Bangla Biharis weary of wait to migrate to Pakistan
Abdus Samad was full of hope when he migrated to Pakistan in 1993.
Last year, the Urdu speaking refugee returned to Bangladesh, bitter
and disillusioned about life in a country he had always considered
Most people in Bangladesh are Bengalis and speak a language of
the same name. Samad belongs to a minority of Muslim Biharis who
moved to East Pakistan from Bihar, when the Indian subcontinent
was divided in 1947.
But in December 1971, East Pakistan broke away from Urdu speaking
West Pakistan to become Bangladesh after a war that was won with
the help of the Indian army.
Then several thousand people, who did not want to live in a Bengali
majority nation, chose to migrate to Pakistan.
But because they had sided with the Pakistani army - which had
unleashed a campaign of terror in the countryside from which millions
of people fled to India - the Biharis were moved, until their
repatriation to Pakistan, into heavily guarded camps, for their
safety, by the Bangladesh government.
The Biharis have been waiting 25 years for the Pakistani government
to arrange for their travel. The two countries have signed several
agreements on the repatriation of these stateless people, but
only a few hundred have managed to go to Pakistan.
Samad said he could not believe his luck when in 1993 he was told
that he was among a batch of Biharis whose papers had been processed,
so they could leave the country of their birth for their adopted
He gave up his job in a semi-government organisation where he
was working as a low-paid employee, and left along with some of
his close relatives for Karachi, Pakistan's largest city where
the majority of residents are refugees from India and Bangladesh.
Samad said that he found a place on the outskirts of Karachi,
and a job. But the money was not enough to live on. Neither did
he feel welcome in the southern port city where simmering ethnic
tensions among different migrant communities have repeatedly erupted
in gun battles that have killed several thousands and brought
Pakistan's economic life to a standstill.
His illusions about a better life in Pakistan shattered, he has
come back to Bangladesh, and is desperately hunting for some work.
Life is again full of uncertainties.
It is estimated that there are at least 400,000 Biharis living
in some 66 refugees camps across Bangladesh. There are twice that
number in 1971, but many opted to make Bangladesh their home and
The Mohammadpur Camp in Dhaka is the largest camp for Biharis
in Bangladesh. Some 25,000 people are crowded into single rooms,
built to accommodate three. The government, which tries to provide
basic facilities like food, water and electricity, has said it
cannot improve the condition of the camp where epidemics of diarrhoea
and dysentery have claimed many lives.
Even the police does not bother to crack down on the unauthorised
distillers of local liquor, the slaughter houses and the brothels
that have mushroomed.
Because they are stateless, the Biharis can find work only as
daily wage labour. The men do backbreaking jobs as cycle-rickshaw
drivers, peddlers and brick breakers, while the women slog in
the city's garment factories or as domestics.
Over the years, groups representing the Biharis have staged demonstrations,
gone on hunger strikes and organised rallies to press for repatriation
to Pakistan, but with little result.
In the first four years after Bangladesh's independence, some
175,000 Biharis were repatriated. The process slowed down after
that: Between 1976 and 1982, some 19,000 people went to Pakistan.
Under the previous government which was in power from 1991 to
1996, only 325 Biharis were repatriated.
This was mainly because ex-prime minister Khaleda Zia's counterpart
in Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, was not very keen to allow the Biharis
into her country, describing them on one occasion as ''disturbing
elements''. Instead Bhutto was keen to pass on responsibility
to the Muslim ummah or brotherhood.
Last year in August, Dhaka again raised the issue of repatriation
during the visit of the then Pakistan foreign secretary Nazmuddin
Shikh, but without any luck.
The Bangladesh government says the Biharis are a strain on its
precarious finances, costing the government some $250,000 every
Meanwhile, some stateless Biharis are beginning to weary of the
endless wait. Last year in November, shortly after a new government
was installed in Dhaka, a group of Biharis issued an appeal to
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed that they be granted citizenship,
as they did not want to go back to Pakistan.
Iqbal Ahmed Siddiqui, president of the committee for the rehabilitation
of non-Bengalis in Bangladesh, told a press conference that some
of his people were keen to stay in Bangladesh.
But this could be tricky as many people in Bangladesh have not
forgiven the Biharis for supporting Pakistan during the war. A
leader of the ruling Awami League party, who asked not to be identified,
said the Biharis have ''not begun to adjust themselves to the
culture and ways of Bengalis''.