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Perhaps, for the first time in my writing career I am not scared to speak about the worst periods of Pakistan’s history and the tragedy of East Pakistan. Most South Asians know, or have lived through the darkest era of 1970s where East and West Pakistan and India went on war as if Lucifer himself was leading their way to mayhem. The “Dhaka Fall” in which West Pakistan, now Pakistan lost more than half of our country – a catastrophic event at many levels shaking the whole region and is a cause of great embarrassment for most of us. Dhaka fell on 16 December 1971, paving the path for the creation of Bangladesh and stays most sensitive and tragic chapters in the history of Pakistan. While the trauma of partition may for some now, be behind us, stories of 1971 still raise hackles among anyone who lived through that era.
The way in which Bangladesh was born is within itself a testament of the repeated mistakes, social injustice and discrimination of the ruling elite. Today, most of Pakistanis, Indians and Bangladeshis know just two very forceful narratives on what exactly happened, yet history is unequivocal. At the heart of this partition, for allow me to call it a partition 1971, was the deep resentment that despite supporting Pakistan Movement and becoming part of its liberation on August 14, 1947, the Bengalis were let down, openly humiliated and considered less than West Pakistanis on government levels.
Older generations have time and again discussed how painful it was for them to observe the open discrimination against Bengalis leading them to finally stand for separation. While majority Bengalis supported the liberation from West Pakistan, there was one ethnic group that didn’t want to separate from West Pakistan and supported the West Pakistan’s Army. This group is no other but the ethnic “Biharis” who at time of the gruesome nine months of war, contained to wholeheartedly support Pakistan.
According to Bangladesh’s government, up-to three million people were killed and hundreds of thousands of women raped during the savage nine-month battle for independence. This figures are disputed even today and a point of constraining relations between Pakistan and Bangladesh. But reality cannot escape South Asians, because in reality Begalis irrespective of their religion and ethnicity were murdered and tortured during and in the aftermath of this bloody war.
South Asian writers too suffered the numerous bloody trials of The Liberation War of Bangladesh, Bangladesh’s Nilima Ibrahim took her pen to write Ami Birangana Bolchi (The Voices of War Heroines) where she presents a collection of eyewitness testimony from seven rape victims from the war.
While on the other hand,Sarmila Bose’s book, in her Dead Reckoning, chronicles how one of the bloodiest wars in the past half-century has been “dominated by the narrative of the victorious side” – Bangladeshi nationalists. The books describes how we “are still imprisoned by wartime partisan myths” and asserts Bangladesh authorities are in a “state of denial” about the murder of Biharis whose count goes up in thousands.
The Bihari Persecution
After the war ended, Biharis suffered greately on all sides -in Bangaldesh, India and Pakistan. And according to prominent Bihari leader, Ezaz Ahmed Siddiqui, “Everyone talks about the killings of Bengalis (by the Pakistani army) in 1971. But none dares to mention the pogroms that were carried out against Biharis.” Such sentiments are common among the Bihari diaspora spread across our lands. After the war, Biharis were not granted citizenship rights in newly independent Bangladesh, lost their property and social status, and were forced to live in refugee camps under UN protection — where many remain to this day. For decades, Bangladeshi historians and authors have downplayed the Bihari killings, casting them as isolated instances of mob violence.
Till 2008, in Bangladesh, the Biharis remained stateless until a Dhaka High Court judgement gave them right of citizenship. But the judgement does not cover the refugees who were adults at the time of 1971 war. On the other hand, within Pakistan, the issue of Bihari diaspora is also lacking a resolve. Within my country, the matter is commonly known as “Stranded Pakistanis in Bangladesh” and the government of Pakistan says that approximately 170,000 Biharis have been repatriated back to Pakistan and for the remaining ‘stranded Pakistanis’ they aren’t its responsibility but rather the responsibility of Bangladesh.
While governments in Pakistan and Bangladesh play lip-service to resolving the Bihari people’s plights, there is much talk and no action. Pakistan could do well to remember its moral and legal duty to bring back the the thousands of people still stranded in Bangladesh and yearning to come to Pakistan, since that is what they chose in 1971.
An era where hundreds of thousands of Bihari children and women were killed and thrown into rivers, eye witnesses have seen Bihari peoples in Rupsha river and other water sources, Sairun Nesa is a survivor who was plucked from a pile of bodies on the banks of the Padma River by a saviour who nursed her back to health. The day after Bangladesh declared independence from Pakistan on December 16, 1971, Sairun Nesa survived a massacre in which 15 of her family — including her husband, son and daughter — were killed by “freedom fighters”. Eventually, she married him, changed her name and has tried to forget the past — but the frail sexagenarian is still haunted by her memories, even today she is “terrified even to talk” about what happened.
Such crimes remain still hidden, but for the sake of humanity an official acknowledgement of the atrocities is as important as the trial of alleged collaborators if Pakistan and Bangladesh are to come to terms with the events of 1971. Also it may take a long time to come at this, but Pakistan needs to apologize to Bangladesh for trying to find a military solution against its own people instead of democracy and dialogue.