-By Susenjit Guha
Why were the Biharis singled out? If participating in hunting and killings of East Pakistani intellectuals with the West Pakistani armed forces during the last days before the fall of Dhaka is the reason for their miserable plight, then why were the Bengali collaborators or razakars left out and granted amnesty after the Sheikh Mujib’s assassination by successive governments which allegedly allowed Pakistan’s ISI to also dig in?
Three acts in quick succession in the military backed care-taker government of Bangladesh---granting citizenship to stranded Biharis, charging former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and arresting Jamaat-e-Islami chief Motiur Rahman Nizami, both on graft charges---maybe just accidental or coincidental. But citizenship at last for some of the stateless, stranded Biharis in Bangladesh after 37 years, is highly incidental.
Of the 300000 Biharis scattered in nearly 60 camps with their status in limbo since 1971, nearly 140000 of them who were either minors or born after 1971---after a recent high court ruling--- are now eligible for Bangladeshi nationality and can vote in the elections scheduled this year end.
But what happened to the rest?
They were adults when the crackdown began in March, 1971 and had supposedly in their right minds sided with the West Pakistani forces. While the world media focused on the genocide and the mass exodus of refugees to neighbouring West Bengal, few reported the large scale brutality perpetrated by East Pakistanis on the Bihari minority.
Having opted for Pakistan during India’s partition, most Bihari Muslims found it convenient to cross over to East Pakistan. But while they shared linguistic similarity of Urdu and Islam with the West Pakistanis, they had nothing in common with the Bengali Muslim majority in East Pakistan except Islam.
Naturally, they had to collaborate with the West Pakistanis for preservation of a united Pakistan and did everything possible to quell the liberation struggle which was the handiwork of East Bengali Muslims. Leading mostly middle-class lives, Biharis staffed the bureaucracy, corporate offices and had business interests. After taking back some of them, Pakistan washed its hands off. Karachi had already become an ethnic cauldron.
Those stranded, continued to be discriminated by successive Bangladeshi governments in all spheres of life. Biharis were reduced to eking out a living in squalid camps in Dhaka and other cities as rickshaw-pullers, labourers, domestic helps, daily wage earners doing back-breaking embroidery work for a pittance for boutique owners in upscale Dhaka neighbourhoods. Only during Bangladeshi weddings till the 80’s and 90’s, to avoid making a mess of the biryani and kebabs, some of them were much sought after for their famous culinary skills.
And their virtual ‘outcaste’ status had a lot to do with ‘linguistic nationalism’ of Bangladesh’s constitution since apart from economic discrimination by West Pakistanis; the issue of Bengali language fuelled the liberation struggle in 1971.
Some lucky Biharis managed to end their plight by marrying local Bengali women. But the rest had nowhere to go. Bangladesh didn’t want them; Pakistan refused to acknowledge them even though like many Muslims from the sub-continent, they were instrumental in the creation of Pakistan. Although India was out of bounds, some Biharis began renewing lost ties with residual relatives in their ancestral Bihar in successive decades after 1971 when their never-never-land, Pakistan, was reduced to a painful fantasy.
But did only the Urdu speaking Bihari side with the West Pakistanis? That brings us to the arrest of Motiur Rahman Nizami, recently arrested for graft charges. He was a minister in the last Khaleda Zia government and heads the Jamaat-e-Islami, which along with the infamous Al-Badr and Al-Shams which had several Biharis in their ranks, identified resistance members during the crackdown. Neither is Nizami nor his predecessor, Prof.Golam Azam---also a former minister in the last government--- Urdu speaking.
Several Bangladeshi Bengalis who opposed the liberation struggle and helped the West Pakistani armed forces in their weeding out operations had become senior bureaucrats, ministers and prosperous businessmen in the last four decades. Apart from East Pakistan’s academics, intellectuals, members of the armed forces and the police, large peasantry, the low and middle-income groups, West Bengali Hindus and Indira Gandhi’s government, the mukti-fauz or the liberation army had few sympathisers. Most civil administration members, migrants from Bihar and undivided Bengal, had a stake in an undivided Pakistan.
So why were the Biharis singled out?
If participating in hunting and killings of East Pakistani intellectuals with the West Pakistani armed forces during the last days before the fall of Dhaka is the reason for their miserable plight, then why were the Bengali collaborators or razakars left out and granted amnesty after the Sheikh Mujib’s assassination by successive governments which allegedly allowed Pakistan’s ISI to also dig in?
It was the worst form of linguistic discrimination which aggravated during the Awami League government of Sheikh Hasina. Even her father, also the nation’s father, Sheikh Mujib, had resettled members of the administration. And during Sheikh Hasina’s tenure, there was hardly any agitation during Bangladesh’s silver jubilee celebration when the Pakistani High Commissioner in Dhaka referred to the liberation struggle as an act of miscreants.
Even now, those Biharis who were in their senses in 1971, alleged to have opposed the creation of Bangladesh and perhaps still nurture a dream of being accepted by Pakistan, mainly because they are stateless, stranded for too long in Bangladesh---numbering around 160000---have been denied citizenship.
Although it is a landmark judgment by the high court, made possible under a military---ironically headed by someone confined to his barracks in West Pakistan during 1971--- backed government which has also put the two warring leaders behind bars for the first time and now has convicted Sheikh Hasina of graft charges, the basis of discrimination of those old enough Biharis of 1971, has become irrelevant.
But at least, there has been a beginning in delivering much delayed justice to the Biharis of Bangladesh. It would be interesting to know their voting pattern during elections if and when they are held, in perhaps what might be the first ‘cleansed’ political scenario in Bangladesh’s history.