Biharis: Bangladesh's forgotten community

RNW archive

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Hawkers meander around the Rahmat camp selling everything from fruits and vegetables to plasticware and clothes. In the morning in most houses the radio play Urdu devotional songs. The morning sounds of the Bihari community haven’t changed much since 1971 when Bangladesh seceded from Pakistan and they were left behind.

Their support for the Pakistani side during the eight-month war provoked hostility from the Bengalis after independence. The Urdu-speaking community was moved to refugee camps, awaiting repatriation to the former West Pakistan.

But that never happened. Instead they were left in the camps. The 300,000-minority community was stranded, left living in one-room houses as stateless refugees.

But in 2001 a change was set in motion, when a court ruling gave citizenship to ten Biharis. The ruling exposed the cultural gap that slowly began to divide the community. While some of the younger Biharis where eager to become Bangladeshi, the older generation is trying hard to hold on to their beliefs that one day they will be living in Pakistan again. 

In 2008, some 150,000 Biharis, who were minors at the time of the 1971 war of independence or born after it, were given citizenship rights.  They became able to vote for the first time.

Though many have assimilated even after 40 years of independence, more than 100,000 Biharis continue to languish in squalid camps. However, they say they have come a long way from filthy tents to voting rights and they are optimistic about the future.

At one corner of Rahmat camp there is a small barbershop with mirrors on every wall. Posters of Indian film actors hang at the doorway.

Muhammad Nadim doesn’t only cut his customers hair, he also provides a listening hear. In fact Muhammad has become a spokesperson for the community.

He carefully notes his customers' complaints and sends them to the government. In his letters he describes the dire living conditions in the camp and asks the government to improve the situation.

But after all the letters Muhammad Nadim has sent, he has never received a reply or seen any noticeable change taking place in Rahmat camp.

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