Why has Pakistan forgotten about the 2.5 lakh Pakistani refugees in Bangladesh?

Published: April 3, 2016
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What if your fate starts prolonging your agonies and you have to suffer on a daily basis for once being a loyal and patriotic citizen of a sovereign state. PHOTO: AFP

A few years ago, I was travelling to Birmingham from London’s Marylebone Station. I sat with an elderly Asian who happened to be a Bangladeshi. During the course of our discussion, the tirade of the Fall of Dhaka came up. He suddenly became defensive, stating that Pakistan never wanted Bangladesh to be part of it from the get go.

He began to justify his stance and he went on to mention Allama Iqbal’s blunt ignorance towards Bengali Muslims, whilst defining the territorial limits of free Muslim States, claiming that they would constitute the north-western frontier parts of India. He added that in 1948 when Jinnah, the father of our nation, was sitting amongst the Bengali students in Dhaka, he addressed them in English and patronisingly declared that Urdu was going to be the national language of Pakistan. He lamented that when a partition of hearts and minds was so evident from the beginning, the creation of Bangladesh was inevitable.

I tried to defend Jinnah by explaining that Urdu was a language shared by both sides of Pakistan and he regarded Bangla as a regional language only because it was understood in Bengal. He started with the alleged atrocities that the Pakistan Army had committed on their fellow Pakistanis by saying that the army was under the impression that they were in an enemy zone outside Pakistan. An obvious grimace could be seen on his face while he began to narrate lines from Faiz’s poetry:

Kab nazar main aay gi baydagh sabzay ki bahar, 

Khoon kay dabbay dhulain gay kitni barsatoon kay baad.

We hardly spoke for the remainder of our journey but when we were exiting the station, he expostulated in Urdu and said,

“Koi tou Faiz sahib ko ye bataaye k ye khoon kay dhabbay barsatoon se dhulnay walay nahi hain.”

Who should take responsibility for the Fall of Dhaka is a never-ending debate. When there is war, there is death, dishonour, abductions and illegal seizures. Those are the glaring facts of a war, but what if fate plans on prolonging your agonies and makes you suffer daily for being a loyal and patriotic citizen of a once sovereign state?

Such is the fate of around 2.5 million Urdu-speaking Pakistanis stranded in Geneva camps and other areas in Bangladesh. They are forced to live a miserable life with no identity or proper education. They were found guilty as charged for being loyal to a country for which they had fought and sacrificed everything.

Back in 1971, these miserable people wrongfully decided to side with the Pakistan Government against the Mukti Bahini guerrillas backed by Indian troops and politicians. Unfortunately, they could not safeguard their interests in East Pakistan and lost the war. The army surrendered to the Indians and we witnessed the true definition of the ‘Two Nation Theory’ in the form of Bangladesh.

These Urdu speaking Pakistanis were labelled as traitors by their new masters and were sent to camps to rot. Their identity was completely erased.

Now these stranded Pakistanis are living in small cells and hope they are repatriated to Pakistan someday.

There are two sections of camp inmates. The first section includes the ones who supported the idea of a united Pakistan against the wishes of Sheikh Mujeeb and company. They were also at the forefront while welcoming the deployment of the Pakistan Army in the chaotic areas of East Pakistan.

That was their only fault.

With the defeat of the Pakistan Army and their subsequent capture, life was made miserable for the Urdu speaking Bengalis. The emergent party seized their properties and sent them to suffer in the filthy camps under the pretext of treason. These poor souls are still haunted by memories of the Fall of Dhaka and wait in earnest for a miracle which will somehow lead to them back to Pakistan.

Photo: Bremen Donovan/Namati

The conditions in the camp are dire. Houses are separated by two-foot (61cm) wide passageways shared by residents, goats and chickens. Houses are tiny, usually less than 8x8ft, and host entire families. Residents raise their beds to make space for possessions underneath. When it rains, the camp floods, toilets included.
Photo: Bremen Donovan/Namati

There is, however, another section of young dwellers who cannot personally empathise with their elders as they were born at the camps. They somehow are keener to win their political and social rights as first class Bengali citizens. Most of them do not nurture the idea of being repatriated to Pakistan.

Currently, there are various groups in this camp who are working along the lines of gaining social rights, mainly the Council of Minorities (COM). Their advocate, Khalid Hussain, is trying for their rights of nationality and for visa facilities to be provided to the separated Bihari families with the help of some international NGOs, along with a dedicated team of paralegals.

There are about 300,000 Urdu-speaking people living in camps for stranded Pakistanis in Bangladesh. The camps date from 1971, when fighting during the establishment of the Bangladeshi state forced the Urdu-speaking minority into these supposedly temporary dwellings.
Photo: Bremen Donovan/Namati

Photo: Bijyota Das/ Al Jazeera

The veteran inmates are mostly associated with the Stranded Pakistanis General Repatriation Committee (SPGRC), whose premier agenda is to work for an early repatriation to Pakistan. The issue here is a difference of approach towards the miseries of the refugees which ultimately damages their cause.

Geneva camp, Dhaka. Many ancestors of the Urdu-speaking minority came from Bihar, India, during the partition in 1947. The camps’ residents are referred to as Bihari, which is a loaded term in Bangladesh. Some trace their ancestry back not to Bihar, but to other regions in India and present-day Pakistan.
Photo: Bremen Donovan/Namati

Local Bengali politicians cash in on the camp population by using them as potential votes. The Supreme Court of Bangladesh had issued an order in 2008, which granted the camp refugees the right to vote but not a Bengali nationality.

Now the question is; do they want the right to vote or the nationality along with its benefits?

The latter would be their only and obvious choice or an honourable repatriation to Pakistan.

I am pretty sure the nationality issue revolves around the confiscated properties. If these misplaced refugees are granted a nationality, they would have the right to demand the restoration of their confiscated properties.

The Bangladesh government would not want this, would they?

Moreover, the Bangladesh government would definitely not want their own citizens out on the streets protesting against them for siding with ‘traitors’. What they would truly love though is to get rid of the unwanted camp dwellers without creating a hassle for the Bengali community or getting their hands dirty.

Nobody in Pakistan was and is willing to talk about these stranded souls, as it brings back shame and bitterness. Politicians fear their predecessors might have a role in their miseries, the army is embarrassed about leaving behind their people to be displayed shamelessly in Dehradun and our upcoming generations are poorly educated on this subject.

During 1971 war, Biharis were accused of supporting West Pakistan and are viewed as traitors till date.
Photo: Bijyota Das/ Al Jazeera

Thousands of Biharis continue to languish inside camps of Dhaka.
Photo: Bijyota Das/ Al Jazeera

General Pervez Musharraf did try to win the hearts of Bengalis by apologising for the events that led to the establishment of Bangladesh. He consoled the stranded Pakistanis by saying he would do something for them in a couple of years. That never happened.

Pakistanis in general are sympathetic towards their brethren, but there is hardly anything they can do. There is a section of Pakistani’s in Europe and America who are moved by the miseries of these downtrodden Muslim refugees.

A group of Muslims in Chicago formed a humanitarian organisation called Friends of Humanity (FOH) in order to do something to alleviate the sufferings of these individuals by providing basic education to the camp’s children.

FOH’s Secretary General, Mr Ehtesham Arshad Nizami, visits the camps every now and then to supervise relief activities and whenever he is in Pakistan he does his best to create awareness amongst the masses regarding this issue.

Pakistani democratic and military regimes have tried their hand at bettering this issue, only to some extent in order to please certain loyalists. General Ziaul Haq, after various consultations with the Saudis, established the Rabata Trust, which would be used for a possible repatriation of stranded Pakistanis since the 80s.

Photo: Bijyota Das/ Al Jazeera

These citizens are treated with disdain.
Photo: Bijyota Das/ Al Jazeera

Consequently, a huge housing society was constructed in Mian Channu for the proposed rehabilitation of rescued Pakistanis.

Politically, various steps were taken regarding this issue. During the tenure of Prime Minister Muhammad Khan Junejo, the Pakistan Senate unanimously adopted a resolution in favour of repatriation of stranded Pakistanis in these camps.

In 1993, the current Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, used his position to convince the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Khalida Zia, for the repatriation of a few thousand camp refugees. But, there are still many who are desperate to come back to Pakistan.

What could be a possible solution to this disheartening issue?

The Bangladesh government should seriously consider the plight of these refugees, if not for political purposes; they should at least do it on a humanitarian basis. Refugees in the camps should make groups and chalk out their demands which can be presented to the government.

Those who are willing to come back to Pakistan, what once used to be their home, should be allowed to do so and those who want to stay in Bangladesh, should rightfully be provided the privileges of a Bengali citizen without the tag of being a former refugee.

On the other hand, the Pakistan government should adopt a unified stance on the repatriation of these unfortunate souls. Colonies and settlements should be constructed for their settlement in Pakistan.

It’s been 45 years to this incident. These people were once citizens of Pakistan. They were loyalists who thought they were fighting for the right cause, for their government and for their nation. How is it then, that the very same nation has turned a blind eye to such a glaring issue?

Raja Adnan Razzaq

Raja Adnan Razzaq

The author is currently serving as Country Director of Friends of Humanity (FOH) USA in Pakistan. He is the founding Chairman of Society for Migration Studies Pakistan and teaching at Quaid-i-Azam University,Islamabad. He tweets as @Adnanrz99 (twitter.com/adnanrz99)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.