Biharis of Bangladesh

Alternative names: “Stranded Pakistanis”
Location: 66 camps in Bangladesh, mainly in urban areas
Population: 250,000-300,000
% of population: 0.25%
Religion: Muslim
Language: Urdu, Bengali

“Biharis” is the term given to a group of non-Bengali residents and citizens of the former East Pakistan, most of whom originated from the Indian state of Bihar. Today, many “Biharis” live in Pakistan and India in addition to Bangladesh, where many remain in refugee camps and are without citizenship.

After the Mogul conquest, north Indians in Bihar and elsewhere became Muslims and, along with others who came with the Moguls as soldiers and officials, adopted Urdu as their first language. Prior to Partition in 1947, Muslims numbered about four million or 13% of the total Bihari population of 30 million; after Partition, Bihar was assigned to India and many Bihar Muslims migrated to East Pakistan. Another sizeable group of Biharis moved to East Pakistan from Calcutta, where they had gone in search of work and where they began to feel insecure because of communal killings. During Partition, there was a mass movement of peoples between India and Pakistan. Of the eight million who moved from India into Pakistan, about 1.3 million moved into the Eastern wing. Of this group, one million were Muslims from Bihar, and thus these refugees came to be known collectively as the Biharis.

On arrival in East Pakistan, the Biharis found work as small traders, clerks, civil service officials, skilled railway and mill workers and doctors. The majority were hard-working and successful and many were appointed by the Pakistani authorities to replace educated Hindus in administrative jobs and in the mills. The success of the Biharis, at the expense of the Bengali community, created a climate of hostility. The Urdu-speaking Biharis became increasingly unpopular, and were seen by Bengalis as symbols of Pakistani domination.

In the December 1970 elections, most Biharis supported the pro-Pakistan Muslim League rather than the Awami League which was largely a Bengali nationalist movement. In 1971, the promised National Assembly was postponed, and in retaliation, over 1,000 Biharis, who were seen as symbols of Pakistani domination, were reported to have been killed by Bengalis. Many Biharis fled to the Mirpur suburb of Dacca and more followed when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the Awami League leader, was imprisoned and the Awami League was banned, causing a further wave of retaliatory killings. One wing of the Razakars, an auxiliary force in the Pakistani army, was made up almost entirely of Biharis, and many of these used their military position for revenge attacks on Bengalis when civil war broke out in 1971. From March to December 1971, there was widespread bloodshed, and a possible three million people were killed, most of them apparently victims of the Pakistani army. In December the Pakistani army capitulated, but this did not prevent the massacre of several hundred Bengali intellectuals, an act of violence for which the Bihari community is widely blamed.

When the independent state of Bangladesh was formed in December 1971 and the Pakistani army and civilians were evacuated to India, the Biharis were left behind. Most took refuge in enclaves and were protected, as far as possible, by the Indian army, while their shops and houses were occupied or looted and several thousand Bihari leaders were arrested. Following the withdrawal of Indian troops in January 1972, Bangladeshi troops were ordered to gather all weapons and they entered the Bihari enclave at Mirpur where they met fierce resistance. At least 100 people on either side were killed, and following this incident, several thousand Biharis were arrested as alleged collaborators and imprisoned or “disappeared”, and there were many cases of retaliation against Biharis. Sheikh Mujib had formerly called for tolerance and reconciliation but from this time on took a harder line towards the Biharis.

By mid-1972, the number of Biharis in Bangladesh was approximately 750,000. Some 278,000 of these were living in very poor conditions in camps on the outskirts of Dacca; another 250,000 were living around Saidpur in the north-west where conditions were better as Biharis outnumbered Bengalis. Reconciliation programmes were initiated and Urdu-speakers were being taught Bengali in an effort to overcome the most obvious obstacle to their acceptance by the Bengalis. However, there was a deep psychological depression and much fear of further Bengali retaliations.

The majority of the Biharis in Bengal have consistently expressed a wish to be repatriated to Pakistan. The Pakistani government initially agreed to take 83,000 Biharis — former civil servants, military and those with family in Pakistan — but later took some others. By 1974, 108,000 had been transferred to Pakistan, mainly by air, and by 1981, about 163,000. As a result, between 250,000 and 300,000 were left in camps in Bangladesh. Describing themselves as “stranded Pakistanis” some were organized into the Stranded Pakistani General Repatriation Committee which advocates militant action, such as a walk across India to Pakistan. In 1980, such a walk was stopped at the Bangladeshi frontiers. Some observers have alleged that elements in the camps have a vested interest in keeping the Biharis as a separate and distinct community, nurturing dreams of repatriation rather than constructive improvements. Conditions in the camps were still very bad for these Biharis although they were increasingly able to leave the camps in search of work.

Many feel that Pakistan has a moral obligation to take in the remaining Biharis or at least those who had remained loyal to Pakistan during the war; however, the conditions under which many Biharis live in Pakistan, mainly at Orangi outside Karachi, the lack of adequate housing or work and the growing hostility felt towards them by many Pakistanis, indicate that another large-scale influx of Biharis might create serious problems. Pakistan has agreed, in principle, to take in as many of the refugees as possible provided funds could be made available for their transport and resettlement. At a conference of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) held in 1981, 12 national and international organizations agreed to form a working party to assist the resettlement programme in collaboration with Pakistan and Bangladesh. Several Islamic states have also expressed willingness to aid in financing the operation.

However, despite these promising developments, delays in the provision of finance and political procrastination by successive Pakistani governments has prevented large-scale repatriation. Pakistan’s President Zia signed an agreement with the World Muslim League in mid-1988 providing for resettlement for the Biharis but he was assassinated one month later. The new government of Benazir Bhutto confirmed that it would agree to repatriation; however, after intense pressures from Sind nationalists these plans were shelved.

For those Biharis who remained in Bangladesh there are still difficulties. It has not been forgotten that they willingly entered into government service under the Pakistanis and as a result they came to symbolize Pakistani dominance. Most Biharis are afraid of trying to integrate into the Bengali community; yet after two generations they probably have closer cultural and economic ties with that community than they do with Pakistan. This integration cannot take place without determination on the part of the Biharis and increased good-will from the Bengalis; however, perhaps the most crucial determining factor in Bihari development will be the Bangladeshi government’s need for the skills acquired by the Biharis under Pakistani rule. Economic necessity has meant that many have left the camps but those who remain — possibly 250,000 in all — face a bleak future.

(See also Chittagong Hill Tract Tribes of Bangladesh)