The recent violent attack on Urdu-speaking Biharis in the Bangladeshi capital highlights this minority’s ongoing protection needs: Community leaders allege political collusion in the attack.
Clashes broke out on 14 June between Biharis and Bengalis, who make up the majority of Bangladesh’s population, in Mirpur on the outskirts of Dhaka. Ten Biharis were killed and houses were torched; no arrests have been made to date.
“What can I tell you... I have lost everything,” said Yasin, 50. Nine family members - including his wife, children, and grandchildren - died when their house burnt down. His daughter, who survived, is in critical condition in a Dhaka hospital. “I don’t know how I can save her,” he said.
Anwari Begum, 50, told IRIN she was injured during the clash when a police officer hit her with his baton; she believes the police did too little to stop the violence.
“Who will listen to our complaints? Who will solve our problems? When we see that the police backed the attackers, who will save us?” she said.
There are 300,000 Muslim Biharis scattered across 116 squalid camps in Bangladesh today. Many came from the Indian state of Bihar, and moved to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) during and after partition in 1947. The West Pakistan-based government’s preferential treatment of Urdu speakers seeded tensions between Biharis and Bengalis, which were further stoked when many Biharis sided with the Urdu-speaking Pakistani army in the bloody 1971 war of liberation.
A 2008 landmark High Court decision recognized Biharis as Bangladeshi nationals, but citizenship rights have yielded minimal gains, and most remain on government-owned land, leaving them vulnerable to abuse and political manipulation.
“The government's response [to the June violence] was far from satisfactory. The carnage happened in front of members of law enforcement agencies,” said Chowdhury R Abrar, a professor of international relations and coordinator of the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit at the University of Dhaka.
“Instead of apprehending those who were alleged to have committed the crime, the police arrested and lodged false cases against innocent camp dwellers. Moreover, the mastermind behind the attack - the local member of parliament - was not even interrogated.”
Law enforcement officials said the clash was sparked by an altercation when a group of children set off firecrackers during a religious event. Bihari community members are suspicious, and accuse a local politician of instigating the attack in an attempt to claim their land.
“The reason is clear. It was done to grab the land. Some other camps were burnt in the past in the same way to grab Bihari land,” said Sadakat Khan Fakku, president of Urdu Speaking People Youth Rehabilitation Movement (USPYRM), a youth organization.
Dozens of homes were torched in June 2014 clashes between Bihari residents and Bengalis that left 10 dead. Biharis, despite some legal progress, live in tenuous arrangements and amid intense stigma in Bangladesh.
Following the 1971 war, many Biharis were forced from their homes and property and relocated to 116 settlements, many of which are on public land. In some areas, they were provided with temporary shelters. However, despite citizenship rights being conferred in 2003, no permanent land solution has been decided and their residence on government land puts Biharis’ survival in the hands of often-unsympathetic political leaders.
USPYRM president Sadakat Khan said that since 1995, the authorities from time to time have issued notices for them to leave the land. “But where will we go if we are not given places to rehabilitate?”
According to Abrar, the migration expert, “there is genuine fear among camp dwellers about the threat of eviction from camps located in different parts of the country.” He called on the government to declare the camps permanent to increase security while rehabilitation processes were designed.
Some Mirpur residents, where the clash too place, accuse police of bias in how they handled incident.
“Police helped attackers and they fired bullets and tear gas towards us when we were attacked by the local Bengalis,” said Begum, nursing her broken leg.
“Police have been harassing Bihari community members for quite a long time and some of our community members have been extra-judicially killed [in the past],” said Fakku, the youth activist.
“The local ruling [Awami League] party MP, Ilias Mollah, threatened some days [before the incident] that he would give Biharis a lesson and his party activists took part in the attack,” he added.
Both Mollah and the police have denied these allegations. Mollah told reporters on 22 June in Dhaka: “I am a good friend of the Bihari. I have no involvement in the Bihari camp killing and arson attack.”
Kamal Hossain, assistant commissioner of Mirpur's Pallabi Zone police station told IRIN: “It is true we used bullets but we had no other way. If we did not act, casualties would have increased. We took measures to stop fires in the houses.”
Hossain said police “played [a] neutral role in the clash”, adding that a police detective unit was still investigating the incident.
Neutral probe needed
Nur Khan, director of human rights group Ain O Salish Kendra, said a police investigation would not suffice, and a judicial probe committee needed to investigate the incident.
“When a ruling party leader is accused, it is normal that state machinery is not playing properly to bring the culprits to justice,” he said.
“We demanded a judicial probe committee to investigate and bring the perpetrators to justice,” he said, adding that Ain O Salish Kendra staff visited the area in the aftermath of the violence and spoke with victims.
“When victims see criminals are free, insecurity is very normal as they think they can be attacked again. Insecurity will continue among the Bihari people if the perpetrators are not punished,” Nur added.
Others say the long-term solution is to secure permanent land.
“The most important thing is the rehabilitation. Without rehabilitation, our problems will continue,” said Mohammad Hasan, general secretary of the Association of Young Generation of Urdu-Speaking Community.
Hasan believes that “rehabilitation” must include education opportunities to increase employment, but land remains the most important first step so Biharis can start a new life on their own land.
According to Dhaka University’s Abrar, while declaring the camps safe and permanent will restore a sense of security against land grabs, “[the government] should take effective measures for [Urdu speakers’] rehabilitation with dignity” and the “donor community must take into cognizance that the MDGs [Millennium Development Goals] cannot be attained by keeping the camp dwellers out of the development process.”