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Violence highlights plight of Bangladesh's Bihari Muslims

Rights campaigners horrified at withdrawal of slum dwellers' power and water

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Violence highlights plight of Bangladesh's Bihari Muslims

Bihari people inside the notorious Geneva Camp in Dhaka in 2017. Recent violence has highlighted the plight of the beleaguered Muslim community. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews)

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Hundreds of Urdu-speaking Muslims, popularly called “stranded Pakistanis” or “Biharis”, gathered by a road in the Mohammadpur area of Bangladeshi capital Dhaka.

The Biharis were demonstrating on Oct. 5 for the second consecutive day for uninterrupted access to electricity and a waiver of about 300 million taka (US$3.5 million) for unpaid electricity bills for 30,000 residents of a notorious slum in the area, popularly known as “Geneva Camp”.

The protesters claimed they had suffered undue hardship recently with authorities withdrawing their power supply for half of every day.

The rally was peaceful until word spread that a local politician had been attacked and beaten up, prompting riot police to rush to the scene to rescue him.

The Biharis then clashed with police for nearly four hours, hurling stones and bricks at police to vent their anger, while the officers responded by charging at them with batons before firing tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse them.

Local media reported that at least 50 people were injured, including 15 policemen.

The Biharis also alleged that after the street clashes police raided the camp and beat up anyone they found in the street, including women and children.

“We have a High Court order and a promise from Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to get uninterrupted power and water supply in the camp as long as residents are not rehabilitated to other places,” said Abdul Jabbar Khan, president of the Stranded Pakistanis General Repatriation Committee, a political organization of the Urdu-speaking community.

“Yet we have had power cuts 8-10 hours a day. It became unbearable and people resorted to street protests, which came under police attack.”

Police slapped criminal charges against hundreds of Biharis and detained at least 10 for alleged offenses of violence.

“Urdu-speaking people started throwing bricks and vandalizing vehicles, so police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to stop them,” Shiblee Noman, a deputy police commissioner of Dhaka, told ucanews.

“They vandalized a police van as well and about 15-20 policemen were injured. We are looking for the people who instigated and carried out the violence.”

In the days after the violence, many Bihari shops and houses remained shut in protest and many fled the camp to avoid being arrested.

“We have sought the intervention of PM Hasina to end the impasse. We have also called for the indefinite shutdown of the local market and a hunger strike in all the camps until our suffering comes to an end,” Khan added.

Violence and widespread alarm are not new for the Bihari community.

Local media have often reported that men acting on behalf of the ruling political party have extorted money from camp residents and shopkeepers, threatening and even beating up anyone who refused to do so.

In 2014, a violent clash between Biharis, police and supporters of the ruling Awami League party left 10 Biharis dead and dozens injured in violent street clashes and an arson attack, purportedly aimed at evicting Bihari families from another camp in the Mirpur area of Dhaka.

Bihari women at Geneva Camp were also allegedly victims of recent violent clashes with police. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews)

A marginalized community

Geneva Camp is one of two such slums in Dhaka and among 70 camps across Bangladesh that shelter more than 300,000 Biharis.

Biharis speak a dialect of Urdu, the national language of Pakistan, whereas Bangla (Bengali) is the national language in Bangladesh.

Bihari Muslims migrated to then East Bengal (now Bangladesh) from various Indian states before and after the 1947 British partition of India and Pakistan along religious lines.

They settled well at first but their relations soured with native Bengalis as Pakistani establishments, dominated by Urdu-speaking West Pakistani politicians, adopted discriminatory state policies toward Bengali people.

The discord deepened with the creation in 1952 of the Bangla Language Movement against Pakistan government’s attempt to make Urdu the only state language and it worsened during Bangladesh’s war of independence from Pakistan in 1951.

Some Biharis supported Pakistan and allegedly aided Pakistan’s military in committing war crimes against Bengali people. Bengali guerilla fighters retaliated by allegedly killing and abusing members of the Bihari community.

During the war, the International Committee of the Red Cross set up 30 camps in various parts of Bangladesh to save Biharis from the ongoing violence.

After Bangladesh gained independence, the country signed a tripartite deal with India and Pakistan in 1973 to repatriate those “stranded Pakistanis”, declaring that all the refugees would return to Pakistan within five years.

In the decades that followed, however, only a few hundred Biharis made it, largely due to a lack of funds and little support from Pakistani politicians.

The Biharis that remained in Bangladesh have been forced to live in inhumane conditions without any basic rights, including extremely poor housing and no access to education or healthcare.  

Since 2010, Bangladesh government has been offering Biharis full citizenship and national identity cards but the move hasn’t brought an end to their decades-old plight in ghetto-like slums and social ostracism from the Bengali majority.

“About 75 percent of Biharis have obtained national identity cards but it means nothing except the right to vote in elections,” said Khan. “We cannot use the cards to get jobs or passports, so people are still relying on low-paid jobs like sewing and shoemaking to make ends meet.”

Current conditions

Geneva Camp, named after ICRC headquarters in Geneva, is the largest Bihari refugee camp in Bangladesh.

Its residents enjoyed free electricity and water until the issuance of national identity cards, when their right to free utilities was withdrawn.

Shah Kamal, secretary of the Disaster Management and Relief Ministry, says that becoming citizens means Urdu-speaking people are no longer eligible for special benefits.

“They are not refugees anymore but citizens of the country. They can enjoy citizen rights and pay bills like any citizen unless we have a special order for them,” he told ucanews.

Holy Cross Father Liton H. Gomes, secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Bangladesh, said awarding Biharis citizenship was nothing more than a political stunt.

“Biharis were given citizenship so that they could be a vote bank for the ruling party,” he said. “The government also wanted to be rid of being responsible toward them.

“Too little has been done for their rehabilitation and social integration. So, cutting off their utilities without improving their socioeconomic conditions is inhuman and unacceptable.

“The government should ensure Bihari people enjoy basic rights like everyone else in this country. They deserve a better life.”

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