Punjabi folk singers lined the road, performed bhangra to dhol beats to welcome then Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh to the Pakistani side of the land of five rivers in January 2004. Amarinder was overwhelmed and described his journey to Lahore as a pilgrimage, as the city “is the composite Punjabi culture’s central pillar”, while pledging to promote the divided region’s shared heritage.
Eight years later, Nitish Kumar became the second chief minister of an Indian state to visit Pakistan since 2004 on Friday. Unlike Amarinder, Nitish may not feel culturally at home elsewhere in Pakistan, but parts of Karachi would be an exception. The city has a sizeable Bihari population that has retained its distinct identity despite being clubbed with its Urdu-speaking residents.
Abdul Kadir Khanzada, who represents Karachi’s Orangi Town in the Pakistani parliament, says over a million people in his constituency have their roots in Bihar. “My family came from Alwar in Rajputana (Rajasthan), but 70 per cent of my voters are of Bihari origin, ” he tells TOI-Crest. He says his party – Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), Pakistan’s third largest party representing the Urduspeaking people – have always supported peace with India and hopes Nitish’s visit would help the process. “I will speak to my leader in parliament, Farooq Sattar, and see whether we can invite Kumar to connect with the people of Bihari origin. ”
Biharis have over the years been seen as die-hard supporters of the MQM, which is a part of the country’s federal as well as the Sindh provincial government. But a breakaway faction, the Bihari Quami Movement, was formed a few years earlier in Karachi, and is indicative of the community’s attempt to assert its separate identity.
Biharis have enriched Karachi’s cosmopolitan culture. Their imprint on the city is perhaps best reflected in the Bihari kebabs that are an integral part of the city’s culinary attractions. The place where the early Bihar immigrants settled after Partition is still known as Bihar colony in Karachi’s Layari Town.
Mostly well-off immigrants managed to reach Karachi, then Pakistan’s capital, following bloody riots in Bihar before the Partition. The rest of about three million Bihari refugees found it easier to cross over to East Pakistan (Bangladesh). Around 1, 63, 000 of them were repatriated to Pakistan in the ’70s and ’80s after Bangladesh’s liberation as they were accused of being collaborators, stripped off their properties and forced into camps. Thousands returned on their own and preferred to settle in Sindh and its capital Karachi among their fellow Urdu-speaking people. MQM, then known as Muhajir Qaumi Movement, backed them, hoping it would consolidate its political hold over the region.
Nearly 8, 00, 000 Biharis in Bangladesh declared themselves as Pakistanis after the ’71 liberation and sought to be settled in that country to escape linguistic persecution. Most repatriated Biharis settled in Orangi. The process was stopped in the ’80s after it led to bloody ethnic riots in Karachi amid fears that it would further tilt the politico-ethnic balance in favour of the city’s dominant Urdu-speaking people at the cost of the province’s native Sindhi speakers. The latter are now a small minority in Karachi.
The process re-started briefly in 1993 when 321 Biharis were brought to Pakistan on the condition that they would settle in Punjab to allay fears of the Sindhi nationalists. A Bihari colony was set up for them 370 km from Islamabad at Mian Channu in Punjabi Khanewal district. Successive Pakistani governments have since gone back on their promise to bring back an estimated 3, 00, 000 Biharis, who live in 66 camps without citizenship rights in Bangladesh.
A recent Abu Dhabi-based The National report highlighted the miserable condition of Mian Channu’s Biharis, who along with their brethren in Bangladesh represent the horrors of the double partition they faced while other communities uprooted in the aftermath of the 1947 division have moved on and prospered.
The report cited the plight of 60-year-old Manzar Husain, who had arrived in Mian Channu leaving behind his daughter, now a mother of three. He expected her to be on the next flight to Pakistan, but that was not to be and has not since seen her. He has lost all hopes of seeing her daughter and grandchildren. His family had lost everything when they migrated to what was then East Pakistan in 1947, but he never thought he would have to face the horrors of another migration.
The National reported that Mian Channu’s Bihari colony is now a slum and Punjabis occupy most of two-room apartments constructed for Biharis with foreign assistance.
Kamran Asdar Ali, a US-based Pakistani academic whose parents had migrated from Bihar at the time of the Partition, argued that the community is very diverse in Pakistan. “Biharis in Pakistan are there in all walks of life, from the most wealthy and influential to the lowly urban poor, much like in India. ”
Sasaram-born scholar and anti-colonial activist Eqbal Ahmad was among the most prominent Pakistani-Biharis to earn international acclaim. Ali says Biharis have been given a “politically available” Muhajir identity, which, he added, “is a constructed ethnicity – a family that migrated from Madras or Bombay is also Muhajir and those who migrated from Bihar or UP are also Muhajirs”.
The academic says most Pakistani Biharis may not know about Nitish, his visit and what he has done in Bihar. “But his coming to Pakistan may change that, ” he says.