The murmur of children reading the holy Quran filters through the hutments into the alleys of the small shantytown in the heart of Dhaka. Surrounded by open drains, the ghetto—somewhat incongruously called the Geneva camp—has been home to about 20,000 stranded Pakistanis, locally called Biharis. They are part of the 2.4 lakh-strong community living in 66 refugee camps all over Bangladesh, awaiting repatriation to their promised land—Pakistan.
The Geneva-based Red Cross had constructed the temporary camps immediately after the War of Liberation in 1971 to accommodate those who had opted to move to Pakistan but had been left behind.
The Biharis—a collective name for all non-Bengali Muslims of Indian origin—had crossed over to the former East Pakistan during the post-Partition riots. Numbering just about 1 million in a population of 75 million, they kept largely to themselves during the 24 years of undivided Pakistan, retaining their distinct ethnicity.
The Biharis were relatively better off than their Bengali counterparts, who they considered only ‘half-Muslim’ because of their cultural links with Bengali Hindus. And in the 1971 war, they backed the Pakistan army—as far as they were concerned, the solidarity of their chosen land had to be defended and Islam had to be saved.
But the tables turned soon after the war. With the dream of a united Pakistan shattered, the Biharis were reduced to a powerless minority. Most educated, well-to-do Biharis fled to West Pakistan between the army crackdown in March 1971 and Pakistan’s defeat in December. About half a million of those who stayed behind chose to move to Pakistan when Islamabad agreed to accept its nationals under a repatriation programme. At this juncture, they were housed in ‘temporary’ refugee camps with promises of repatriation within a year or two.
That’s where most of them have remained. To be sure, Pakistan did repatriate about 1.7 lakh Biharis in three phases between 1972 and 1992, but each time with greater reluctance. The rest have been forgotten by history.
A sense of fatalism and bitterness governs them now. "The manner in which they (Pakistani leaders) treat us is simply diabolical," says Mohammad Nasim Khan, the 75-year-old chief of the Stranded Pakistanis General Repatriation Committee. "They keep on citing funds constraints and domestic trouble in the wicked hope that it will dampen our urge to go to Pakistan."
Now Pakistan openly refuses to accept more Biharis, for obvious reasons: the Urdu-speaking people will only swell the ranks of the disenchanted Mohajirs. Pakistan Interior Minister, Maj-General Naseerullah Babar, advises them to integrate with Bangladesh (see box). "Why should I add to the problem instead of getting rid of the existing one? We have no liability, the situation in 1971 was different from the one now."
The delaying tactics have paid off somewhat. About one lakh frustrated camp dwellers have drifted away in search of a better living. Some have managed to enter Pakistan illegally through India, while a few have settled down in Bangladesh, reconciling themselves to destiny.
But those who languish in the camps remain bitter. "I wish I could kill Benazir Bhutto," says Muhammad Abdul Wahid, 35, a rickshaw-puller in the Geneva camp. His anger is directed against successive Pakistani leaders, from Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to Benazir, for what he calls their treachery. His frustration is understandable. Surviving largely on doles and menial jobs, the squalor of the camps only heightens the refugees’ despair. The Geneva camp, for instance, gets flooded at the slightest shower. The overpowering stench of stagnant pools of dirty water permeates the settlement. And children defecate in the open, right next to where their mothers cook their food.
Khan says there can be no solution as long as Benazir Bhutto is in power. According to him, their only hope is intervention by the US or Japan, powers on which Pakistan depends heavily for support.
But with its problems in Karachi, Pakistan is unlikely to take them back in a hurry. Pakistani officials say Islamabad has argued consistently that resettling all the stranded Biharis is out of the question. Accordingly, it was decided that only those domiciled in the former West Pakistan and their families, federal government employees and members of divided families would be eligible for repatriation. But even that does not seem possible now, looking at what Maj-General Babar says.
In July 1988, Pakistan and the Organ-isation of Islamic Conference (OIC) established a trust for the repatriation and rehabilitation of the stranded Biharis. Pakistan agreed to contribute Rs 250 million while the OIC committed Rs 50 million, with a promise to raise $ 500 million from other sources.
In November 1991, the then premier Nawaz Sharif set up a committee which submitted a plan calling for the allocation of 1,085 acres spread over 32 districts of Punjab to resettle about 40,000 Bihari families. This was vehemently opposed by hardline politicians from Sindh and Punjab, who alleged that the move was meant to appease Mohajir leader Altaf Hussain, who was at that time supporting Sharif against the Benazir-led opposition coalition. The votaries, on the other hand, argued that if over 3 million Afghan refugees could be accommodated, there was no reason why former citizens should stay on in Bangladesh.
The Biharis who did make it to Pakistan, constantly reminded of their migrant status, preferred to keep their own company. Karachi, a predominantly Urdu-speaking city, was one place they considered home.
"We initially isolated ourselves from all political activity; what mattered was day-to-day survival," says Hassan Sangrami, who lives in Karachi’s Orangi township. Sangrami typifies the Bihari predicament in many ways. He watched his nephew die of starvation in Bangladesh after the war. He managed to reach Pakistan, only to find slogans like ‘Bihari na khappan’ (Biharis are not wanted) scribbled on the walls of Sindh’s cities and towns.
"We do not want Biharis on our land, they won’t be loyal to the land," says a leader of the Jiye Sindh Taraqqi Pasand Party. "Even if they are settled in Punjab or the North West Frontier Province, they’ll make their way to our land." In January 1993, as many as 323 Biharis (62 families) were flown to Lahore. They were resettled at Mian Channu, the home district of then Punjab chief minister and Sharif ally Ghulam Haider Wyne. Since then, 42 families have moved out to Faisal-abad, Lahore, Karachi and Gujarat. The rest still live in a small village 5 km from Mian Channu. They are happy at having reached home after 24 years in ‘exile’ but complain of unemployment and the lack of education and health care facilities. "We are truly happy to be in the country for which we suffered and lost our near and dear ones. But after bringing us here, the government appears to have forgotten about our existence," they say.
As for those still stranded in the dehu-manising ghettos of Dhaka, there is not even that shred of succour.