Shoukat Ali, secretary general of the Stranded Pakistanis General Repatriation Committee, talks about the plight of the Urdu-speaking community and their hopes to return to normal life in an interview with Shaikha Shuhada Panzeree
New Age: How long have you been here in Bangladesh?
Shoukat Ali: We have been staying in the Geneva Camp since 1974. Our forefathers, came from India to the then East Pakistan in 1947 after the partition, we did not come here from Pakistan. The Bengali people back then were good to us, they provided a nice environment for us to live. But after the liberation we faced discrimination. Following that, International Committee of Red Cross came here and gave us temporary shelter in different camps only for three years. But, these three years have turned into more than 40 years now. This Geneva camp is one of the biggest camps, but in here too, our people are living a miserable life. Approximately 40,000 people are living in this camp alone. There are more than 3 lakh Biharis living in such camps around the country. In 1992, Pakistan High Commission conducted a survey with the help of Bangladesh government and our organisation, there were 3 lakh Bihari people living here that time. No survey has been conducted since, but approximately, I think it is more than 4 lakh.
On different occasions, the Bangladesh and Pakistan governments signed agreements for the repatriation and rehabilitation of the stranded Biharis, but it took place in 1993 for the last time and 325 people were sent to Mian Chunnu in the Punjab. In Pakistan land was acquired and money was donated in the Habib Bank of Pakistan for the stranded Biharis. There is an agreement but we do not understand why there is no repatriation process going on since then!
New Age: After 1993, did you want to go back to Pakistan?
Shoukat Ali: No. All the office members have decided on one principal now, no more going back to Pakistan! In 2015, we met with the honourable prime minister Sheikh Hasina and the president of the SPGRC, Abdul Jabbar Khan cried in front of her and pleaded, ‘Apa, we do not want to go back to Pakistan any more! We will give you the place of our mother, if you take us as your children too and rehabilitate us with a little dignity.’ We do not want a life in this camp anymore, we were provided with rooms of eight feet by eight feet in the early 1972, the population has increased, and there is no privacy whatsoever! There is no proper education system, no sanitation, no health care system, nothing of that sort. How would one survive here?
New Age: As you have seen the pre-partition Indian subcontinent, then East and West Pakistan and now Bangladesh, do you experience an identity crisis as to which nationality you belong to?
Shoukat Ali: I am a stateless person! We are neither Indian nor Pakistani, could not even become Bangladeshi! Although we have been given identity cards from Bangladesh, we are not treated as its citizens and not getting the facilities entitled to a citizen either. For example, we cannot procure a passport, the passport office tells us that since the parliament has not given permission for this yet, they cannot issue passports for us.
New Age: Since 1974, what struggles did you have to face till now? What were Pakistan and Bangladesh’s roles in helping you with facing them?
Shoukat Ali: The struggles are unlimited. Why did we migrate here from India? Because, it was a part of Pakistan in those days and we are Muslims. The Bengali people were sympathetic to us and gave us job opportunities. I got my education from BAF Shaheen School and College. We have relations here, I have a classmate, Sheikh Kamal who is the son of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman; Kazi Salahuddin, the president of Bangladesh Football Federation was my classmate too. We have relations like this in this country. And, we are hopeful that the present government would surely do something positive for our cause. She assured us in the presence of the president of SPGRC, Mr. Abdul Jabbar Khan, that in phase by phase the government will try their level best to rehabilitate us, starting with Mohammadpur and Mirpur. So we are hopeful. On the other hand, Pakistan downright betrayed us, it was a moral obligation on Pakistan’s side to take us back, they made an agreement and broke that too. They have left us for nothing. In this situation, we are very much thankful to the government of Bangladesh and also to the people of Bangladesh that they have kept us in their soil. We are being provided with free water, free electricity, free accommodation and security too, how can we not be grateful for that? But the situation could be better for us people, there were more discrimination before, but it is gradually improving. Our students are appearing in the PSC and JSC examinations, this year 40 students from my school are attending the JSC examination, 50 students will appear in the PSC exam. It was a challenge to set up a school here but we did that in 1974 with the help from well-to-do people, the philanthropists of this community — Nasim Khan, Abdul Jabbar Khan, I myself and many others, because we all know that education is the backbone of a nation.
New Age: How would you describe the successive government’s role in rehabilitating you since 1974 to 2017?
Shoukat Ali: The previous government was helpful, this government is more helpful. But we were not harassed in either of their times because the international community is looking after us. I would say every government did their best for us according their policy and capacity. Our main urge to the government now is for a proper rehabilitation, and that is outside this camp. The second is security. Until we are not properly rehabilitated, [we urge] not to evict us from our current resident. The city corporation authority is randomly evicting Biharis from Mirpur camp without giving them an alternate accommodation. Where shall we go? We are fed up! Daily two to three people are dying from the want of medicine, fresh water etc. This is like a detention camp for us.
New Age: Considering the overall situation, what is your hope for the future?
Shoukat Ali: We want to live like you, no discrimination, no differentiating between Biharis and Bengalis. We are being isolated here. If you ask a rickshaw puller or a CNG driver to reach you to Geneva camp, they’ll bring you here, no direction needed, because they very well know the Biharis stay in that camp. We want to get out of this place and live like everyone else in Bangladesh, no one shall call us Biharis. We live in Bangladesh and we are Bangladeshis, that is what I have to say. I was born in Dinajpur, my father used to work at the Public Health Institute in Mohakhali. How do I not belong to this country? And, if I have committed any crime, put me in trial, but why am I being isolated for 46 years? In the period of Zia-ul-Haq in Pakistan, 11 million rupees were collected and reserved in the Habib Bank of Pakistan for the stranded Pakistanis in Bnagladesh. We requested the prime minister to ask the government of Pakistan to return that money, that money is for us and getting it will help the government to rehabilitate us. I believe if asked for aid, a lot of Bengali people will donate for our rehabilitation too. The main problem now is that the government is not taking a bold step. Through you, I would request the honourable prime minister of Bangladesh, high officials, the philanthropists, the educated society and people in general, please come forward and rescue us on a humanitarian ground. We want to live like you. My life is wasted, but do look after the new generation, the environment here is getting corrupted for the lack of education and proper working opportunities. The entire Mohammadpur and Mirpur area once belonged to Bihari people, they were declared abandoned during the war and later occupied by Bengali people. We were thrown out of our own houses and put into temporary camps. It breaks my heart when I walk by the house once owned by my family, but now someone else is sitting there. But we are not even asking our properties back. Our only demand is a proper rehabilitation and no eviction. Once we are rehabilitated, we will pay for the facilities we get, but the government at least needs to make that arrangement for us.
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