Soviet chief Joseph Stalin, who whatever his faults, had a shrewd insight into human nature, noted “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of a million is a statistic.” The dictum bears keeping in mind on the thirty ninth anniversary of the fall of Dhaka. It is one thing to blandly observe that today, the Pakistani national narrative of the fratricidal war of 1971 has forgotten the suffering of a particular group of people. It is quite another to consider examples of this suffering, and then confront the terrible fact that this suffering is still ongoing.
The near-universal narrative prevailing today regarding the events of 1971 is simple: Mujib ur Rehman was the duly elected leader of Pakistan. The Army, this version goes, unleashed Operation Searchlight for no reason other than pure rabid bigotry, a process that culminated in the loss of East Pakistan. The story has been drummed into our heads, at home and abroad, for years. But one piece is missing from this simple narrative: the story of the non-Bengali Pakistanis in East Pakistan in 1971. For ease of reference, this piece occasionally refers to these Pakistanis as “Biharis”, even though they comprised many ethnic groups. The one thing that they did have in common is that they were, and legally still are, all citizens of Pakistan.
Their stories and suffering have been largely forgotten. But their tales are the stuff of nightmares. Typical was the ordeal of Ms. Shamim Akhtar who lived with her small children and husband in Dhaka, where her husband was a railways clerk. By March 12, 1971, the Makti Bahini had cut off water and power to the house. She gave birth to a baby assisted only by her husband. That night, the Makti came for him. Brushing aside her pleas that he had small children and noone to look after them, they forced him into a lorry. He was never seen again.
Similarly, Gulzar Hussein was on a bus of laborers and their families in Narayangang on 21 March, 1971. The Makti Bahini intercepted the vehicle, and ordered the passengers off. Gulzar Hussein, who spoke the language fluently, escaped by passing himself off as a Bengali. The Bengali passengers were ordered to disperse. The Makti then killed the non-Bengali males instantly over the wails of their families. The women were raped, and then finished off with their children.
Gulzar Hussein and Shamim Akhtar’s experiences are only an infinitesimally small sample of the horrors endured by hundreds of thousands in 1971 for the sole crime of speaking with the wrong accent. They are the tales of railways clerks and day laborers, ordinary Pakistanis like many others, struggling to earn a living, who simply found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. After been largely ignored for decades, their experiences are finally available on the Internet. The reader is particularly directed to Qutbuddin Aziz’s “Tears and Blood.” Mr. Aziz has done yeo-man’s work in putting together these painful stories.
Horrific as these tales are – the true number of non-Bengalis butchered in East Pakistan will never be known, but the destruction of entire communities surely means a tally of hundreds of thousands – the true betrayal subsequently came after the loss of Dhaka. By March 1972, the Red Cross had registered 540,000 “Bihari” civilians displaced from their homes in East Pakistan, living in wretched conditions in camps in newly created Bangladesh. These “Biharis” had lost everything – their homes, their livelihoods, sometimes their families, and occasionally their sanity – for Pakistan.
The Government of Pakistan had failed abysmally in its duty to protect its citizens. This failure could be understood, if not excused, on the premise that the Government that it simply did not have the capability to protect them. But this rationale did not apply to is post-1971 actions, which were inexcusable on any basis. The Government of Pakistan, which would later cheerfully host 3 million Afghan refugees, simply disowned its citizens. Though the annals of South Asian politics are replete with callous decisions, the decision deliberately strip ones’ nationals of their citizenship after failing to protect them, and abandoning them for decades into camps that are considered horrible – by the standards of Bangladesh – must stand in a class by itself.
Morally, the decision was abhorrent. Technically, it was constitutionally and legally indefensible. The so-called Biharis had been Pakistanis on December 15, 1971. Under the Citizenship Act, the fall of Dhaka had done nothing to change that status. If anything, their claim on Pakistan was even stronger than it was before. They had not crossed any border. The border had crossed them. They had been Pakistanis, and Pakistanis they had remained.
The “temporary” camps for the Biharis were set up by the Red Cross in December 1971. The people who were forced into them may have considered themselves lucky to have survived. The violence had not ended – Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto would issue a plea for their safety in March 1972. Yet even as they were herded into camps, they would surely have thought that their ordeal was coming to an end.
And surely none of them anticipated that they would still be eking out a precarious existence in those camps thirty-nine years later. Yet that is what has come to pass. There have been some encouraging signs. In the 1990s, the Punjab Assembly and the Senate of Pakistan passed resolutions for their return. Under a decision of the Bangladesh High Court, some of them have become citizens of Bangladesh. A handful were repatriated under the first Nawaz Sharif government. Yet the overwhelming majority have been abandoned to their fates to live, and in all probability die, alone.
Morally, this is unconscionable. Legally, it is untenable. The Supreme Court of Pakistan’s decision in the Nawaz Sharif case makes it clear that a citizen of Pakistan has the right to return and reside anywhere in Pakistan. If the rule of law is to mean anything, the rights must apply to Pakistani citizens languishing for decades in Dhaka camps just as much as they do to prominent politicians in London townhomes. The Supreme Court of Pakistan should hold this deprivation what it manifestly is: illegal, and mandate their return home. Thirty-nine years in a camp for the crime of being a Pakistani is thirty-nine years too long. It is time to bring them home.