It is often claimed that more than two hundred years ago ancestors of the present day Urdu-speaking community of northern Bengal migrated from Bihar, and permanently settled down. When a railway workshop was built in Syedpur, the British brought nearly 7,000 men from Bihar to augment its workforce in those early days of 1870.
In 1947, the partition of India set in motion the process of huge migrations of Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communities which brought millions of Muslim refugees including Urdu-speaking communities into the then East Bengal which was later named as East Pakistan.
They came from various parts of India and were largely distinguishable by their lifestyle that bound these people from their former homelands into an identifiable minority group with the commonly spoken and understood language of Urdu.
The identity of this community was thus established on the basis of their language and culture and not on any regional territory of undivided India. Therefore, in every respect, members of this community are Urdu-speaking Indian immigrants who settled here with a view to making their social, cultural and political future in the present days of Bangladesh. They have equal rights as other immigrants who came thousand years ago and settled here to make this land as their home.
But after the emergence of Bangladesh in 1971, this microscopic Urdu-speaking community was stripped off all their social, economic and cultural rights for the alleged collaboration of a small section of this community with the occupation forces during the nine months of Liberation War. This allegation was never judicially proved. The discrimination between collaborators on the basis of language was seen during the post Bangladesh time when the Bangla speaking collaborators were given the opportunity for their political, social and economic rehabilitation in the mainstream of the society and on the other hand, the Urdu-speaking were collectively blamed as collaborators and driven out from their houses, jobs, businesses and trades and educational and cultural institutions and pushed to live in the so-called non-local camps for an indefinite period. More than 40 years have been passed; they are still languishing in these camps built in Dhaka and almost every town of Bangladesh.
When none came forward to help the new generation of this camp dwellers to save them from growing frustration and falling down socio-economic status, a few of them assessed the situation and came to a conclusion that they were born in Bangladesh and not in Pakistan. Their ancestors had not come to this land from Pakistan. They have never seen the war of liberation as they were not born at that time. Many of them were minor when Bangladesh came into being. There were questions in their mind: why they are in camps. Why they are being treated in an uncivilized way, why they are called as Bihari or “stranded Pakistani” when they have neither seen Bihar nor Pakistan; why there is no school for the children of their community when the children of the majority community are enjoying the school life, and why they have been deprived from all social, cultural and economic benefits, when the people living outside camps have not been barred from these benefits? The answer for all these concerns was only one that they were not considered as citizens of this country.
Those children who were born in 1971 and 1983, they became 30 and 18 years old, when the national elections 2001 were held in Bangladesh. The then Election Commission, refused to register the camp dwellers as voters because they were the residents of camps, which no one consider as living place for human being. A group of ten residents of Geneva Camp filed a writ petition in the High Court against the refusal of Election Commission. Subsequently, a two-member bench of High Court gave rule on May 5th, 2003 that the Geneva camp was very much within the territory of Bangladesh and the petitioners were citizens of Bangladesh and as such they should be registered as voters. Unfortunately, it was interpreted and argued that the rule of the High Court was applicable for only ten petitioners.
When frustrations among the young generation of Urdu-speaking camp dwellers further developed, another writ petition was filed by the residents of Mirpur camps, seeking voting rights for all the Urdu-speaking people. A two-member bench of High Court in its verdict observed on 8th May 2008 that “Question of citizenship of Urdu-speaking has got another aspect, which is very important from the constitutional perspective. Miseries and sufferings of such people due to statelessness were time to time reported in the national media, electronic and print. Besides, the reasons mentioned in the letter of the Election Commission, they are constantly denied the constitutional rights to job, education, accommodation, health and a decent life like other citizens of the country. By keeping the question of citizenship unresolved on wrong assumption over the decades, this nation has not gained anything rather was deprived of the contribution they could have made in the nation building. The sooner the Urdu-speaking people are brought to the mainstream of the nation is the better”
The Bench in its ruling said, “The Election Commission is directed to enroll the petitioners and other Urdu-speaking people who want to be enrolled in the electoral rolls and accordingly, give them National Identity Card without any further delay”.
It was understood that the end of their statelessness would provide them the much needed access to the various opportunities and facilities of social, cultural and economic benefits and facilitate their mainstreaming in the society. But even after receiving the “National Identity Card” and casting their votes in the last general elections, they are still treated as “stranded Pakistanis”, stateless and refugees.
Although, legally they are now no more stateless or stranded Pakistani or refugee like the refugees from Myanmar, but still they have been languishing in camps and suffering from an inhuman living conditions for the last 42 years. According to the Article 25 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights: Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family…”But this community has been deprived off a standard living.
After the last general election held in 2008, a significant announcement of a massive project to construct 45 high-rise buildings at Mohammadpur to rehabilitate thousands of residents of Geneva camp was made through media by the Dhaka City Corporation.
While presenting the national budget for the fiscal year 2011-2012, the Finance Minister Mr. Abul Mall Abdul Muhith had proposed an allocation of Tk. 2,189 crore comprising both development and non development budgets, for land management and housing sector. First time in the history of Bangladesh an allocation has been made in the official budget for the rehabilitation of the Non-Bengalis of Geneva Camp at Mohammadpur in Dhaka. The aforesaid announcement of the City Corporation and the proposed allocation brought a heap of relief to the camp dwellers.
The period of 2011-2012 budgets has been announced, but there is no visible sign towards the compliance of the above announcement and proposal.
Not only that, most of the Urdu-speakers living in camps are not getting passport for travel only because some concerned authority in the Ministry of Home are not aware of the High Court’s ruling. To them the National Identity Card is not a legal document to prove one’s nationality. But there are other officers in the same department who did not object when the court verdict was shown to them and thus a few lucky residents of camp obtained their passports.
Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says: “Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in their country”. This is not true in the case of Urdu-speaking Bangladeshi citizen. There are evidences that candidates are not getting employment in government departments not due to lack of merit but because the candidate happened to be a member of Urdu-speaking community and resident of a camp.
It is understandable that in the absence of any political will on the part of the government, this community will have no option but to languish in the existing sub-human camp situation for an unending period without having access to social, political and economic means for shaping a bright future for their children in Bangladesh. According to some observers the very existence of Geneva camps and other similar camps are glaring example of human rights violation, but for the human rights watchdogs these camps have become invisible. The frustration of the young leaders of the Urdu speaking community has reached to such extent that they do not expect a loud supporting voice from the rights-based organizations; media or civil society. These new generation still have dreams but they do not see any light at the end of the tunnel.
Ahmed Ilias is the Executive Director, Al-Falah Bangladesh.