Reorienting the society for Biharis

Almost 24 months have passed since nine people of a Bihari camp in Mirpur died. Trapped inside the very walls that they thought protected them, they were burned, their cries for help went unheeded, and charred corpses were all that remained after the fire was put out. Nine innocent men, women, children – and one who died hours later of gunshot wounds – perished without knowing what their fault was.

This could be the end of this story. But in a country where victims are often blamed, ridiculed and denied justice, it is not. So nearly two years down the line, in which time the families of the victims saw little progress in terms of justice delivery, it has become just another ‘minority’ case headed for a dead end.

In the weeks following the incident on 14 June 2014, six cases were filed, and in all of them, surprisingly, only the Biharis were charged, despite evidence suggesting the involvement of outsiders. As if the attacks were not disturbing enough, members of the community were pushed into a legal tangle that served to obliterate whatever chances they had of getting justice.

As we look back today, several questions arise: why were the perpetrators not punished yet? Is it because an influential politician was involved in the events preceding 14 June? Is it because those who were responsible for it owed their loyalty to the ruling party? Or, are crimes against a minority group with no voice crimes of a lesser degree?

I remember as I and a fellow human rights activist visited the camp a week after the tragedy, we found people standing awkwardly and speaking in hushed tones, as if afraid to be heard. Not that there were many visitors then. The number of press trips had thinned; the rights advocates had found more pressing issues to be concerned about.

The scene, where the ill-fated nine died, seemed like dredged from a Gothic nightmare: charred walls, crumbling bricks, broken pieces of tin hung loosely overhead, the air still heavy with the smell of death. The Old Kurmitola Camp, located across the Kalshi road in Mirpur, is one of the seventy-two camps in the country inhabited by a community known by their historic links to the Indian state of Bihar.

It has an awkward grid of narrow walkways winding through what are clearly the smallest houses in the town, undersized by any space standard. As we strolled around, I felt like transported to some sub-Saharan city scarred by war and famine. How some 1,100 families lived in such a cramped condition was beyond my comprehension. The very sight of it summed up the grim reality of their life, with no indoor toilet and privacy in what they called homes, unpleasant odour coming from inadequate ventilation.

The walls, doors, roller shutters, and utility poles were still carrying bullet holes and machete-impact marks created by the criminals when, with police on their heels, they swooped on the area. There were also marks of plundering and pillaging, giving conclusive proof that they had bigger things on their mind than just to suppress opposition to a power-sharing scheme blamed for the attacks.

What happened on that fateful morning is public knowledge, thanks to media reports that combined eyewitness accounts and police statements to present a story that is at once compelling and disturbing. Not that the official line was of much help, as far as authenticity goes, but it did underline the complexity of the situation itself.

Mentions were made of rows over power-sharing between the camp and a neighbouring slum. The local MP, Elias Uddin Molla, admitted that the incident might have originated from the dispute over which his mediation was sought.

However, it would be naïve to suggest that the attacks were made to avenge insults allegedly hurled at the MP during his mediation attempt. But allegations like the one that says that they were an attempt to force the camp-dwellers to share electricity with their neighbours, or that they were made to eject them from their houses so that a commercial housing project could be undertaken there, deserve appropriate legal attention.

In any case, an attack of this magnitude – and the impunity with which it was carried out, and worse still, forgotten, as if it had never occurred – wouldn’t have happened if the criminals were not absolutely sure of the general apathy and xenophobic rhetoric that surround the very existence of this community.

And that, in my view, is a far more serious problem.

Anyone with interest in the Biharis will be surprised by the lack of research on them. The exact number of Biharis living in Bangladesh is not known. What is known from available research is that the earliest groups of Biharis come mostly from Bihar, which was at the forefront of riots that marked the partition of British India in 1946. The riots killed nearly 30,000 Muslims, triggering a mass exodus in the process. According to one estimate, nearly two million Bihari Muslims migrated to what was then called West Pakistan and another one million to East Pakistan (who were joined by Muslims from several other states also – all, in later years, going by the common name of Biharis). Their number, however, remains debatable.

Those who migrated to the east were an Urdu-speaking people. Quite naturally, they identified themselves with their Urdu-speaking peers. This, and a chequered history during the 1971 war of liberation, made them frequent subjects of distrust, exploitation and attacks in post-war Bangladesh. They were also accused of an abiding allegiance to Pakistan. But calling them ‘Stranded Pakistanis’ would be erroneous, as these people had never actually hailed from (West) Pakistan in the first place, and demographically speaking, were only as Pakistani as anyone who lived in East Pakistan (Bangladesh) – which pretty much includes all our elders.

Since the war, people have also viewed them as a bit of an enigma. To some, they are the pariahs. To others, they conjure up images of the wildest kind, untamed and undisciplined, with little education, manners or civic sense. There are still others who simply don’t care about them.

However, what people tend to forget is: their aversion to the Biharis, however justifiable that maybe, doesn’t make them any less of a citizen. And citizens, any citizens, have the right to live without fear or being discriminated against based on their racial background.

During my visit to Old Kurmitola Camp, I met one Razu Ahmed, a thirty something resident, and asked him about his allegiance. “Why, I am a citizen, too,” he said promptly. “I have my family and business in this country, and want to live here like any other citizen.” As he spoke, he looked restless and wearied beyond his years. “It’s true that some of our elders still want to go to Pakistan, but that is not us. Those born after liberation think themselves citizens of this country.”

Razu, like the other residents we approached for information, wouldn’t divulge anything other than what we already knew, apparently for fear he might be in trouble. However, by expressing his views about his roots, he underlined the most important thing that matters to the young people of his community now: security for their life and an opportunity to live like everyone else.

We need to decide what we are going to do about that.

Shall we remain a grudge-bearing nation and continue to treat them as pariahs? Send them off to Pakistan? The fact is, Pakistan is not going to accept them. India isn’t going to accept them either. If the experiences of the settlers of Bangladeshi descent in India are any indication, the idea of deportation is not going to work. What shall we do then?

At the risk of sounding naïve, let me say that if the Biharis are a problem, let’s face it as problems are faced: head-on, acknowledging first that it is a problem. True, the Bihari problem was not entirely our creation, but our failure to help them acclimatise to the ideals and aspirations of the newborn nation after 1971 and protect them from attacks and persecutions makes it one of ours now. And to perpetuate this problem is to put our security, stability and growth at perpetual risk.

I think a pro-solution approach would be to initiate efforts to reorient the society for members of the community (and other minority communities), make them part of a growth-generating system, and create environments for them to live like normal citizens with equal access to justice, social services and amnesties of the state.

The immediate challenge, however, is to prevent a recurrence of tragedies like Old Kurmitola Camp. This can be done only by bringing the real perpetrators – people behind the 14 June attacks – to justice, and doing that may actually serve as a starting point for the Biharis’ integration into our wider social network.

This article first appeared in the daily Prothom Alo (English) 

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