Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The term ‘Biharis’ refers to the approximately 300,000 non-Bengali citizens of the former East Pakistan who remain stranded in camps in Bangladesh (many others have assimilated into the Bengali population). The Bihari minority – Urdu-speaking Muslims, generally Sunni, who migrated from Bihar and West Bengal during India’s Partition – have long been discriminated against for their perceived alliance with Pakistan during the independence war.
Today many Biharis also live in Pakistan and India. Neither Pakistan nor Bangladesh agreed to grant citizenship to the Biharis (also called stranded Pakistanis) which resulted in their being effectively stateless since Bangladesh’s independence. Until a 2008 Supreme Court ruling that recognized their right to Bangladeshi nationality, many lacked formal citizenship and were therefore stateless. Most of these people originated from the north Indian state of Bihar.
During the British colonial times, segments of the Urdu speaking communities moved and settled in Bihar. After the Partition in 1947 there was a mass movement of peoples between India and Pakistan. Although transfers of population took place largely across the Punjab, an exchange of population of 1.3 million people took place between East and West Bengal. The Partition of India also forced one million Muslims from Bihar into migration into East Bengal. Members of these communities came to be known collectively as Biharis in East Pakistan, although not all came from the north Indian state of Bihar.
Biharis belonged to the skilled working class primarily employed on the railways. On arrival in East Pakistan, Biharis found work as small traders, clerks, civil service officials, skilled railway and mill workers, and doctors. Many were appointed by Pakistani officials to replace educated Hindus in administrative jobs and in the mills. The Urdu-speaking Biharis became increasingly unpopular and were seen by Bengalis as symbols of West Pakistani domination, which created a climate of hostility against Biharis. In the December 1970 elections most Biharis supported the pro-Pakistan Muslim League rather than the Awami League, which was largely a Bengali nationalist movement. When the independent state of Bangladesh was formed in December 1971 several thousand Biharis were arrested as alleged collaborators, and there were many cases of retaliation against Biharis.
By mid-1972 the number of Biharis in Bangladesh was approximately 750,000. Some 278,000 were living in camps on the outskirts of Dhaka, another 250,000 were living around Saidpur in the north-west. Reconciliation programmes were initiated, and Urdu-speakers were taught Bengali in an effort to overcome the most obvious obstacle to their acceptance by Bengalis. However, there were, and remain, deep psychological barriers to overcome, and most Biharis feared further retaliation. The majority of Biharis in Bangladesh have consequently expressed a wish to be repatriated to Pakistan. The Pakistani government initially agreed to take 83,000 Biharis; the number was later increased. By 1974, 108,000 had been transferred to Pakistan, and by 1981, 163,000.
During the 1980s there were new initiatives to resettle Biharis in Pakistan but these have resulted in few concrete results. In July 1988, President Zia-ul-Haq, partly in the momentum of his rhetoric of Islamization and partly because of his own Mohajir background (see Pakistan) and genuine sympathy for the plight of Biharis, signed an agreement with the World Muslim League which provided for the resettlement of the Biharis. His assassination in August 1988 left the matter in limbo. The outcome of Pakistan’s national elections in 1988 provided the Mohajir Quami Movement (MQM), which has been the most enthusiastic supporter of Bihari settlement in Pakistan, with an opportunity to extract concessions from the two main contenders for the government. A deal was struck with the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in which the PPP promised that ‘all Pakistanis living abroad by choice or by compulsion had the same rights as citizens of Pakistan’. The terms of the agreement were ambiguous, and its realization seemed impossible in so far as the Biharis were concerned. The first air flight of Biharis from Bangladesh to Pakistan was cancelled in January 1989 after protests by the Sindhi National Alliance and Punjabi-Pakhtun Itehad.
The Bihari issue contributed immensely to the straining of relations between the MQM and the PPP in Pakistan, ultimately leading to the breakdown of the coalition. A new agreement stated that ‘all stranded Biharis in Bangladesh shall be issued Pakistan passports and in the meantime arrangements shall be made to repatriate them to Pakistan immediately’.
Entering into such an ambitious programme of action was one thing, its implementation was quite another. Although settlement procedures for Biharis were initiated, with the first group of 323 Biharis arriving in Lahore in January 1993 and being housed near Okara in Punjab, further settlements had to be stalled, due largely to opposition both from within the ranks of the provincial governments and from the local population. The political, economic and cultural ramifications of a group of such numerical strength, as well as distinct ideological and political convictions, would, it was feared, generate tensions in Punjab while at the same time exacerbating already existing divisions in the urban Sindh.
The camps in Bangladesh still faced difficulties and discrimination. Their past allegiance to the West Pakistan army were not forgotten and led to attempts to try some Biharis on charges of war crimes during the Bangladesh war of independence in 1971. Biharis in Bangladesh generally described themselves as ‘stranded Pakistanis’, and some organized themselves into the Pakistani General Repatriation Committee, which advocated militant action to achieve repatriation. Camp conditions were in many cases appalling. The Bihari community as a whole felt humiliated and betrayed by successive Pakistan governments.
Yet, existing political divisions in Pakistan made the prospect of their resettlement a forlorn hope. In a test-case during 2002 before the Bangladesh high courts, the petitioners (on behalf of the Biharis) were successful in obtaining the right to vote. This right was granted to limited number of Biharis in 2003.
While lack of recognition has meant that for more than four decades a large proportion of the Bihari minority have been rendered effectively stateless, affecting almost every aspect of their lives including access to essential services such as education, in 2008 the Supreme Court formally recognized their right to Bangladeshi citizenship, calling for them to be listed on electoral cards and issued identification papers. This important step brought an end their lack of citizenship.
Even with their citizenship secured, however, the Bihari minority remain some of Bangladesh’s most marginalized communities. Today, Bangladesh’s Biharis live in 70 shanty towns that were initially temporary relief camps. The largest settlement, ‘Geneva Camp’, has 25,000 residents: it is estimated that only 5 per cent have formal education. As ownership of the settlements is uncertain and land prices have risen sharply, these areas have become increasingly attractive for investors. Many apparent incidents of communal violence against Biharis are intended to displace them from their land. On 14 June 2014, for instance, a Bengali mob attacked a Bihari settlement on the outskirts of Dhaka after an altercation broke out between communities, resulting in 10 deaths and widespread damage from arson. A local leader alleged that the attack was motivated by the desire of local politicians to evict the community.
Updated July 2018
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