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Photo courtesy: GMB Akash
Photo courtesy: GMB Akash

The dire living conditions and discrimination faced by the Bihari people over the last 41 years is well documented. After the Bihari people found themselves stateless when East Pakistan became Bangladesh in 1971, they have dealt with years of oppression and political, social and economic insecurity. Forced to live in various ‘camps’ in urban areas throughout the country, Bihari’s were denied access to Bangladeshi healthcare, education and employment and consequently have lived in abject poverty. In recent years, with the recognition of the Bihari people as citizens of Bangladesh in the 2008 Supreme Court Case Sadat Khat v The Chief Commissioner, these oppressive conditions have slowly begun to improve. However, not all the rights associated with citizenship have been afforded to the Bihari people.  The most pressing is the government’s reluctance to allow the Bihari people living in the urban ‘camps’ a Bangladeshi passport. This document will outline the reasons why restricting access to passports does not make sense in the eyes of the law and also how it hinders the opportunity for Bihari people to contribute to the Bangladesh economy.

Since 2008, 5 Bihari people living in the Geneva Camp in Dhaka have applied for a passport and been denied on the grounds that there “has been no ‘authoritative instruction’ from government on whether or not Bihari’s living in the camps can have passports.”[1] When the government requested the Election Commission to enrol all Urdu speaking Biharis on the election role and give them national ID cards (providing the hard proof of citizenship), this ‘authoritative instruction’ pertaining to the right to hold a passport was also given. This is because the Law of Bangladesh does not separate the right to hold a passport from citizenship. It can be inferred from section 6 of the Passport Order 1973 that citizenship automatically gives you the right to a passport (provided the citizen has not been convicted of a crime or other illegal act detailed in section 6).[2] By the granting of national ID cards and consequent citizenship, the Bihari people have the same rights as any other Bangladeshi to hold a passport. In the eyes of the law, the government instruction is irrelevant, but in any event was given when it requested the electoral commission to give Bihari’s national ID cards.

Another reason for the denial of one application was that the citing the ‘Geneva Camp’ as an address does not fulfil the ‘permanent’ address criteria required for a successful passport application. The Passport Order 1973 and the Passport Rules 1974, set out the law and rules surrounding who can apply for a passport, reasons why a passport will be denied and how to apply for a passport. Nowhere in either the Order or Rules does it state that a permanent address is required to qualify for a passport.[3] Not only this, but the notion of ‘permanent address’ is not defined anywhere. To say that those living in the Geneva Camp do not have permanent addresses is completely arbitrary. The Bihari’s have been living in these camps, residing in the same places for over 40 years. How is this less ‘permanent’ than someone entitled to a passport who is renting a property outside a camp for 1 year or a daughter living in her parents’ house? There may be issues surrounding the ‘ownership’ of the land in the Camps, but these are property law issues and are separate from the rights Bihari’s are entitled to as Bangladeshi Citizens. Because the notion of ‘permanent address’ is not defined and not a requirement in the Passport Order and Rules, denying any citizen on the basis of not having a permanent address is discriminatory and therefore in breach of the constitution.[4]

Not only will the ability to hold a passport be of obvious benefit to the Bihari people, enabling them the right to freedom of movement, it is also in the interests of the Bangladesh economy. The Bangladesh economy is heavily dependent on labour migration. It is one of its core foreign currency earnings and in the 2010/2011 financial year amounted to 11.5% of GDP.[5] The success of the labour migration sector, among many things is having a population willing to go abroad and work. One of the main reasons why the Bihari community is determined to have passports is because they have skills that can be transferred to labour jobs abroad. Denying Bihari’s their right to a passport is simply denying an opportunity for Bangladeshi citizens to contribute to the development of the economy through labour migration. From an economic perspective, it is short sighted for the government to limit the labour migration resource pool by not allowing one section of society a passport.

The preamble of the Bangladesh constitution states “it shall be a fundamental aim of the State to realise through the democratic process a socialist society, free from exploitation – a society in which the rule of law, fundamental human rights and freedom, equality and justice, political, economic and social, will be secured for all citizens.”[6] Bihari people are citizens, this is no longer a question or even an issue to be debated. At its most basic form, restricting the access to a cornerstone of social, political and economic justice – the right to hold a passport – is a breach of the foundation of the constitution of Bangladesh. Denying the right to a passport is a restriction on the fundamental human rights and freedoms of movement, rights afforded in any democratic country and protected also under article 36 of the Bangladesh constitution.[7] The Bihari people living in Bangladesh consider themselves Bangladeshi. They have the same individual, community and national aspirations as any other Bangladeshi. Passports will enable them to travel and work abroad not only increasing their own individual capacity but also contributing to the economic development of Bangladesh.

Hanah Weir is a international law specialist and barrister from New Zealand working on rights of the marginalized in Bangladesh.

[1] Hussain, Khalid, “The End Of Bihari Statelessness” http://www.fmreview.org

[2] The Bangladesh Passport Order 1973, Section 6.

[3] The Bangladesh Passport Order 1973, The Bangaldehs Passport Rules 1974.

[4] The Constitution of The Peoples Republic of Bangladesh 1974, Articles 27 and Article 28

[5] Unnayan Onneshan-The Innovators, Bangladesh Economic Update – Remittance, Volume 2, No. 8, September 2011, Pg. 13 http://www.bdresearch.org

[6] The Constitution of The Peoples Republic of Bangladesh 1974, Preamble

[7] The Constitution of The Peoples Republic of Bangladesh 1974, Article 36.

23 Responses to “Passports for All”

  1. delwarhossen

    For a new peaceful world, this type of issue should be resolved wisely. If they want to be responsible citizens of this country, they should be given the opportunity & they should also respond positively. The new world needs new policy that can bring peace.

  2. Shahadat Hossain

    Dear Hanah,
    Do you like to make an online petition to generate wider support on this important long standing issue. I find http://www.avaaz.org a good platform to bring the issue to a broader population. If you like you can also try. We can offer our support. Greetings.

  3. Anonymous

    Thanks Hanna for being a passionate advocate of these marginalised people. As a country we have a lot of economic and social ills to deal with, but a common man in the street will agree with the tenor of your article. After four decades in limo land, with many of them born in Bangladesh, their quest for Bangladeshi citizenship is morally and ethically justified. We have a thousand years of history of tolerance: why can’t we assimilate these guys? I say, Yes, we can and we should.

  4. akhtar shah

    Kazi S Hossain is spot on. These Bangladeshi people of Bihar/Assam/UP etc ancestry should no longer be marginalised and left to rot for any reason what so ever.There are very skilled and patriotic people among them. They have a role to play and let them be free of this “burden” of cruel Pakistani abandonment. The magnanimity of Bangladeshi people in this matter may only be seen as mature and fair.

    • Arefin Anwar

      That could be your perception, majority of the people don’t feel the same. And so far have they set any example of their patriotism towards the country? Any example?

      • akhtar shah

        Indeed it is. Have they been allowed to ? I think not. Just put yourself in their shoes! Beleaguered,despondent, left to their own devices for survival and shunned. Give them unbiased opportunity they would show plenty of examples of their willingness to make Bangladesh their true home and be loyal. Please remember, they have nowhere to go! Generosity by the hosts will only bring out the best in them. Needless to say, there will be some who may still be dreaming of a homeland in Pakistan.

  5. SkrewSheepshagger

    What right does a Ms Hannah has to tell us about citizenship and immigration rights, when her govt of Australia have blood on their hands with the Maoris and continues to treat them as second class citizens. In recent years, also treating immigrants of Asian origin as parasites. Go treat your own citizens right and then start to preach!

    • Abdul

      Cannot agree more with the above comment. All these ‘new world’ people are overly concerned with the rights of the old world, whilst not practicing what they are preaching! People of Samoan and Tongan origins, along with the native Maoris are horribly treated in New Zealand. Immigration was a ‘white problem’ once upon a time!

  6. Nazrul Islam

    Thanks Hanah for such a well-composed article. This reminds me of one of my articles published in 2005 demanding the right of citizenship for the detained ‘Biharis’ in light of the 2003 High Court verdict. One of the major issues I discussed in that article was an increasing number of female adolescents subject to human trafficking especially for prostitution. I also emphasized on the fact that the second or third generation of the Biharis are Bangladeshi by birth, which also is a strong ground for their right of citizenship (hence possessing a passport). But, even more crucial point in favor of your argument, possibly, is the question of security in favor of the country itself. This is well-documented that these camps are the fertile places for drugs and related mischievous activities. The Biharis are not provided with sufficient motivations to consider Bangladesh as their motherland. So they are not expected to show adequate accountability to the country. On the other hand, it is also tricky to keep track on these people due mostly to lack of identity document. Creating a provision for possessing a passport will not only be the best way of mainstreaming (which is the best aesthetic motivation for them), it also will help the law enforcement agencies in keeping track on them. I hope this also makes sense!

    • Arefin Anwar

      Please review Bangladesh law. Any child born to foreigner parents living in Bangladesh, isn’t entitled citizenship by birth. Like wise the Biharis second and third generation born in Bangladesh can not be considered Bangladeshi based on the same law. And what factor so far these people have shown that they are loyal to Bangladsh?

  7. Arefin Anwar

    The right of citizenship comes from the loyalty of an individual to a state. Even in western countries where human rights is of high importance one may get citizenship only if one shows loyalty or at least intention of it towards that country.

    These people never had the loyalty towards Bangladesh and have never shown true loyalty towards Bangladesh. They haven’t at least said sorry for their role in 1971 during our independence war. I personally knew a Bihari person whose predecessor migrated from India. This person and his family would go watch cricket match of Pakistan, but when I asked whether interested in seeing cricket match of Bangladesh- the answer was no.

    If I am not mistaken, a child born to foreign parents living in Bangladesh dont get her citizenship. Some western countries have the same rule, for example Germany. So likewise and as per Bangladesh law child born to Bihari parents aren’t entitled to Bangladesh citizenship.

    I believe the decision of Bangladesh High court was wrong. Unless these people show true loyalty to Bangladesh and apologize for their role in 1971 they must not be allowed the right of citizenship at first place and steps should be taken to deport them to Pakistan.

    • Shahadat Hossain

      Dear Arefin Anwar,
      I cannot agree to your points. Most funny is the childish way you tried to measure loyalty, e.g. watching Bangladeshi cricket game. Is there any law that dictates ceasing of Bangladeshi citizenship/passport or forbids issuing passport should one not show interest to Bangladeshi cricket match? What percentage of Bangladeshi passport holding people will be loyal if you bring them under your same measurement? Or is your measurement applicable to bihari exclusively? I could not stop laughing reading your argumentation.
      I also request you to base your future writing/opinion on true and complete information. Your comments will otherwise mislead the readers. I have been living here in Germany for about eight years, holding Bangladeshi passport (because I do not want to lose my Bangladeshi ‘formal’ identity), working at an university, and have regular contact with Bangladeshi families whose children born in Germany have already got German citizenship. Where did you learn that German government does not allow citizenship to children born in this country? Please try to know complete information than just ending your responsibility saying “If I am not mistaken”. And last be not least, many Bangladeshi have been getting citizenship in Germany showing their behari/ unaccepted status in Bangladesh.
      And why must the bihari born after 1971 apologise for the misdeeds their forefathers did? Why do you make the after-1971-born bihari a part of the fault that they did not do themselves?
      Finally I thank Hanah for this excellent writing. It’s unfortunate that many failed to understand the core meaning of this article.

      • akhtar shah

        Well said. I am afraid to say that the perception is derived from a retaliatory rationale. Not a generous forgiving psyche. It’s sad. Such generalisation from an individual experience!

  8. Md.Sadaqat.Khan(Fakku)

    Passport pawa jemun Bangladesi der sangbadhanik odhikar.Thik Bangladeshe Camppe Obsthan Roto sokol Urdu Bhashider o sangbadhanik odhikar kintoo Jani na keno uchho adalot nirdeshe votar abong jatio porichoy potro pawar por o Camppe obosthan Roto Urdu Bhashider k Aj porjonto Passport dewa Hoche Na.Ai beshoy Sorkar abung shokol Nagorik somajer Amar Akul Abedon je onoti bilombe Shokol Capm Bashi k passport dewar Bebostha Korar jonno.

  9. Hannah

    Thank you for this timely article, Hana. Addressing the passport issue is extremely important, as you articulated, to ensure the rights of the Urdu-speaking linguistic minority in Bangladesh, as citizens of Bangladesh.

  10. Noor Islam Pappu

    Despite everything, the passport issue is very unclear issue for the community commonly known as ‘Bihari’. This article helps to create advocacy for the govt. institutions as well as the mass people. Being a member of the community I am taking this opportunity to say THANK YOU…

  11. Naim

    As a citizen of Bangladesh, I would think that the court verdict should be ratified ASAP. Because we living on the edge and they deserve it as any other Bangladeshi.

  12. Hasan

    Dear Hanah,

    It is nice to see your article. It is well articulated and also a piece of advocacy module for the passport issue of the camp based Urdu speaking community. But the the nomenclature you refer for the community is not appropriate. “Bihari” is term for those who migrated only from the Indian state Bihar. But the members of the community were not only migrated from Bihar, there are people who migrated from Uttar Pradesh, Orissa, Assam, Kolkata and many other Indian states. The only common thing they brought with them is language and culture, which is Urdu. So this community should be identified as Urdu speaking linguistic minority which is more relevant for the community and also helps them to demand their rights as a linguistic minority community.

    • Captain Black

      Well, I do understand your claim for calling people living in the Geneva Camp and other places who migrated from non-Bangla speaking regions in today’s India as linguistic minority which I suppose, is one of the many attributes they possess for their collective political identity. It is nice that you show respect for their original language. But part of the problem is that most of them are no longer stick on to Urdu only, besides they do speak Banlga for their everyday purposes outside their family. Also I am wondering if people who have migrated from the UP, Orissa, Assam and West Bengal would be Urdu speaker like Biharis in the first place. Having said that, I am not quite sure how that naming or identification “Urdu speaking linguistic minority” might help them to make a reasonable claim to be eligible for getting a passport. Place names and ethnic identities which are commonly known and used are relevant too and there is nothing wrong in that. My understanding is, it is more of a political-administrative issue than just language identification, which deserves to be resolved politically in the parliament.

    • Nazrul Islam

      Dear Mr Hasan, I liked the point you have raised. Just a little addendum.
      Up until now, the camps are marked with “Detained Pakistanis”! This is true while they are from some states of India!!!
      The word Bihari has a strong connotation with their existing scenarios. As you know, the word came from Sanskrit word “Vihara”, which has multiple meanings– “Dwellings/Residence”, “Refuges”. It also indicates “Wandering People”. Unfortunately, these people from Bihar did not get their own residences, they still are Refugees.

      • nargish

        Dear sirs
        I beg to differ with you regarding not owning their place of residence. They had their residence which were forcibly taken from them, their women folks were raped and every form of degrading that could be inflicted on them, it was done. Those who walk around in Mohammadpur, Mirpur and Narayanganj are part of this land.

    • Masud

      The point brought out on language is the correct point of identifying Biharis. There are some Bangalee; we called them Ghoti. Those came from India after partition. We should not divide ourselves thereby making Bangladesh a weak nation. The passport issue is giving the employees at the passport office all the more opportunities to resort to unethical practises. Give ID card to all Biharis and recognise them as the citizens of Bangladesh. Thanks Hanah for a good article.

  13. Kazi Saifuddin Hossain

    Well-researched and timely, too. The Bihari people living in Bangladesh are not Pakistani citizens. Although a large number of their population opposed our independence in 1971 and sided with the marauding Pakistan army, yet Pakistan, in return, left them here to rot and live a wretched life in camps.

    The treachery and inhuman act of the Pakistani army junta should not be followed up with more inhuman acts by the Bangladesh government. The time has come to correct the wrong. Biharis don’t have anywhere else to go. They are Bangladeshis and they also have the right to possession of passport.

    I strongly urge the government to lift the bar that is hindering the Bihari people from making significant contributions to our country’s economy.

Comments are closed.