Without a Nation: Stateless Biharis in Bangladesh

Akanksha Pandey lives and works in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

At present, the world has numerous nationalities and national territories, however, there are few many communities either without nation or doomed to be subject of territorial conflict between two nations. The case of Biharis in Bangladesh falls in the first category. These unfortunates are abandoned in Bangladesh since its independence in 1971. They are living in a situation where the nation they relate to -Pakistan- has refused to accept them and the country of their current habitation -Bangladesh- calls them ‘traitor’ and has rendered them stranded.

The tragic story of Biharis begins from 1947, worsened in 1971 and now it’s like a never ending journey to Pakistan.

Background: During the partition of British-India in 1947, around one million Urdu speaking Muslims from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh (Indian provinces), moved to East Pakistan, which later became Bangladesh. . They saw this migration as an escape from the possibility of living in a Hindu majority India. In a way they were defying two nation theory and thought only way to preserve their religious practices is to be in a Muslim country.

But, when they arrived in East Pakistan, leaving behind their possessions, their familiar environment and professions, they felt alienated in the new society in terms of language, customs, traditions and culture. Although speakers of Pakistan’s official language, Urdu, they found themselves as a minority in the majority Bengali-speaking East Pakistan. Due to these differences Biharis identified themselves with West Pakistan whose dominance over the East Pakistani state assured them of receiving greater privileges from the Central Government. While Bengalis were heavily employed in the agricultural sector, the Biharis, as full citizens of Pakistan, came to be involved in the industrial sector, small business, trade and commerce.

The Bihari community never assimilated with the local people and maintained alliance with the West Pakistani regime against the interest of the Bengali people. They supported the adoption of Urdu as the official language in East Pakistan, where the language of the majority was Bengali, and opposed the Bengalis language movement in 1952. They also supported the issues of United Pakistan in the national and provincial elections in 1970.

During 1971 Bangladeshi war of independence, these Biharis collaborated with the West Pakistani regime and opposed the Bengalis’ freedom struggle. In March 1971 there was extensive violence and a civil war broke where both the communities (Biharis and Bengalis) lost millions of lives. Finally, India intervened militarily on behalf of the Bengali population and the civil war turned in to an international conflict. On 15th of December 1971 Pakistan was defeated and East Pakistan became Bangladesh. The Pakistani army evacuated and these Biharis were left behind.

Along with the Pakistani army; Biharis are also seen as the culprit of the genocide against the Bengalis. In the view of new nation Biharis were termed as traitors and are seen as stranded foreigners (Pakistanis). After independence of Bangladesh the downpour of oppression opened wider, many thousands more Biharis were killed, their homes and businesses were confiscated, they were fired from their jobs, their bank accounts were seized, their kids were expelled from schools and they once more had to seek refuge. Their condition became so miserable that International Red Cross created camps to save them from total annihilation. After the rough treatment they had received, most did not want to live in Bangladesh. So half a million chose to leave for, what was left of their country, Pakistan, but could not do so immediately due to complication in repatriation process. This situation left them abandoned in Bangladesh which continues till now. They were promised of repatriation to Pakistan, but this promise was never fully materialized.

And once again time proved that nationality is another savior bigger than God.

Citizen, Foreigner, Refugee or Minority?

These Biharis comprise of over 2, 38,093 population in Bangladesh suffer from identity crisis. They have been temporarily accommodated in 66 poorly fascinated refugee camps, but they are not regarded as refugees in the conventional sense. Because, firstly, they voluntarily migrated to East Pakistan in 1947 from India; and secondly, in East-Pakistan they enjoyed protection by the state and were full-fledged citizens after 1951. So, UNHCR refused to extend them their services.

The question of the Biharis’ becoming “refugees” had arisen once Bangladesh got separated from Pakistan. All of a sudden these people became stateless as they identified themselves as Pakistanis. But on the one hand, they were not refugees as they were not displaced from their place of residence, and on the other hand, they were stranded outside of their country where their status remained unrecognized.

The Bihari community in Bangladesh also has the minority characteristics outlined in the various definitions. They are ethnically different as they speak different language. Internally they maintain Bihari cultural values in social life. Due to these characteristics, they maintain a different ethnic identity despite practicing the religion of the Bengali majority. Yet, the Bihari community in Bangladesh is not considered a minority group.

Social, Economic and Political Conditions of the Stranded Biharis:

Since, Biharis are believed to have opposed the independence of Bangladesh, and have collaborated with the Pakistani government in 1971 in the massacre of Bengalis; they had to bear enormous social, economic and political consequences immediately after the independence of Bangladesh. Families of seven to ten members share a small eight by ten feet living space.  The living environment of the camps is very deplorable. It is unhealthy, dirty, damp and unhygienic. Medical facility is horrible. Three out of every five newborns die before reaching the age five. As these people are very poor, they cannot afford to take medical facilities from other government and private institutions.

The schooling facility inside the camps is extremely inadequate. Recently, the Bangladesh government has taken an initiative to improve the rate of child literacy which is called “Reaching Out of School Children” (ROSC), a six-year long project to educate 5 hundred thousand deprived children by 2015. However, this project does not cover the Bihari children in the camps. In many cases, if Bihari families want to send their children to the schools outside the campus, 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 economic condition of the Bihari people is extremely bad because of financial insecurity.  Secondly, people in the camps are confined to the camp boundary and do not own any land outside the camps. 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.

Being frustrated with the camp life, sometimes the Bihari people escape from the camp and try to integrate themselves within the local community. Among them, very few are fortunate enough to survive and ultimately become able to give their children education. In most cases, they fail to survive by themselves and eventually return to the camps due to their inability to adjust to the local social and economic conditions.   

Hatred for Biharis among Bangladesh is quite apparent. A Bangladeshi friend of mine told me ‘that no one should be ever sympathetic to the Biharis. They deceived Bangladesh, sided with Pakistan and killed many of our brothers’. When I told him the above facts and current status of Biharis, he said ‘I know’, but this is what they deserved. They are suffering for what they did. It feels good to see their miserable condition, because what they did to our brothers, women and children during liberation war could never be forgotten. They will never have a future in Bangladesh’.

Since, 1972, Bangladesh has been pressurizing Pakistan for repatriation. But Pakistan never showed any willingness to accept these people. In last decades with the immense pressure from the UNHCR, India, Bangladesh, RAAI, ICRC, Third World Committee of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), Islamic Countries Foreign Ministers’ Conference (ICFM) in Sana, Pakistan accepted only about one third of this population for repatriation, and almost 250-300 thousand have been living as stateless people in Bangladesh for more than a quarter of a century.

The story of woes of Biharis in Bangladesh is as cruel as it is long. These Stateless people continued returning to their country of citizenship (Pakistan) by whatever means possible. At this time there are at least 100 thousand living in Pakistan who are not recognized as citizens of Pakistan. Moreover, the Government of Pakistan amended her citizenship act by ordinance to deny nationality of the remaining Stranded Pakistanis (Aka Biharis). Pakistan’s denial of nationality was without a reason, retroactive and without due process of law. This has never been challenged in a Pakistani court of law but is boldly unconstitutional and illegal.

Both the countries have violated numerous national laws and international conventions in the treatment of this group.

Conclusion:

The plight of the Biharis is that they are neither Refugee; so that at least international law or bodies can extend their humanitarian assistance to them but yet, they are outside their country. Nor they are minority as they do not constitute a part of Bangladeshi nation. Pakistan, the country they belonged to and longing to go back; does not want to take them; and country where they are left in; doesn’t respect them and has stranded.

This chronic and horrible tragedy of Biharis needs to be solved as soon as possible. The Government of Pakistan should take back its people and if she is facing lack of funds to settle them, it’s their responsibility to manage it. In today’s globalized worlds where we have so many international bodies, raising funds for these Biharis who suffered a lot and are insignificant in numbers is not an impossible thing. And once they will be repatriated successfully in their own country then they themselves will try to create opportunities for them rather than totally relying on their respective government. Pakistan needs to recognize their citizenship and cover them under their constitution; and the problems will be solved very soon. At least these Biharis won’t be hanging in between the two nations still being stateless.

Bangladesh has moved a step ahead.  On May 2008 Bangladesh’s High Court ruled that the children of Urdu-speaking “Bihari” Muslims awaiting repatriation to Pakistan for over 37 years would be granted Bangladeshi citizenship. And they were provided the right to vote in parliamentary elections. However Bangladesh should also recognize the citizenship of those Biharis who want to stay back in Bangladesh as its citizen.

The socioeconomic and political misery of the Biharis, stranded for a long period of time, is certainly enormous. It makes the future of these population uncertain, creates economic pressure, social insecurity and political sensitivities in the host country.

This complicated tragedy has a comparatively uncomplicated solution and it needs immediate attention of international humanitarian bodies. So that prolonged wait of Biharis who have been vacillating between hope and despair because of the hopeless repatriation politics could return back to their homes and their dream of living a normal life in their own country could come true.

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