Despite the Supreme Court of Bangladesh confirming that Biharis there were its citizens, they live in deplorable conditions due to their legal status not being clear
By Prakash Bhandari in Dhaka
Visit Mohamedpur and Mirpur in old Dhaka and one will come across a large number of Pakistani Biharis in crowded camps there. Living in unhygienic conditions, filth and squalor, families of seven to ten members can be seen sharing a small eight-by-ten feet space.
These Biharis were stranded in Bangladesh ever since its independence in 1971. Numbering more than 5,00,000, they don’t have a clearly defined identity and have been eking out an existence in 66 camps in several areas of Bangladesh for more than four decades. Although they are residing in “refugee camps”, the UNHCR does not recognize them as such. They are, therefore, deprived of the benefits and opportunities extended to other refugees.
WHO IS A REFUGEE?
According to the Article 6(A) (1) of the Statute of UNHCR and Article 1(A) (2) of the Refugee Convention 1951, a “refugee” is a person who belongs to the following three criteria:
(a) the person is outside the country of his nationality, or in the case of stateless persons, outside the country of habitual residence;
(b) the person lacks natural protection;
(c) the person fears persecution.
All these three criteria are applicable to these Biharis. However, according to the cessation clauses of the 1951 Convention and the UNHCR Statutes of 1950, a person shall stop being a refugee if, among others: “He/she has voluntarily re-established him/her self in the country which he/she left or outside which he/she remained owing to fear of persecution.”
The case of Bihari Muslims comes under this clause as they voluntarily migrated to East Pakistan in 1947 from India and in Pakistan they enjoyed protection by the state and were full-fledged citizens after 1951, according to Section 3(d) of the Pakistan Citizenship Act.
Abdul Jabbar, the leader of the Bihari community, said: “The Bihari community in Bangladesh has the minority characteristics outlined in the definitions provided earlier. We are ethnically different as we speak a different language and maintain Bihari cultural values despite practicing Islam like the Bengali majority. We have been given a peculiar status which is ‘artificial’, making us neither refugees nor minorities. It is artificial because it is a product of the historical legacy of 1947 and of a political context of 1971. This makes us live in artificially designated areas (camps) under an international agreement. Yet, we are literally a ‘minority’ because we are insignificant in number. Thus, we are deprived of both citizenship privileges as well as refugee benefits.”
The unresolved status of Biharis, he alleged, was the result of deliberate procrastination and political indecision on the part of both Bangladesh and Pakistan. “We migrated to East Pakistan and a large number of Urdu-speaking people from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and some other states in India crossed over to Karachi, Lahore and other places in Pakistan between 1947 and 1971. But those who could not go and got struck after the 1971 liberation war are now forced to live here as ‘stranded Pakistanis’.”
The movement of these Biharis to East Pakistan was due to a desire to escape the communal bloodshed after Partition and to preserve their Islamic way of life. They also saw hijrat (migration) as an escape from the possibility of living in Hindu-majority India. To their disappointment, when they arrived in East Pakistan, leaving behind their possessions, familiar environment and professions, they felt alienated. It wasn’t easy to adjust to a new society in terms of language, customs, traditions and culture.
The Bihari community never assimilated with the local people and maintained an alliance with West Pakistani or present-day Pakistan against the interests of the Bengalis. They supported the adoption of Urdu as the official language in East Pakistan, where the language of the majority was Bengali and opposed their language movement in 1952. They also supported the issues of United Pakistan in the national and provincial elections in 1970. They were mainly employed in the industrial sector, small business, trade and commerce, unlike Bengalis who were mainly in the agricultural sector.
It is alleged that these Biharis opposed the independence of Bangladesh and collaborated with the Pakistani government in 1971 in the killing of Bengalis. This led them to bear enormous social, economic and political consequences immediately after the independence of Bangladesh. Dissidents in East Pakistan targeted the Bihari community and in early March 1971, 300 of them were slaughtered by rioting Bengali mobs in Chittagong alone.
The present conditions of these Biharis leave a lot to be desired. There are about 45,000 people living in Mohammadpur Geneva Camp, the biggest camp. Basic facilities are poor and there are just two-three medical clinics to cater to the needs of about a lakh.
Khalid Hussain, an activist, said: “The living environment of the camps is deplorable. They are unhealthy, dirty and damp. Camp authorities are neither able nor serious about maintaining healthy sanitation. The drainage system is very poor, causing waterlogging easily. Diarrhea and dengue are common here.” Moreover, there is acute scarcity of safe drinking water in every camp. They also have few educational facilities. And even if there are schools, they can’t afford to send their children there.
The legal status of these Biharis has often come up in courts. In 2003, in the case of Abid Khan and Others vs Government of Bangladesh and Others, a division bench of the High Court held that the 10 Urdu-speaking petitioners, born both before and after 1971, were Bangladeshi nationals pursuant to the Citizenship Act, 1951 and the Bangladesh Citizenship (Temporary Provisions) Order, 1972. It directed the government to register them as voters. The court further stated that “the mere fact that a person opts to migrate to another country cannot take away his citizenship”.
SUPREME COURT JUDGMENT
In 2008, the Supreme Court of Bangladesh confirmed that Biharis are citizens of Bangladesh, in the landmark decision of Mohammad Sadaqat Khan and Others vs Chief Election Commissioner. It directed the Election Commission to enroll the petitioners and give them a national identity card. However, the Bangladesh government has not honored this decision in letter and spirit.
Meanwhile, economic insecurity has plagued these Biharis. As the economy of Bangladesh is basically agro-based, land ownership is very important. But the Biharis have no ownership of fixed properties such as land and ponds and opportunities of getting employed in agricultural activities are limited for those in these camps. Most are engaged in producing Banarasi sarees.
In addition, internal squabbles and factionalism have led to rifts in the community. The older generation wants to return to Pakistan and tries to persuade the community to support their view. However, after the initial repatriation, Pakistan was reluctant to take back the large number of stranded Biharis. In June 1974, during the Mujib-Bhutto talks in Bangladesh, President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman of Bangladesh requested Pakistan President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to take back all stranded people who had opted to return to Pakistan. But Bhutto refused saying: “I have not come to Bangladesh with a blank cheque.” Mujib’s various diplomatic initiatives came to naught and his assassination in 1975 further slowed down repatriation.
These Biharis, meanwhile, continue to remain as an “artificial minority”. Evidently, the domestic compulsions of both Bangladesh and Pakistan are hindering either their naturalization in Bangladesh or their repatriation to Pakistan.