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.
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.