‘No other community has suffered so much as the Biharis.’

Azmat Ashraf is an author and a retired banker. He belongs to a family which has gone through throes of migration on two occasions - from India to East Pakistan in 1947 and from East Pakistan to a truncated Pakistan in 1971. He has written a book ‘Refugee,’ which was published in Pakistan in 2021.
In this exclusive interview with Faizan Usmani of SouthAsia, Azmat Ashraf talks about the plight of Urdu-speaking immigrants before and after the making of Bangladesh.

July 2022

‘Once a migrant, always a migrant’. How much does this statement hold true in your experience?
Although it sounds like a cliché, it is largely true for the first generation of immigrants, for whom life changes profoundly. In my case, since I was uprooted twice (India to East Pakistan in 1953 and from there to Pakistan in 1971), that remains apt to this day.

After the Partition of the subcontinent, a mass migration took place, both towards East Pakistan and West Pakistan. How far the migration towards the east different to that of the migration towards the west?
In the aftermath of the partition of 1947, West Pakistan received nearly 6 million Muslims from India while approximately 5 million Hindus and Sikhs migrated to India (a net influx of 1 million). East Pakistan received nearly 3 million Muslims from India while nearly 2.5 million Hindus left (a net influx of nearly 0.5 million). So, West Pakistan border witnessed greater dislocation and refugee movement. Tragically, far more violence and death occurred on the western border, presenting a much greater challenge to West Pakistan.

In your opinion, who is mainly responsible for the separation of East Pakistan from the West?
With the benefit of hindsight, it is not difficult to see that the two provinces had very little in common and the challenge of nation building was always going to be difficult. The two parts could have gradually drifted towards autonomy and bloodshed around the breakup could have definitely been avoided. Having said this, the immediate responsibility for the carnage and fratricide in 1971 must lie primarily with General Yahya Khan. Nevertheless, the brinkmanship of both Bhutto and Mujibur Rahman played a significant role in the enormous human tragedy. India of course seized the opportunity to wield its own axe.

Should Pakistan issue an apology for its alleged war crimes committed against the Bengali population in former East Pakistan in 1971? Should such an apology be reciprocated by Bangladesh?
It is important to know that even before the army action of March 25, there was a meticulously planned genocide of Urdu-speaking people under way. It only grew in intensity after the army action. All lives are sacred and the pain of our Bengali brothers is no less than that of my own community.

Having spent nearly five decades trying to understand what transpired in those dark days of 1971, I believe the military response would have been far more measured had the soldiers on the ground not been confronted with hundreds of thousands of dead bodies of Urdu speaking people massacred by fleeing Bengali nationalist. This included the killing of Pakistani officers as well as their families in cold blood. The sight of such extensive brutalities would have inflamed passions and perhaps led to a tit-for-tat reaction.

As Nelson Mandela suggested, we need truth and reconciliation to go hand in hand. So, honestly and emphatically acknowledging the pain and suffering of victims on both sides of the conflict is the best way to begin the process of healing. In that spirit, both Pakistan and Bangladesh can make a fresh start for the sake of their future generations by apologizing to each other for the excesses committed.

Was Operation Searchlight launched against the Mukti Bahini a major mistake?
Yes, no doubt about it. That is the reason why both General Yaqoob and Governor Ahsan refused to follow the orders favouring a political solution. Unfortunately, both were fired, and the rest is history.

Did the Pakistan Army pay the price of the political indecisiveness of Gen. Yahya Khan and Z.A. Bhutto?
It was far more than just indecisiveness. It was either an unholy alliance between the two, or their extreme greed for power (or both), which clouded their judgement and guided their actions.

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3 thoughts on “‘No other community has suffered so much as the Biharis.’

  • June 30, 2022 at 7:50 pm

    Incredible interview and excellent reply by Mr. Azmat Ashraf. I really appreciate.

    • July 2, 2022 at 8:31 am

      Really appreciate reply by Mr. Azmat Ashraf but this is very unfortunate that we have not learnt anything from this tragic human loss and keep repeating the same mistake in remaining Pakistan. May Allah give us some sense to avoid further destruction.

  • July 1, 2022 at 3:39 am

    True perspectives reflected in this interview by Azmat Ashraf. His interview gives a food for thought to acknowledge the role played by the patriot people in East Pakistan. Politicians, bureaucrats, military personnel, media professionals and journalists must think, read, investigate and write truth about what really happened in East Pakistan, particularly from 1970 to 1972.