This is the second post in a series on the 1971 War, also known as the Liberation War of Bangladesh. The series aims to be an honest portrayal of both sides of the war and its aftermath. The first article delved into my recent experience at the Liberation War Museum in Dhaka. Below, I discuss the state of about 300,000 stateless people currently residing in Bangladesh:
The question of identity has been pivotal in my journey to who I am today. As a child, I would tell other kids in school that I was Pakistani. But given that my mother was Bangladeshi and I was also very close to her family, my words sometimes felt hollow. Was I abandoning one heritage by wholeheartedly embracing another? Did being the product of both make me a little less of either?
Ironically, being two halves actually made me whole. As I grew older, my identity gave me a sense of purpose, a stronger sense of self. It’s even why I have a master’s degree in Conflict Resolution, or why I can be diplomatic to a fault. Today, I not only tell people I’m Pakistani, I wear it on my sleeve. But I never forget my Bangladeshi heritage. I learned, over the years, that neither side was in conflict with the other unless I made it that way.
In a weird way, my own reconciliation allowed me to connect to the issue of the Biharis, an Urdu-speaking group who have been living in refugee camps in Bangladesh for about 40 years, since the end of the 1971 War. Often referred to today as the “stateless” people or the “stranded Pakistanis,” the Biharis moved to [what was then] East Pakistan from India during Partition in 1947. However, the Urdu-speaking community did not assimilate very well into Bengali society, and remained a distinct cultural-linguistic group. This fostered further resentment, particularly since language was and still is such a strong part of the Bengali collective.
According to VOA, the Biharis “generally identified with West Pakistani society and associated themselves with the West Pakistani governing elite.” A 2008 report by Minority Groups International noted,
The Urdu-speaking Biharis became increasingly unpopular and were seen by Bengalis as symbols of West Pakistani domination, which created a climate of hostility against Biharis. In the December 1970 elections most Biharis supported the pro-Pakistan Muslim League rather than the Awami League, which was largely a Bengali nationalist movement.
Not surprisingly, the Bihari community also sided with West Pakistan during the 1971 War. At the end of the conflict, the surviving Biharis were seen as Pakistani collaborators, though sources are slightly ambiguous on how they were treated in the aftermath. According to a BBC documentary they faced “a wave of nationalist anger,” dubbed by a Daily Star article as the “wrath of newly liberated Bangalees.” The aforementioned Minority Groups International brief reported, “several thousand Biharis were arrested as alleged collaborators, and there were many cases of retaliation against Biharis.”
What we do know is that the Biharis who were left in Bangladesh were pushed into camps, though many asked to be repatriated to Pakistan (approximately 539,669, according to those registered with the International Red Cross in 1973). According to VOA, “In the 1973 New Delhi Agreement, Pakistan agreed to receive a sizable number of Biharis [250,000] in exchange for the return of Bengalis living in Pakistan. But the exchange soon came to a halt.” According to a BBC documentary on the Biharis, Pakistan did take in 130,000 Biharis but stopped in 1992.
Today, there are around 250,000 to 300,000 Biharis remaining in Bangladesh. Of this number, 160,000 are still living in camps, noted UNHCR, while 50,000 – 52,000 are in camps in Dhaka. According to the 2008 survey, around 20,000 to 25,000 live in the largest camp, Geneva Camp, a place where the alleyways are narrow and dirty, walls are thin, and living conditions are poor and overcrowded. Less than 10% of children from these camps go to primary school, noted the BBC, while only 2% receive a secondary education.
What is interesting today is not just the number of Biharis that still call themselves Pakistani. It’s the division that is occurring between the older generation who are still clinging to the past, waiting for Pakistan to take them in, and a growing younger generation who are ready to claim Bangladesh as their home. An old man told the BBC, “The Pakistani government does nothing for us. They’ve abandoned us. They’re in their own country. We are Pakistani but have ruined ourselves by thinking of Pakistan.” A younger man added, “For thirty years, they’ve been saying Pakistan, Pakistan, Pakistan. Now they have become old.”
While many still insist on speaking Urdu, a growing number of younger Biharis are speaking Bengali, attempting to assimilate into Bangladeshi society. This process has not been entirely seamless, given that the community has not had citizenship (of any country) until recently. In 2001, a group of young men, including Khalid Hussein, President of the Association of Young Generation of Urdu-Speaking Community (AYGUSC) and Assistant Coordinator of the NGO, Al-Falah Bangladesh, campaigned that they were Bangladeshi citizens (based on a 1972 law that anyone whose male ancestors lived in Bangladeshi since 1971 was a citizen) and had the right to vote. The Supreme Court ruled in their favor, and in May 2008, the government extended the verdict to all Biharis in the country, a major victory for many who had been stateless and hence powerless.
The Bangladeshi 2008 elections was therefore not just the first time the country was voting in seven years, it was the first time the Biharis were voting in Bangladesh – ever. The community’s political party of choice? The ultra-nationalist Awami League.
Despite these recent victories, many Biharis continue to live in inhumane conditions in camps and still reportedly face discrimination. Khalid Hussein, who is from Geneva Camp, wrote, “Living conditions remain overcrowded, with five to 15 people sharing one or two rooms. The threat of eviction and the need for education, skills training and employment are our chief concerns.”
There are also numerous Biharis who reject these changes and still want to return to Pakistan. Which begs the question – should Pakistan fulfill their nearly 40 year old promise and repatriate this community, many who have endured squalid conditions since the war but still wave their Pakistani flags loyally?
While the ethical answer is yes, the sad reality is that Pakistan cannot even take care of its citizens within its borders properly. Food prices are high, power shortages are abundant, violence is continuing, and numbers of people are still displaced inside the country. This by no means absolves Pakistan from blame or responsibility. In fact, we should be ashamed of ourselves. But, in some ways the Biharis in Bangladesh are better off in a country that is at least willing to offer them an identity, a place to belong. Turning that sense of belonging into one of ownership will be far more complicated, but is a process that can only start with proper rehabilitation.