Persecution of Biharis in Bangladesh

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The Bihari ethnic minority in Bangladesh (also known as Stranded Pakistanis) were subject to persecution during and after the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War,[1] (called the Civil War in Pakistan)[2] experiencing widespread discrimination.[3] Biharis have largely maintained a pro-Pakistan stance, supported the Pakistan Armed Force , opposing the independence of Bangladesh. Some collaborated with the Pakistan Army in atrocities against Bengalis during the war; as a result, Biharis faced reprisals from Bengali mobs and militias[1] and from 1,000[4] to 150,000[citation needed] were killed during the war.[5]

The Supreme Court of Bangladesh ruled Biharis eligible for Bangladesh citizenship in 1972, but about 500,000 chose repatriation to Pakistan.[1][6] Some repatriation was implemented by the Red Cross over a number of years,[7] but in 1978 the Pakistani government stripped Pakistanis remaining in Bangladesh of Pakistani citizenship.[6] Researchers (such as Sumit Sen) maintain that the Pakistani government's denationalisation of the Biharis and reluctance to rehabilitate them in Pakistan are sufficient evidence of persecution to warrant refugee status. The Biharis have also faced institutionalised discrimination linked to their citizenship status,[8] and many live in squalor in refugee camps.


Partition violence[edit]

Bihar (now a state in northeastern India) was plagued by communal violence between Muslims and Hindus due to partition,[9] along with the other former territories of British India.[10] More than 30,000 Biharis were killed in October and November 1947, and it is estimated that up to one million migrated to East Pakistan.[11]

Migration from Bihar[edit]

According to the 1951 census, 671,000 Bihari refugees were in East Bengal; by 1961, the refugee population had reached 850,000. Broad estimates suggest that about 1.5 million Muslims migrated from West Bengal and Bihar to East Bengal in the two decades after the 1947 partition of India.[12] Partition displaced up to 12.5 million people (with many casualties); millions of Muslims and Hindus migrated to the Dominions of Pakistan and India, respectively,[13][14] and Hindus from modern-day Pakistan to India. Adherents of the two-nation theory believe that in addition to Pakistan, Muslims should have an independent homeland in Muslim-majority areas of India (similar to the recognition of Protestants in Ireland by Northern Ireland); this sparked the mass Muslim migration to the Dominion of Pakistan.[15][16]

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (then a student leader) toured affected villages in Bihar with his relief team, and was moved to ask Bihari refugees to move to East Bengal in 1947.[9]


One reason cited for communal violence between Biharis and Bengalis was Bengali opposition to Urdu as a national language, which resulted in the Bengali Language Movement and an economic downturn. The relatively secular attitude of East Pakistan increased tensions between the two communities and the two provinces of the country.[17] In the 1970 general elections Biharis predominantly supported the mostly West Pakistani Muslim League over the Awami League (overwhelmingly supported by Bengalis), and played an active anti-secessionist role in the liberation war. During the United Pakistan period (1947–71), they identified themselves as West Pakistanis.[11]

Biharis supported the Pakistan Armed Forces during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, comprising majorities in armed paramilitary groups such as Al-Shams, Razakars and Al-Badr (held responsible for the genocidal campaign against Bengali nationalists, civilians, religious and ethnic minorities). News outlets such as the BBC have published death-toll estimates by independent researchers varying from 200,000 to 500,000. Scholars such as R. J. Rummel and Matthew White estimate the total Bengali civilian death toll at 1.5 million.[18][19] The casualty figure estimated by Pakistan is 25,000, as reported by the Hamoodur Rahman Commission.

Having generated unrest among Bengalis,[20][21] Biharis became the target of retaliation. The Minorities at Risk project puts the number of Biharis killed during the war at 1,000;[4] however, R.J. Rummel cites a "likely" figure of 150,000.[5]

Another cause of Bengali reprisal could be the collaboration of Biharis with the Pakistan Army, which participated in mass rape of Bengalis during the Bangladesh Liberation War.[22] Susan Brownmiller has estimated the number of rape victims of the Pakistan Army and its collaborators during the war at 200,000 to 400,000 women and children.[23]


Estimates differ of the number of non-Bengalis killed during the war, from "a few thousand" by Bengali sources to 500,000 by a Bihari source;[5] international estimates vary from 1,000 to 200,000.[24] Bihari women were raped and tortured during the war and its aftermath by Bengali males, primarily from Mukti Bahini.[25][26][27]

According to a white paper released by the Pakistani government, the Awami League killed 30,000 Biharis and West Pakistanis.[28] Bengali mobs were often armed, sometimes with machetes and bamboo staffs.

300 Biharis were killed by Bengali mobs in Chittagong. The massacre was used by the Pakistan Army as a justification to launch Operation Searchlight against the Bengali nationalist movement.[29] Biharis were massacred in Jessore, Panchabibi and Khulna (where, in March 1972, 300 to 1,000 Biharis were killed and their bodies thrown into a nearby river.[26][27][30][30]


Mukti Bahini[edit]

Allegations have been made that Mukti Bahini, the Bengali resistance force from East Pakistan, killed non-Bengalis (primarily West Pakistanis and Bihari) in the aftermath of the Bangladesh Liberation War.[24] Sarmila Bose, in her book Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War, accused Bangladeshi liberation accounts of ignoring atrocities against Urdu-speaking people in East Pakistan. However, Bose's book is considered controversial; Her book was highly criticized by historians.[31][32][33]

Refugee crisis[edit]

The Bangladesh government announced Presidential Order 149 in 1972, offering citizenship to Biharis. According to government sources 600,000 Biharis accepted the offer, and 539,669 opted to return to Pakistan.[11] Several groups in Pakistan have urged their government to accept the Biharis.[34][35]

Surur Hoda, a Socialist leader, played an active role in solving the refugee crisis. He organized a delegation, headed by British Labour Party politician David Ennals and Ben Whitaker, which encouraged many refugees to return to Pakistan.[36] In a 1974 agreement, Pakistan accepted 170,000 Bihari refugees; however, the repatriation process has since stalled.[37]

Organisations such as Refugees International have urged both governments to "grant citizenship to the hundreds of thousands of people who remain without effective nationality".[38] During his 2002 trip to Bangladesh, Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf said he sympathised with the plight of the Biharis but could not allow them to emigrate to Pakistan.[39] As of 2006, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had not addressed the plight of the Biharis.[38] On May 19, 2008, the Dhaka High Court approved citizenship and voting rights for about 150,000 refugees who were minors at the time of Bangladesh's 1971 war of independence. Those born in the country since the war also gained citizenship and the right to vote.[40][41]


See also: Muhajir people

Due to their initial pro-Pakistan stance, the Biharis were consistent in their wish to be repatriated to Pakistan. Initially, 83,000 Biharis (former civil servants and military personnel) were evacuated to Pakistan. By 1974, 108,000 had been transferred to Pakistan (mainly by air); by 1981, about 163,000. Both countries have signed agreements on the repatriation of stateless people, but only a few hundred have managed to go to Pakistan.[42] In 1988, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) raised about $500 million for the repatriation and rehabilitation of Biharis to Pakistan.[43] A special committee, the Rabita (Coordination) Trust Board, was formed by Pakistan President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. It received $14 million in 1992, and was requesting additional donations from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states for the rehabilitation of Biharis.[44] Land allocated to the Biharis in Pakistan (known as the Bihari colony) is in poor condition.[45] The Biharis were targeted by the ethnic Sindhi people during the 1980s Karachi riots. In the Punjab province of Pakistan, ethnic Punjabis forcefully occupied shelters allocated to the Biharis;[45] these incidents have prompted some Biharis to return to Bangladesh.[42]

Present conditions[edit]

Main article: Stranded Pakistanis

Although many Biharis have assimilated into the Bengali population of Bangladesh, some opt to migrate to Pakistan and are relocated to refugee camps across Bangladesh.[46] According to one estimate, at least 250,000 Biharis are still in Bangladesh urban refugee camps.[47] The camps have become slums, the largest of which (known as "Geneva Camp", with over 25,000 people) is crowded and undeveloped; families up to 10 people typically live in a single room, one latrine is shared by 90 families and no more than five percent of the population has a formal education. Due to the lack of educational opportunity and poor living conditions, young men in the slums have set up an Urdu Bashi Jubo Chattro Sangathan (Urdu-Speaking Young Students Association) to increase educational opportunities in their community.[48] Health and sanitation problems persist due to poor drainage and sewage systems,[49] and the economic condition of Bihari refugees has been described in news reports and academic journals as extremely poor.[48]

Citizenship and reconciliation efforts[edit]

In May 2003, a high court ruling in Bangladesh allowed ten Bihari refugees to obtain citizenship and voting rights.[50] The ruling exposed a generation gap among Biharis; younger Biharis tended to be "elated", but many older people felt "despair at the enthusiasm" of the younger generation and said their true home was in Pakistan.[51] Many Biharis now seek greater civil rights and citizenship in Bangladesh.[52]

On May 19, 2008, the Dhaka High Court approved citizenship and voting rights for about 150,000 refugees who were minors at the time of Bangladesh's 1971 war of independence. Those born in the country since the war also gained citizenship and the right to vote.[40][41] Several political parties campaigned in the camps for the Bihari vote during the 2008 general election, and the group was considered important to parties and candidates.[53] Although the court ruling explicitly said that the Biharis are eligible to register to vote in the December 2008 elections, the Election Commission closed its rolls in August 2008 without enrolling them.[54]

See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]