Biharis in Bangladesh live in conditions far from what is considered ideal
Often dubbed as “stranded Pakistanis,” the word “Bihari” is commonly used to refer to Urdu-speaking individuals living in modern Bangladesh. Since the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, Biharis have resided in the country in a constant state of fear, apprehension, and unease.
A large part of this discomfort strands from a sense of perplexity regarding their civic and social status -- or to put it more precisely, the lack of a formal status, in the country whose very formation they vociferously opposed as a group.
It is easy to pin Biharis versus Bengalis, and almost coldheartedly justify the existence of a second-class citizenship status for this minority group -- yet the problems circulating the Biharis remain much deeper, and cannot be understood without a deep reflection of the history of both the partition of the subcontinent, and subsequently, the War of Independence.
In today’s Bangladesh, Biharis live in conditions far from what is considered ideal or humane. On October 6, clashes erupted between residents of the Geneva Camp (which remains the largest Bihari slum in Bangladesh) and law enforcement agencies. Demonstrators urged the government to ensure free and uninterrupted power supply to the camp housing over 25,000 Biharis -- nevertheless, these tensions are but part of broader problems existing across Bihari communities in the country.
Although many Biharis have assimilated into the mainstream economy, over 250,000 live across various urban refugee camps in the country in dire conditions. Legally, the situation is even more complicated -- in 2008, the Dhaka High Court approved voting and citizenship rights to 150,000 Bihari refugees who were minors during the 1971 Liberation War.
Yet, institutionalizing this court order has been difficult, to say the least.
The High Court judgement, in theory, gave legal status to younger Biharis -- this has encouraged members of the Bihari community to demand greater civil and political rights in Bangladesh, in line with the constitution. Nevertheless, the gross hypersensitivity and taboo surrounding their very identities has resulted in a hesitant approach by the state in addressing their concerns.
Much to the surprise of many, Biharis do not originate from Pakistan -- rather, the British colonial policy of divide and rule and the ensuing communal violence resulted in the immigration of up to 1 million individuals from the Indian state of Bihar to erstwhile East Pakistan. Much like the then leadership of the Pakistan Movement, including the likes of Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Husseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, the Biharis believed in the idea of an independent Muslim state.
As such, many chose the Eastern wing of the newly formed Pakistani nation as their home. Suffice it to say, over 30,000 Biharis had lost their lives during partition -- over the 1950s and 1960s, a constant flow of Bihari migration towards East Pakistan took place.
Nevertheless, during the Bengali Language Movement and across the 6-Point Movement headed by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, as a collective group, a large proportion of Biharis opposed the accentuation of civil and political rights that were demanded by the Bengalis -- therefore, a seeming sense of tension had developed and intensified between Biharis and Bengalis by the late 1960s.
As Sheikh Mujibur Rahman charismatically set the stage for the culmination of two decades of socio-political struggle against the West Pakistani establishment through the Awami League’s victory in the 1970 National Elections, communal tensions between the secular Bengalis and the pro-Pakistani Biharis reached an all-time high. In her book Nation Building, Gender, and War Crimes in South Asia, Bina D’Costa refers to the killings of approximately 300 Biharis in Chittagong in March 1971, around the same time that Sheikh Mujib was intensifying the pressure on the Yahya Regime.
From March to December 1971, Biharis, especially those in positions of authority and influence, took the side of Pakistani forces, including auxiliary pro-Pakistani groups such as the Al-Shams, Razakars, and Al-Badr. And for doing so, the community entangled itself in what was in fairness, a struggle of Bengalis against the Pakistani military.
The numbers around Bihari persecution generate even more confusion and contestations -- Bengali sources suggest that the number of Biharis killed during the liberation struggle range from a couple of thousand to 40,000. The Pakistani government declared that over 64,000 Biharis were killed by pro-Awami League groups, most prominently the Mukti Bahini.
Global estimates vary from 50,000 to 500,000 -- what these numbers show in essence is the lack of credible, unbiased, empirical, and purely academic research regarding the 1971 Liberation War. However, what was certain then and remains true today is this: Biharis faced the anger of Bengalis in a war pushed on to East Pakistanis by a draconian military regime, which unfortunately, the minority group themselves supported.
By 1972, a presidential order in independent Bangladesh declared its intention to offer Biharis citizenship status -- the Sheikh Mujib government stated that 600,000 Biharis offered to stay in the new nation, with 539,669 opting to go to Pakistan. In 1973, Bangabandhu told international journalists: “Non-Bengalis who have opted for Pakistan must leave. Pakistan must accept them.”
He indicated that the exchange of two minority groups, meaning Biharis in Bangladesh and stranded Bengalis in Pakistan, should be given the highest priority by the International Red Cross and the UN High Commission for Refugees. In 1974, Pakistani Prime Minister ZA Bhutto and Sheikh Mujib came to an understanding, which allowed 170,000 Biharis to return to Pakistan -- however, since then, the repatriation process stalled, and today, remains non-existent.
This is of course an extremely complicated problem.
For one, the very Pakistan which Biharis sided with, has ignored the wide demand of this group to be repatriated. Therefore, the brunt of the blame regarding the conditions which the Biharis face today, has to fall on Pakistan. The facts remain as follows: Yahya Khan’s regime engineered a massacre of Bengalis during 1971, with the Biharis siding with the Pakistani government on account of linguistic and political reverence to the Pakistani state. Bengalis took on Pakistani forces, including Biharis, to protect their motherland and won a decisive war. The Biharis remained stranded in a country which they had no reverence to -- yet they are still here, and we as human beings, must understand this fact more than anything.
I am surely not part of that group of people in Bangladesh who believe in the idea of forgetting and forgiving those who committed atrocious crimes against innocent civilians during the 1971 War of Liberation in the name of protecting Pakistan. That would be an insult to the millions who had given their lives to establish a sovereign, independent, and secular nation. The formation of the International Crimes Tribunal was a landmark step taken by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in her quest to achieve justice -- and for that she must be commended.
Yet, this in no way changes my opinion regarding why we must do more to ensure that we find a sustainable solution to the problems being faced by the Bihari population -- for the entire history of a sovereign Bangladesh, they have resided in this country and in reality, they have no other place to be.
It is no secret that Bengalis and Biharis have intermingled for decades now. Bengalis have adopted many aspects of Bihari culture, particularly in our cuisine. Therefore, given today’s situation and the delusion in asking modern Biharis to repent for crimes which their forefathers committed, it is important to recognize and institutionalize fundamental rights for this group living in Bangladesh.
No one deserves a harsh life as those residing in the Geneva Camp. We must remember that while we give refuge to a stateless group from neighbouring Myanmar, we simultaneously have the responsibility of addressing the concerns of a group which have resided in a state of confusion ever since the inception of our country.
We cannot change or alter history, but we can surely do more to not repeat the mistakes of past regimes, both domestic and foreign. The price of alienation, aggression, and persecution has been way too high -- from enhanced drug dealings to petty street crimes, Bihari establishments across the country have become a social problem. Without addressing the root of the problem, there is very little that can be done.
Therefore, let us choose the path of empathy and ensure that Bangladesh carries the mantle of a peacemaker which respects humanity over socio-political divisions.
Mir Aftabuddin Ahmed is a Graduate in Economics and International Relations from the University of Toronto.