

BIHARI is a generic term, which implies the migrants from the Indian State of Bihar, who headed for the then East Pakistan, after the partition of India in 1947. Later, all Urdu speaking people, even the Punjabis, Pathans, Sindhis and Balochs from West Pakistan, who were posted to East Pakistan or settled in the Eastern Wing, were labelled as Biharis by Bengalis. The mass exodus of Muslims from the province of Bihar, which was adjacent to Bengal as well as quite a few from UP and other Indian states, where Muslims were minorities, had to flee to escape the wrath of the militant Hindus, who attacked Muslim communities in repercussion to the partition announcement, looting, killing and raping their women.
It is a travesty of fate that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (then a student leader) but an ardent follower of one of the founding fathers of Pakistan, Hussein Shaheed Suhrawardy — then Prime Minister of Bengal in 1946 — toured affected villages in Bihar with his relief team and touched by the plight of the Biharis, had asked the Bihari refugees to move to East Bengal in 1947. Muslims migrating to East Pakistan were initially welcomed by the Bengalis. According to the 1951 census, 671,000 Bihari refugees were in East Bengal; by 1961, the refugee population had reached 850,000. Broad estimates suggest that about 1.5 million Muslims migrated from West Bengal and Bihar to East Bengal in the two decades after partition.
The migrants were mostly educated and hardworking; they were easily absorbed in the fields of education, medicine, railways, police, armed forces and other important cadres. By dint of hard work, they rose to higher positions, replacing the Hindus that had migrated to India. The first fissures between the two communities appeared as early as 1948 because of the language movement, when the Federal Government of Pakistan declared Urdu as the sole national language, sparking extensive protests among the Bengali-speaking majority of East Bengal. The Biharis, whose mother tongue was Urdu, did not join in the language movement, which was resented by the Bengalis.
Indian propaganda, which exploited the sense of disparity with West Pakistan and deprivation felt by the Bengalis, also alienated the Biharis. The Bengalis became resentful of the relative progress of the Biharis in various government slots. Fast forward to the events of 1970 and 1971, when following the 1970 general election and landslide victory of Sheikh Mujib and his Awami League, the military junta at the helm of the government and the West Pakistani politicians refused to ask the winning political party to form the government. Ultimately, thoroughly disgusted by the attitude of West Pakistan and the prodding of India, the Bengalis declared independence on 25 March and started the barbarous slaughter of Biharis and West Pakistani bureaucrats and West Pakistani defence forces posted in East Pakistan.
The Biharis being soft targets, being unarmed and living in specific communities, bore the brunt of the massacre. Recent investigations indicate that Indian soldiers and guerrilla forces masquerading as Bengalis along with some disgruntled East Pakistanis led the charge of atrocities of mass rape of the Biharis and other non-Bengalis. Pakistan Army, which had a contingency plan, launched Operation Searchlight to save the Biharis and other non-Bengalis from the brutality unleashed on them and wrest back control of East Pakistan from the rebels. Unable to sit back, Bihari youth enmasse joined volunteer groups along with Jamaat-e-Islami in East Pakistan to fight alongside Pakistan Army to defend the motherland against Indian and insurgents’ incursions.
Nine months of the war against secession, being blockaded by India and the adverse international opinion against Pakistan owing to massive Indian propaganda, the endgame came in November 1971, when India launched a full-fledged attack against East Pakistan. Pakistani troops and the volunteer groups comprising Biharis and Jamaat-e-Islami Razakars, fought valiantly. West Pakistan failed to launch a retaliatory attack in the western theatre and delayed it till December 3rd. For the beleaguered troops in East Pakistan, the end was obvious, facing an external enemy ten times its size equipped with massive air cover with a surreptitious enemy within in the shape of Indian guerrillas masquerading as Mukti Bahini causing sabotage, disruption and sporadic hit and run assaults, a demoralized and battle fatigued Pakistan Army surrendered on December 16.
Pakistan Army and the West Pakistani bureaucrats posted in [erstwhile] East Pakistan were taken Prisoners of War but the Biharis, now devoid of any support were targeted by blood thirsty Indian guerrillas and some deranged Bengalis thirsting for revenge. Thousands were massacred and raped even after the Fall of Dhaka. It is to the credit of many God-fearing Bengalis who protected the Biharis by hiding them. Ultimately, the Biharis, who were once a well to do community, were rounded up and herded into camps, where they continue to exist in squalor, poverty, disease and deprivation. Some managed to escape via Nepal or through India and managed to reach Pakistan, while the rest remain in Bangladesh. A handful were formally accepted by Pakistan but the doors were shut for them. Unable to claim United Nations refugee status due to a number of technicalities, this ethnic and linguistic minority was legally stateless, ‘officially dead’. Members of Jamaat-e-Islami have been tried for treason and hanged while the Biharis languish in the concentration camps, forced to eke out a survival, waiting for a messiah, who never came. Their only crime is that they stood for a united Pakistan.
—The writer is retired PAF Group Captain and a TV talk show host.

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