Cover Story

Mohajir Forever!

The Urdu-speaking Indian Muslims who had migrated to East Pakistan in the 1940s are still looking for a place of safety for their coming generations.

By Azmat Ashraf | January 2022

Well before the 1947 Partition of the Indian subcontinent, Muslims in Bihar and UP states of India in particular were being seen as the unwanted minority in India because of their boisterous support for a Muslim homeland. In both UP and Bihar, at least 10 major Hindu-Muslim riots took place from 1929 to 1938. In one of the most vicious riots in Bihar in October 1946, Hindu mobs targeted Muslim families in much larger numbers killing thousands. Ostensibly, that riot was in response to riots in Noakhali against the Hindus, which in turn was instigated by the great riots of Calcutta where thousands of Muslims were killed.

The continuous wave of anti-Muslim riots in Calcutta, UP and Bihar hastened the exodus of Muslims from areas which were to become India. Their flight continued into the late 1950s as intermittent rioting resumed, particularly in Bihar years after the Partition. In the greatest migration of human history which accompanied the partition of India, nearly 15.5 million people were forced to flee their homes and around 1.5 million people died in the bloodletting, hunger and exhaustion. While accurate data has not been compiled, out of the total 15.5 million refugees, the total number crossing over to India was estimated at around 8.5 million and those moving to East and West Pakistan were estimated at around 7 million.

Many refugees from Bihar and UP may have preferred to go to West Pakistan in 1947, but the killings at the western border or proximity to East Pakistan for some, resulted in people like my parents travelling to the Eastern part of Pakistan. Nearly two million immigrants arrived in the newly-formed province of East Pakistan, replacing around one million Hindus who migrated to India from that province. Based on the subsequent census of 1951, it is believed that around 60% of the Muslims arriving in East Pakistan were Bengalis from West Bengal, Assam, etc. The remaining 40% were Urdu-speaking people, a majority of whom came from riot-torn Bihar, while others from various parts of India, such as UP, CP, etc. Gradually, the new Urdu-speaking residents of East Pakistan, regardless of which part of India they came from, began to be collectively known as ‘Biharis’, since the majority of them were immigrants from the Indian state of Bihar.

Many of these refugees were employees of the railways, civil servants or factory workers. All those skills were badly needed in what was the agricultural hinterland of East Pakistan. The newcomers were warmly welcomed by Bengali leaders such as Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy and Fazle Haq, etc., who were rumoured to have orchestrated the reaction of the Muslims to the riots in Calcutta, encouraging them to move to East Pakistan. The icing on the cake was the lot of Muslim businessmen (Adamjees, Bawanis, Isphahanis, Hasans, etc.) who left Calcutta and Rangoon and arrived in Dhaka, Chittagong and Khulna to set up industries in East Pakistan.

The first two decades in the promised land was marked by remarkable stability and improvement in the socio-economic conditions of the newcomers from India. However, the fruits of economic growth were yet to make any significant improvement in the lives of ordinary Bengalis. The initial goodwill between the locals and the newcomers started to fall apart by the late 1960s. By 1969, a palpable feeling of uneasiness between the two communities had already set in. However, since the memories of the joint struggle for a Muslim homeland by the Bengalis along with the newcomers were still fresh in many minds, no one foresaw what was about to happen.

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One thought on “Mohajir Forever!

  • March 3, 2022 at 10:41 am

    Excellent article. My family was lucky that we migrated to West Pakistan in 1947 but i know numerous families who came from east Pakistan to Pakistan post 1971 and their ordeals. the biggest losers of partition were the minorities left out in India and Pakistan esp urdu speaking Muslims who despite having their own culture were not in majority anywhere to secure themselves. hence have become permanent muhajirs