Stranded and Shunned

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Dr Rakhshinda Perveen

Another December has arrived, another year is ending, and another year will start in a few days. The calendar changes and time keeps moving. What has not changed is the predicament of some 300,000 people in different camps in Dhaka and other cities of Bangladesh. While 16 December is the day of liberation for this country, it is a sad day for those Pakistanis who had been impacted by the butchery and bloodbath in former East Pakistan. It is a shattering day to recall many sepoys and junior officers who were serving there and witnessed the atrocities and who had no say in the surrender. It is also a traumatizing memory for the loved ones of those army officials who got martyred along with their families and whose remains were never found. It could have been an embarrassing day or an occasion for retrospection for many among us had there been some intellectual courage and honesty.
For most of the Bihari families who lived there and were forced to leave under unfortunate circumstances, it is a day they never want to remember and discuss. Just like those who witnessed the “partition massacre” in Punjab and went into deep silence, many of my elders who are alive pretend they have forgotten or disentangled from this third-time hijrat/migration. Many do not even disclose their ethnic identity and try to blend in with the local cultures inside and outside present-day Pakistan.
There are some Bihari families (outside the camps) still living as equal citizens in Dhaka, Chittagong, and some other cities in Bangladesh, speaking Bangla with native fluency, and are related to Bengali families through marriage. They too try to fit in in present-day Bangladesh and become amnesic about the past. Most have to do this at the cost of not revealing their actual ethnic identity. What was that past? Why are these hundreds of thousands of people, real human beings, men, and women of different ages and children, surviving with scanty resources, in locations labelled as camps but are worse than any urban slums and with no sense of identity and no hope for tomorrow do not command the attention of human rights champions? Why do our Pakistani intellectuals and top-ranking nationalists have nothing but biases leading to hatred for this community? Why do many women rights champions who can see and condemn rape and abuses of many Bengali women either choose to remain silent on the rape of Bihari women or join those who ridicule this community? There are many questions. For the last many years, I am trying to find some answers and some empathy on the issue of stranded Pakistani Biharis repeatedly failing.
To me, no loss is greater than the loss of self-esteem, dignity, and identity. As a Bihari, who had the earliest memory of Islamabad and who is now growing old in this city I have many experiences of being humiliated and discriminated against based on my ethnic origin. Loathed and discriminated against personally, I do not recall if I ever retaliated against or devalued people with any identity. Yet I keep on thinking about why many enlightened and humane people abhor Biharis so much. When I came to know about the stranded Pakistanis in the ghettos of Bangladesh, I literally could not sleep for many nights. I was shocked to see how this issue has been cleverly erased from the books, media, and popular memories. I was even more shocked to notice how politicians especially those who are Urdu speaking, either buried this issue or used it for their vested interests.
This December, I am reminding our civil society, feminists, liberals, political voices and movers and shakers that those who are stranded in Bangladesh are not killers or rapists of Bengalis. They were ordinary, unarmed citizens of Pakistan. Yes, some of them stood with the Pakistani army as they wanted Pakistan to remain united. But among them, many had no say. Most of those who got stranded in the “camps” of Bangladesh fled to Dhaka in 1971 from Bengali majority areas like Dinajpur, Sirajganj etc., following the killings of their family members and the threat of more losses. Following the surrender, many events took place that also included the repatriation of a few thousand during Bhutto’s government. There is no accountability for the funds raised in their name. Much later, a few more hundred landed in Karachi, and they are commonly perceived as Bengalis without their national identity cards. No political party is interested in this issue. No liberal, no feminist, no rights-based activist is paying attention to this community divided and devastated between two countries. Those who were stranded continued to wait for good days, change of hearts of Pakistani governments, occasionally put a demonstration on the visits of different premiers from Pakistan, and then that generation faded away. A new generation has neither time nor appetite to investigate their past and lost identities. With the support of some charities ( mostly by Biharis settled in the US ), many are getting education and skills. It is hoped that in the next 10-20 years, these “camps” will be replaced by native Bengalis migrating to the cities in search of livelihood. These people are being and will be integrated and assimilated into different regions and families. What remains intact is the arrogance and apathy of a vast majority of the powerful and power in our civil society and bureaucracies, who will probably never have the nerves to apologize to Bengalis and Biharis and atone for their crimes.
The youth of this country needs to know this appalling chapter of our history with accuracy. But who is going to tell the whole story? Who will share the authentic story? Probably no one. What I could do is share what I know are facts. Many Pakistani Biharis who migrated to the eastern part after 1947, like my late father Prof Nazeer Siddiqi ( who had to leave Dhaka, parting from his home, books, and siblings), late Noshad Nori (who stayed back in Dhaka and witnessed 16 December 1971), and other progressive Urdu writers wanted Biharis living there to listen to Sheikh Mujeeb Ur Rehman to find any peaceful solution. It did not happen. We all know. But why did it not happen? Asking this question is risky even today.