Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Bangladesh: The Biharis - the forgotten people

For 85-year-old Hasina, whose family emigrated from Calcutta to what was then East Pakistan after partition, the wait has been long enough. Together with more than 500 other Biharis, she lives in Mirpur, an impoverished district in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, where the stench of raw sewage permeates the air.

"I'm Bangladeshi. I've lived here all my life. But where are my rights?" Hasima asks, pointing to the 40 sqm area she shares with four other families.

It is a common complaint among the Biharis, most of whom live in squalid conditions in 116 ghettos around the country.

Despite a landmark high-court ruling reaffirming their longstanding claim for full citizenship in 2008, social integration and rehabilitation remain elusive.


There are more than 200,000 Muslim Biharis or Urdu speakers in Bangladesh today, many from the Indian state of Bihar, who moved to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) both during and after partition in 1947.

The Biharis received preferential treatment from the West Pakistan-based government, while the majority of Bengali speakers were often marginalised in their access to government jobs, land, property and contracts.

A 1948 decision declaring Urdu the national language of Pakistan set the tone for further tensions between the two groups, as well as galvanizing the Bangladeshi national identity movement. An estimated three million people died in the 1971 war of liberation and much of the Bihari community sided with the Urdu-speaking Pakistan army.

While the 1972 Simla Accord, a tripartite agreement between Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, saw more than 100,000 Pakistani nationals relocate to Pakistan over the next 10 years, thousands more were left stateless.

Of these, a small number continued to demand repatriation, leading many to refer to them as "stranded Pakistanis".

But most of the remaining Bihari population wished to stay, despite the fact that their status in terms of nationality remained in limbo.

Because they lacked Bangladeshi nationality, Biharis were denied the right to primary and secondary education until 2000 and faced other discrimination, particularly in terms of access to housing.

Following the war, many Biharis, fearing retaliation, were forced from their homes and property and relocated to some 100 "colonies" or ghettos, many of which are on public property.

In some areas, the International Committee of the Red Cross provided temporary shelters while a durable solution to their status was sought.

However, that did not happen until a 2003 landmark High Court decision recognized the Biharis as Bangladeshi nationals.

And while the government agreed to implement the decision, public sentiment prevented it from moving ahead.

Landmark decision

Today the atmosphere in Bangladesh has changed significantly. There are few, if any, instances of inter-communal violence and in 2008, the decision was reaffirmed.

However, huge challenges remain.

"The court recognized our right to citizenship. This was the first step," said Sedakat Khan of the Urdu-speaking People's Youth Rehabilitation Movement.

"[But] now we need integration," he said, referring to their need for education, shelter and access, as well as access to healthcare, and recognition as part of Bangladesh society with a distinct cultural and linguistic identity.

Living on public property and struggling to make ends meet, many residents face possible eviction with nowhere to go. The government should not evict people until alternative arrangements had been made, said Khan.

According to Al Falah, the only registered NGO working with the Biharis, things are moving, but outside help is still needed. Only 6 percent are literate compared with a national average of 74 percent, limiting their ability to compete for jobs.

"This is the main barrier to their social integration," said Ahmed Ilias, executive director of Al-Falah. "But the government of Bangladesh can't do it alone," he added, appealing to the UN and Muslim organizations to step into the breach.

Disclaimer:This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
Photo: Copyright IRIN
Published by Mike Hitchen,
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