Four decades of sufferings of the stranded Pakistanis in Bangladesh

By Abdus Sattar Ghazali

December 16 marked the 41st anniversary of the breakup of Pakistan when the eastern wing of the country emerged as "Bangladesh" after an India-backed secessionist movement. The occasion calls for highlighting the plight of about 250,000 so-called "Biharis" or stranded Pakistanis still languishing in unsanitary camps in Bangladesh.
Biharis in Bangladesh

Who are the so-called "Biharis" or stranded Pakistanis?

In pre-Independence India, Biharis were an Urdu-speaking Muslim minority in the Hindu dominated province of Bihar. In 1947, at the time of independence or partition, Biharis in large numbers moved to what was then East Pakistan. When the civil war broke out in East Pakistan, the Biharis, who consider themselves Pakistanis, sided with the Pakistan army which had launched a bloody operation to suppress the rebellion of Bengalis.

More than one million Urdu-speaking Biharis (also called stranded Pakistanis) were left behind as the Pakistani army and civilians were evacuated since  East Pakistan became an independent state, Bangladesh. All properties belonging to non-Bengalis were confiscated by an executive order of the interim President of Bangladesh. At the same time, there were summary executions by firing squads, mass decapitations, rape and mutilation. In the wake of revenge killings, they fled their homes and sought sanctuary in some 166 Red Cross camps while awaiting repatriation to Pakistan. By the end of 1972, there were over one million displaced persons in these camps, which were so squalid that one UN official declared in desperation that the site he had visited could be described as nothing more than a concentration camp.

In 1972, when the Bangladesh government offered citizenship, an estimated 600,000 accepted it but over 500,000 persons opted to repatriate to Pakistan. Those choosing relocation to Pakistan anticipated that their move would be swift. They were wrong. Despite an agreement signed by Bangladesh, India and Pakistan to repatriate all these people to Pakistan, the government of General Ziaul Haq issued an ordinance in March 1978 stripping all Pakistanis left in Bangladesh after December 1971 of their nationality, unilaterally, retroactively, arbitrarily and en masse.

Now they found themselves unwelcome in both countries. Pakistani governments disowned these people on the grounds that their entry into Pakistan would create great racial, linguistic and ethnic problems in the country and Bangladesh scorned them for having supported the enemy. At this time, there are at least 100 thousand of these people living in Pakistan who are not recognized as citizens of Pakistan.

Ironically, neither the UN nor the International Red Cross and Crescent Society recognize these people in Bangladesh camps as refugees. They have been denied the refugee status because they are not considered displaced people. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has not addressed the plight of the Biharis.

Promises of repatriation
In December 1973, International Committee of Red Cross completed registration of 539,669 persons who wanted to return to Pakistan. In 2006, a report estimated that between 240,000 and 300,000 Biharis live in 66 crowded camps in Dhaka and 13 other regions across Bangladesh.

India, Bangladesh and Pakistan signed an agreement in August 1973 under which all those who opted for Pakistan were to be repatriated. Following the New Delhi Tripartite agreement, the first batch of 120,000 stranded Pakistanis was airlifted to Pakistan in 1974.

In 1988, the Government of Pakistan signed an agreement with the Muslim World League of Mecca establishing a Trust called "Rabita Trust Fund" to arrange repatriation and rehabilitation of all the stranded Pakistanis from Bangladesh. The Trust was active until 1998.

After a wait of about two decades, in January 1993 when Pakistan repatriated the first batch of 300 Biharis from Bangladesh, they were far from universally welcome. Native Sindhis, championed by the Pakistan People's Party, opposed their settlement in their province. The process of repatriation has been stopped since 1993.

A ray of hope had emerged when in 2002 during his visit to Bangladesh, the then President of Pakistan Pervez Musharraf assured the representatives of the stranded Pakistanis to resolve this matter on priority basis. However, despite several assurances from different prime ministers of Pakistan the matter is still unresolved.

On May 19, 2008, the Dhaka High Court granted right of Bangladeshi citizenship to the second generation of Biharis who were born in the camps. The court held that any Urdu-speaker (Bihari) born in Bangladesh, or whose father or grandfather was born in Bangladesh, and who was a permanent resident in 1971 or who has permanently resided in Bangladesh since 1971 is a citizen "by operation of law." Persons who affirm or acknowledge allegiance to a foreign state (such as Pakistan) may be disqualified, however. The court directed the Bangladesh Election Commission (BEC) to enroll majority age Urdu-speakers who wish to be registered and to issue them national identity cards (IDs) "without any further delay." Between 70-80% of all Urdu-speakers registered and received their national identity documents. Among those who failed to register were those who still entertained a wish to be repatriated to Pakistan.

Continued Misery in the Camps
Despite recent progress in voter and ID registration, 41 years of non-recognition has left around 200,000 Urdu-speaking people living in abject poverty and vulnerable to discrimination.

The camps where these stranded people have been living for almost four decades are classic examples of subhuman living that is hardly any different from animal life. Dingy and stinky atmosphere, merger of both water and sewerage lines, lack of latrines and clean water are constant threats to health.

Malnutrition of children in the absence of proper food and medicines threatens their physical growth on one hand and the absence of education turns them into a dark generation on the other.

Each family has been given one room - 6 feet by 6 feet. But who wants to know that these families have grown in size over the years. Sometimes, 10 people live in one room, spanning three generations.

Wars and conflicts have displaced millions of people around the world, but those who flee such conflicts normally receive international attention and media coverage. Internecine fighting among Afghan groups or conflicts in the Horn of Africa have drawn world reaction with aid agencies and UNHCR scrambling to help them. In the case of the stranded Pakistanis, nobody has bothered to help alleviate their sufferings.

In due course most of the people of Pakistan also forgot these stranded Pakistanis who were being projected as patriots during the 1971 war and its immediate aftermath. These "patriots" of 1971 are now considered "pariahs" by Pakistan that has stopped owning them as it fears that, on migration, they would settle in Sindh province and join the ethnic political ranks of Mohajirs (the Urdu-speaking people who migrated from India to Pakistan after independence in 1947). The stranded Pakistanis or Biharis are trapped between the conflicting histories and ideologies of the Subcontinent.

Pakistan's refusal to accept these stranded Pakistanis delegitimizes the 'Two Nation Theory' (that Muslims and Hindus in Colonial India were separate nations) on the basis of which Indian subcontinent was divided into India and Pakistan. But Biharis do pose a challenge to the concept of Pakistan, for if Pakistan is unwilling to accept the very people for whom it was created, then its own raison d'etre vanishes, according to Altaf Hussain, leader of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a ruling coalition party of Pakistan.

Abdus Sattar Ghazali, the author of Islamic Pakistan: Illusions & Reality, is the Chief Editor of the Journal of America ( and Executive Editor of the American Muslim Perspective: email:
asghazali2011 @

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-31 January 2013 on page no. 16

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