In 1947, one million Muslim Biharis migrated from India, like so many others, to Pakistan – East Pakistan. Educated and fluent in Urdu, the Biharis were treated as part of the elite, filling major bureaucratic and private-sector positions, all the while remaining separate from the ‘local’ population. As a result, the Bangla-speaking populace grew resentful, viewing these migrants as supporters and symbols of unjust West Pakistani domination. The Biharis drew even more Bangladeshi ire during the liberation war of 1970-71. Since the group regarded itself as Pakistani, the majority sided with West Pakistan, some joining the armed movements.
After India’s intervention in December 1971, Pakistan evacuated Bangladesh. Left behind, in a country that had formed around them, were over one million Urdu-speaking Biharis. Persecuted, their property and houses seized, their jobs terminated, by 1972 1,008,680 Biharis were interned in camps across Bangladesh.
While these ‘temporary’ camps were being constructed, officials from Pakistan, Bangladesh and the international community committed themselves to finding a solution. Of these three, the first agreed to repatriate the Biharis, the second to tolerate them for the time being, and the third to support them. The agreement is now decades old, but Islamabad accepted only a few of those it had promised to repatriate, while Dhaka let them sink to the absolute margins of society. The international community turned its attention to new challenges, and the Biharis became stateless.
And there, in the camps, the Biharis remain. Over half (600,000) accepted Bangladesh’s offer of citizenship in 1974, while 539,000 registered with the International Community of the Red Cross as refugees, to “return to their country of nationality – Pakistan”. Since 1972, Pakistan has accepted back around 175,000 Biharis. 300,000, meanwhile, have continued to live in the camps for more than three decades.
Camp conditions are deplorable, characterised by chronic shortages of clean or running water, undependable electricity, communal kitchens and hour-long queues for squalid bathrooms. The majority of Biharis held university degrees in 1947; today, while primary enrollment in Bangladesh nears 100 percent, less than 20 percent of Bihari children are in schools. The refugees are refused admittance into most government public schools and universities, and are prohibited from joining civil service, the police, the military or holding political office. Unemployment and extreme poverty are rampant, as two generations have been denied the resources, knowledge and skills needed to improve their lives.
In 2001, 10 Biharis born after 1971 successfully petitioned a court for the right to vote. Hundreds of thousands of others, however, have been stripped of even the most basic of human rights. Both Pakistan and Bangladesh refuse to recognise their suffering and grant them citizenship. All but forgotten by the international community, the Bihari wait, desperate for attention, afraid to dream of a better future for their children.