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December 17, 2020

Forty-nine years on

Opinion

December 17, 2020

In recent months there has been an improvement in relations between Pakistan and Bangladesh. A couple of months ago, Prime Minister Imran Khan called Bangladesh Prime Minister Mrs Sheikh Hasina, and more recently the Pakistani ambassador in Dhaka also called on the Bangladesh prime minister.

These moves came as we approached the date of December 16, which will mark 49 years since the end of the civil war that led to the declaration of Bangladesh as an independent nation. East Pakistan was no more. The events leading up to the breakup of Pakistan are too painful to recount. Suffice it to say there was tremendous suffering on all sides.

The civil war was brought to an end on December 16, 1971 with the incursion of Indian troops into Dhaka. The dream of a unified country for the Muslims of British India was no more. It took several years before all the displaced people in Bangladesh who were from the western part of Pakistan were rejoined with their families in what remained as Pakistan. At the same time there were about half a million more among the total Bangladesh population of over 70 million, who were not ethnic Bengali. They were mostly Urdu speakers, immigrants to East Pakistan from various parts of British India. Over the years, many of them were able to migrate to Pakistan.

However, about 300,000 of these Urdu speakers were left behind in Bangladesh. The Pakistan government was unwilling or unable to take them in. And, being seen as non-Bengali Pakistanis, they were initially not accepted by Bangladesh. They had become stateless. For their protection, the International Red Cross housed them in makeshift camps across all of Bangladesh, most of which continue to exist today. These people – now the third generation of those who were there in 1971 – are eking out a subsistence living.

These people sometimes came to be referred to as “stranded Pakistanis”, which created a further hurdle to their acceptance into the Bangladeshi society. Over the years however, many in the younger generation of Urdu speakers petitioned the Bangladesh government asking to be recognized as legal citizens. In an act of magnanimity, the Bangladesh government granted them citizenship and they were issued official ID cards, along with voting rights.

A vast majority of these camp dwellers are now well adjusted into Bangladesh society, with fluent language skills, even though their economic situation remains precarious. Most camp dwelling families live in makeshift single room accommodations, with sparse communal sanitation and water facilities. I visited these camps earlier this year and saw the desperate situation in camps in Dhaka and Chittagong, but also felt a reason for hope.

Having won Bangladesh citizenship rights, the vast majority of these people have established themselves as patriotic Bangladeshis. As they get access to education, the camp dwellers are starting to pull themselves out of poverty. There is a small number of such people who have close family in Pakistan. Without jeopardizing their hard-won Bangladesh citizenship rights, they would greatly benefit from contact with their next of kin in Pakistan.

It is very encouraging to see steps by the Pakistan and Bangladesh governments to improve relations. The difficult history of the breakup of the country may take a long while yet to heal, but with goodwill on both sides progress can be made. Given the current geopolitical shifts in the region, both countries will benefit from establishing friendly relations.

In the meantime, the families left behind in Bangladesh deserve the support of both countries, and the assistance of humanitarian organizations that are able and willing to step up.

The writer is a freelance contributor based in Washington DC.

Website: www.sqshareef.com/blogs