Pakistan and Bangladesh fight an inverted custody battle
Pakistan was created as a homeland for the subcontinent’s Muslims, fueled by fears that Muslims would lose out to the Hindu majority in a post-Independence democratic India. Ironically, Partition created a new Pakistani state where Muslims were already in a majority and hence had no special need for special protection – leaving the elites in many other parts of India with a choice to stay on in secular India or depart in search of their new homeland.
Pakistan, the homeland for the subcontinent’s Muslims did not fully deliver on its promise: the new country came to be dominated by the Punjabi majority and in course of time Mohajirs (the immigrant Muslims of India) and Bengalis (of the country’s eastern wing) came to resent Punjabi domination. The imposition of Urdu as a national language further complicated matters: the Mohajirs supported it, but the Punjabis, Sindhis and most of all the Bengalis strongly opposed it.
In East Pakistan, non-Bengali immigrants known as Biharis, were opposed to the rise of Bengali nationalism and strongly supported the oppression of Bengalis in East Pakistan. In 1971 the Bengalis broke free from Pakistan and declared independence; thanks to Indian support, Bangladesh became an independent nation. The Biharis were given a choice to become citizens of the new state, but they chose to remain loyal to Pakistan. Pakistan rewarded them for their loyalty by simply forgetting about them. The Pakistani establishment, by now dominated by Punjabis (and to some extent by Pathans), was not keen on the idea of a few hundred thousand more Mohajirs who could upset the ethnic balance.
The Biharis were thus inserted into the limbo – interned in refugee camps waiting for repatriation to a country which does not really want them.
After decades of living in Bangladesh, it is realistic to make efforts to get these people to assimilate in that country. Those Biharis who refused in the seventies to take up Dhaka’s offer now realise they may have made a mistake. Given their plight they cannot be made to suffer the consequences of it any more. They may not be averse to accepting a similar offer now. This is where Pakistan needs to start shouldering its responsibility not only in terms of helping Dhaka bear the financial burden of these Biharis but also in finding money from international sources to help Bangladesh absorb them. In the final analysis, of course, Pakistan must make arrangements to receive those among them who still insist on coming to Pakistan, despite any demographic problems that they may unwittingly create in their chosen homeland (Pakistan). [Daily Times]