The Urdu-speak­ing com­mu­nity in Bangladesh is vic­tim of a dif­fi­cult his­tory. Though its fu­ture re­mains bleak, it bravely con­tin­ues to strug­gle and de­mand its fun­da­men­tal rights.

Southasia - - Contents - By Saleem Sa­mad

Po­lit­i­cally shunned by Pak­istan and Bangladesh, the Urdu speak­ing com­mu­nity to­day finds it­self in no man’s land.

Thirty years af­ter be­ing ne­glected, marginalised and dis­crim­i­nated against, the sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Urdu-speak­ing com­mu­nity of Bangladesh fi­nally pe­ti­tioned to the coun­try’s high­est court for grant of fun­da­men­tal rights un­der the coun­try’s con­sti­tu­tion.

A young pe­ti­tioner and host of the state ra­dio Urdu sec­tion, Mo­ham­mad Hasan, ques­tions why the founder of the death squad, Al Badr and Ja­maat-e-is­lami Ameer, Ghu­lam Azam, can be ac­cused for crimes against hu­man­ity dur­ing the 1971 war of in­de­pen­dence yet still re­tain his ci­ti­zen­ship?

Hasan, on be­half of the As­so­ci­a­tion of Young Gen­er­a­tion of Urdu Speak­ing Com­mu­nity filed the pe­ti­tion. Af­ter wait­ing for two years, the High Court de­clared in May 2003 that the Urdu speak­ing mi­nori­ties will en­joy their rights and will be in­cluded in the vot­ers list, es­pe­cially those liv­ing in the camps in Mo­ham­mad­pur; pre­vi­ously a posh res­i­den­tial area in Dhaka but to­day the largest ghetto of the Urdu-speak­ing pop­u­la­tion in Bangladesh.

In a mass ex­o­dus from In­dia, the Urdu speak­ers adopted East Pak­istan as their new home­land. How­ever, 24 years later, their dreams were shat­tered when the east­ern prov­ince de­cided to sep­a­rate from the western wing of Pak­istan in a bid to be­come a sec­u­lar and demo­cratic na­tion. In terms of re­li­gious di­vide, the Mus­lim

pop­u­la­tion that mi­grated from In­dia was over­whelm­ingly Shia, ac­cord­ing to Shamim Za­manvi, Urdu poet and Vice Pres­i­dent of Bangla-urdu Sahitya (Lit­er­a­ture) Foun­da­tion. On the other hand, Mus­lims in Bangladesh were largely Sunni.

Dur­ing the first gen­eral elec­tions in 1970, the Urdu-speak­ing com­mu­nity was largely sus­pi­cious of Sheikh Mu­jibur Rah­man’s po­lit­i­cal agenda of re­gional au­ton­omy. They voted in­stead for the Mus­lim League (5.4 per­cent) and Ja­maat-e-is­lami (6 per­cent). Nev­er­the­less, as was ex­pected, Mu­jib’s Awami League be­came the sin­gle ma­jor­ity po­lit­i­cal party in the Pak­istan elec­tion. Awami League suc­cess­fully se­cured 160 seats with a 74.9 per­cent.

Dur­ing the 1971 war of in­de­pen­dence, the Urdu-speak­ing com­mu­nity saw a dearth of ac­cept­able po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship. In yet an­other po­lit­i­cal de­ba­cle the com­mu­nity did not hes­i­tate to be­stow its al­le­giance to the ma­raud­ing Pak­istan army. Fol­low­ing Pres­i­dent Yahya Khan’s ad­dress to the na­tion on March 25, 1971 the coun­try plunged into an­ar­chy. The Gen­eral de­graded the “delin­quent” peo­ple of East Pak­istan who sup­ported the Awami League and de­clared se­vere con­se­quences for the sep­a­ratist leader Mu­jibur Rah­man.

Thus a reign of ter­ror was un­leashed. Pro-awami League sup­port­ers tar­geted the Urdu-speak­ing com­mu­nity through­out the coun­try. Ar­son, loot and rape be­came com­mon as peo­ple flexed po­lit­i­cal mus­cle, all un­der the “watch­ful” eye of the civil and mil­i­tary ad­min­is­tra­tion. By 1972, the be­lea­guered Urdu com­mu­nity found it­self in makeshift camps, vul­ner­a­ble to plun­der and sex­ual abuse.

From 1973 to 1974, sev­eral agree­ments were signed be­tween In­dia, Pak­istan and Bangladesh in ef­forts to re­solve the hu­man­i­tar­ian prob­lem of the “stranded Pak­ista­nis” or Bi­haris. The ICRC worked with the com­mu­nity and ad­vo­cated for their repa­tri­a­tion to Pak­istan

By 1974, Pak­istan had ac­cepted 170,000 refugees. How­ever, the repa­tri­a­tion process has since stalled. In 2006, a re­port es­ti­mated that be­tween 240,000 and 300,000 Bi­haris lived in 66 crowded camps in Dhaka and 13 other re­gions across Bangladesh.

Adding to their plight, in 1989, Prime Min­is­ter Be­nazir Bhutto, dur­ing a pri­vate visit to Bangladesh, stated that Pak­istan would no longer ac­cept the so-called stranded Pak­ista­nis. This strong rhetoric had se­vere psy­cho­log­i­cal and ma­te­rial con­se­quences for the thou­sands of stranded Bi­haris.

She re­ferred to the tri­par­tite agree­ment signed on 9 April 1974, be­tween the for­eign min­is­ters of Bangladesh, In­dia and Pak­istan in New Delhi. “In re­spect of non-ben­galis in Bangladesh, the Pak­istan side stated that the Govern­ment of Pak­istan had al­ready is­sued clear­ances for move­ment of Pak­ista­nis in fa­vor of those non-ben­galis who were ei­ther domi­ciled in former West Pak­istan, were em­ploy­ees of the Cen­tral Govern­ment and their fam­i­lies or were mem­bers of the di­vided fam­i­lies, ir­re­spec­tive of their orig­i­nal domi­cile. The is­suance of clear­ances to 25,000 per­sons who con­sti­tute hard­ship cases was also in progress. The Pak­istan side also re­it­er­ated that all those who fall un­der the first three cat­e­gories would be re­ceived by Pak­istan with­out any limit to numbers.” How­ever, in 1993 Prime Min­is­ter Nawaz Sharif repa­tri­ated 325 per­sons and set­tled them at a flood shel­ter in Pun­jab. Since then the doors to Pak­istan have been closed to “stranded Pak­ista­nis” or the state­less peo­ple, as they are known.

Shoukat Ali, Sec­re­tary Gen­eral of Stranded Pak­ista­nis Gen­eral Repa­tri­a­tion Com­mit­tee (SPGRC), claimed that the fu­ture of repa­tri­a­tion was bleak af­ter Pak­istan re­fused to take back the pro-pak­istani per­sons lan­guish­ing in nau­se­at­ing camps.

Ac­cept­ing the sit­u­a­tion, the Urdu-speak­ing com­mu­nity has grad­u­ally en­deav­ored for so­cial and po­lit­i­cal in­te­gra­tion. Most have national IDS even if they live in camps and the new gen­er­a­tion is at­tend­ing reg­u­lar schools while hundreds have grad­u­ated from col­lege and uni­ver­si­ties in ghet­tos spread through­out the coun­try. Many have taken reg­u­lar jobs ex­cept for jobs in civil ser­vice, armed forces, po­lice and other govern­ment jobs due to their in­el­i­gi­bil­ity based on their “stranded Pak­istani” sta­tus. Ahmed Ilias, Di­rec­tor of Al-falah, an NGO work­ing for the Urdu-speak­ing com­mu­nity, ar­gues that de­spite sev­eral ver­dicts from the higher courts, the govern­ment has failed to for­mu­late a pol­icy re­gard­ing the so­cial re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion of the camp dwellers.

With the de­par­ture of the ICRC in 1973, the govern­ment of Bangladesh took re­spon­si­bil­ity of main­tain­ing the camps un­der the Min­istry of Re­lief and Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion. For more than 32 years, each adult mem­ber of a Bi­hari fam­ily re­ceived an ir­reg­u­lar 2.5 kilo­gram of wheat from the govern­ment as monthly ra­tion. Since 2004 how­ever, the pro-is­lamist coali­tion govern­ment of Begum Khaleda Zia has taken mea­sures to stop even this mea­ger sup­ply of re­lief.

The po­lit­i­cal stance adopted by both Pak­istan and Bangladesh has led to de­te­ri­o­rat­ing con­di­tions for Bi­haris who find them­selves as state­less to­day as three decades back. Mea­sures to repa­tri­ate scores of gen­er­a­tions are im­per­a­tive for both sides be­fore con­di­tions in camps grow dire and at­ti­tudes be­come hos­tile. The writer is a jour­nal­ist, elected Ashoka Fel­low for Jour­nal­ism and a re­cip­i­ent of the Hell­man-ham­met Award.

Strug­gling for state­hood.

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