Sumaiya - Act for Displaced

Although the media spotlight is mostly centered on Rohingya refugees, they are not the only migrated community in Bangladesh requiring dire support and lasting solutions. Bangladesh is the abode of nearly 400,000 people of the Bihari community who have been living in the country for 49 long years.

These Biharis are originally Urdu-speaking people from the Bihar state of India, who wanted to join Pakistan after the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. During the liberation war period of Bangladesh in 1971, a fraction of them supported the then West Pakistan (Pakistan).  However, after the independence of Bangladesh, the Bihari’s dream faded away since Pakistani planes never landed in Bangladesh to take them. Citizenship rights were awarded to this community by the Bangladesh government in 2008, but ironically locals’ perception toward them remained unchanged. They are nicknamed “stranded Pakistanis” and believed to be the opposing party of the independence of Bangladesh. For the controversial actions of a few in the past who are not even alive today, the entire community is paying the price for generations.

© AP photo

There are 116 Bihari camps across the country and the capital holds 45 of them.  Geneva camp is the largest Bihari camp in Dhaka, which is the abode of 5000 Bihari families. The ardor of returning to Pakistan on one hand and the daily life struggles to survive on the other- several decades past during this exigence. The adult Biharis during the liberation war period already died, those who live today sigh for their lives that are full of uncertainty and negligence. An era passed since Biharis became Bangladeshis, but they are still deprived of dignity and assistance as Bangladeshi citizens. They have limited access to education and other basic services.  Poverty and local hostile perception are keeping them away from the mainstream population. 

The Bangladesh government’s Bihari rehabilitation project did not proceed after initiating in 2008. Meanwhile, the land price increased in the capital and the camps fell under the avaricious look of the land grabbers. There are cases that land grabbers took possession of different camp areas by force. The camp area is becoming squeezed and the population is increasing.  40,000 people are living now in between 180,000 sq. ft area of the Geneva camp. The camp houses look like warehouses. Clothes are stored in sacks instead of closets. It is hard to believe that an 8 foot by 8-foot room accommodates 3 generations! “Taking refuge here, we became neither Pakistanis nor Bangladeshis; rather we are left stranded for 64 years. Our lives are destroyed”- says Abdul Jabbar, a resident of the camp.

Geneva Camp in Dhaka © Tafhimur Rahman
Geneva Camp in Dhaka © Tafhimur Rahman

There are reports of violent clashes between Bengalis and Biharis. A clash of 2014 over fireworks is still vivid in the Bihari community, where Bengalis were alleged to set a Bihari house on fire. That fire took the lives of nine Biharis, eight of them were from the same family. Years went by, but the pain remains. The ongoing pandemic showed a snippet of the long-practiced discrimination toward the Biharis. Two of the Geneva camp residents were tested positive for coronavirus in April 2020 and were denied access to medical facilities saying they are not in “critical condition”.  Soon after other Biharis were rejected from hospitals irrespective of their health issues.

There is none to talk about their needs and problems. Due to the continuous fight against poverty, leadership never arose among the Biharis. Some organizations are working for them, but there is no coordination among them. Ahmed Illius, the executive director of Al-Falah Bangladesh, an NGO working for the welfare of the Biharis says, “the Biharis mainly came to East Pakistan (Bangladesh) due to economic reasons and some were victims of communal riots in India. Not even a percent of the community came to establish the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, this is the language of the politicians. These politicians are responsible for creating distance between the Bangladeshis and Biharis”.

Experts suggest establishing a welfare fund, which will keep the Biharis all over the country under one-way development. The most urgent is to ensure education for the children and vocational training for the adults so that they can become a powerful human resource. The Government must step up to uphold the rights of Biharis as every other citizen in the country. Whatever is being done and going to be done, has to be participatory, the opinion of the community counts. Bengalis have been living with the Biharis for half a century, recognizing their excellence in flavourful Mughal foods and handloom crafts. The sufferings of the Biharis cannot be ignored by a nation that went through the same struggle of survival itself in the past.

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