Thirty-Nine Years After The Fall of Dhaka, Bring The Biharis Home

This is one of two pieces that I had submitted to the Pakistani press. After an enthusiastic initial reception, including an offer to publish from The Daily Times, they fell through.

Fortunately, there’s always the Internet. So here is Number One.

December 16 will mark the thirty-ninth anniversary of the fall of Dhaka. Nations prefer to forget the most painful moments in their history, so the occasion will be largely ignored. The occasional pseudo-intellectual will huff and puff over the lessons of the tragedy. Parallels will be drawn to the present day situation in this or that part of the country. The intellectuals will wag their fingers at the men in khaki. The generals will be chastened and warned against repeating history. The old editorials will be dusted off, published, and then consigned to storage till next December.
The basic premise that underlies this annual exercise is that the tragedy of 1971 is a closed chapter in Pakistan’s history. A tragedy of monumental proportions, yes, and one offering many lessons for today and the future, but something dead and buried. When General Musharraf told interviewers in 2002 that “as a Pakistani, I would like to forget 1971” he spoke for the nation, and not just himself.
The problem with this approach is that 1971 is not a closed chapter. And not only in the impact that it has on defining Pakistan’s view of itself. As William Faulkner wrote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” But even apart from that metaphysical approach, the issue remains because hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis (referred to as “Biharis” in this piece only for clarity) remain in wretched conditions in camps in Bangladesh.
The on-going saga of these stranded Pakistanis is perhaps the most disgraceful episode in Pakistan’s history. And the fact that few Pakistanis are aware of this tale only adds further insult to their injuries. Briefly put, these citizens of Pakistan, mostly but not entirely from the Indian states of Bihar and Assam, migrated to then-East Pakistan during the horrors of Partition. They played a great role during the Independence Movement. No less a personage than the Quaid-e-Azam himself personally paid tribute to their role.
These settled down in their new homes in East Pakistan. They mixed, intermarried and lived peacefully with their Bengali neighbors for almost a quarter-century. And then came 1971. The story as told to every school-child in Pakistan is familiar: Mujib won the election. Either the Army or Bhutto, depending on the speaker’s political inclination, was unwilling to cede power to him. Instead, a massive army action, “Operation Searchlight”, was launched to suppress the East Pakistanis, alienating the population. It laid the groundwork for an Indian attack in December of that year, and an independent Bangladesh. The tale is familiar.
It is also incomplete. A critical piece of that story is missing. It is the story of those unfortunate Pakistanis who found themselves in the eastern wing of the country in early 1971, who were not Bengali. For that crime, these Pakistanis were targeted for savage reprisals by the “Makti Bahini” extremists. The ordeals of these Pakistanis have been detailed elsewhere, notably in Qutbuddin Aziz’s “Blood and Tears”. The purpose of this piece is not to dwell on them in detail. Nor is it intended as an indictment of the Bangladeshi people, many of whom saved their non-Bengali neighbors at considerable personal risk. But the tale is woefully inadequate without some sense of what these Pakistanis endured.
Three examples are illustrative. In April 1971, the international press was awash with horrific pictures of bodies, many of them elderly, women, or even babies, stacked like cordwood in the city of Jessore. Many of the pictures showed bewildered Pakistan Army jawans wandering amidst the drift. To this day, the world blames the Pakistan Army for the massacre in Jessore. But as Indian authors have pointed out, the clothing on the bodies was not Bengali. In January 1971, Jessore had thriving Urdu-speaking neighborhoods. By April, it had not a single non-Bengali soul. The fact speaks for itself.
Similarly, Chittagong had over 40,000 Biharis in January 1971. By the time the Pakistan Army retook control of the city in April 1971, fewer than 15,000 were alive. An eye-witness told this author about receiving a tip regarding the stench of bodies in the Adamjee jute mills. When a rescue team finally reached the site, they found themselves knee deep in a hellish sludge of decomposed corpses as far as the eyes could see. Hardened men vomited at the sight. A scene from the day of Judgment, he told me, with a smell that he cannot forget decades later.
Finally, in Halishahar, Kalurghat and Pahartali localities, the Makhti Bahini simply poured petrol and set fire to entire city blocks populated by Biharis. The few who made it out were finished off with bayonets and hatchets. To this day, no-one knows how many perished, but thriving communities were wiped off the face of the earth virtually overnight.
These nightmares exemplified the Bihari experience in East Pakistan in 1971. It is worth bearing that these people were ordinary Pakistanis: laborers and guards, clerks and school teachers, carpenters and cooks, and often their families. Their presence in East Pakistan was necessitated by the need to feed their families. Nothing more.
The outcome of the 1971 war is well known. Bangladesh was created. But the disgraceful behavior of the Government of Pakistan after the war is little known and largely ignored. On December 15, 1971, the entire population of East Pakistan were citizens of Pakistan. On December 16, 1971, Dhaka had fallen, and Government of Pakistan effectively washed its hands off those of its citizens who had had the misfortune to live in the eastern part of the country.
The Makti Bahini rounded up these citizens in a process entailing yet another nightmare of rape, murder and torture that can be found on the Internet. The survivors were placed in camps to await repatriation. Wretched as they were, they could not have known that their journey had only begun. The Government of Pakistan took the legally and constitutionally indefensible position that these people, who had twice lost everything for Pakistan, were not even citizens of Pakistan.
Thirty-nine years later, those citizens of Pakistan are still rotting in those camps. Some have managed to become Bangladeshi citizens by virtue of a commendable decision of the High Court of Bangladesh. A handful were repatriated during the first Nawaz Sharif government. The others, having lost their homes, livelihoods and often their families for the crime of being Pakistani, have been abandoned by the Government of Pakistan to their fate in wretched quarters, to live, and die, alone.
In 2007, the Supreme Court of Pakistan ruled in the Nawaz Sharif case that a citizen of Pakistan could not be prevented from returning to Pakistan. If the rule of law applies to all, and not just the rich and powerful, then the principle applies to the stranded Pakistanis. After all, if the Government can refuse to acknowledge a Bihari today as a citizen, it can do the same tomorrow to you, me, or any citizen. Let me plead with the Chief Justice of Pakistan and the Supreme Court to mandate the Government to do what it should have done years ago: at long last, let the Biharis come home.

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