1971: A Blot of Shame

Posted on November 30, 2009
Filed Under >M.P. Bhandara, History, Pakistanis Abroad, Politics, Society
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M.P. Bhandara

(Editor’s Note: This is the second in our series of lessons to be learnt from the events of 1971. This particular piece was written by the late M.P. Bhandara, then member of the Pakistan parliament, for Dawn in 2005. The intensity of the sentiment on stranded Pakistanis remains equally valid today.)

There is a blot of shame on the fair name of Pakistan. And each one of us, who has the means and the power to do something about it but chooses to be silent, bears the burden of this guilt.

The story is familiar enough. On December 16, 1971, the Pakistan created by the Quaid-i-Azam, was lost. A sizable population who had migrated from Bihar to East Pakistan at the time of partition were declared non-citizens by the new Bangladesh government. Being culturally and linguistically different, they had not fully integrated with the people of East Pakistan.

During the civil war in East Pakistan between March and December 1971, they readily opted to defend a united Pakistan. The army used (and abused) them as human shields for the more dangerous operations.

For this crime, they have never been forgiven by the people of Bangladesh. After the war, they were herded into unsanitary ghettos on a virtually prison diet. They were branded as “traitors”, and this mark of infamy remains on their children and even their children’s children to this day.

These “traitors” are now considered as “pariahs” by Pakistan that has stopped owning them for the reason that, on migration here, they are likely to settle in Sindh and join the ethnic political ranks of New Sindhis. The estimate of those now eligible for repatriation is said to be between 100,000 and 150,000.

How cynical can we get as a nation? We can tolerate the presence of a million plus illegals from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Burma and Afghanistan in Karachi but we shut the door tight on our “own” citizens.

We don’t recognize them as ours on the specious plea that they had migrated to East Pakistan. The logical tailpiece of this reasoning is that our eastern province was never considered part of the nation.

We accepted four million Afghan refugees in the 1980s and beat our breast in the name of Islamic solidarity. The truth is there was little solidarity but a case of push come to shove on a porous border.

Pakistan’s selective Islamic solidarity extends to Palestinians and Kashmiris, but not to Kurds in Iraq (when they were gassed) or the Sudanese in Darfur (currently in the throes of a genocide) and above all, to our own stranded “citizens” who made the mistake of their lives by siding with the Pakistan army and not the Mukti Bahini during the 1971 civil war, which is now commonly referred to as war of the Bangladesh liberation.

We choose to look the other way. This ugly blip is longer on our political radar screen. Islamic solidarity has suddenly vanished. Our rejection of these people exposes a visible crack in the mirror of Pakistan.

It calls into question the two-nation theory. Let us be honest and say that this theory was a means to an end and not an end in itself. The theory apparently died long ago when Pakistan was transformed “from a homeland for the Indian Muslims” to a theocratic Islamic state.

In any case, mass migration in the subcontinent is no longer possible and in the context of over 125 million Muslims in India, the two-nation theory does not seem to be operative for the time being.

This dichotomy on what Pakistan is or is not is the root cause of our carefully developed hypocrisy, double standards and sectarian violence. We have moved from one concept to another but find ourselves in limbo.

No wonder, the better part of our educated youth is alienated. The Quaid’s concept of Pakistan was a liberal, humanizing, outward-reaching modern state, which was a homeland for those Muslims of the subcontinent who chose to migrate at the time of partition.

The Quaid gave us the right direction, but instead, we have entered a black hole of pseudo-religiosity and are struggling to get out of it. Our amnesia on the stranded Pakistani issue calls into question our singular devotion to the Kashmir cause.

How is a suffering Kashmiri any different from a ghettoed Pakistani in Bangladesh? Both are Muslim. Does this not smack of hypocrisy and double standards? The former is regarded as a mazloom, the latter a “pariah”.

It must be heartrending to hear these “pariahs” sing the Pakistani national anthem and see them hoist our flag in the ghettos of Bangladesh on our national days.

The Rabita Trust Fund founded in 1988 succeeded in repatriating a few hundred families. It was frozen in 2001 and the process has since stopped. It is a shame that we must invite outside money to bring home our own citizens.

Have we lost all honour? We seem to have plenty of funds for all types of grandiose projects under the sun but cannot allocate a couple of hundred million rupees each year to recommence the process.

The government should meet the costs of improving the living condition in camps in Bangladesh, open schools and vocational centers and take immediate steps to repatriate 200 to 300 families annually and settle them in the Punjab. Where integration is possible in Bangladesh this should be encouraged by fiscal and other means.

Our parliament has a Kashmir committee on which millions are spent on members romping the globe to highlight the Kashmir cause with marginal results; the National Assembly can spend time to discuss the shortage of Sui gas in some remote town, it can spend hours to discuss the infringement of minor privileges of members, but it has never found the time to discuss the issue of stranded Pakistanis in Bangladesh.

Not being true to ourselves shames all of us.

28 Comments on “1971: A Blot of Shame”

  1. Imtiaz says:
    November 30th, 2009 8:40 am

    I think it is more than high time that we al speak out this strongly about the plight of these Pakistanis.


  2. Farrukh says:
    November 30th, 2009 7:15 pm

    Very powerful and heartfelt piece. I am glad you dug this up and published this at ATP. I think Mr. Bhandara has caught the spirit of many Pakistanis with this. I feel as intensely as he does on this issue. Indeed, we must bring these Pakistanis back. It is a matter of shame for all of us that we have not.

  3. Arvind says:
    November 30th, 2009 8:45 pm

    I am a expatriate Bihari and I came to know of the plight of Bihari diaspora via web/wikipedia. Our nation divides on many folds: religious/linguistic/sectarian divide. A Bihari in India is not welcome in Delhi or in Maharashtra. Primarily because of language that we speak.

    Based on language, Bihar(India) should welcome its diaspora back. But, I doubt any politician will do so.
    All Bihari Muslims should migrate back via Bangladesh-India border and come to the place where they belong, where they can live among the people who are genetically/linguistically closest. Their historical experience will remind them that religion only forms part of their identity. In the end, our identity consists of our language/how we look as well.
    And that is why Pakistan is not welcoming them – they are neither Sindhi nor Punjabi. And they may not look like them.
    To deny ever present regionalism in India/Pakistan is not to face reality.

  4. Sajid says:
    December 1st, 2009 12:59 am

    Thanks for sharing this…

  5. Rashid Ali says:
    December 1st, 2009 1:33 am

    I recall Motimar Alam-e-Islami, GCC states had provided funds for repatriation and re settlement of these most unfortunate people. Some international organizations were also ready to help. Six ships were made available for this purpose during Zia-ul-Haq’s regime. The dictator, however, died and then came our democratic governments and the rest is history.

  6. Humaira says:
    December 1st, 2009 3:01 am

    What a powerful article. I hope we Pakistanis can bring this shame to an end.

    Thank you ATP for carrying this article and reminding us of this important issue.

  7. DARWEESH says:
    December 1st, 2009 4:15 am

    Its real shameful for Pakistani political leadership as well media+ civil society activisit to just sleep over this national issue.
    They need to awake now otherwise

    Na samjoo gay to mit jao gay Pakistanwalo
    Tumhari dastaan tak bhee na ho gee daastano meiN

  8. Natasha says:
    December 1st, 2009 7:26 am

    So true.I feel ashamed.It’s about time we stop showing ‘bhai-chara’ to our OWN people first and then anyone else.

    Very well written.

  9. Natasha says:
    December 1st, 2009 7:27 am

    Correction :

    It’s about time we start* showing ‘bhai-chara’ to our OWN people first and then anyone else.

  10. ahmed2 says:
    December 1st, 2009 9:38 am

    AS a Pakistani who saw the birth of Pakistan I hang my head in eternal shame.

  11. sidhas says:
    December 1st, 2009 10:41 am

    good article. nothing will happened though

  12. Sridhar says:
    December 1st, 2009 12:42 pm

    The article is inaccurate in its portrayal of the problem. There is no question that the Biharis were not seen as welcome members of the newly liberated country of Bangladesh. This had some history. The Biharis actively opposed the language movement and many of them were also involved in the Razakar and Al Shams groups that went around murdering and intimidating the Bengalis during 1971. That said, the vast majority of Biharis were only focused on living their lives and did no harm to any Bengali. The treatment of Biharis and the stereotyping of an entire ethnic group by the newly independent country was a shameful part of its history.

    The part that I disagree with is the author’s contention that the Biharis were dispossessed of their citizenship by Bangladesh. In 1972, Bangladesh offered citizenship to all Biharis in the country. More than half accepted and assimilated into Bangladeshi society. The rest rejected Bangladeshi citizenship and opted to emigrate to Pakistan instead. Afterwards, many of the Biharis, losing all hope of ever migrating to Pakistan, have accepted Bangladeshi citizenship and have become a part of that society. Also, the Bangladeshi courts have given automatic citizenship to all Biharis born after 1971 and those who were minors in 1971. This has given Bangladeshi citizenship to more than half the remaining Biharis at the time. Thus, only those who chose to not accept Bangladeshi citizenship and chose not to assimilate into that society remain stateless today.

    Given these facts, it seems bizarre that Pakistan would not want them to come and settle in Pakistan. These are the most loyal of citizens – those who chose to remain in camps rather than accept Bangladeshi citizens even after 38 years. The only plausible explanation, it appears, for the continued apathy of the Government and people in Pakistan to their plight, especially given the relative ease of settling them in Pakistan, seems to be the very same feelings of ethnic superiority that resulted in the discrimination against Bengalis in the first 24 years of the country’s history.

  13. Arvind says:
    December 1st, 2009 5:24 pm

    Thus, only those who chose to not accept Bangladeshi citizenship and chose not to assimilate into that society remain stateless today.
    Eternal politics of blaming the victim themselves. They themselves want to live in the ghetto( same way palestinians want to live in Gaza/West bank). Please…. give me a break.
    I agree that Biharis backed the wrong horse during Independence of Bangladesh. And it was tragic for them.
    But, to say that after 24 years, they want to live a ghettoized life is a stretch.

  14. Sridhar says:
    December 1st, 2009 6:17 pm


    Please read up a little bit more about the issue before jumping to criticize. For instance, read this pretty fair assessment of the citizenship status of Biharis in Bangladesh, written by an official of the UNHCR.


    There has been significant discrimination against Biharis in Bangladesh over the years, more so by the Government than by ordinary citizens . There is no doubt about it. However, it is also true that Biharis have over the years repeatedly been offered Bangladeshi citizenship. Over the years, the opposition to such offers has considerably reduced (as has the number of stateless Biharis), but the fact remains that a significant number of people refuse such offers. They continue to insist on repatriation to Pakistan. The reasons for this are varied and it requires a full article by itself to go into them.

    As to people choosing to live in squalid camps, let me just say this much – if the Government in any city of South Asia offers a free house (the camps consist of built up homes, not hutments) and free rations, there would be enough takers for it, howsoever squalid the conditions in those places are. People in the camps live of their own free will – any Bihari who wishes to leave is free to do so and settle anywhere in Bangladesh. There are no restrictions both legally and in practice. There is zero comparison of the Biharis’ situation with that of Palestinians in Gaza/West Bank.

    The Bangladeshi courts have consistently ruled in favor of the grant of citizenship to all Biharis. Implementation might not keep up with judicial pronouncements, but that is a common bane across South Asia. The point I was making is that even their legal status as Pakistani citizens does not exist, despite their having been Pakistani citizens until 1971 and their continued allegiance to Pakistan.

    There is no attempt to blame the victim on my part. I was merely pointing to the fact that it is inaccurate to say that they are stateless because they were deprived of Bangladeshi citizenship after 1971. They were offered Bangladeshi citizenship. More than half the original number took up the offer. Others did not. Even now, pretty much any Bihari could take up Bangladeshi citizenship and/or move out of the camps. Those are just the facts.

  15. yousuf says:
    December 1st, 2009 8:03 pm

    Late Honorable M.P Bhandara, a Parsi gentleman is no more with us, May the Lord God rest his soul in peace and raise his stations in Ahura Mazda’s heavens. He was truly a legend and it was a his legacy to always feel and rise up to raise whatever problems were confronting our country.

    Isnt it a bit shameful that a non-Muslim coutryman of ours felt the shame and suffering of Biharis?.

    The blot of shame for ignoring our Bihari brethren by the suucessive Govts of Pakistan is bigger than the masaccre of our Bengalis brethren by the Pakistan army.

    Most Biharis were in East Pakistan on the call of Qaid to man the jobs vacated by the migrating Hindus to West Bengal. Biharis who were die hard Pakistanese paid either with their lives during the war with India or after the establishment of Bangladesh and rot in camps under inhuman conditions. It is heartning that Bangladesh govt now granted them citizenship.

    But the question arises why successive govts did not rise up to their duties to absorb the Biharis in mainsteam Pakistan of today?.

    Credit goes to Nawaz Sharif to accept some of the stranded Pakistanese and settle them in Punjab, the bulk of 300,000 were left to their fate of living a most miserable lives in make-shift camps and regarded as pariah by Bengalis.

    I have heared it with many sources that Saudi Arabia did agree to accept all 300,000 of them and provide funds for their repartiation to the Holy Land during Z.A.Bhutto’s rule, but instead all ethnic Sindhis were sent in place of Biharis.

    I was a resident of Jeddah during that period and saw lots of Sindhis groups arriving there, and most were so shabbily dressed that it was a shame for Pakistan. Male head of family would be wearing a dirty long shirt on a ” themad”, and barefooted, his wife too shabbily dressed, and a small child bareffoted and only wearng a long shirt.

    What a shameful act to deprive the rightful Biharis to settle and earn a decent living in Holy Land.

    Arrival of those destitute and unskilled Sindhis was the reason most Pakistanese in Saudi Arabia, although some holding very high ranking positions started to be regardede as low persons and called ‘ rafiqees”, a endearment by the Saudis for their negros slaves.

    There surely is something wrong with the way things are done in Pakistan. We could tolerate more than 4 million ghadar afghanese and still keep them here and could not allow bonafide and true Pakistani Bihari brethren, which were only fraction and fraction of the number of Afghanese we still hold to our bossoms.

    Shame on us and on the way our establishment thinks and works in Pakistan.

  16. Junaid says:
    December 2nd, 2009 12:57 am

    Glad some one is talking about it.

  17. kohestani says:
    December 2nd, 2009 1:26 pm

    Because I am one of those Pakistnais who don’t believe in Hindu Muslim being different nations and that Pak was created for the Muslims of South Asia, I feel no sympathy towards those stranded Biharis. Pakistan is not a dumping place for all those Indian Muslims who cannot or do not want to live with Hindus or Bangladeshis.

    Those Biharis wanted to live in a Muslim majority country and Bangladesh is a Muslim country, so what is their problem then? Sridhar is right, they have been offered Bangladeshi citizenship in the past and they should now show some gratitude towards their host and accept Bangladeshi citizenship. They, anyway, have much in common with Bangladeshis than with Sindhis or Pashtuns.

  18. Tina says:
    December 2nd, 2009 3:42 pm

    Why would Pakistan prefer to accept Kashmiri or Afghan refugees but not Bihari or Bengali-speaking refugees?

    It’s racism, pure and simple.

  19. Sridhar says:
    December 2nd, 2009 7:29 pm


    I agree, though I am not sure it is race as the term is strictly defined. It is ethnicity. Here’s what I wrote earlier that is in line with your comment…

    “Given these facts, it seems bizarre that Pakistan would not want them to come and settle in Pakistan. These are the most loyal of citizens – those who chose to remain in camps rather than accept Bangladeshi citizens even after 38 years. The only plausible explanation, it appears, for the continued apathy of the Government and people in Pakistan to their plight, especially given the relative ease of settling them in Pakistan, seems to be the very same feelings of ethnic superiority that resulted in the discrimination against Bengalis in the first 24 years of the country’s history.”

    I would go on to say that many of us from Pakistan and India are highly racist – some of the most racist people in the world. Part of it is pure ignorance. But it goes deeper – what else explains the deep suited racism amongst those of us in the West, despite high levels of education, and despite exposure to a multi-cultural environment. And within our countries, there are deep-rooted feelings of ethnic (and I include caste within ethnicity) superiority or at least separateness that have led to several social problems and distortions.

    Another thing I would like to add is that besides the feeling of ethnic superiority vs. the Bengalis (we are fairer, we are taller, we are more martial etc.), there was also a feeling of religious superiority that many in West Pakistan felt towards their Eastern compatriots. That was perhaps one of the biggest reasons why Bengalis were looked down upon in united Pakistan. They were somehow seen as less Islamic and Hindu-influenced – speaking a Sanskrit-derived language like Bengali, with its own (Indic) script, the celebration of Bengali culture (Rabindra Sangeet, Poila Boishakh), the use of saris as the primary attire by women and a more syncretic form of religious expression. This was the reason for the targeting of intellectuals and of all Hindus during the 1971 military campaign (for instance, the very first target in Operation Searchlight was the Hindu students hostel in Dhaka University – Jagannath Hall). The 1971 campaign aimed to purge the Bengalis of their “Bengaliness” and to get rid of all remaining Hindus in that part of the country along with all their Hinduness that was seen to be “polluting” the Bengali Muslims.

    I wonder if some of those feelings of religious superiority carried over with respect to the Biharis too, at least partially.

  20. Pankaj says:
    December 2nd, 2009 8:25 pm

    Totally in agreement with Kohestani. With all the things like religion and ethnicity, comes the love towards country . Bashing your own country (citizens of) for the sake of religion is unforgivable.

  21. Humayun says:
    December 2nd, 2009 11:21 pm

    Very nice article.

    As he right points out, there is a hypocricy in our actions when we cry so loudly for Kashmiri Muslims but ignore Bihari Muslims.

  22. Lubna says:
    December 11th, 2009 4:32 pm

    Just read all three articles in this series.

    Good of you to carry there and congrats to the authors for the honesty with which they have written. We need to develop that at the national level.

  23. Aamir Ali says:
    December 11th, 2009 11:52 pm

    The point about Afghan refugees versus Bihari refugees is a very good one. At least these Biharis like Pakistan, no Afghan I have ever met has a good thing to say about Pakistan even though they will hold Pakistani passports and have lived in the country for decades. Just another example of the tremendous damage lunatic Zia ul Haq and mullahs caused Pakistan.

    I have become convinced that the mullah is the deadliest and most committed enemy that Pakistanis and Muslims have in the subcontinent.

  24. Alam says:
    December 18th, 2009 7:06 am

    Dear Kohestani,

    I dont know what is the reason behind your nick/name but what I understand from your comments that you don not know the meanings of loyality, sacrifice. How can a person can understand the patriotism and loyality who have not lost a single peny or get any pain but when he get up in the morning heard that the place where he is living now an independent country.
    How can a person understand what is “Patriotism” who or whose family were licking the toe of the British Government and get rewarded vast fertile lands only because they had shown their loyality to them and deceived their own brothern. Most of them were the dog handler or cleaner of their Master (British Officer).
    I salute the Stranded Pakistanis in Bangladesh.
    If those Stranded Pakistanis were not sided then Pakistan Army then not a single Military Officers could be return back to home!
    If those stranded Pakistanis were not sided the West Pakistan then people like Kohestani and others who are advising the Stranded Pakistanis to settle in Bangladesh were not be independent but again they would be a dog handler or dog cleaner as their family whose decendents they are!

    Think before what you comments on the loyality of others and beware of the Day when the God will ask you and Punish you for the words you were using for His chosen people!

  25. Aftab Alam Ashrafi says:
    December 19th, 2009 2:37 am


    I would like to open the eyes of those who claim Pakistan as a property of them or to those who think Muslim Biharis stranded in Bangladesh as a beggar or like people but they don’t know they are the really own the Pakistan because they have sacrificed for the creation of Pakistan and most of the people living in the present Pakistan even dont know the history of Pakistan Movement and the role of Muslim Biharis otherwise they never forget them and they must salute them as a true patriotic Pakistani:

    Lets see what the Father of the Nation Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah said for the founder members of this country while speaking at camp housing Moslem refugees from communal disorders in Bihar the Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah said:

    “The sufferings Moslems underwent in Bihar and elsewhere clearly showed we should have the separate state of Pakistan. I am really proud of the Bihar Moslems who sacrificed so much. Their sacrifices will not go in vain. They have brought the Pakistan goal nearer and have shown readiness to make any sacrifice for its attainment.”

    (Pottstown Mercury, Pottstown, PA. Monday Morning, February 24, 1947)

    Is there any community exist in the present Pakistan for whom such golden words are ever told by the Father of the Nation!

  26. Nusrat Pasha says:
    March 23rd, 2010 12:52 pm

    Truths have to be reconciled with at any cost. We can not continue to live in a state of denial for ever. We won’t be able to. These are some truths:

    1. To say that in 1971, we lost half the country is incorrect. There were more Pakistanis in East Pakistan than there were in the Western wing. The truth is that the majority was lost. The greater part of the nation of Pakistan simply chose to reidentify themselves. Why? What were they convinced they would not get – and ironically from the minority? It was “equality”.

    2. Nations can not and do not survive without equality existing at every single plane.

    3. There has to be perfect equality, of all kinds, at all levels, among all federating units.

    4. There has to be perfect equality, of all kinds, at all levels, among all ethnic denominations.

    5. There has to be perfect equality, of all kinds, at all levels, among all religious denominations.

    6. There has to be perfect equality, of all kinds, at all levels, between urban and rural.

    7. A common religion evidently could not prevent the nation of Pakistan from breaking up. This proves that it takes a lot more than a common creed to bind a nation together. In fact sometimes a State Religion serves the purpose of a perfect distraction. Elusive dividing forces act while the nation slumbers in the illusion of a common religion.

    Equality and absolute equality on all these planes will have to be established. 1971 to 2010 makes 39 years of denial. The lesson to be learned is that there are no shortcuts to survival, and there are no concessions for those who deem themselves “more equal”.

  27. Tariq says:
    October 13th, 2010 3:08 am

    Dear Mr. Bhandara,

    I Thank you for the posting regarding the tragic story of the Bihari’s in Bangladesh. I am from Bangladesh and a witness of their plight and devastated condition. I saw in what kind of sub-standard life they are living in and in what condition the kids are growing up without education. Even though repatriation was started and halted for unknown reason and was never initiated again. But I always wondered why Gen Mosharraf didn’t help. While in the office General Mosharraf could play an important role about this problem. In fact he could have brought back the left overs but never did. So far I know Mr. Mosharraf himself was a Muhajir and why didn’t carry out his share of responsibility only he knows. Does any body know the answer to this question let me know ? I kind of agree with Mr. Bhandara some of the Muhajir’s are better off there but most of them are still living in terrible condition as perfect integration is proven impossible. So history cries and the unfortunate victims of the Indo-Pak Political experimentation are still paying the price yet continue to look towards Pakistan.

    Sayeed Tariq

    November 24th, 2010 12:37 am



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