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The politics of power in Dhaka’s Bihari Camp

  • Published at 12:31 am October 12th, 2019
Bihari-Camp-Opu
An aerial view of Bihari Camp in Mohammadpur Mahmud Hossain Opu/Dhaka Tribune

On October 5, the Biharis – former Pakistan citizens who were stranded after the 1971 Liberation War – clashed with the police

Life at Dhaka’s “Bihari Camp” is far from idyllic. Home to thousands of Urdu speakers in Mohammadpur, despite its squalid conditions, the area saw a surprising surge in violence recently.

On October 5, the Biharis – former Pkistan citizens who were stranded after the 1971 Liberation War – clashed with the police.

Scores were arrested and injured, including the police. Not even when over a hundred suspects were rounded up on narcotics charges by law enforcement agencies earlier in March, did the camp residents respond so strongly.

According to local Biharis [the colloquial term for the stranded Pakistanis, who originally migrated to East Pakistan after the 1947 Partition], the Dhaka Power Distribution Company Limited (DPDC) disconnected illegal power lines to a nearby market called Camp Bazaar. The lines were illegally siphoned from the connections to the camp itself. The Biharis themselves supported the disconnection, according to several residents refusing to be identified.   

Several of them alleged the local ward councillor, Habibur Rahman Mizan, of profiting from the businesses at the Camp Bazaar through the power lines. Hence, they claimed, he encouraged the DPDC to extend load shedding at the camp, and influenced the police to attack Biharis who were protesting the load shedding on Mohammadpur’s Ghaznavi Road.

The councillor denied the charges outright, saying: “Why would I want to harm them? I did not motivate the police to attack them. The Biharis attacked the police, and vandalized police vehicles. They are responsible for the police moving in on them.”

Councillor Mizan also claimed he had no illegal earnings related to the camp, while claiming he worked to set up their sanitation, and other camp developments. The camp has 64 latrines for over 25,000 people.

“They are citizens, they should pay their electric bill. They cannot expect to have free power lines,” the councillor said.

The councillor was arrested on October 11 amid a nationwide crackdown on corruption among ruling party leaders. Police reports say he was caught fleeing to India via Srimangal in Sylhet. He is suspected of being involved in various nefarious activities extending to extortion, narcotics, and murder.

The Bihari definition of citizenship

The Bihari Camp’s electricity bills used to be covered by the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief. The DPDC said since the Biharis have been granted citizenship, the ministry will no longer pick up the tab.

When asked, DPDC Managing Director Bikash Dewan told Dhaka Tribune that around Tk33 crore in electricity bills is due from the camp. 

The Bihari diaspora in Bangladesh are citizens in name only, experts argue. They can vote, but they cannot apply for a passport. Their job and education prospects remain restrictive, largely due to the maligned image of them from the Liberation War. They received the right to vote by becoming citizens in a landmark verdict by the High Court in 2008.

Muzzammel, a camp inhabitant, said: “I have an ID card. It is just for voting. We do not receive passport by this id card. We do not get jobs, cannot admit our children in schools outside the camp. How can you say that I am a citizen of the country when we have no fundamental rights? 

Md Rafiq, another inhabitant of the camp, said: “We used to enjoy uninterrupted electricity like our neighbouring Bangalis. But for the last two months, there has been load shedding for up to eight hours a day. Our children have gotten sick. Some have even died from diseases they contracted from living in hot, confined spaces. Nobody took note of that! 

“Our rooms in the camp receives no sunlight or clean air due to the cramped conditions. We cook, sleep, and shower, all in one room.”

The 8x8 rooms allotted to each family in the camp has to fit up to 10 members often. Generations have been born, and raised under these conditions.

Fifty-two-year-old Sarbory Begom lives in one such room with her husband, four sons, and two unmarried daughters. Her four other daughters live with their husbands.

She said: “My husband sleeps outside the door at night. The heat is unbearable. This is no way to live.”  

One of her sons, Md Nadim, said: “I am not getting married because there is no room for another person.”

Another resident named Parvin, said: “We will gladly pay all the utility bills including gas, water, and electricity, if government gives us full citizenship rights instead of using us as a vote bank.”