Biharis In 1971: Used & Left Behind By Pakistan Army

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Pakistan's activities in 1971 are mostly talked about in relation to the Bangladeshis but almost no literature exists on the relationship between the Pakistan army and the Biharis on whom Pakistan army decisions had profound impact.

It was a relationship which was based on loyalty from one side given without question – that is the Biharis “and a treachery committed by the army and the state of Pakistan by deserting them to their fate” that is the wrath of Bangladeshis – not once but twice. The Biharis suffered more than any other group in the year because their suffering continued on and on long after peace was made amongst Bangladesh, India and Pakistan.

The Urdu-speaking people of India who migrated to the land that became Pakistan after 1947 became “Biharis” reflecting their location and identity. The term Biharis meant those who spoke Urdu and belonged to the undiluted ideology of Pakistan with its entire connotation. Initially, in the early days of Pakistan, they as refugees were the most militant anti-Bengali and anti-Hindu group in East Pakistan. Many had negative experiences when they were in India and this fuelled the kind of sustainable hatred that was particularly useful in upholding a rabid Pakistan that was rapidly emerging. Most of these Muhajirs were skilled craftsmen who were needed to run the infant mechanical infrastructure of the eastern wing. Many settled in North Bengal and Chittagong, the hubs of the railway network and others spread all over Bangladesh including Dhaka. Mohammadpur and Mirpur were the two areas built specifically to settle them.

Biharis were strangers in East Pakistan from the very first. They had no link to the Bengali sub-nationalism that was as emerging as a contest to Pakistan. In the initial days, the Muhajirs or Pakistanis coming from India were in the leadership all over Pakistan and the Biharis here saw themselves as their representative, a much purer brand of Pakistanis than the Bengalis, mostly considered half- Muslims. In the early days, this was a fine thing and many Bihari Pakistanis spent time fighting anything remotely considered Hindu, communist or nationalist. All these elements were anti-Pakistani and thus anti-Islam and therefore worthy causes for good Pakistani Muslims.

It’s their alienation from normal political impulses of the land that caused them so much suffering but this was also perhaps inevitable given how Pakistan grew. Pakistan became West Pakistan while East Pakistan began to become Bangladesh. Biharis living in East Pakistan were loyal Pakistanis that is in effect loyal to West Pakistan and who drifted away from the main nationalist space and became marooned in East Pakistan in every possible way. They were loyal Pakistanis but the question they never asked is, was Pakistan loyal to them?

Election Of 1970 And Political Aftermath:

In the most historic election of Pakistan that is 1970, Bengalis voted not only against the rule of Pakistan but also the ruling ethnic structure of the country. Although Biharis had been expelled from that coveted space in Pakistan proper where Bihajirs were supplanted as the prime ruling ethnicity by the Punjabis, they continued to act as if they were still the prime custodian of Pakistan. Not that they had any choice in this matter.

In East Pakistan they became the face of Pakistan including the one which refused to hand over power to the people who had won an election. The Biharis, firmly against the Awami League became the face of the obstructing Pakistan. After the crackdown of March 25, they became the face of the murderous force of the army. Bengalis took revenge for the Pakistan attack on the Biharis who were in effect the next available Pakistani. In most cases, innocent men, women and children were killed or brutalised. Yet, the process was rooted in the attack by Pakistan on the 25th night.

Its amazing to think that the Pakistan army while attacking Bengalis on the night of the 25th didn’t take into account what would happen to the Biharis spread all over Bangladesh. That as soon as the attack was over, counterattacks fuelled by revenge would happen and the price would have to be paid by the people who were completely unprotected and lived in far-flung, and often isolated, communities. It's obvious that the Pakistanis were very poor analysts and they probably didn’t think that the Bengalis would rise as one in violent resistance once the attack was mounted but the risk analysis was also a reflection of priorities. There is nothing to indicate that the Pakistanis ever considered what would happen to the Biharis as repercussions of the March 25th attack. Subsequent actions of the Pakistan army reinforce this claim.

Once Bangladesh/East Pakistan was pacified all over and the Biharis felt they were safe, many Biharis behaved in a way that earned them greater enmity and bitterness from the local people. Biharis never ever considered that they have been let down and blamed everything on the Bengalis and during this period, they acted on a revenge scenario. It’s during this period that under the protection and encouragement of the Pak army they were complicit in acts which had deadly consequences for them.

The Pakistan army, which had no presence in the area and had to depend on civilian support, used the Biharis to create a pro-Pakistani structure in 1971. Not only did the Biharis set up committees all over but also got involved in “al-Shams” the paramilitary civil force that was active in North Bengal and other parts particularly in bordering districts. As a result, in those areas their status as a supporter and facilitator of Pakistan and its acts was set in stone.

Paying Somebody Else’s Price:

The Pakistan army didn’t last long in 1971 and on December 16 surrendered to the Indians to ensure their own protection. And soon they were off to India as prisoners of war making sure that no harm came to them. But they escaped to India leaving their most loyal supporters behind and it was one the greatest act of cowardice by any army anywhere. The Bengalis had by then become a berserk mob, victorious and driven crazy by death and rape and they took it out on a people who were unable to defend themselves.

Within the Biharis the well-off and the middle class escaped all through 1971 and not many of them suffered but the poor were the ones left behind and they paid a price in blood and ruination they didn’t deserve after having given so much for Pakistan.

By abandoning the Biharis in East Pakistan, first to mob attacks and then to a life in terrible camp-like situations, the Pakistan army in effect forced the Biharis to pay a price for what they did. It was an amazing instance where a particular people are made to serve a sentence of immeasurable suffering as a matter of convenience by an army used to using civilians to try to reach their own ends.

Bangladeshis should apologize to the Biharis for what they did in 1971 and early 1972 because what happened was acts against humanity. We have an obligation to be ashamed for no one can behave they way we did and not feel remorse and not seek forgiveness for what they did. One understands the circumstances under which it happened but that can’t excuse Bangladeshis for what happened.

However, what we can never expect is an apology from the Pakistan army because it doesn’t even recognize that it did anything wrong. Few Biharis would ask for it either because they don’t appear capable of this reasoning. It’s the ultimate irony that the Biharis are ready to die for Pakistan when the army treated them in such a way that caused so much suffering to them.


This article was first published in The New Age, Bangladesh

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this writing are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of League of India, its Editorial Board or the business and socio-political interests that they might represent.

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