Biharis In Bangladesh Seek Protection, Justice

The June 2014 attack on the Biharis in Dhaka once again highlighted their ongoing protection needs: Community leaders alluded to political collusion in the attack.


Clashes broke out on 14 June between Biharis and Bengalis, who make up the majority of Bangladesh’s population, in Mirpur on the outskirts of Dhaka. Ten Biharis were killed and houses were torched; no arrests were ever made in case you were expecting a miracle from Hasina.

“What can I tell you… I have lost everything,” said Yasin, 50. Nine family members – including his wife, children, and grandchildren – died when their house burnt down. His daughter, who survived, is in critical condition in a Dhaka hospital. “I don’t know how I can save her,” he said.

Anwari Begum, 50, said she was injured during the clash when a police officer hit her with his baton; she believes the police did too little to stop the violence. “Who will listen to our complaints? Who will solve our problems? When we see that the police backed the attackers, who will save us?” she said.

There are 300,000 Muslim Biharis scattered across 116 squalid camps in Bangladesh today. Many came from the Indian state of Bihar, and moved to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) during and after partition in 1947. The West Pakistan-based government’s preferential treatment of Urdu speakers seeded tensions between Biharis and Bengalis, which were further stoked when many Biharis sided with the Urdu-speaking Pakistani army in the bloody 1971 war of liberation. []

A 2008 landmark High Court decision recognized Biharis as Bangladeshi nationals, but citizenship rights have yielded minimal gains, and most remain on government-owned land, leaving them vulnerable to abuse and political manipulation. [ ] []

The government’s response to the June violence was far from satisfactory. The carnage happened in front of members of law enforcement agencies. Instead of apprehending those who had committed the crime, the police arrested and lodged false cases against innocent camp dwellers. Moreover, the mastermind behind the attack – the local member of parliament – was not even interrogated.

Land-Grabbing Claims

Police said the clash was sparked by an altercation when a group of children set off firecrackers during a religious event. Bihari community members are suspicious, and accuse a local politician of instigating the attack in an attempt to claim their land.

Some other camps were burnt in the past in the same way to grab Bihari land.

Following the 1971 war, many Biharis were forced from their homes and property and relocated to 116 settlements, many of which are on public land. In some areas, they were provided with temporary shelters. However, despite citizenship rights being conferred in 2003, no permanent land solution has been decided and their residence on government land puts Biharis’ survival in the hands of often-unsympathetic political leaders.

USPYRM president said that since 1995, the authorities from time to time have issued notices for them to leave the land. “But where will we go if we are not given places to rehabilitate?”

There is genuine fear among camp dwellers about the threat of eviction from camps located in different parts of the country. He called on the government to declare the camps permanent to increase security while rehabilitation processes were designed.

Some Mirpur residents, where the clash too place, accuse police of bias in how they handled incident.

Police have been harassing Bihari community members for quite a long time and some of their community members have been extra-judicially killed in the past.

The local ruling Awami League party MP, Ilias Mollah, threatened some days before the incident that he would give Biharis a lesson and his party activists took part in the attack.

Both Mollah and the police have denied these allegations. Mollah told reporters on 22 June in Dhaka: “I am a good friend of the Bihari. I have no involvement in the Bihari camp killing and arson attack.”

Others Say The Long-Term Solution Is To Secure Permanent Land.

The most important thing is the rehabilitation. Without rehabilitation, Biharis problems will continue. Rehabilitation must include education opportunities to increase employment, but land remains the most important first step so Biharis can start a new life on their own land. []

While declaring the camps safe and permanent will restore a sense of security against land grabs, the government should take effective measures for Biharis rehabilitation with dignity” and the “donor community must take into cognizance that the MDGs [Millennium Development Goals] cannot be attained by keeping the camp dwellers out of the development process.”

Clip_74Helping the over 300,000-strong Bihari minority in Bangladesh learn how to read and write is key to their full integration.

“I wanted to go to school but my father faced great financial difficulty. I can count and I can get by, but I would like to study,” a Bihari youth, , 19, said.

94 percent of today’s Bihari community are illiterate. The once stateless, Urdu-speaking minority who only recently gained citizenship, were shut out of state schools for decades. “These communities are highly scarred having spent generations in the camp[s]… Though government schools have started enrolling Bihari children in the past 8-10 years, so much more needs to be done,” one C.R. Abrar said.

In 1971 Biharis – named after their Indian region of origin – found themselves in a diplomatic dilemma: Linguistically tied to Urdu-speaking Pakistan, they were living in Bengali-speaking Bangladesh when the latter won independence from what today is Pakistan. Viewed as collaborators of then West Pakistan, the Bangladesh state effectively denied them access to public education until 2000, and citizenship until 2008. Promises of repatriation stalled, applications were refused and statelessness ensued. Almost 40 years and two court rulings later, and despite the reaffirmation of their Bangladeshi citizenship, more than 100,000 still reside in ghettoes created in the 1970’s, while a greater number battle for national entitlements.

Menial labour

Over half of all Biharis in Bangladesh are under 25, so the struggle for education resonates with them.

Without doubt literacy remains the biggest barrier to our assimilation. While some have managed to finish higher education – fewer than two dozen, according to Abrar – most face a life of menial labour.

After being denied state education for so long, it is difficult for Urdu speakers to compete for admission to schools, given the dominance of Bengali, he added. “We need a quota for education, like other minorities.” Government efforts Efforts to address this problem are being made, according to the government. The director-general of the government’s bureau of non-formal education, said the government had already set up 12 learning centres with 20 NGOs since 2006 in Geneva camp, the largest Bihari site, and would expand courses in 2011 to reach all school-aged youths in the camp as part of a drive to achieve 100 percent literacy nationwide by 2014.

However, Bangladesh, a flood-prone poor country of more than 150 million, has a host of other problems to contend with, including 37 million illiterate people. The national literacy rate is 53 percent, according to UNDP.

Call for help

But the state alone cannot afford to finance these and other citizen services, according to Abrar from the University of Dhaka. “Bangladesh should take due credit for solving a protracted stateless situation. We have solved this problem by ourselves and should go to the international community to seek assistance with the implementation.” He called on the government to meet Biharis to identify their needs and to develop a comprehensive rehabilitation and integration programme to address education, health, livelihood and shelter issues for Biharis.

The government needs to engage in targeted development… There needs to be a clear message from the government to the community that you have been wronged for the past 37 years and we will set things right.

In response, the director-general of the government’s department of relief and rehabilitation, Zahirul Haque, said: “There are no plans to arrange a comprehensive rehabilitation programme for the Biharis.”