Stateless Biharis dream of 'utopia' in Pakistan
Dacca, Bangladesh — For nine years the stateless residents of this squalid, mudchoked camp have been waiting to leave a country that doesn't want them. They are Biharis, Urdu-speaking Muslims from Bihar and other northern Indian states. They migrated to what was then the eastern wing of Pakistan during the partition of Britain's subcontinental empire into predominantly Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan in 1947.
Today, 66,000 of them are massed here in Dacca's Geneva Camp. The problem for them and another 200,000 like them in other camps around Bangladesh is that Pakistan, which they claim as their homeland, doesn't want them either.
Their plight goes back to their remaining aloof from East Pakistan's Bengali-speaking majority and casting their lot with the Urdu-speaking West Pakistanis running the government. When the Bengalis fought for independence, the Biharis sided with the Pakistan Army. When East Pakistan became independent Bangladesh in 1971, the Biharis, denounced as collaborators, were stripped of jobs and property.
After the war, more than 500,000 Biharis applied for repatriation to Pakistan. Pakistan accepted about 120,000 as citizens, insisting that the rest were the responsibility of Bangladesh. About 200,000 Biharis left in Bangladesh have learned Bengali and moved into the community at large, although government jobs and citizenship are denied them.
The remainder, the "stranded Pakistanis," wait in 66 camps throughout Bangladesh, dreaming of a "motherland" they have never set foot in.
Anxious lest the world forget them, militant Bihari groups threatened to make a "long march" across India to Pakistan in 1979. Bangladeshi police dispersed a column of several thousand before they could reach the border.
The "stranded Pakistanis'" General Repatriation Committee, the most outspoken of the groups, last month threatened another long march, a general hunger strike , a boycott of the wheat rations donated by the Bangladeshi government, and a mass self-immolation if the Pakistani and Bangladeshi governments do not solve the Biharis' problems.
About 5,000 Biharis have volunteered to burn themselves to death, according to committee president Nasim Khan.
Living conditions are indeed fearful at the Geneva Camp in Dacca. Old sheds topped with rusted corrugated iron roofs house hundreds of families, each crammed into tiny burlapor thatch-walled cubicles measuring about 8-by-10 feet.
"Isn't it terrible, isn't it horrible?" Khan asks as he shows visitors around. But there is an element of exaggeration as well. Visitors could see light bulbs being hastily switched off as they entered the dank, smoky buildings. "Electricity comes only at night," intoned Khan as an aide turned off the furthest light. "It's a hell."
Khan charges that voluntary aid agencies, omnipresent in impoverished Bangladesh, have withdrawn their assistance from the camps. But some relief workers charge that the militants resist efforts to improve living conditions inside the camps in order to dramatize their appeal for repatriation.
"They're anti-anybody trying to make the lot of the Biharis better because they're afraid of losing their case," says a worker for a respected international aid agency.
"Any Bihari under 34 has never been to either India or Pakistan," a relief specialist points out. "Sixty percent are under that age. It's the leadership that's really creating this idea of Pakistan as a utopia."
The presidents of both Bangladesh and Pakistan are willing to negotiate a solution to the stateless Biharis' predicament, and talks are underway. Aid workers believe a possible solution is the repatriation of some to Pakistan and the granting of citizenship to others by Bangladesh, with international organizations helping to foot the resettlement bills.