Mixed feelings over citizenship plan

After nearly four decades of being stateless, about 250,000 Biharis or “stranded Pakistanis” as they call themselves, have been finally accepted as citizens of Bangladesh, after a High Court ruling.

On 26 November 2007, 11 members of the Stranded Pakistanis Youth Rehabilitation Movement (SPYRM), including its president, Sadakat Khan, filed a petition seeking High Court orders to register as voters Urdu-speaking people living in 70 camps across the country.

“We endured immense suffering in the camps. With citizenship it should be over,” said Khan.

However, the decision has drawn a mixed reaction from others in the refugee camps of Dhaka and elsewhere.

“We came to settle in Islamic Pakistan, not in a secular Bangladesh. We have always been Pakistanis, and will remain so,” said Muhammad Alamgir, 60, who left his village in Chhapra District in the Indian state of Bihar and migrated to Dhaka with his parents in 1956. “As soon as East Pakistan became Bangladesh in December 1971, we expressed our desire to be repatriated to Pakistan. The Pakistan government of that time agreed to take us back. But they didn’t do anything further,” he said.

However, most of the 237,840 Biharis were born in Bangladesh, more than half after 1971, when the country fought for independence from what was then West Pakistan.

Photo: Shamsuddin Ahmed/IRIN
After decades of being stateless, many Biharis hope their lives will now improve for the better

Unlike their parents, the younger generation of Biharis do not feel like aliens in Bangladesh. Most speak both Bangla and Urdu, go to Bangla-medium schools, have Bengalee friends and spouses. Many of them identify themselves as Bangladeshis rather than claiming to be “Biharis” or “stranded Pakistanis”, and are working for stronger integration.

“My father came to Dhaka in 1952. He was only 14 then. He married here. We were born here. He is now 70 years old. My mother is 60. We are sons of the soil,” said 40-year-old Ali Ashraf Khan, who owns a garage in Dhaka.

“My wife is Bangalee. My three children speak Bangla at home. I speak Urdu with my parents and Bangla with my wife and children. There is no problem,” he claimed.

Bitter past

Yet in their 23 years in East Pakistan from 1947-1971, the immigrant Biharis and the local Bengalis failed to work out a peaceful coexistence.

In 1971, the Biharis opposed the independence of Bangladesh (then East Pakistan), with many allegedly collaborating with the Pakistan army during the “war of liberation” as it is known in Bangladesh.

After the war, the Biharis were confined to refugee camps with prisoners of war. But while the regular PoWs later left for Pakistan, the Biharis were left behind in the camps.

Following an agreement in 1974, Pakistan took back over 161,000 of them. Then the process stopped.

Photo: Shamsuddin Ahmed/IRIN
Students in a classroom of the only primary school for some 30,000 inhabitants at the Mohammadpur Geneva camp in Bangladesh

Better future?

“We respect the law and honour the judgment,” said Muhammad Shaukat Ali, general secretary of the Stranded Pakistanis General Repatriation Committee.

“But what will happen to our houses and properties that had been declared abandoned by the government and then occupied by the local people? Shall we get those back?” he asked.

“Since 1972, we have been concentrated into 8x8 ft huts. Will we be still living in these huts after becoming Bangladeshi citizens, or shall we be relocated to bigger houses with better facilities?’ he asked.

Jabbar Khan, president of the committee, pointed to the problem of repatriation to Pakistan.

“We do not mind staying here if we are allowed to live with dignity and respect. We must be given all the rights of a citizen of Bangladesh, not only the right to vote,” he said.