Who’ll let the Biharis Out?

Whither stranded Pakistanis?

But it was left to lawyer Aziz Munshi to speak for the “legal and constitutional right of the stranded Pakistanis” to come to their country – for they did not leave the country, the country had left them.

Kunwar Idris

AFTER 35 years, the surrender at Dhaka and the emergence of Bangladesh is a forgotten chapter in Pakistan’s history. But a footnote to that great tragedy continues to fester. Some 200,000 people living there still insist that they are the citizens of Pakistan and hoist the Pakistani flag in Dhaka’s Mohammadpur slum on August 14 every year.
Most of the present denizens (families of seven or more huddled in one shack) of Mohammadpur and smaller slums in Rangpur, Narainanj, Saidpur, and Mirpur were born after East Pakistan became Bangladesh. Their hope to make it to Pakistan one day may be fading but refuses to die. Their fate has long ceased to be of concern to the government of Pakistan. Nor does their plight strikes a chord of sympathy even among their ethnic kin in Pakistan.
In meetings, TV discussions and newspaper articles the loss of East Pakistan is regularly mourned and is the subject of much debate and analysis. But it was left to lawyer Aziz Munshi to speak for the “legal and constitutional right of the stranded Pakistanis” to come to their country – for they did not leave the country, the country had left them.
How one wishes that Mr Munshi had persuaded Gen Ziaul Haq, Nawaz Sharif and then Gen Pervez Musharraf (he was attorney-general in the governments of all three) to fulfil their constitutional responsibility. Now what Mr Munshi has to say carries no more weight than the opinion of an individual. The state’s legal responsibility may have abated with the passage of time and the presence of a new generation – but not its moral responsibility which is more binding, universal and eternal.
The humanitarian aspect of the issue, ironically, was emphasised at the same meeting by H.N. Akhtar and S.S. Qasim (one a bureaucrat, the other a soldier) who had followed cold rules all their lives. The “Biharis,” they argued, had the right to return for they had fought to the last to save Pakistan.
Sadly, the demand for their repatriation finds place neither in the manifestoes of political parties nor in the rhetoric of their leaders for today it would not get them votes. The indifference of the religious groups to whom the bonds of faith are stronger than race or culture is even more marked. Not only have they made no effort on this issue, they have frustrated the efforts of those who felt concerned.
A plan for repatriation was made and financial commitments for it were secured by a public-spirited life peer of Britain, Lord David Hedley Ennals. Mr Muzafar Husain, East Pakistan’s last chief secretary, who was a witness to the sacrifices of the stranded people was appointed by the government of Pakistan to support Lord Ennals’ efforts.
While Lord Ennals’ plan was still in the making, ethnic tensions arose in Karachi which was expected to be the most likely destination of the repatriated “Biharis” as it had been for a much larger number of them who came by whatever route and in whatever manner they could. As the government dithered, Lord Ennals walked away in disgust and the donors he had lined up, too, backed out. In the course of time, the repatriation of the “Biharis” also got linked with the presence of a much larger number of Bengalis in Karachi most of whom were unwilling to go. It was difficult to locate and deport them.
Some years after Lord Ennals’ departure, the Jeddah-based Rabita Alam-i-Islami stepped in to take up his unfinished mission. Rabita started on a promising note but made little headway as time went by. Hopes were raised once again in 1999 when Dr Abdullah Omar Nasif, chairman of the Saudi consultative assembly and a former secretary-general of Rabita, promised to take the issue back to a reconstituted and more assertive council of Rabita. It has not been heard of since.
Rabita’s plan envisaged rehabilitation of the returning people in a number of selected locations in Punjab. As this plan faltered, Dr Nasif blamed the excessive preoccupation of successive governments with their own politics of survival. In reviving its plan the Rabita, it seems, was prompted by Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain who was then interior minister in Nawaz Sharif’s cabinet. He undertook to select and acquire 34 sites in various Punjab districts and also helped raise funds.
He kept renewing his pledge but it remains a guess whether this time round the blame lay on Rabita or again on the government concerned about its own survival. Nothing happened in material terms. In more recent times Chaudhry Shujaat, forgetting his pledge to the “Biharis”, has shown more interest in bringing over the mortal remains of Chaudhry Rehmat Ali, a man who denounced Jinnah and his Pakistan.
During the time when it was in power in the NWFP, Wali Khan’s NAP (National Awami Party, later renamed ANP) offered to receive and settle the whole stranded lot in that province. For the NWFP government it would have been an easy task for, after all, it had played host for a generation to a much larger number of refugees fleeing from war-torn Afghanistan. It seems it was the centre that did not take up the offer for the ANP is known to be much less given to hyperbole than other parties.
During General Musharraf’s seven years in power, there has not been even a passing mention of the return and rehabilitation of the stranded people though Chaudhry Shujaat is the most influential figure of the regime and has also been prime minister for a while. He is now much better placed to fulfil the pledge he made in March 1999. Gen Musharraf too should be sympathetic – or so the Mohammadpur slum dwellers expect.
That said, there is little hope for any action to ensue as repatriation is no longer a live issue for this government. All that can be expected of it is to persuade the government of Bangladesh to accept the willing among the stranded as its citizens. After all if Pakistan doesn’t want them where else can they go?
The efforts aimed at repatriation or acquiring citizenship should not be given up altogether. Some humanitarian organisations in Pakistan and Bangladesh could jointly accomplish what the two governments couldn’t or did not want to. The world community would certainly help. Humanitarian winds are blowing strong across the world. Just look at the donations for the Asian tsunami and the Pakistan earthquake. More money has been pledged than the receiving countries can spend.
A comforting feature of the otherwise troublesome repatriation problem is that it would bring to Pakistan skilled artisans and hardy workers. Two generations of them have survived in a degrading hostile environment under a callous government amidst hopes that were raised only to be dashed.
Though the people coming from Bangladesh would not be a burden but an asset, considering the precarious ethnic balance of Sindh, it would be wise and safe to settle them in Punjab and the NWFP where skilled workers and craftsmen are always in short supply. Legal, political and economic considerations apart, it remains Pakistan’s moral responsibility not to let the second generation live and die in limbo.

The author is a columnist
Courtesy : Dawn

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