Posts Tagged ‘Bangladesh’

Reuters: Sun Salutation?!

It’s Pakistan Day today, and the Pakistan cricket team just defeated West Indies by 10 wickets to reach the World Cup semi-finals.

Kind of poetic, no?

The match took place amid tremendous Bangladeshi support in Mirpur, a fact that was surprising for some given the history between the two countries. But my friend Tafsir, who was leaving the stadium post-match, told me, “Before  the Bangladesh cricket team became big, everyone here supported Pakistan, especially when Imran Khan, Inzamam ul-Haq, Waqar Younis, and Wasim Akram were playing. So it’s logical that the Bangladeshis are supporting Pakistan now.”

Pakistan has so far played all of their games in Sri Lanka, receiving an equally warm response among fans in that country despite the horrific attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in 2009. Shahid Afridi, the Pakistan team captain more fondly known as Boom Boom Afridi and less fondly known as Very-Obvious-Ball-Biter, told media outlets,

It was beginning to feel like we were playing at home [in Sri Lanka]. But I’m sure that Bangladesh will be a similar story. The crowd there supports the Pakistan team and they will be backing us now that their own team is not playing in the quarterfinals. The conditions in Mirpur, will be home-like, I’m sure.

And it was. Another friend, Shaheryar Mirza (@mirza9), an Express 24/7 reporter in Karachi, told me, “The Bangladeshis and the Sri Lankans have shown that they love cricket. It is about human beings more than it is about war and politics…It’s a sign that people can show immense grace and rise above history and conflict.”

If my Twitter feed is any indication, many Pakistan fans, while celebrating the win, took a moment to thank Bangladesh for their support today. Rabayl_M tweeted, “I love Pakistan and I can still be deeply apologetic about what happened in 1971 because of us. I’m sorry Bangladesh.” Another Twitter friend, Bolshevik, echoed, “Hats off to the people of #Bangladesh. Phenomenal support despite #Pakistan’s #1971 chutyapey and lack of apology. Amaar shonar Bangla! :-)”

Sure, it’s just a sports tournament. But if the World Cup has taught us anything, it’s how sports can really give us some perspective, and truly transcend boundaries.

Here’s to a great performance in the semi-finals, Pakistan. Many thanks to Bangladesh for their amazing support (what up to my mother country!). And Happy Pakistan Day, [here is my think-positive-thoughts post from Pakistan Day last year].

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A few days ago, my cousin discovered piles of old family photos in Dhaka – images documenting my mother’s family history from the 1930s until today. Technology and communication being what it is, she scanned and uploaded a number of them on Facebook, to share with our relatives now spread across the world.

Growing up, I was always mesmerized by my parent’s stories, not just about their own childhoods, but also about their parents and their families. Through the charismatic storytelling of my father, I experienced the glamour and carefree innocence of Karachi in the 1950s and 1960s – the nightclubs, the cinema houses, the musicians, and the scavenger hunts on the beach.

I imagined I could hear the sweet and calm voice of my Dadi (my father’s mother), who passed away before I was born. Who I was named after. “She was the kindest woman imaginable,” my father would tell me, his own voice faraway in the memory. “She never raised her voice, and she would give all she had to the poor.” In elementary school, when asked to list the one person I’d like to meet dead or alive, I told the class without hesitation, “My grandmother, Kalsoom.”

One night when I was younger and staying at my aunt’s house in Dhaka, I lay awake as my mother unveiled glimpse after glimpse into her childhood – how she would insist as a little girl on sleeping in the arms of her father, my Nana Bhai. How she and her sisters (and one brother) would watch in awe as he treated my grandmother like a queen. How my grandmother (my Nani) was widowed at only 36 years old, left to care for eight children. Since that day, my Nan – who once wore the most fashionable and bright saris – has only worn white.

These stories became black and white snapshots in my imagination, immortalized moments that acted as a testament to where I came from and, to a small extent, who I am today.

When my cousin posted the aforementioned photos yesterday, I was struck by two pictures – one of my Nana Bhai with the founder of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, and another of my Nani with Begum Liaquat Ali Khan, the wife of the first Prime Minister of Pakistan. The juxtaposition of two major figures in Pakistani history next to my grandparents was a shock, to the say the least.

My grandfather in the bow-tie behind Jinnah.

According to my aunts, who I probed for more information, my grandfather – who was in the civil service before and after the British Raj, was working in Shilong, in Assam, India, where Jinnah came and stayed for three days. The above photo was taken before the 1947 Partition – before my grandfather moved his family to Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) when he opted to join the new state.

My grandmother walking next to Begum in the sari & glasses.

Begum Liaquat Ali Khan, the wife of Liaquat Ali Khan was a tremendous activist for women’s rights. In 1949, she formed the Pakistan Women’s National Guard, which served to protect women during the Partition period, when several riots and killings occurred. In the above photo, taken in 1949 in Chittagong, my Nan, who was a commander of the National Guard, walked alongside the PM’s wife as young girls (including my mom’s sister, pictured on the right) did drills. It was during this time that my grandmother learned how to handle a rifle, and during the 1971 War (which I’ve written about here), she would sleep with a rifle next to her in bed, in case looters tried to ransack the house, or the Army decided to make an unannounced visit.

I wanted to share the above images not really to showcase the well-known figures, but to point out how our own personal histories can contextualize the timeline of our nations. The first picture of my grandfather with Jinnah is, in my opinion, a testament to the faith our families put in the fledgling nation of Pakistan, a state that was still just a concept at the time of this photo.

While the second image exemplifies broader issues of women empowerment and emancipation in the early years of Pakistan, it also solidified what I already knew about my grandmother – that she was a warrior. To this day, she is the most fearless woman I know. And if I could live my life in the footsteps of either of my grandmothers, I’d consider myself blessed.

To end, I wanted to share my absolute favorite photo of the album – my mother (the smallest one in the middle) dancing with her three sisters (the two on either end are meant to be playing the “men” in the sequence):

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Se7en Magazine: An Image from the Geneva Camp

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 50,00052,000 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.

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