Story of the Nowhere People

In the days leading up to the Partition of 1947, nearly a million Urdu-speaking Muslims from Bihar migrated to the then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) to escape the communal violence in their home state. Veteran Muslim leaders like Muhammed Ali Jinnah, at that time, made explicit mention about the great sacrifice of Muslim migrants from India to Pakistan, which contributed to the formation of the new nation.

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But the woes of the Bihari Muslims—as they are referred to in Bangladesh— even after 70 years of Partition have only gone from bad to worse. Perhaps no other community from the subcontinent have been such perpetual sufferers like them, decade after decade. Everyone’s anguishes, be it that of the Hindus from Bangladesh to India in the days leading up to the 1971 war, or the Muhajirs in Pakistan, ended someday because of the fact that the former were fairly well received in India and the latter were able to forge considerable political clout in Karachi. It may be recalled that former Pakistan President, Pervez Musharraf, was one of most prominent Muhajirs in Pakistan, who had left India in 1947, in one of the last safe trains.

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The hapless Biharis in Bangladesh, however, continue to languish in humiliating poverty in a ghetto. They are the nowhere people and have been subject to endless persecution in the hands of the government, opposition and all other vested quarters. The ghetto is also the target of realtors and Bihari Muslims are killed regularly over alleged land grabbing. The place is also a hub for many nefarious activities.

Known as the Geneva Camp, the Bihari Muslim ghetto in Dhaka’s Mohammadpur is an example of perhaps the worst possible subhuman living conditions in the world. The floors are week and crumbling. The gaps under the staircase and on the walls expose rotting concrete and rusted steel. Houses are separated by two-feet wide passages shared by goats, chicken, pigs, and humans. A web of electrical wires hang in the alleys and are perilously frayed. With toilets marked inside 8×8 feet rooms, the whole area reeks of human excreta. The camp routinely floods in rains, including the toilets, and the stench becomes unbearable.

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Bangladeshi politicians, over the years, kept the Biharis terrorised in their camps and continue to treat them as untouchables. Self-proclaimed Bangladeshi statesmen want to parcel them off to Pakistan. Several politicians and their agents persistently remind of the fact that the Biharis of Bangladesh adopted a pro-Pakistan stand during the 1971 Liberation War and aided the Pak army in their atrocities against the Bengali speaking people. These politicians have conveniently forgotten that the Biharis were persecuted in similar ferocity around the same time, both before and after the liberation of Bangladesh. The preferred destination of these stranded people have always been Pakistan though nothing much has realised in this regard because of the opposition from the provinces of Punjab and Sindh where they were planned to be relocated. Besides, many Pakistani politicians believe that they have no obligation to accommodate them.

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Biharis in Bangladesh number about 2.5 lakhs. Over half a million of them have already mingled with mainstream Bengalis in Dhaka and elsewhere across the country, largely to become indistinguishable in an intolerant society. Many have left for other South Asian countries and beyond. The new generation of Bihari Muslims speaks fluent Bengali and most of them are employed in the readymade garments industry. The Supreme Court of Bangladesh has passed orders in favour of granting them Bangladeshi citizenship but those have not yet been implemented.

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Biharis in Bangladesh continue to remain stateless people. They lack education and are vulnerable to opportunist politicians out to extract their pound of flesh. Even the spirited civil society and intelligentsia, ever so vociferous about the genocide of 1971, have largely remained silent about their plight. Bangladesh may not be another Pakistan or Syria soon but the signs are ominous, especially in respect of religious tolerance and honesty of intent.

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Prabuddha Neogi

Foodie, lazy, bookworm, and internet junkie. All in that order. Loves to floor the accelerator. Mad about the Himalayas and its trekking trails. Forester in past life. An avid swimmer. Also an occasional writer and editor

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