The Community in Transition- The Biharis of Bangladesh
The purpose of this research is to examine the status of the Bihari people in Bangladesh, emphasize the sociopolitical impact of their statelessness, and analyze the diplomatic problem they have been facing over repatriation. The central notion of the paper is that the Bihari community in Bangladesh is an ‘artificial minority’ because they are considered as a distinct group of people who are not part of Bangladesh, but yet living there as unwanted refugees. The unresolved status of the Biharis is a result of deliberate delay and political indecision on the part of both Bangladesh and Pakistan. The analysis of the Biharis problem is divided into four following sections. The first section discusses the brief story of Biharis and their origin written in the introduction, secondly comes the background to the Biharis’ problem and their current status i.e. economic and social status in Bangladesh. The third section discusses the sociopolitical conditions of the Bihari community in Bangladesh. And finally, the fourth section discusses the diplomatic fight over the repatriation of the abandoned Biharis.
The history of the Bihari refugees goes back to the partition of India in 1947. Their displacement occurred in the awaken of public violence during and in the aftermath of the partition (for example, 30,000 Muslims were killed in the ‘Great Bihar Killing’ in October-November 1947). About a million of them migrated to the eastern part of Pakistan (East Pakistan now Bangladesh) mostly from the eastern Indian states of Bihar, West Bengal, Assam, Orissa, Nagaland, Manipur, Tripura and Sikkim.
During the period of united Pakistan (1947-1971), the Urdu-speaking Biharis were not incorporated with in the society of East Pakistan and remained as a distinct cultural-linguistic group. They generally associated and identified themselves with the West Pakistani society because of their cultural similarity and shared linguistic heritage. They supported the West Pakistani governing leaders in the process of capturing the economic and political power in East Pakistan. The Biharis, consequently, enjoyed government patronage and preferential treatment in various sectors of the East Pakistan economy.
Initially the arrival of Biharis and the positive discrimination of the Pakistan Government in terms of refugee rehabilitation were not resented by the Bengalis. However, the excitement of the formation of Pakistan and the positive attitude of the Bengalis towards the Biharis was short-lived. It was over as early as March 1948 when Mohammad Ali Jinnah announced in Dhaka that “Urdu and Urdu alone shall be the State language of Pakistan.”1 During the Language Movement, the Biharis instead of supporting the Bengalis, sided with the West Pakistani ruling elite. Further, in the 1954 provincial elections and in the 1970 general elections, they extended their support to the Muslim League, which symbolized and championed the domination of the West Pakistanis over the Bengalis. They also supported the West Pakistani ruling elite and many of them actively participated in the military actions against the Bengalis in the 1971 Bangladesh Independence War. The exclusive attitude of the Biharis and their pro-West Pakistani political activities culminated with the growth of an anti-Bihari sentiment among the Bengalis.
1 www.virtualbangladesh.com/commentary/jinnah.html (Reference)
2 Van Schendel (2009)
The economic condition of the Bihari people is extremely deprived because of financial insecurity. During the early years they were mainly dependent on the relief economy, but over the years the amount of relief has decreased significantly. It is reported that the Bangladesh government used to spend about US$ 250,000 a month to provide basic needs for them which is very inadequate. However, recently this support is significantly reduced and in some cases stopped. For example, there was a monthly distribution of relief materials provided by the government in Bihari camps, but this program has been postponed in most of the camps. In the camps, where the program is still going on, such as Adamjee camps in Narayanganj and five out of twenty-two camps in Saidpur do not get the officially approved ration of 3.23 Kg wheat rather 2.5 Kg and the distribution is also very irregular. In addition, nongovernmental organizations also provide food aid. For instance, the Bangladesh Red Crescent gives a small amount of food aid to each family. Yet, it is reported that this food aid is inadequate against the demand.3
Secondly, people in the camps are confined to the camp boundary and do not own any land outside the camps.4 As the economy of the country is basically agro-based, land ownership is very important. But the Bihari people have no ownership of fixed properties such as land and ponds. The economic condition of the camps located outside Dhaka area is particularly adverse because the opportunity of getting employed in agricultural activities is limited. People in those camps are involved in various activities within the camp boundary. Whereas the camp dwellers in Dhaka city can sometimes get work on daily basis such as rickshaw pullers and construction workers though they often face discrimination and harassment. In an interview with Refugees International, one young rickshaw puller in Dhaka said that he earns 100 taka a day. After the end of the day, he pays 40 taka to the owner and the rest 60 taka (about $1.00) is his earning to feed his family.
Most Biharis work as daily wage laborers. The Biharis at Millat Camp in Mirpur are working as barbers, sari-makers or doing other petty jobs. Large numbers of them are engaged in producing Benarasi Saree.30 However, recently their saree industries have been losing markets because of the large inflow of imported goods. Besides, the anti-social elements such as rent-seekers from the Bengali community as well as Bihari community often harass them for economic reasons.
There is little economic opportunity for the Biharis in or outside the camps. Jobs in Bangladesh are scarce, and loans for small business supplies like looms and cloth are virtually nonexistent. Those who manage to start business must combat the rampant crime in the camps, both at the hands of fellow Biharis and local Bengalis, who resent the Biharis for ethnic and political reasons. Arson is a weapon of choice of those targeting the camps, and fires spread like monsoon floods devouring homes and lives.
A good number of old people have turned to begging and an estimated 20,000 unmarried girls are vulnerable to human trafficking and forced prostitution for living.32 The camp areas serve as safe havens for many criminals, and as a consequence many camp dwellers are directly involved in various criminal activities to earn their livelihood.
3 Khan (2003).
4 Though theses camps are not jail, people can go out and come into whenever they need. But denial from all basic facilities and the identity crisis keep them in an unsecured position. Moreover, a fresh start needs more money which is often time a big hindrance for them.
The Biharis are considered as stateless as most have neither Bangladeshi nor Pakistani citizenship. As a result, they are denied basic political rights such as the right to vote and recruitment to the civil service, police, military, and political office. These political restrictions severely limit the group’s economic opportunities and continue to perpetuate their poverty and underrepresentation.
Most Biharis are still seeking repatriation to Pakistan but there is a growing minority that has resigned itself to living in Bangladesh and is thus seeking Bangladeshi citizenship. Economic concerns are also a major issue as their lack of citizenship restricts the types of employment they are able to obtain.
The Bihari camps have almost no educational facilities. And even if there are schools, the poor people cannot afford to send their children to the school. In many cases, if
Bihari families want to send their children to school outside the camps, they fail to enroll because of some technical requirements such as nationality, home address or parents’ occupation. Though some of them can manage to get enrolled, they find it very difficult to continue hiding these facts. In some cases, when the school authority comes to know that the student came from the camp, that student will be immediately dismissed. In a few cases, those who are studying outside their community school are basically continuing to hide their Bihari identity.
The schooling facility inside the camps is extremely inadequate. There are a total of 55 thousand families in various camps throughout the country. This means that average number of members in a family is five. The current number of schools in the camps across the country is 500. It is reported that only one per cent of the Bihari children attends school, which reflects the high rate of illiteracy in the camps. These people are not getting any kind of assistance from the government for their children to get education. It is totally dependent upon the parents’ ability. But as the people are very poor in terms of economic condition, they are not able to afford that.
Prior and Current Political Condition
The political life of the stranded Bihari people split apart by internal political argument
and factionalism. The political disturbance of the Biharis is as a result of divided loyalties of either supporting or opposing the view of becoming Bangladeshi citizens or going back to Pakistan. The older generation that held the view of returning to Pakistan still dominates the community and tries to persuade the community to support their view.
It is now evident that some Bihari people have established a new frontier, The
Committee for Rehabilitation of Non-Bengalis with different objectives. The main supporters of this group are basically young people who considered themselves as Bangladeshis though they are poor and passing a very inhuman life in camps.5 They do not want to be repatriated to Pakistan. One representative of the Stranded Pakistanis Youth Repatriation Movement (SPYRM) states that, “By virtue of birth, we are Bangladeshi citizens and we want to live in this country with equal status enjoyed by the Bengali-speaking Bangladeshis.”6
Another report on the survey of 51 households in Mohammadpur Geneva Camp, Tejgaon Camp and Mirpur Camp, conducted by Refugees and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU) in 1993, shows that 59 per cent of Bihari people have identified themselves as Bangladeshi and wanted to get the citizenship of Bangladesh, whereas percent wanted to go to Pakistan. The rest 6 per cent did not comment on this issue.
5 The Daily Manabjomin, 17 January 2000.
“This week the Bangladesh High Court ruled that Biharis born in the country after 1971 can be granted Bangladeshi citizenship.7 Refugees International welcomes this positive decision which, pending final signature, will grant Biharis, or Urdu-speaking people born after the time of independence in Bangladesh, the right to be registered as voters and to receive national identity cards. This measure will allow about half of the 200-500,000 stateless Biharis, hosted by Bangladesh for 36 years, to find a remedy to their lack of an effective nationality. The decision does not cover individuals who were adults at the time of independence.
RI has long advocated for action by the governments of Bangladesh and Pakistan to end this serious human rights abuse by granting citizenship and/or permitting repatriation. RI’s last mission to Bangladesh was in February 2006, when staff met with government officials and Bihari leaders to urge timely action. After the visit, U.S. Representative Diane Watson issued a letter to Assistant Secretary Ellen Sauerbrey, who was then the head of the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, to press for resolution. RI president Kenneth Bacon and others requested the interim government to consider this group for inclusion in voter rolls and citizenship. On September 5, 2007, the interim government issued a decision in that regard.”
The earlier race of Biharis are considered as traitors because they directly and indirectly helped the Pakistan armies and contributed to 1971 massacre.8 Not only Biharis many Muslim extremist also took part in this loathing activities. They wanted to turn East Pakistan to West Pakistan to aid their own intention. But it is good news for Biharies that new government is taking positive steps in their favor.9
8 Nirmolendu Goon (2009)
9 Rashid (2008)
This paper argued that the issue being exclusively bilateral between Bangladesh and Pakistan, and the ways both the countries have dealt with it, the Biharis have taken on an identity, which might be termed as “artificial minority.” highlighted the impact of the stranded status of the Biharis with regards to their socioeconomic and political life, and analyzed diplomatic disputes over their repatriation to Pakistan. Through the analysis it is obvious that the stranded Bihari community in Bangladesh falls under no conventional identity, or category of international standard. They cannot be called refugees because they were not displaced from their homeland in the first place during 1971 war of independence for Bangladesh. They cannot be regarded as minority because they do not constitute a part of the Bangladeshi nation. Yet, they are outside their country, Pakistan, and they are relatively small in number with a distinct identity in Bangladesh. It makes the future of these population uncertain, creates economic pressure, social insecurity and political sensitivities in the host country. The situation calls for an immediate attention of the two concerned countries as well as of international communities to find out practical solutions to the problem.
Nirmolendu Goon (2009) Attokotha
Ahmed, A. M. (1970) Amar Dekha Rajnitir Panchash Bachhar (Fifty years of Politics: As I have
seen it), Dhaka: University Publication Limited.
William van Schendel (2008) A History Of Bangladesh
Dr. Md. Abdur Rashid (2008) Bangladesher Rajniti