Bangladeshi at last

As vibrant and industrious as lifestyles are in Dhaka, the Urdu-speaking inhabitants of Mohammadpur's Geneva Camp, in the very centre of the city, live lives that change very little from day to day. Despite Geneva Camp having been dubbed the 'Paris' of Bangladesh's 116 Bihari refugee settlements by no less than Refugees International, the lives of the residents differ little from those of the 160,000 Urdu-speaking inhabitants throughout the rest of country's refugee camps. In the 36 years that have passed since Bangladesh's independence, these people have been in legal limbo: officially stateless, identified as "stranded Pakistanis" whether or not they think of themselves as such. But a new dawn may finally be on the horizon for many of these people, who will soon be able to call themselves Bangladeshis.

That is certainly what 46-year-old Mohammad Zahiruddin is hoping for. Long having lived in Geneva Camp but working as a carpenter outside, Mohammad has been continually frustrated by the belief that the life he is living is fake – and illegal. Many have given up living in the camps entirely, as Mohammad has also now done. If there are 160,000 Biharis living within the camps, a similar number live outside. While they are thereby able to more easily gain schooling and employment – something from which those living within the camps are legally excluded – they are only able to do so by counterfeiting new identities, as Bangladeshi citizens. For most Biharis, the majority born and brought up in Bangladesh, this identity has been all they have wanted for the past three and a half decades. "This government is now certifying our voting eligibility and nationality," Mohammad says ruefully. "But we have been deprived of them for all this time."

As a group, the Biharis are so named because their ancestry is traced back to Muslim communities living in pre-Independence Bihar. Following Partition, many of this Urdu-speaking group fled to East Pakistan. Because the official language at that time was Urdu, many Biharis subsequently held a large number of high-level jobs, which inevitably bred resentment among the Bengalis. A quarter-century later, most Biharis sided with West Pakistan during the 1971 War of Liberation, and they became 'exiles' as a community with the formation of Bangladesh. However, the Pakistani state waffled on taking in the 'stranded Pakistanis' left behind, with Islamabad policymakers worried that the influx of Biharis, seen as having little in common with the West Pakistanis, would be demographically unsettling.

Although a 1974 repatriation programme took around 124,000 Biharis to Pakistan, not much has progressed since then. Islamabad's official stance, meanwhile, has changed little, with Pakistani officials having to a great extent simply stopped talking about the issue altogether. Meanwhile, the Biharis have remained stateless – held in bitter disdain by the Bangladeshis for having supported West Pakistan during the war, and unable to legally integrate into their homeland, wherever they consider that to be.

There has now been a sea-change in Dhaka's official thinking, nudged along by Bangladesh's current democratic floundering, but mostly to do with the long-contentious exercise in defining a workable voter list. On 14 June of this year, a three-member Bihari delegation submitted a memorandum to the Chief Election Commissioner, A T M Shamsul Huda, emphasising constitutional provisions for birth and citizenship rights, with reference to High Court judgments that ordered voting rights be granted to the Biharis (there have been several such judicial orders, all of which have gone unheeded beyond case-by-case extensions).

Following the submission of the memorandum, on 29 June Huda wrote a letter to the head of government, Chief Advisor Fakhruddin Ahmed, requesting that a decision be made once and for all on the Biharis' legal identity. "The matter of deciding the citizenship of the people living in these camps is very urgent because, after introduction of the national identity cards, they may lose access to many services they currently enjoy. Even renewal of a rickshaw licence may require presentation of the ID card, and no ID card will be issued to a person who is not a citizen of Bangladesh," the CEC warned.

An inter-ministerial meeting on 5 September subsequently decided to include certain of the inhabitants of the 116 Bihari settlements on the voter list. National identity cards will also soon be issued to them. (The decision has now been passed on to the Law Ministry for enactment.) The Dhaka government has long categorised the Biharis into three groups: those born after 1971, those born before 1971, and those who maintain that they still want to go back to Pakistan. Under the current set-up, ID cards will be given to the first group, with plans also to extend such rights to the second group. Those who do not accept Bangladesh as their homeland (and are willing to go on record saying as much) will remain in limbo. All in all, the induction of the first two categories could mean citizenship in the near future for up to 140,000 Biharis in the camps.

Reintegration, rehabilitation
"We were brought up with the mindset of going back to Pakistan, until we began to understand that such a thing is never going to happen," says Mohammad Hasan, secretary-general of the Association of Young Generation of Urdu-Speaking Community (AYGUSC). Hasan is one of ten petitioners who went to court in May 2003 and won voting rights for themselves. It is this young generation that has ultimately suffered the most under Dhaka's longstanding refusal to deal with the Bihari issue – and has also become the community's most ardent voice.

A survey by the Dhaka Initiative, a partnership of Bangladeshi civil-society figures and European parliamentarians, found that 98 percent of those living in the Bihari camps wished to have full citizenship rights in Bangladesh. Other than language, there appear to be few differences that could now affect the Bihari integration into mainstream Bangladeshi society, notes Ahmad Ilias, executive director of Al-Falah Bangladesh, an organisation working for the rehabilitation of the Bihari community. In addition, over the past decades, Ilias says, most Biharis have also learned to speak Bangla. As a laudatory editorial in Bangladesh's Daily Star pointed out following the government's decision, "Many [Biharis] have been physically and psychologically a part of the country and have been fully integrated into our social and cultural life."

Some observers and Biharis themselves still have worries. While C R Abrar, coordinator of the Dhaka University-based Refugee and Migratory Movement Research Unit, says that the interim government's move is definitely welcome, it will need to be followed by the genuine ratification of the community's civil rights. At the moment, Biharis as a group have lived through – and raised new generations within – harshly oppressive conditions, for too long having been legally deprived of state education and income. Literacy rates of just 8.6 percent in the camps could prove to be one of the largest hindrances. (Interestingly, of that number, nearly eight percent is made up of adult women.) "Immediately after their citizenship, the government has to come forward with rehabilitation projects," warns Khalid Hussain, AYGUSC president. "Fortunately, many in the international community, especially the United Nations, have already expressed interest in providing support."

Even as we await firm commitments on rehabilitation, it remains unclear as to exactly how the Biharis' situation will change in the short term. In Geneva Camp, for instance, 20,000 people live in an area of approximately 136,000 square feet. For the entire community, there are around 200 common toilets, although more than half of these are currently out of order, and leak sewage onto the nearby walkways. Identical alleyways are lined with tiny, identical huts, each housing five or six members of a family. Some have further shrunk their living space by renting half of their house to another family, or converting the spare space into a shop. These structures were made by the International Committee of the Red Cross in the aftermath of the war of 1971, and have not been unable to cater to the camps' growing population.

Muhammad Ali, a 38-year-old government driver, lives in one of these houses, and is known to be one of his workplace's most dependable workers. But in order to get a government job in the first place, Muhammad needed to fake his nationality, claiming to be a Bangladeshi and giving a fake residence address outside of the camp. "Our banking, business, service, education and all facilities have all been hindered by our identity as non-Bengalis, as Biharis, as stranded Pakistanis," says Muhammad."But why has this discrimination continued when we accept Bangladesh as our country?"

This has been a common question over the decades. While welcoming the government's move to extend citizenship to the Urdu community, Muhammad points out that the government must now quickly integrate its decision into the Constitution, so that Biharis' identities will not be subject to change by a future government. In particular, many worry about potential collaboration between politicians and a small group of pro-repatriation refugees, many of whom have been accused of cashing in on funding from foreign donors while keeping the Biharis' fate in limbo.

The number of those still holding out for repatriation to Pakistan is certainly not large. But even as many of the majority who hope for full citizenship rights are now on the cusp of receiving those rights, reintegration and rehabilitation remain crucial considerations. This is the time to be alert against spoilsports, within and outside the Bihari community in Bangladesh, who could try to scuttle this sudden, positive development.

~ Saad Hammadi is an investigative reporter with the New Age, in Dhaka.

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