‘Stranded Pakistanis’ in Bangladesh: The forgotten victims of India’s partition
Even in today’s turbulent times, it is difficult to imagine a population of over 300,000 virtually stateless and abandoned. This has been the tragic state of Biharis or Urdu-speaking people stranded in Bangladesh for more than 45 years. Unfortunately, little is being done to change their condition.
The story goes back to 1947 when India and Pakistan became two nations. Pakistan then had two wings – East and West – separated geographically by 1,200 miles of Indian territory between them.
During the partition, a group of people from the Indian state of Bihar moved to East Pakistan because of geographical proximity and ease of movement. In 1971, civil war broke out between East and West Pakistan and the East seceded to become an independent country today called Bangladesh.
This is when Biharis or Urdu-speaking people were accommodated in temporary camps so they could later be repatriated to Pakistan. This, unfortunately, never happened.
Between 1973 and 1993, approximately 270,000 of these people were repatriated to Pakistan but the rest remained in Bangladesh. Some estimates put their number today at around 500,000.
Often referred to as “stranded Pakistanis” this group of people have not been granted citizenship in Bangladesh while Pakistan refuses to own up these people. They have little employment opportunities, are not part of the mainstream society and live in dilapidated camps.
In 2008, a court in Bangladesh granted citizenship to all camp residents born after 1971. The national identification cards they received gave them voting rights. Yet they continue to have temporary camp address, which prevents them from obtaining passports, getting government jobs and even admission in public schools.
Their pitiable living conditions have worsened due to rising population and scant resources. This is understandably leading to greater socio-economic problems, disease and extreme poverty.
Help at hand
Anwar Khan is President and Founder of an organization called OBAT Helpers, which has been working tirelessly to empower this forgotten community.
“As citizens of this world, we need to join hands to remember the unfortunate, displaced people stranded in the camps across Bangladesh for the past 46 years,” says Khan. His organization is working to educate, provide health services and basic human needs like clean water and better sanitation to this community.
Khan says his organization strives to “provide all necessary help and support to transition this population out of the camps in order to live a life with dignity”.
Siegfried O. Wolf, Director of Research at Brussels-based South Asia Democratic Forum, believes Pakistan should take responsibility for these people. More urgently, according to him, a political solution should be found to end their miserable living conditions.
“Perhaps the current tremendous economic transformation processes in Pakistan in the context of CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor), accompanied with massive changes in social demographics, offers Islamabad some more opportunities to accommodate a potential larger migration of the “Stranded Biharis” to Pakistan,” says Wolf.
According to him, Pakistan’s increasingly restrictive policy toward refugees (especially Afghans) gives a rather grim perspective for a solution. “The situation may turn even worse as these people neither have a larger “lobby” in South Asia nor is there any mighty actor within the international community (like China) willing to act in their favor”, Wolf says.
Aside from the politics and spirit of accommodation, there are those who believe just highlighting the plight of these people and extending whatever support possible stands to make a difference.
Dr. Shujaat Wasty, Vice President of OBAT, says the issue of this displaced minority needs to be seen primarily through a humanitarian lens. “The main objective has to be that, after three generations having suffered dearly, future generations be able to live a life of dignity with the same socio-economic opportunities afforded to them as their co-citizens”.
According to Wasty, this can be achieved with a bit of concerted effort by government bodies, NGOs and international donor agencies, as well as at the grassroots level. “Such an approach would undeniably have significant potential for progress of Bangladeshi society as a whole”.
Till that happens, these people will remain forgotten victims of India’s partition.