Bihari is a generic term, which implies the migrants from the Indian province of Bihar, who headed for East Pakistan, after the partition of India in 1947. Later all Urdu speaking people, even Punjabis, Pathans, Sindhi and Baloch, who were posted to East Pakistan or settled in the Eastern Wing, were labelled as Biharis by Bengalis.
The mass exodus of Muslims from the province of Bihar – which was adjacent to Bengal as well as quite a few from UP and other Indian states where Muslims were minorities – was to escape the wrath of militant Hindus attacking Muslim communities, the looting, killing and raping of their women, after the announcement of partition in 1946.
According to Chunnu Prasad, more than 30,000 Biharis were killed in October and November 1946, and it is estimated that up to one million migrated to East Pakistan. In the aftermath of the 1946 riot in Bihar, the founder of Pakistan, Quaide-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah said “I never dreamt that in my lifetime, I shall see Pakistan in being, but the tragedy of Bihar has brought it about’.
Bihari is a generic term, which implies the migrants from the Indian province of Bihar, who headed for East Pakistan, after the partition of India in 1947.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (then a student leader), an ardent follower of Hussein Shaheed Suhrawardy – one of the founding fathers of Pakistan), the fifth prime minister of Pakistan (1956 to 1957) and prime minister of Bengal in 1946 – toured affected villages in Bihar with his relief team and was moved to ask Bihari refugees to move to East Bengal in 1947.
Muslims migrating to East Pakistan were initially welcomed by the Bengalis. It may be remembered that Bengali leaders like Sher-i-Bengal, A. K. Fazl-ul-Haq, Nawab Sir Salim Ullah, Begum Shaista Ikramullah, Khawaja Nazimuddin, Hussein Shaheed Suhrawardy, Jogendra Nath Mandal, Nurul Amin et-al were at the forefront of the Freedom Movement of Pakistan.
According to the 1951 census, 671,000 Bihari refugees were in East Bengal; by 1961, the refugee population had reached 850,000. Broad estimates suggest that about 1.5 million Muslims migrated from West Bengal and Bihar to East Bengal in the two decades after partition. The migrants were mostly educated and hardworking; they were easily absorbed in the fields of education, medicine, railways, police, armed forces and other important cadres.
By their dint of hard work, they rose to higher positions, replacing the Hindus who had after partition migrated to India. This prosperity and success of the Biharis set in motion a process of resentment within Bengalis. The first fissures between the two communities appeared as early as 1948 because of the language movement, Federal Government of Pakistan declared Urdu as sole national language, sparking extensive protests among the Bengali-speaking majority of East Bengal.
To curb the rising unrest after the declaration, the government outlawed public meetings and rallies. The students of the University of Dhaka and other political activists led by Sheikh Mujib defied the law and organized a protest on 21 February 1952. The mass movement culminated in the death of some student demonstrators at the hands of police shelling, triggering widespread civil unrest.
Conflict and chaos continued to rage up until central government relented and granted official status to the Bengali language in 1956. Since the Biharis, whose mother tongue was Urdu, did not join in the language movement, the Bengalis, who were already conscious of the relatively higher placement of the Biharis, took cognizance of the divide.
On one hand, the Federal Government’s error in judgment regarding the imposition of Urdu, created problems for the Biharis as sparks of ethnic strife were ignited in the minds of Bengalis, who started perceiving Biharis as aliens, usurping their scarce resources and jobs. Another factor which widened the chasm between the two communities was West Pakistanis belittling Bengalis as an inferior, unsophisticated and uncouth race.
During the 1965 Indo-Pak War, East Pakistan was left undefended, but India did not dare to attack it in view of the Chinese ultimatum to it, to desist from aggression in the east. However, after the war, East Pakistanis were incensed at the callousness shown by West Pakistani rulers. Furthermore, compared to West Pakistan, the eastern wing was less economically developed; this feeling of deprivation was exploited by India to amplify the grievances.
East Pakistanis developed the notion that their main product jute euphemistically referred to as the “Golden Fiber” was being exported but the revenues were misappropriated by the West. To make matters worse, the jute mills and other industrial units in East Pakistan were all owned by either West Pakistanis or Biharis.
According to Chunnu Prasad, more than 30,000 Biharis were killed in October and November 1946, and it is estimated that up to one million migrated to East Pakistan.
Following Suhrawardy’s death in 1963, Mujib came to head the Awami League, which became one of the largest political parties in Pakistan. In 1966, Mujib proclaimed a 6-point plan titled Our Charter of Survival at a national conference of opposition political parties at Lahore, in which he demanded self-government and considerable political, economic and defence autonomy for East Pakistan in a Pakistani federation with a weak central government.
The six points of Mujib received broad support among Bengalis but in West Pakistan his demands were considered radical and perceived as bordering on separatism. The proposals alienated West Pakistani people and politicians, as well as Biharis and Muslim fundamentalists in East Pakistan. He was arrested in 1967 in the Agartala Conspiracy case but was released in 1969 due to political pressure.
He then returned to East Pakistan as a public hero. On 5 December 1969, Mujib made a declaration at a public meeting held to observe the death anniversary of Suhrawardy that henceforth East Pakistan would be called “Bangladesh”. In the General Elections of 7 December 1970, Sheikh Mujib galvanized the masses in East Pakistan and so Awami League won a massive majority in the National Assembly.
Majority of the Biharis, believing in Pakistan’s unity, cast their vote in favour of the Muslim League and thus were marked for their dissension with the Awami League. The military dictator Yahya Khan delayed the convening of the assembly because he was being swayed by politicians in West Pakistan.
Frustrated of waiting, egged on by India, on 7 March 1971, Mujib called for independence and asked the people to launch a major campaign of civil disobedience and organized armed resistance at a mass gathering of people held at the Race Course Ground in Dhaka. Heeding to Mujib’s call, Mukti Bahini, which was reportedly trained by India, launched attacks on Army units in the interior and Bihari communities in Dhaka, Chittagong, Sylhet, Rajshahi, Jessore, Khulna and numerous other cities.
Bengali officers, men of East Pakistan Rifles and other military units rebelled and slaughtered their West Pakistani compatriots along with their families. Biharis were an easy target since they were unarmed and lived in specific communities. The magnitude of anti-Bihari attacks by Bengalis throughout war are contested. Bengali sources admit only to the death of a few thousand to 30,000 or 40,000 non-Bengalis.
To make matters worse, the jute mills and other industrial units in East Pakistan were all owned by either West Pakistanis or Biharis.
According to a white paper released by the Pakistani government, the Awami League killed 64,000 Biharis and West Pakistanis. R.J. Rummel, a historian from University of Hawaii, gives a range of 50,000 to 500,000 Biharis killed and concludes at a prudent figure of 150,000 murdered by Bengalis overall. International estimates vary from 20,000 to 200,000. In June 1971, Bihari representatives put forward a figure of 500,000 Biharis killed by Bengalis.
In retaliation, the army launched “Operation Searchlight” on 25 March 1971 to curb the political and civil unrest, protect the communities being attacked and take back the territory occupied by the insurgents. On 26 March the Independence of Bangladesh was declared. Biharis supported the Pakistan Armed Forces during this period, joined armed paramilitary groups such as Al-Shams, Razakars and Al-Badr, more to protect themselves and to uphold the rule of law.
The war of secession continued till India attacked East Pakistan in November 1971 and overwhelmed by the massive Indian forces, Pakistan Army surrendered in East Pakistan on 16 December 1971. While the Pakistani Armed Forces and West Pakistani bureaucrats posted to East Pakistan were taken as prisoners of war, jubilant Mukti Bahini attacked and killed Biharis at will.
The remnants were herded into camps. Some Biharis managed to escape to West Pakistan via Nepal and Myanmar but most of them ended up in relief camps. The Bengalis looked upon Biharis as the enemy, while West Pakistan refused to accept them as citizens of Pakistan. Sarmila Bose, in her book Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War, accused Bangladeshi liberation accounts of ignoring atrocities against Urdu-speaking people in East Pakistan.
Aquila Ismail in her novel, Of Martyrs and Marigolds, highlights the atrocities committed by Bengali nationalists against Biharis during the “Bangladesh Liberation War”. According to historian Partha Ghosh approximately 470,000 Biharis out of a total of 700,000 Biharis opted to be repatriated to Pakistan through the International Red Cross.
International estimates vary from 20,000 to 200,000. In June 1971, Bihari representatives put forward a figure of 500,000 Biharis killed by Bengalis.
Despite efforts of numerous international social workers and human rights activists, in a 1974 agreement, Pakistan accepted only 170,000 Bihari refugees; however, the repatriation process has since stalled. The plight of the Biharis has fallen on deaf ears. General Zia ul Haq, the military dictator had sarcastically called Biharis as Bhikaris (Beggars).
Organizations such as Refugees International have urged both governments to “grant citizenship to the hundreds of thousands of people who remain without effective nationality”. Of the 170,000 repatriated to Pakistan, the picture is grim. Land allocated to Biharis in Pakistan in one colony in Mian Channu is now a slum. The Biharis were targeted by the ethnic Sindhi people during the 1980s Karachi riots.
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Orangi Town in Karachi houses most lower-class Biharis, who eke out survival, but interestingly have a high rate of literacy especially amongst females. During his 2002 trip to Bangladesh, Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf said he sympathized with the plight of the Biharis but could not allow them to emigrate to Pakistan.
On May 19, 2008, the Dhaka High Court approved citizenship and voting rights for about 150,000 refugees who were born after the Bangladesh 1971 war of independence.
Today 250,000 Biharis remain stranded in Bangladesh. Neither Pakistan will accept them, nor Bangladesh wants them. In fact, Sheikh Hasina Wajed the daughter of Sheikh Mujib (who was assassinated in 1975), after becoming the prime minister, has cracked down on the so-called collaborators of Pakistan Army in 1971 and is meting out death sentences in kangaroo courts.
The refugee camps of Biharis have become slums, the once educated and upper-middle-class Biharis are forced to remain in squalor, face hunger and a lack of education and health facilities. Their only crime is that they believed in Pakistan. It is imperative that this group of “Pakistanis” are repatriated to Pakistan. Pakistan owes it to them and those living here should be given citizenship. It is the morally correct thing to do.
S.M. Hali is a former PAF Officer, who took up journalism as a career after retirement and obtained Masters and M Phil degrees in Mass Communication and Broadcast Journalism from USA. He has authored ten books on current affairs, hosted a program “Defence and Diplomacy” for a decade. He is now an analyst, columnist and lectures internationally.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.