Unwelcome citizens

Battling for citizenship ever since their country’s independence, a group of people in Bangladesh continue to remain stateless.

June 13, 2015 03:33 pm | Updated June 14, 2015 10:26 am IST

‘Stranded Pakistanis’ protest in Dhaka recently.

‘Stranded Pakistanis’ protest in Dhaka recently.

Amid the dense settlements in Dhaka, the swarming Bangladesh capital, is a neighbourhood curiously titled Geneva Camp, whose residents were described until recently as ‘Stranded Pakistanis’. Around 150,000 residents of 116 such camps, which dot the country, remained stateless citizens 36 years after Bangladesh won its freedom, and continue to battle for minimal citizenship rights.

Partition witnessed large Muslim populations migrating from eastern parts of India — West Bengal, Bihar, East U.P. and Odisha — to East Pakistan. Smaller streams of migration continued even later, such as after the bloody Rourkela riots of 1965. Until 1971, non-Bengali migrants who spoke Urdu were privileged in government employment.

The war of independence by Bengali residents of East Pakistan was suppressed with enormous cruelty of genocidal proportions, leading to the slaughter — according to influential estimates — of three million people; three times the toll taken by the Partition of 1947.

The killing, rape and plunder of Bengalis were almost entirely by soldiers of the Pakistani army, and by mobs instigated by extremist groups like the Jamiat. The country accomplished its hard-won freedom in 1971 after an iconic struggle that caught the imagination of the world. After this, a storm of public anger broke loose against non-Bengali immigrants, seeking revenge for the rivers of blood which flowed through the land before their Independence. They were officially stripped of their lands and citizenship rights, even though most had not participated in any way in the genocide of Bengali people. They were dubbed ‘Pakistanis’, a hated appellation in those turbulent years in Bangladesh (and to some extent even today).

But Pakistan refused to accept them into their borders, resulting in their official label ‘Stranded Pakistanis’. They were alternately called Biharis , even though they had migrated from many states in India; and Urdu-speakers, although they spoke many tongues, including Bhojpuri and Odiya. They became a people no one wanted. Ultimately the International Red Cross intervened and established camps on vacant lands for them: hence the popular name Geneva Camp in Dhaka.

The wealthier and better-connected among these ‘stranded’ stateless people were able to shift over the years to Pakistan, mostly illegally, and a tiny fraction of the upper crust migrated to Europe and the United States. But the large majority of poor peasant and working class migrants remained without citizenship rights — including to vote, benefit from welfare schemes, and buy and sell land. This left them no option except to persist trapped in these ‘camps’ although decades passed.

Even as new generations were born and raised in free Bangladesh, successive governments refused to recognise them as Bengali citizens, and Pakistan continued to slam their doors on them. Today very few younger residents of these camps wish to migrate to Pakistan, even if it was possible. Bangladesh is their only home, even if it still refuses to welcome them.

In the tiny plots of land that they had been allotted by the Red Cross more than 40 years earlier, usually not more than 10 by 8 ft, three generations of people live side by side. I saw a family of six of a rickshaw puller living in a 6 by 5 ft hovel, paying a monthly rent of 2000 takas. There is no piped water and sewerage, and each community toilet serves 200 people. In the rains, waste and sewerage flood their tiny homes. Many children could not enter or stay in school, afford school fees, or access education in their mother-tongue. Without citizenship rights, there was none they could approach or mount local agitations to press their demands. They were grateful that they were just allowed to live even in sub-human ever-uncertain conditions in Bangladesh.

Amid all these adversities, a handful of young people managed to acquire higher education, and returned to fight for the rights of their people. One of these is lawyer Khalid Hussain, who showed me the tiny hole in Geneva Camp in which he was raised. Armed with law degrees, this small band of young people filed a petition in the Dhaka High Court for citizenship rights, and won their case in 2003. But the government interpreted the court order to apply only to the 10 petitioners. It took another petition, in 2008, to extend citizenship to all non-Bengali residents of the 116 camps. It took 36 years for them to officially shed the stigma of being ‘stranded Pakistanis’. But the task of actually getting citizenship documents remains uphill, and Khalid trains a small army of paralegal volunteers who battle the prejudiced and corrupt bureaucracy to yield their citizenship papers.

Their unmitigated tragic human predicament illustrates vividly once again the merciless fault-lines which South Asia continues to create and harbour, in the ever-unfinished business of both the history and geography of Partition.

The views expressed are personal.

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