Human Debris from a Civil War

Another essay in my occasional series on populations in distress – populations that you probably never heard about.  One million people locked into ghettos and abandoned.

Based on a comprehensive Report written by myself in 1974

1.  Who are the Biharis?

Thousands of bridges destroyed in Civil War.

Communal violence in the State of Bihar in 1946 preceded and contributed to the 1947 Partition of India. These Urdu-speaking (largely Shia) Muslims migrated to what became East Pakistan and were welcomed by the West Pakistani group that also spoke Urdu. Their support of West Pakistan against the local Bengali population resulted in their becoming internal refugees after the (East Pakistan) Civil War of 1971 and the creation of Bangladesh in 1972.

At the end of the Civil War some 1,000,000 Biharis or “Non-Bengalis” gathered for self defense and survival in urban clusters across Bangladesh. The new Government effectively abandoned these people to their own fate. They would have ‘ethnically-cleansed’ them across any available border but there was no border they could cross.

I was very engaged with the Bihari problem in 1972-74. This is their story and my effort to explain their predicament in 1974.

As you read this essay consider the very parallel plight of the Rohingyas – its just others doing it to Bengalis this time.

I visited one of these camps in January 2018 and observed that possibly 100,000 – 200,000 Biharis are still living in desperate conditions after 46 years!

Bihari refugee camps were incredibly miserable.

The Bihari “problem” (1974) was simplistically divided into repatriation and assimilation with very little appreciation of the roots of this human disaster.

The standard history of the Biharis begins with their “Muslim state option” at partition, continues with their communal lifestyle and identification with the West-Pakistan Urdu culture and finishes with their unfortunate “decision” to support (West) Pakistan in the civil war. This view of history satisfactorily explains why the Biharis are presently rotting in the abysmal camps, but does little to explain the difficulties in getting them out.

The most serious error in our understanding of the Biharis is to consider them a ‘group’ with all the associated sociological dimensions. The common language, clustered urban living patterns and so forth are given as the usual evidence.  The Biharis are in fact nothing more than a portion of the human flotsam washed to the Eastern and Western shores of the sub-continent by the great religious and social upheaval known as ‘Partition’. Those who washed ashore in either wing of Pakistan had the common characteristic of the Muslim religion but that does not constitute sociological solidarity in Asia.

Crowded tents and plenty of rain.

The mass migration of Hindus and Muslims at partition must be seen as a social migration as much as a religiously motivated one.  The Hindus were forced out of East Bengal because of resentment stemming from their powerful hold on the land and the major institutions. The Muslims in West Bengal and Bihar, on the other hand, tended to represent the disenfranchised and impoverished masses. The communal fighting forced many of these out of their homes and villages toward safety.  Another large group came by choice. These were the wealthier and relatively more educated Muslims of Calcutta and other East Bengal centers.

The pattern of absorption or lack of it is a function of their social, economic and language heritage rather than culturally-based. The migrants to East Pakistan can be divided along one relatively simple dimension, whether or not they were Bengali.  The (ethnic Bengali) immigrants from West Bengal and Assam melted into the rural landscape by mixing with relatives, replaced the departing Hindus if they were professionals, or disappeared into the large group of landless and lost any distinguishing signs.  The non-Bengali group tended to be predominantly poor and landless, the rickshaw pullers and peasants of Bihar and other states. Those with more alternatives gravitated west to Lahore and Karachi where they enjoyed greater cultural similarity. There were no rural opportunities in East Pakistan for these people since they had no relatives and generally no farming skill. The urban areas did present a unique opportunity since the ebb and flow of people had left a vacuum in certain cities and professions. The control of industry and railroads had always resided in Calcutta, and was essentially British and Hindu dominated.  Employment had favored the more sophisticated Hindus and the Anglo-Indians, who left for India or Britain at Partition.

Animal waste as fuel.

The final determinant in the recipe which produced the Biharis was the nature of the West Pakistinis.  Although they had shared in the mutual domination by Britain, they were never subjected to the cultural and economic imperialism of a local group as were the Bengali Muslims by the Bengali Hindus.  As a result the West Pakistani had a stronger tradition of education, self-government, entrepreneurship and a pride and defiance unique to that area of Asia. The new political entity known as Pakistan was an unequal partnership from the beginning, but the greatest inequality was in experience and national character. The dominant West Pakistani cast around for familiar landmarks in the rural and more primitive East.  The flood of Urdu-speaking immigrants, somewhat oriented to urban life, was a natural fit.  They filled the jobs vacated by the departing Anglo-Indians and were employed by the industrialists from the West who replaced the Hindu and foreign employers.

These are the social, economic, and political conditions which gave rise to identifiable concentrations of Urdu-speaking non-Bengalis active in the railroads and jute mills and later in trade and business. The immigrants now known as Biharis did not constitute a cultural or social group in 1948, but a situation existed where the Urdu-speaking immigrants could get urban jobs in very concentrated industries whereas the rest of the immigrants melted into the countryside.

The second major influence was the nature of urban settlement in East Pakistan and the economic and political climate from partition to 1971. East Pakistan was essentially rural with minor urban concentrations composed of Bengalis with their psychological roots in their village, and West Pakistanis with their roots in the other half of Pakistan. The Urdu-speaking immigrants constituted the only large urban group who were genuine residents of their cities. The increasing urbanization led to an expansion of the cities. Jute mills, railroads and government tend to provide employee housing, and the concentration of Urdu-speaking immigrants in these sectors led to a similar residential concentration. This series of development did not create a ‘Bihari’ community as such, but it created a set of conditions which permitted this group of people to become prosperous, established  and influential without being forced to assimilate culturally with the mainstream of East Pakistan culture.

This pattern of urban settlement had the seeds of trouble, but it would not have led to the present crisis without the East-West tensions. The apparent neglect of the East can be partially attributed to policy, but the real differences in progress are the result of a different national mentality reinforced by a more advantageous geographic and resource situation in the West. This differential in development and potential, assisted by a fair amount of insensitivity with regard to language and other cultural issues, led to deterioration of the spirit of national unity.  The West responded with authoritarian measures, catalyzing the various economic, political, social and religious complaints into an over-riding East-West issue. The ‘Bihari’ community, fully aware of the reasons for its rapid ascendancy and prosperity, were willing pawns in the strategy of West Pakistan to maintain its power base. Unfortunately, their pattern of settlement and their retention of the Urdu language moved them clearly to one side as the lines of division sharpened.

Bangladesh incredibly populated.

These dynamics progressively propelled the Bihari (Urdu-speaking) immigrants into an urban elite. Their high populations in major cities and proportionately large representation in schools and government were protected by the West Pakistani umbrella which gave Urdu official status and tended to blind them to their real situation in East Pakistan. The Bihari community has been accused of many things, but never humility or wisdom.  Whereas the situation called for a more circumspect profile, arrogance was the response. When the Bengalis revolted against the rulers from the West, they made no distinction between those of Indian or West Pakistani origin, since these Indian immigrants had fused their destiny to the star of greater Pakistan rather than the fortunes and culture of the East Wing.

The departure of the genuine West Pakistanis in 1971 and the change to a nationalistic Bengali culture left the Urdu–speaking Indian immigrants as a visible community where previously they had been blurred as part of a much more complex ethnic and cultural picture. They became a group by default, and this is the heart of today’s problem. The ‘Biharis’ or the more appropriate term ‘non-Bengalis’ in the camps were not a group or community who shared a common origin or history, but a collection of people with certain distinctive similarities who acted and lived in a parallel pattern shaped by the unique economic, social and political circumstances described earlier. They share a common misery and a mutual bitterness but the concentration in certain cities or industries does not constitute sociological solidarity. They have no heritage to draw on for strength and no pattern of community leadership to handle their affairs and to enable them to speak as one voice. The pattern of corruption by camp leaders, dysfunctional community activities, the total lack of concern for the widows and other totally helpless members of the camps has appalled the onlooker. A large part of the answer lies in our expectation that they function as a community whereas they are a collection of individuals who lost their roots a generation ago, saw their tentatively forming roots forcibly pulled from the soil in 1971 and are now a totally frustrated and disenchanted mob. If the outsider intends to speak to the problem, it should be with a full understanding of this background.

On April 6, 1971 the US consul-General Archer Blood wrote an infamous telegram now known as the ‘Blood Telegram’ in which he effectively accused US policy of supporting genocide. Kissinger and Nixon were secretly engaged in using West Pakistan to gain access to Mao and China and did not want the civil war in East Pakistan to disrupt their strategic efforts.

2.  History of the Bihari Relief Effort

Youth in a traffic circle. Nobody stopped.

A great deal could be written to little advantage about the role of the Biharis during the nine months of civil war. There was never a conscious decision for the group to take one or the other side, since they never viewed themselves self-consciously as a group, rather individually associated with the larger Urdu-West Pakistani culture.

The initial turmoil caused by rising Bengali nationalism resulted in attacks upon all non-Bengalis, forcing those living in smaller centers to congregate in the major towns or near Urdu-speaking concentrations. The end of the war found the (West Pakistani) army in Indian prisons, the majority of West Pakistanis safely back in Karachi and the Biharis stripped not only of their protection, but their assets and citizenship as well – for those fortunate enough to be still alive. Harassed by neighbors with bitter memories and by roving bands of patriots with guns – they withdrew into tight defensive ghettos for survival. In the larger context of sub-continental activity they were largely forgotten until the river of bodies south of Khulna in March 1972 jolted the world to attention.

Starvation in Bihari camp.

Thousands of bodies were suddenly observed floating in the Lower Ganges on the way to the Bay of Bengal. That resulted in international attention and the arrival of the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) – till then they were merely miserable people.

The ICRC stepped in to provide an international umbrella of security and found itself sucked into the morass of providing food, shelter and medical care as reserves ran out and disease took its toll. The ICRC never analyzed the problem in terms of its socio-economic context, but viewed the problem in a legalistic political manner, successfully keeping the people alive but failing to deal with the substantive issues which made them refugees. One should not attribute attitudes on speculation, but the approach taken by the ICRC and other related officials to organize the Biharis along lines of self-government for internal affairs suggest that they viewed the group as a

Undernourished children waiting for their daily ration.

community with a certain amount of social cohesion. Most (Bihari) leaders used their positions as stepping stones to their own escape from this nightmare while the rest of the group responded to this example by psychologically sinking into lethargy and physically into their own excretion by refusing to work at tasks for the community at large. The world community concentrated its efforts on shifting 150,000 of these unfortunates from refugee camps from the outskirts of Dacca to camps even further outside of Karachi and are congratulating themselves on their generosity and organizational competence. Meanwhile the remaining 600,000 or more stripped of their professionals, doctors, leaders, and able-bodied young men rot under even more hopeless conditions in Bangladesh.

The religious, voluntary and other international agencies rushed onto the scene with a haste which would have been scandalous in the days of clipper ships, timidly sticking their humanitarian paw into the morass. The unfortunate stress by the ICRC (reflecting the position of the government) that they were the only legally constituted agency to deal with the problem was eagerly seized by many agencies as an excuse to remain clear of potential Government disapproval. The few agencies who did eventually venture into the arena performed some very valuable humanitarian services but failed to come up with any solutions to the dissolution of the refugee concentrations. The administration within the camps stressed the two roles of food distribution and registration for “expatriation” to Pakistan, the former provided an opportunity for patronage and worse, and the latter guaranteed seats for family and friends. Whereas the majority of Biharis in places such as Saidpur had initially opted for Bangladesh, the complete lack of progress toward normalization resulted in increasing polarization to the extent that virtually every Bihari now wants to be repatriated.

We offered to operate the eye but parents wanted to use this child to beg.

Most severe infants in special centers operated by our agency.

The tragedy of the situation is that the extensive reservoir of goodwill and the desire to remain in Bangladesh which existed shortly after the end of the civil war has now been completely dissipated. The group has been divided virtually family by family and the educated and the potential leaders have gone. Whatever raw material there was for reintegration with the Bengali mainstream has now been largely destroyed. The political agencies treated the problem as a political one and the humanitarian agencies treated it as a humanitarian problem. Nobody seems to recognize that the Bihari problem is the tip of a gruesome (Bangladesh) iceberg whose essence is poverty and over-population and whose evidence is the socioeconomic death-struggle for inadequate “Lebensraum”.



3.  Is there a Solution?

Every Bengali will relate sincere examples of personal friendship with Biharis even of specific instances of assistance on his part. Then he tragically shakes his head and concludes that they (Biharis) have forfeited their right to live in East Pakistan.

Bangladesh has the potential to be productive.

The centrifuge of social dynamics has thrown a formerly privileged group out of competition and nobody is prepared to step aside to permit re-entry. The politicization of the issue was assisted by the role of the ICRC and the involvement of other foreigners. To the delay and the disintegration of the Biharis as a meaningful entity has now been added the momentum of accumulating history to insure their permanent ostracism.

The major error on the part of the world community is that they passively stood back and permitted the total isolation and ostracism of one segment of society under the pretext of communal hatred and guilt. If this official ostracism had not occurred, and the Biharis had retained at least a fraction of their employment opportunities and a modicum of self-respect, the polarization may not have occurred and the community could have been largely self-sufficient, albeit poor, by this time. The major donors had the power of persuasion in 1972 and 1973 but through lack of concern or information pretended that they had nothing to offer.

4.  An Outline of Possible Further Action

The historic analysis suggests that the Biharis became a group by default or by a policy of elimination. The repatriation of their most capable leadership combined with the history of lack of community cohesion in the management of their own affairs indicates that it is of no value to think of a future for the Biharis as an identifiable group within Bangladesh.

The first and paramount requirement is for the Government of Bangladesh to dismantle its official policy of considering the Biharis ineligible for citizenship. Since the Biharis have no real culture of their own, this would permit those who wanted to ignore their past to assimilate and disappear from view. Others may wish to maintain their pretense of West Pakistani citizenship and should be left in the camps with services progressively being reduced. A third segment such as widows, children and aged will have no alternative and these should be isolated for attention by the humanitarian agencies.

Given the implementation of the first action, an effort should be made to physically separate the community into groups which accept Bangladesh citizenship and those who refuse it. A history of leadership oriented toward repatriation and instances of community pressure to reject conciliatory advances by the government or the Bengali community have been of little help. The isolation of those opting for Pakistan would enable the rest of the community to respond to positive measures.

Given a legal basis for positive action and some measure of identification of those families willing to be assimilated and those without the capacity for self-support, some meaningful programs could be organized. Priority needs to be given to employment to enable self-sufficiency and a basis for integration.

The above suggestions completely ignore the abysmal living conditions, lack of health care and so forth. The danger of creating permanent ghettos of a terrible kind are so great that a tremendous effort must be made to create some avenues for escape from the community, as well as the desire to leave areas like Muhammadpur.

The answer to the Bihari problem is not to make the camp more comfortable, but to create some lifelines to escape and to work inside the camp to blur the barriers and distinctions which have created the isolation. Education and jobs are key.


The frustrating nature of the Bihari question promotes a search for historical precedent, but relevant precedents are difficult to find. The less than admirable actions and characteristics of the Biharis also blur the real issues. Bangladesh is often looked on as an anachronism in a world of progress. In fact it should be viewed as a harbinger of the future, since it is far ahead of the rest of the world on the Malthusian curves and the degeneration equations of the Club of Rome.

The Biharis are not a particularly deserving group of people, but the basic human issues they represent mean that the world community cannot condone this reaction to the looming problems of over-population. For this reason substantial weight has been given to end the official ostracism, although this may not make much direct difference to the remaining Biharis. However, it will mean a rejection by the Government of this kind of inhuman approach. The suggestion to eliminate the Biharis as a cultural entity should not be interpreted as a disregard for the legitimate rights of minorities. The culture which they attached themselves to is that of the West Pakistani, and continuing emigration should be one option. However, there is no adequate history prior to liberation or since liberation to give credence to any claims that they represent a distinct cultural entity.

The problems are large but the issues are even larger. Hopefully the interpreters of the events and the participants will recognize the substantive issues of the Bihari situation and set the course of events in a direction which is more productive and humane.

Reader should note that the sometimes critical statements expressed were written in 1974 and have not been edited out.  They reflect the challenge of being an agent of action in a very difficult situation.