Every year December 16 reminds us of a black and sad day in the history of Pakistan. On that day, Pakistan was split in two, losing its eastern half. The purpose here is not to go into the history of the said episode, for which there are many narratives, depending on who the narrator is.
I last visited Dhaka on January 5, 1971, as I had to attend an official meeting of the Equity Participation Fund at Rajshahi. I left Dhaka for the last time and two of my Bengali colleagues, AKN Ahmed, Deputy Governor of the State Bank of Pakistan, and Nurul Mahin, Managing Director of the Equity Participation Fund, came to see me off. Instead of the usual handshake and the farewell, they both embraced me. Our eyes brimmed into tears as we realised what was to come (it may be recalled that Sheikh Mujibur Rehman had addressed a huge crowd in Paltan Maidan after his thumping electoral victory). I have since never been to East Pakistan — now Bangladesh.
My main interest here is to bring to the attention of Pakistani political leaders the presence of around 300,000 Pakistanis stranded in five refugee camps in Bangladesh, the biggest one being in Dhaka. For 41 years, two or three generations of these unfortunate individuals (often callously referred to as Biharis) have been living a life of misery, malnutrition and in appalling unhygienic conditions. They are waiting for some caring and conscientious government to help them come over to Pakistan. In the past, just about every head of government made a promise to bring them to Pakistan but never came good on it.
Here is a brief list of such promises: 1) In the Simla Agreement of 1972, it was agreed that the (besieged) stranded Pakistanis will be repatriated to Pakistan from the former East Pakistan. 2) In 1978, chief martial law administrator General Ziaul Haq met a delegation, led by the mayor of Karachi, and assured it that the ‘stranded Biharis’ will be soon brought to Pakistan. 3) The Motamar Al-Alam Al-Islami launched a fund collection for repatriation of the stranded Pakistanis in 1988 and reportedly collected millions of dollars for this purpose. In March 1994, the Pakistani High Commission in Dhaka even released a list it had complied of the stranded persons awaiting repatriation. 4) On November 12, 1991, the Government of Pakistan announced that the process of repatriation ‘would be expedited’. 5) On August 11, 1992, at the end of Begum Khalida Zia’s visit to Pakistan, it was announced that stranded Pakistanis will be airlifted to Pakistan.
These assurances were later repeated by Mian Nawaz Sharif and the then Bangladeshi prime minister in August 1992; Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto who, as prime minister, gave an assurance to a similar effect in December 1994; the prime ministers of both Pakistan and Bangladesh on April 25, 1995; Pakistan’s foreign secretary, Najamuddin Sheikh, on August 8, 1996; Nawaz Sharif, again, when he became prime minister a second time, on March 25, 1999; and General Pervez Musharraf during a visit to Bangladesh on August 30, 2002.
In fact, about 50,000 of these refugees were eventually brought to Pakistan with the help of the Motamar Al-Alam Al-Islami and were settled in Punjab, thanks in large part to the province’s then chief minister, the late Ghulam Haider Wyne.
Since then, it has been all promises and no action. Recently, an excuse was made that they couldn’t be repatriated anymore since they now had Bangladeshi citizenship. This is not correct and only children born in the camps will, if at all, be eligible for this.
The thousands of people still stranded in Bangladesh and yearning to come to Pakistan have been consistently urging Pakistan’s political leaders to recognise that the country has a moral and legal duty to bring them to Pakistan, since that is what they chose in 1971. A close parallel, in my view, of these stranded Pakistanis can be drawn with Palestinians since the latter are also living away from their homeland and more or less like refugees.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 20th, 2012.
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