The Case Of Stranded Pakistanis

Come to think of it; you are living in a region that is hit by a conflict as a result of which your country disintegrates and you are told that you do not belong to the land where you have been living for years. You are disowned, deprived of basic rights and moved to a camp where you keep waiting to travel to your actual homeland. Your status becomes that of a ‘refugee’ in the land that you had been considering your own.

Come to think of it; you are living in a region that is hit by a conflict as a result of which your country disintegrates and you are told that you do not belong to the land where you have been living for years. You are disowned, deprived of basic rights and moved to a camp where you keep waiting to travel to your actual homeland. Your status becomes that of a ‘refugee’ in the land that you had been considering your own.

This is exactly what happened with the non-Bengalis of East Pakistan after the 1971 war. Their identity turned from ‘Pakistanis’ to ‘stranded Pakistanis’ as a result of the war that broke the country into two. These stranded people include those who had been living in East Pakistan before the creation of Bangladesh but were not Bengali-speaking indigenous people. Generally called Biharis, these people aere Muslims who migrated from the state of Bihar to East Pakistan after the 1947 partition. Also, these stranded ones include other people from West Pakistan who had settled in Eastern side at that time.

Those broken Bihari families who had become victims of brutality of the Bengali militants, Mukti Bahini, were also living in the same refugee camps. Pertinent to mention here is the fact that these non-Bengalis were handpicked by the Mukti Bahini and were taught a lesson (through utmost brutal means) for their sin of siding with Pakistan during the time when these rebels, with absolute support of India, had waged war against Pakistani state. They were those tormented people who ultimately were relocated to the refugee camps after being looted, tortured and abandoned. Their crime was that of being non-Bengali and being loyal to their country Pakistan.

The issue of stranded Pakistanis is a classic case of Pakistani governments’ terrible failure. Even after decades, Pakistan has still not been able to repatriate all the stranded people to the land where they actually belonged, the land that is still considered as their identity by the people and government of the state where they are bound to lead their lives till date. For years, Pakistan’s leadership found it difficult to pay heed to the genuine demands of the stranded people and today they make excuse that these people do not want to be repatriated to Pakistan anymore. The reason is partially true because for those who were born after 1971, Bangladesh is the only country they’ve known therefore they do not feel any association with Pakistan the way their ancestors did or still do. But this situation could have been avoided had we been able to repatriate them on time.

It’s such a shame that today our foreign office declares that these people are not Pakistan’s responsibility by claiming that they have become part of the Bangladesh system. This claim is based on Dhaka High Court’s decision of 2008 according to which citizenship and voting rights to only those non-Bengalis were granted who were either born after 1971 or were minors at that time. It took Bangladesh some four decades to grant these rights to them which was the result of years of struggle of the Biharis. However, the implementation of court’s order is happening very gradually and many are still deprived of their rights. The point is, even after waiting to be repatriated for decades, what other option did they have other than asking the government of the country they were stranded in to help them get adjusted within their system? Why did we have to let things reach to this point?

Former President Pervez Musharraf, during his visit to Bangladesh, straight away refused to do anything for the stranded Pakistanis and only expressed his sympathy over their plight by giving justification that Pakistan had already been having tough time due to the influx of Afghan refugees. But Musharraf is not the only one who had shown disinterest in the repatriation of these Pakistanis. Benazir Bhutto also, during her reign, had several reasons regarding the inability, or rather unwillingness, to complete the repatriation process. National security being one of her major concerns.

Fact of the matter is, even today the Biharis living in those refugee camps are called ‘stranded Pakistanis’ which means that Bangladesh till date has not accepted them as its citizens because Bangladesh was meant to be for the people of Bengal only; those who speak Bengali language. The very basis of the creation of Bangladesh was securing land for the Bengalis, thus, their discriminatory attitude towards non-Bengalis becomes obvious.

Though the repatriation process began soon after 1971 war and from time to time, the Biharis had been settling in Pakistan, but unfortunately the process was never entirely completed and today they seem to be officially abandoned. Today, both Bangladesh and Pakistan seem oblivious of the plight of the stranded people. But there are certain initiatives that are privately helping them in various ways. In Bangladesh, a committee named Stranded Pakistanis General Repatriation Committee’ is struggling since years to have all the stranded Pakistanis repatriated to Pakistan. Here in Pakistan, some organizations – with the help of philanthropists – collect funds and donations from the general public for the Biharis living in camps to help improve their living conditions.

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Photo Courtesy: Bremen Donovan from Guardian

Ironically, Pakistan has approximately two million illegal Bengalis on its soil at the moment. This figure is much higher than the total number of Pakistanis stranded in Bangladesh which is about 0.3 million only. It is strange why we could not have our own people repatriated and in return sent back the Bengalis who’ve been illegally hiding inside Pakistan.

Year 1971 is the darkest period of Pakistan’s history; the time when the country was disintegrated, shamed internationally and fell victim to an unprecedented propaganda where Pakistan was reported and presented in the most negative ways before the world. Considering all such aspects, ideally, Pakistan should have been more than willing to handle this case with great care and deliberate efforts should have been made for timely repatriation of these stateless people. Pakistan should have owned them wholeheartedly for they were part of the pre-1971 Pakistan. It could have taken few years to have them repatriated completely but would never have taken decades had we been sincerely making efforts for it. Pakistan which is a country having the largest number of refugees in the world should have considered it a priority to first have own people settled back in their own land rather than opening the gates for foreign refugees. But the priorities of our governments seem to have been greatly misplaced.

These stateless humans deserve to be settled in the country that is still their identity for they have suffered enough due to their association with Pakistan. Even today, these Urdu-speaking families face the worst kind of discrimination in their daily lives due to their ethnic background. Hence, it is Pakistan’s moral and ethical duty to address their adversities like a truly responsible state and rid them of those poorly maintained camps where they’ve been bound to spend their lives in extremely subhuman conditions; because, it’s never too late.


This article originally appeared in Pakistan Today’s weekly edition published every Sunday

 

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