Who are the left-behind Biharis in Bangladesh?

The Bangladeshi Liberation War in 1971 was not just the beginning of a nation but has been the foundation of an identity, a story passed down the generations of a home birthed through solidarity and struggle amidst unspeakable levels of violence.

To be Bangladeshi, the home of the Bengali people, is to know what your people suffered at the hands of the Pakistani military. Yet there is a paradox within this, one that has been toiling for decades quietly and that is the Urdu-speaking Bihari minority within Bangladesh, often referred to as the “stranded Pakistanis” by some.

It’s an issue that is uncomfortable for both those within Bangladesh seeking to improve their country whilst being unable to address a political, legal and socioeconomic persecution, and for the diaspora abroad who are proud of their country but either unwilling to admit or unaware of this discrimination within the motherland.

The Bihari demographic in present-day Bangladesh arrived as refugees following communal violence from 1946 to 1947. In what was then known as East Pakistan, they were granted citizenship of the country and became a somewhat privileged minority.

However, the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War changed that. Majority of the Bihari people were on the side of the Pakistani government, and themselves suffered violence at the hands of the Bengali freedom fighters known as the Mukti Bahini. The scale of their suffering varies, but common opinion holds it in the thousands.

Image: Wikimedia Commons, Bangladesh Liberation War Museum

What is indisputable, however, is that after the war ended, life for the Bihari people changed dramatically. They were on the losing side and not just that, but seen as allies of a force that had raped and pillaged its way across the cities and towns of Bangladesh.

The Bihari people began to suffer drastically, enduring much hostility. Living in camps of squalor, hundreds of them, many sought repatriation to Pakistan in 1972 and it is believed that since then to 1993, over half a million had registered with the International Committee of the Red Cross for being relocated to Pakistan.

The issue has been that, because of this, the Bangladeshi governments have consistently neglected the Bihari people, seeing them as refugees waiting to leave rather than citizens deserving of rights and dignity equal to that of the rest of the population.

This disparity in the treatment is something other minorities within Bangladesh, such as the Rohingya refugees, are well acclimated to. Right now, this has left around 400,000 members of the community living in 116 camps, with the capital city hosting 100,000 of them across 45 settlements.

According to the German media DW, the nature of these settlements is quite terrible; families are hemmed inside tiny, asphyxiating rooms with very little privacy while the monsoon season can result in flooded roads and overflowing toilets due to the terrible sanitation. Barriers to education, meanwhile, lead to barriers to skilled jobs, confining them to low-income work.

Image: Wikimedia Commons, Dacca, Bangladesh

Bangladesh had been able to get away with this two-tier system in which even those born after 1971 in Bangladesh were still not seen as equals. It’s perfectly plausible to suggest that a British citizen such as myself with the memory of Bangladesh the size of dew on a leaf would be treated far better than those who were born there and lived their whole lives but have parents who speak Urdu.

In 2003, a glimmer of light emerged for the Bihari people through the case of Abid Khan and others versus the Bangladeshi government arguing that they, born before and after 1971, were Bangladeshi nationals entitled to citizenship.

The Supreme Court of Bangladesh reinforced this in 1008 in another landmark case, ensuring that the Bihari people could no longer be seen as stateless or refugees waiting to be removed.

The 2003 case divided many within the Bihari community and there was certainly a generational split between those with memories from 1971 and who were waiting still to be relocated, and those of the younger generation yearning for legal recognition through the guarantee of citizenship.

But it also presents a question about what it means to be Bangladeshi and whether its identity is entirely and intrinsically tied to the 1971 war. In that case, where does it leave those who have either lived long enough in Bangladesh to speak the language, or were even born there themselves, but are still defined as different because their heritage is different?

Image: Flickr, Dhaka, Bangladesh

The Bihari people were on the other side of a war that was about repressing the Bengali identity, culture and language. So, where does that leave the future generations with no memory of the war, no participation in it, and whose only concept of home is the soil and air of Bangladesh itself?

Despite the landmark cases in 2003 and 2008, discrimination against the Bihari people are still continuing. In October 2019, police forces stormed a Bihari camp in Dhaka, leading to brutal clashes in response to frequent power cuts to the camp caused by the Ministry of Disaster and Relief Management supposedly no longer willing to foot the bills as the Bihari people had now acquired citizenship.

The problem here is that while the legal situation might have shifted more positively, the socioeconomic conditions have not yet caught up, meaning the Bihari minority are now even more vulnerable in many ways. This clash in 2019 reflects that.

How Bangladesh responds to this over the coming years is a question of, is there a difference between patriotism and nationalism? The latter will pursue a cause of blind love to the soil that birthed him, unwilling to recognise any evil done in the name of the country he loves.

But a patriot will recognise the immense courage and spirit of the Bengali people to forge a state whilst acknowledging that this has unfortunately not included the Bihari people.

Whilst this article refers to them as Bihari, let there be no confusion: they are Bengalis.

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