After 30 years the second generation Urdu-speaking community that remained neglected, marginalised and vulnerable to discrimination since the independence of Bangladesh petitioned the higher court for why their fundamental rights would not be respected, which violates the principles of the country's Constitution.
Mohammad Hasan, a young petitioner, argued that those in the pro-Jamaat-e-Islami student wing, and Jamaat-e-Islami Ameer Ghulam Azam who raised the dreaded death squad, the Al Badr, to annihilate the pro-independence intellectuals, and who stood on the docks accused for crimes against humanity during 1971 War of Independence retained their citizenship. All the war-crime suspects are Bangladeshi nationals; none of them are from the Urdu-speaking community. When they are born in this land, why are the Urdu-speaking citizens denied of their fundamental rights? Hasan, also a news presenter in the state radio Bangladesh Betar Urdu broadcast, questioned the court.
Hasan on behalf of the Association of Young Generation of Urdu-speaking community filed the petition. After waiting for two years for the public interest litigation the High Court declared in May 2003 that the Urdu-speaking minorities should be able to exercise their rights and be included in the national voter list, especially those living in the Mohammadpur camps, the largest ghetto of Urdu-speaking population in Bangladesh.
Mohammadpur, once a posh residential area in the capital Dhaka, was resided by elite Urdu-speaking community during the heydays of eastern province of Pakistan in the 50s and 60s. Browsing the names of the streets and roads in Mohammadpur gives a feeling of the elite's mindset. From Moghul emperor Babar to Aurangzeb, Nur Jehan to Tajmahal; from poet Allama Iqbal to educationist Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and, of course, hosts of fiercest Muslim warriors are remembered. The name of Akbar the Great is conspicuously missing, where the Urdu-speaking community is still living in Bangladesh.
Urdu poet Shamim Zamanvi explains that the Muslims who migrated to East Bengal before and after the historic 1947 partition had reservation about Emperor Babar. He was secular, tolerant and a liberal Muslim, who introduced Urdu language and poetry, Indian classical music and instruments. What irked the Urdu-speaking Muslim communities was that Akbar was a heretic, who demonstrated a restrictive attitude towards the Shia, while holding high the Sufi (mystic) philosophy. The Urdu-speaking population from India, as well as other Muslims, who speak Gujarati, Malayalam, Marathi, were overwhelmingly Shia, said Shamim Zamanvi, also vice-president of Bangla-Urdu Sahitya (Literature) Foundation. Whereas the Muslims in Bangladesh are Sunni and have adopted Sufi culture for practising Islam.
During the first general election in 1970, the Urdu-speaking people were suspicious of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's political agenda of regional autonomy. Obviously they voted for divided Muslim League (5.4 per cent of the total) and Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami (six per cent), which failed to gain majority support from the eastern province. It was expected that the Urdu-speaking community will vote against Mujib's Awami League. Incidentally this became the single majoritarian political party in Pakistan election. The Awami League bagged 160 seats having 74.9 per cent. [See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pakistani_general_election,_1970]
The Urdu-speaking community in a mass exodus from India adopted East Pakistan as their new homeland, a Muslim nation Pakistan. After 24 years their dreams shattered when the eastern province decided to bifurcate in a bid to become a secular and democratic nation. During the 1971 War of Independence of Bangladesh there was an absence of an acceptable political leadership of the Urdu-speaking community. In yet another political debacle the community did not hesitate to bestow allegiance to marauding Pakistan army. Soon after President Yahya Khan addressed the nation on March 25, 1971 and re-imposed military rule the country plunged into political crisis leaving no room for a U-turn. The General said that the delinquent people of East Pakistan who supported the Awami League and their separatist leader Mujibur Rahman need to be punished.
Thus a reign of terror was unleashed. The Urdu-speaking community dotted around the country and rioted with pro-Awami League supporters that caused deaths of thousands on either side. Arson, loot and sexual abuse of women occurred by those who had enough muscle and of course support of the civil and military administration.
In 1972 the beleaguered Urdu-community were huddled in scores of makeshift camps whose homes were vandalised, properties looted and women sexually abused. Soon International Red Cross Society (ICRC) established 66 Bihari camps in urban areas of Bangladesh. They were provided succour to victims in retaliation of incidents during the gory war. The raiders took opportunity of slack civil administration, and unfortunately the exiled government took time after taking the responsibility of the war-ravaged country.
After the independence of Bangladesh, several agreements were signed among three countries --- India, Pakistan and Bangladesh --- in 1973 and 1974 to resolve the humanitarian problems of the Biharis, who were dubbed as 'Stranded Pakistanis' when the ICRC obtained their option to repatriate them to Pakistan immediately after the war. In an agreement in 1974 Pakistan accepted 170,000 refugees. However, the repatriation process has since stalled. In 2006 a report estimated that between 240,000 to 300,000 Biharis live in 66 crowded camps in Dhaka and 13 other regions across Bangladesh. Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto during her private visit to Bangladesh in 1989 stated that Pakistan will no more accept the so-called stranded Pakistanis, which broke the heart of thousands of Urdu-speaking community in Bangladesh. She aptly said that basing on the tripartite agreement on 9 April 1974 among three foreign ministers of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan in New Delhi. The accord says: "In respect of non-Bengalees in Bangladesh, the Pakistan side stated that the Government of Pakistan had already issued clearances for movement to Pakistan in favour of those non-Bengalees who were either domiciled in former West Pakistan, were employees of the Central Government and their families or were members of the divided families, irrespective of their original domicile". The issuance of clearances to 25,000 persons who constitute hardship cases was also in progress. The Pakistan side reiterated that all those who fall under the first three categories would be received by Pakistan without any limit as to numbers.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 1993 repatriated 325 persons and settled them at a flood shelter in Punjab. Most of them have moved to Karachi as life and living was difficult in Punjab flood shelters. Since then the doors to Pakistan were shut to the so-called 'Stranded Pakistanis' or the stateless people as some describe them.
Dr C R Abrar, Professor at Dhaka University and has done research particularly on Urdu-speaking community, said they are not stateless population. They ceased to be stateless or stranded Pakistanis after majority of them had received Bangladeshi national ID and been enlisted as voters. They however are definitely linguistic minorities, according to social scientists. Shoukat Ali, secretary general of Stranded Pakistanis General Repatriation Committee (SPGRC), lamented, after 40 years of his campaign he does not see any immediate light at the end of the tunnel. The future of the repatriation is bleak after Pakistan's refusal to take back the pro-Pakistani community languishing in nauseating camps.
Understanding the situation, the community has gradually opted for social and political integration. Most of them have national IDs, even if they live in camps, once declared as out of bound. The new generation is attending regular schools and hundreds have graduated from college and universities in ghettos spread in the country.
Many of them have taken regular jobs, except for jobs in civil service, armed forces, police and other government jobs. Why? Shoukat Ali said when the background checks of the applicants are processed by security agencies they are barred, stating that they are 'Stranded Pakistanis', therefore not compatible for government jobs. The government officials argue that they are not citizens of Bangladesh and not eligible to apply as that might be a security risk. When their attention is drawn to High Court landmark judgement, they remain silent.
Ahmed Ilias, Director of Al-Falah, an NGO working for Urdu-speaking community, argues that despite several verdicts from the higher court in respect of the fundamental rights of the camp dwellers, the government has failed to formulate a policy regarding their rehabilitation for social integration. Coupled with the pressing problems, the social exclusion of Bihari camp dwellers have increased poverty, said he.
After the UNESCO had adopted 21st February as International Mother Language Day, which has roots in Bangladesh in 1952, the Urdu poets and literary writers spontaneously formed Bangla-Urdu Sahitya Foundation and began to observe the day, though modestly but with fanfare. They publish collection of Urdu poetry Awaaz annually written exclusively by Bangladesh-born poets and also translated into Bangla, which enable literary interaction with Bangladeshi poets.
With the departure of ICRC in 1973, the government of Bangladesh took responsibility of maintaining the camps under the Ministry of Relief and Rehabilitation. For more than 32 years, each adult member of a Bihari family received 2.5 kilogramme of wheat from the government as monthly ration, which was always not regular. The supply of relief stopped in 2004 by pro-Islamist coalition government of Begum Khaleda Zia.
A ten-member SPGRC delegation had a private audience with the government of Sheikh Hasina at her official residence in January 2013. Of the insignificant 'unresolved issues' the SPGRC leaders drew attention of the prime minister. The SPGRC leaders urged upon the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to exert diplomatic pressure on Pakistan so that a tripartite meeting is held among Bangladesh, Pakistan and the SPGRC. The Urdu-speaking people were thanked by Sheikh Hasina for exercising their votes in the last 2008 election which restored democracy. The SPGRC leaders accepted the compliments with a broad smile.
Meantime Islamabad has categorically turned down the issue and refused to hold parleys with the SPGRC leaders, and it is no more recognised as legitimate organisation representing the Urdu-speaking community in Bangladesh. They believe that they are gradually integrating into the society after their citizenship right has been established by the higher courts.
Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow, is Special Correspondent, The Daily Observer.
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