The heartbreaking story of the ‘Biharis’ stranded in Bangladesh

INTERNMENT CAMPS OF BANGLADESH by Loraine Mirza. Pub: Crescent International, Markham, ONT., Canada, 1998. pp.172. Pbk: US$10.
Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Tahir Mahmoud

Dhu al-Hijjah 29, 1419 1999-04-16

Book Review

by Tahir Mahmoud (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 28, No. 4, Dhu al-Hijjah, 1419)

Most people would be hard pressed to tell who the ‘Stranded Pakistanis’ or ‘Bihari Muslims’ in Bangladesh are. That neatly sums up their tragedy, which dates back to the turmoil surrounding the painful birth of Bangladesh in December 1971, out of what was formerly Pakistan’s eastern wing. They have also suffered as a result of t the prejudices against Islam, Muslims and indeed Pakistan itself that are so prevalent in the world. Had the ‘Stranded Pakistanis’ been Jews or Christians, it is safe to assume that there would be an international outcry about their plight. From the US president down to the Congress and the toothless UN, all would have rallied in aid of these people.

But as they are Muslims, the UN has even refused to consider them as refugees, despite the strenuous efforts of Prince Sadruddin Agha Khan, who was a special representative of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in the seventies. The Stranded Pakistanis are not wanted by anyone, not even Pakistan whose citizens they are (they hold no other nationality), and for which they have sacrificed so much.

Journalist Loraine Mirza has painstakingly pieced together their tale after numerous trips to Bangladesh and Pakistan from her home in the US. The American-born Mirza, one of those plucky journalists who refuses to take ‘no’ for an answer, is eminently qualified to write about their plight because she has witnessed their tragedy from close quarters. She was on a council at the Pakistan embassy in Washington DC dealing with the press and media from 1971 to 1974. She left because she refused to abandon the cause of the ‘Bihari Muslims’ after the 90,000 Pakistani prisoners-of-war in India were repatriated to Pakistan in 1974. It was her conviction, inherited from her parents who fought against racism all their lives, and a strong commitment to see justice done, that led her to take up the cause of the Stranded Pakistanis. This book has been in the making for nearly 30 years. Who are the Bihari Muslims and what is their story? They are the victims of two upheavals: the partition of British India into Pakistan and India in 1947, and the painful disruption of Pakistan leading to the creation of Bangladesh in December 1971. Their ‘crime’ was that having migrated from India to Pakistan in 1947, albeit East Pakistan, they remained faithful to their adopted country in 1971. They have paid and are still paying a terrible price for such loyalty.

Urdu-speaking, unlike the majority Bengali-speaking people of former East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), the Biharis did not encounter many problems until Mujibur Rahman, founder/president of Bangladesh, emerged on the scene with his rhetoric of Bengali nationalism. Mujib was a mediocre politician (and not even particularly bright û he didn’t graduate from college until the ripe old age of 30. But his rantings against West Pakistan made him popular in the East. He was a paid agent of India, a fact now admitted even in Bangladesh, albeit much too late. His daughter, Shaikh Hasina, is currently the prime minister of Bangladesh.

In the November 1970 general elections in Pakistan, Mujib’s party, the Awami League, swept almost all the seats in East Pakistan, giving him an overall majority in Pakistan’s parliament. This, however, ran contrary to the interests of the majority party from West Pakistan, the People’s Party led by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. It was Bhutto who persuaded the military regime led by general Yahya Khan to postpone convening the national assembly, which would have elected Mujib as prime minister. With Bengali minds already poisoned against their alleged exploitation by ‘West Pakistan,’ the assembly postponement proved the final straw.

Armed Awami League supporters, their ranks swelled by students and deserters from the army and police, went on a rampage in East Pakistan, in which tens of thousands of non-Bengalis were butchered between January and March 1971. The victims included the Urdu-speaking people (Biharis) as well as officials and their families from West Pakistan. It was not until the end of March 1971 that three army divisions were sent to East Pakistan to put down the insurgency and restore law and order.

The army also made the mistake of antagonising western journalists by mishandling and expelling them from Dhaka. Already hostile to Pakistan, they descended on Calcutta. It was a propaganda coup for India, Pakistan’s arch-enemy which had never reconciled with the creation of Pakistan. Already carrying inherent biases against Muslims, western journalists gave vent to their prejudices by filing outrageous stories fed to them by India about alleged atrocities perpetrated against the Bengalis. They did not bother to verify the facts. The truth is (as has now been admitted by some conscientious western journalists as well) that Awami League supporters perpetrated most of the atrocities, especially against the Urdu-speaking non-Bengalis.

The allegation of mass rapes of one million Bengali women by 83,000 Pakistani soldiers, impregnating 200,000 in a matter of a few weeks, was circulated endlessly. How an army in the midst of an insurgency had time for such activity is mind-boggling. Loraine Mirza debunks these myths admirably. When she arrived in Bangladesh in 1986, she found abortion clinics, set up in 1972 ostensibly to cater to the rape victims, were still doing brisk business. Several clinics were opened by an American, Dr Harvey Carmen, who turned out to be not a medical doctor but a sociologist, as Ms Mirza reports (p.57). Women allegedly ‘raped’ by Pakistani soldiers in 1971 still needed abortions 15 years later!

She also narrates how the Los Angeles Times staff writer, William J. Drummond, currently Professor of Journalism at Berkeley, was forced out of his job because he debunked stories about the genocide of three million Bengalis, a lie endlessly repeated even by Mujib (pp.135-137). But the story of the Bihari Muslims is far more serious and tragic. Branded as ‘traitors’ by the Bengalis, they were tormented, terrorised and shoved into 66 squalid camps in Bangladesh after the Pakistan army surrendered to the invading Indian army on December 16, 1971. A number of them, including children, were bayonetted to death in front of television cameras by such terrorists as Kader Sidki, a close ally of Shaikh Hasina. Loraine Mirza describes that the Biharis are not only denied jobs by Bangladesh but even the relief agencies the International Committee of the Red Cross, Christian missionaries etcùpoach on their souls. And they have been frustrated in their quest to go to Pakistan by successive regimes in Islamabad. In 1974, an estimated 170,000 were repatriated but another 300,000 still remain in Bangladesh, the victims of endless prevarications by successive Pakistani rulers.

In 1984, as Loraine Mirza narrates, general Ziaul Haque had promised to take these people to Pakistan, even if I have to carry them on my back. That proposal fizzled out because Zia had made a deal with the Saudi Rabita al-Alami al-Islami and despite a Trust account being set up into which US$278 million of a required $300 million had been deposited, the plan never materialised. Why? Perhaps the answer was provided on January 29, 1991, by Benazir Bhutto, the twice sacked prime minister of Pakistan, while visiting Los Angeles. Loraine Mirza cornered her during a press conference and asked why she had backed out of her pledge, made in 1986, to repatriate the Stranded Pakistanis if she came to power. Benazir gave a long, rambling reply but the gist was that their return would affect the ethnic’ balance of Sindh, her power-base (pp 148-149)!

In the eighties, Pakistan accepted three million Afghan refugees, most of whom have now become permanent residents of Pakistan, and in 1990-1991, 300,000 Pakistani were forcibly evicted from the Middle East, as a result of the Iraq-Kuwait crisis. The 300,000 Biharis in Bangladesh living in squalid camps without the basic amenities of life have been refused their fundamental right. Those ‘Biharis’ who managed to come to Pakistan by whatever means, such as those who have settled in Orangi Town in Karachi, have rebuilt their shattered lives without any government assistance.

Theirs is a particularly tragic case because they are the only true patriotic Pakistanis. While others have lived a parasitic existence in Pakistan, the Biharis have given their lives, blood and even sacrificed their honour and their children for the sake of Pakistan. And yet they remain forgotten and unwanted. Again, the comparison with Jews is instructive. Russian Jews by the hundreds of thousands have been airlifted to Israel, as were the Falashas, the Black Ethiopian Jews, in 1983 and 1985. Why have the Biharis been given the cold shoulder by Pakistan?

‘The Internment Camps of Bangladesh’ is the story of a long-suffering people told with compassion and sensitivity. Loraine Mirza demolishes many cherished myths along the way. All those who care for justice must read her book and exert pressure on the government of Pakistan to take a more humane approach to this tragedy. 300,000 hardworking people coming to Pakistan cannot be a burden when millions of Bengalis have already entered Pakistan illegally since the creation of Bangladesh.

She writes in the conclusion of her highly readable book: other will be one more chapter in this saga... I one day hope to write and add to this book [which] will deal with witnessing the last of the Stranded Pakistanis’ entry and resettlement in their homelandö (p.154). One hopes that day is not too far off.

Muslimedia: April 16-30, 1999

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