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Biharis: Bangladesh’s forgotten minority

Rahat Rafe
October 14, 2019

While the international community is focused on the plight of Rohingya refugees, not many in the world are aware of the ordeal of Bihari Muslims who migrated from India in 1947.

Bildergalerie Bangladesch Hygiene
Image: Lalage Snow/AFP/Getty Images

In Bangladesh, a "Bihari" is a common term used for a non-Bengali Muslim who originally belongs to India's eastern state, Bihar.

In 1947, India was divided and Pakistan, a Muslim-majority nation, was created. During the partition, marked by violent communal clashes, many Muslims from Bihar left for East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. In 1971 however, Bangladesh gained independence after a bloody war with Islamabad that was triggered mainly by language and ethnicity issues.

Many Urdu-speaking Biharis, who largely maintained a pro-Pakistani stance during the 1971 war, failed to make their way to Pakistan. Their support for Islamabad caused Bangladeshis to be distrustful of them and consequently, Dhaka did not take any steps to accommodate Biharis into its society. 

As a result, hundreds of thousands of members of the community have been stranded in Bangladesh for several decades, sequestered in camps and lacking basic rights.

Read more: Bihari migrants wish for better life in Bangladesh

The 'Geneva' refugee camp in Dhaka houses around 500 Urdu-speaking families
The 'Geneva' refugee camp in Dhaka houses around 500 Urdu-speaking familiesImage: Lalage Snow/AFP/Getty Images

A miserable life

According to local NGOs working for Bihari welfare, around 400,000 members of the community live in camps in Bangladesh. Recent data released by the government of Bangladesh revealed that most Biharis are currently housed in 116 camps in the country's 13 different districts. Of these, the capital Dhaka hosts 100,000 Biharis in 45 settlements.

Houses inside these settlements are separated by a narrow passage hardly one meter wide and often occupied by domestic cattle. Families are crammed into tiny rooms, with little or no privacy for members. Rainy spells often lead to overflowing toilets and flooded paths, and lack of water and poor sanitation make life even more difficult.

Additionally, Biharis are often uneducated and unable to find skilled jobs. "You will not find any Biharis employed in higher positions at government offices because they are not qualified enough," Khalid Hossain, Chief Executive of the Council of Minorities in Bangladesh told DW.

Members of the community are therefore forced to earn their income working as barbers, butchers, rickshaw-pullers, transport workers or automobile mechanics. Children are also forced to work early because their parents have barely any financial means to educate them.

After an order from the Supreme Court in 2008, the government in Dhaka allowed Biharis to be included in the national voters' list. This also enabled them to obtain documents proving their identity. However, most Biharis are not eligible for Bangladeshi passports because they live in temporary settlements and according to the rules, an applicant needs to provide a permanent address for getting a passport.

Biharis left the India in 1947 for East Pakistan, now Bangladesh
Biharis left the India in 1947 for East Pakistan, now BangladeshImage: DW

"We have been leading an inhuman life, deprived of basic facilities for five decades. Only 5 to 10 percent of us have access to formal education. We want to be able to fulfill our basic needs; we want to see our children going to school," president of the Urdu-speaking Rehabilitation Movement, Sadakat Khan Fakku, told DW.

A chance for integration

Anti-Bangladeshi social stigma is a major concern for the Biharis. Many of them are paying for the previous generation's support for Pakistan during the 1971 war and are still labelled as being against Bangladesh.

"We would like to get a chance to integrate into Bangladeshi society and not remain isolated in camps and bear the brunt of being anti-Bangladeshi," Khalid Hossain, a Muslim Bihari, told DW. He also suggested that the Bangladesh government introduce a quota system in educational institutions and in the public service sector so that his community could overcome poverty and illiteracy.

Meanwhile, the Bangladesh government is mulling a plan to relocate Biharis living in its capital city Dhaka to a nearby area. According to the plan, the government would acquire one thousand acres of land to erect multi-storied buildings in order to house the community. The settlement would be handed over to members in return for a monthly or yearly financial installment.

The plan is in its primary phase and the government is carrying out a feasibility study to assess the extent of its implementation, Shamima Nargis, member of the Physical Infrastructure Division of Bangladesh's Planning Commission told DW.

But Biharis are concerned that the plan would again separate them from society. "Biharis want to be relocated with an opportunity to integrate into the society they live in, not to be shut inside camps," Khalid Hossain said.

Read more: Rohingya militants active in Bangladeshi refugee camps

Militants in Rohingya camps?

No repatriation in Pakistan

In 1974, Bangladesh and Pakistan signed an agreement mediated by India to repatriate the Bihari community in Bangladesh. Following the deal, 178,069 Biharis were sent to Pakistan between the years 1973 to 1993, Zaglul Haider, a Bangladeshi researcher at York University, Canada noted.

According to Karachi-based analyst Abdul Sattar, there are several reasons why Pakistan seems to pay meagre attention to accepting Biharis. One reason could be that it has to bear the burden of over a million Afghan refugees fleeing conflict in their country.

Furthermore, the last repatriation of the Biharis in Pakistan in the early 1990s triggered huge protests from the locals of the country's Sindh province. No government in Pakistan has dared to speak of Biharis' repatriation ever since, Sattar said.

Additional reporting by Samir Kumar Dey in Dhaka