28. Mujhe Gale se laga lo (Embrace me, I am very sad)
Written & performed by Kamal Ahmed
From the documentary Swapnabhumi: The Promised Land
Directed by Tanvir Mokammel (Bangladesh 2007)
View excerpts from the film at: http://www.swapnabhumi.com/interviews.html



On Statelessness

Who is stateless?

Nationality is a legal bond between a State and an individual, and statelessness refers to the condition of an individual who is not considered as a national by any State under its domestic law. Although stateless people may sometimes also be refugees, the two categories are distinct and both groups are of concern to UNHCR.

Statelessness occurs for a variety of reasons including discrimination against minority groups in nationality legislation, failure to include all residents in the body of citizens when a State becomes independent (State succession) and conflicts of laws between states.

Statelessness is a massive problem that affects an estimated 15 million people in at least 60 developed and developing countries. Statelessness also has a terrible impact on the lives of individuals. Possession of nationality is essential for full participation in society and a prerequisite for the enjoyment of the full range of human rights. While human rights are generally to be enjoyed by everyone, rights such as the right to vote and the unrestricted right to enter and reside in a State may be limited to nationals. Of even greater concern is that many more rights of stateless persons are violated in practice: they may be detained for the sole reason that they are stateless, denied access to education and health services, or blocked from obtaining employment.’

Source: Statelessness: Who is stateless? United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees


About Bihari

‘Bihari are an Indo-Aryan ethnic group originating from the state of Bihar in India with a history going back three millennia. Biharis speak Bihari languages such as Magahi, Bhojpuri, Maithili, amongst other local dialects, as well as Hindi or Urdu. They can trace their ancestry to the early Indo-Aryans. In addition, the ethnic group shows some admixture with the early Munda inhabitants of the region as well as Iranic people who ruled the region in the past.

Besides the state of Bihar, Biharis can be found throughout North India, West Bengal, Maharashtra and also in the neighbouring countries of Pakistan and Bangladesh. A large number of Biharis travelled to various parts of the world in the 19th century to serve as indentured labour on sugarcane and rubber plantations in Guyana, Surinam, Trinidad and Tobago, Fiji, Mauritius and Natal-South Africa. During partition of India in 1947, many Biharis of the Islamic faith migrated to East Bengal (later East Pakistan and subsequently Bangladesh). Bihari people are also well represented in Pakistan’s (formerly West Pakistan) Muhajir population as a result of the partition of India, as well as the recent repatriation of some Bihari refugees from Bangladesh to Pakistan.’

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bihari_people


About Swapnabhumi: The Promised Land


The singer is [refugee] camp resident Kamal Ahmed. He was born in Adamjee and inherited his glorious voice from his father who was a non-professional singer. Kamal is a regular performer of Najrul Sangeet on BTV and also on radio.


This is a story about the 160,000 people from this community who live isolated in 116 ‘camps’ or ‘settlements’ in Bangladesh.

Shafiur Rahman, the Co-Producer and Researcher of the documentary, explains some of the background to the film and sets it within the current political context in Bangladesh.

In April 2008, the UN highlighted ten stories it thought the world should know about. One of these was the ‘hidden world of the stateless’. The UN says ‘Statelessness is a corrosive, soul-destroying condition that can colour almost every aspect of a person’s life. People who are not recognised as citizens of any state may be unable to go to school, work legally, own property, get married, or travel. They may find it difficult to enter hospital, and impossible to open a bank account or receive a pension. If someone robs or rapes them, they may not be able to lodge a complaint, because legally they do not exist.’

Our film, Swapnabhumi – The Promised Land, looks at the Urdu-speaking community of Bangladesh – also known as ‘stranded Pakistanis’ or ‘Biharis’ – who live in a situation of statelessness in Bangladesh. It’s a story which goes back to the painful partition of India in 1947 and the ensuing mass migration of peoples. The big themes of the story are of genocide, nationalism, identity, betrayal, discrimination and exclusion. It is also, we hope, the beginning of a story of reconciliation and inclusive nationhood.

We start off with a brief look at the genesis of the problem – the partition of India in 1947. Arguably the reverberations of that catastrophic event are felt more acutely by the Urdu-speakers of Bangladesh than any other group of people. We use extremely rare colour footage recently unearthed (2007) by the Imperial War Museum, London, of mass migration during partition. We then trace the troubled relationship the East wing of Pakistan (now Bangladesh) had with the West wing, and the fateful allegiance that developed between the Urdu-speakers and the West Pakistani political elite. Between 1947 and 1971, the cultural distinctiveness, the political inequality and the geographical separation between the two wings of Pakistan produced a variety of tensions and the manifestation of that was the Bengali language movement. This was a movement the ‘Biharis’ in general could not feel a part of.

The pace of the film changes as we listen to harrowing stories from the year 1971, the year of Bangladesh’s liberation war. This is the war which saw half of Pakistan deciding to secede and call into question the very basis of nationhood in Pakistan. These are painful, personal eye-witness accounts of murder and mayhem. Of one’s loved ones. Of one’s neighbours. We hear devastating stories from both sides of the language divide. (It’s worth noting that there are no oral-history archives from this community).

The conjuncture in Bangladesh is such that this is an important reminder that there is a politics of remembering and forgetting – a politics of creating and revising social memory. Perhaps it is about time and distance but clearly in Bangladesh there is contestation about what can be, should be and allowed to be remembered about the war (see the study by Yvette Claire Rosser called ‘Indoctrinating Minds, A Case Study of Bangladesh’) and this matter extends to what ‘should’ be remembered about the ‘Bihari’ community. Again, maybe it is about time and distance but it has implications for citizenship and for reconciliation and inclusiveness.

The film crew travels to different camps in Bangladesh to conduct these interviews. There are 116 such settlements or camps where the Urdu-speakers were interned for their safety in 1971 and 1972. The UNHCR estimates that a 168,000 people live in these areas. (It’s again worth noting that camp dwellers have been excluded from census surveys). They live in these camps disenfranchised and deprived of fundamental rights. As we view the footage it becomes patently obvious that the living conditions are horrendous. We hear of their neglect by NGOs, human rights organisations and civil society institutions.

The story of the neglect as perceived by camp residents targets higher levels of authority as we hear from the Stranded Pakistanis General Repatriation Committee, an established community group, about the betrayals by successive Pakistani governments in the matter of repatriation.

For many, however, repatriation is no longer an issue. (This is not to deny the validity of the sentiments of those whose families have remained divided for almost four decades.) Here are some studies:

* In a 1999 survey by the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit, 86.4 percent said they would opt for Bangladeshi citizenship.
* In a 2005 Survey by Al-Falah Bangladesh, 85 percent preferred to live in Bangladesh. 82 percent perceived themselves as Bangladeshis.
* The ongoing ‘Dhaka Initiative’ survey suggests that more than 90 percent of the ‘Biharis’ favour Bangladeshi reintegration
* In a 2005 consultation meeting on the ‘Urdu speaking community’s own perception about their future in Bangladesh’ most of the speakers from 11 Bihari organisations said that a large or overwhelming majority of the settlement occupants considered themselves to be Bangladeshis and wanted rehabilitation with dignity.

In 2008, what is critical is the necessity to claim effective citizenship rights for the camp dwellers. The camp dwellers need to be registered as voters as this will have major implications for access to services. We hear in the documentary that successive Bangladeshi governments have not acted in accordance with the laws of the land and have not taken into account the pronouncements of the higher judiciary. Khalid Hussian, our researcher and community activist, was part of a group of people who won a landmark ruling known as the ‘Abid Khan case’. He takes us to his camp and to India and meditates on his identity. As someone who sees himself as a Bangladeshi, but an Urdu-speaker, how is he supposed to feel about the Language Movement and about Bangladesh’s Victory Day? He and his friends, including our other Research Assistant, Mohammad Hasan, discuss this dimension of rootlessness.

The deprivation of citizenship, insecurity, the discrimination and the helplessness of camp life are some of the motives for harking back to this dream idyll called Swapnabhumi – the promised land. It is a wish for a better future.

Source: About the Film, by Shafiur Rahman, Co-Producer and Researcher, Swapnabhumi: The Promised Land


From Statelessness to Citizenship

This week the Bangladesh High Court ruled that Biharis born in the country after 1971 can be granted Bangladeshi citizenship. Refugees International welcomes this positive decision which, pending final signature, will grant Biharis, or Urdu-speaking people born after the time of independence in Bangladesh, the right to be registered as voters and to receive national identity cards. This measure will allow about half of the 200-500,000 stateless Biharis, hosted by Bangladesh for 36 years, to find a remedy to their lack of an effective nationality. The decision does not cover individuals who were adults at the time of independence.

Refugees International has long advocated for action by the governments of Bangladesh and Pakistan to end this serious human rights abuse by granting citizenship and/or permitting repatriation. RI’s last mission to Bangladesh was in February 2006, when staff met with government officials and Bihari leaders to urge timely action. After the visit, U.S. Representative Diane Watson issued a letter to Assistant Secretary Ellen Sauerbrey, who was then the head of the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, to press for resolution. RI president Kenneth Bacon and others requested the interim government to consider this group for inclusion in voter rolls and citizenship. On September 5, 2007, the interim government issued a decision in that regard.

In pre-independence India, the Biharis were an Urdu-speaking Muslim minority who resided in the Hindu region of Bihar. At the time of partition in 1947, some of them chose to move to East Pakistan and others to West Pakistan. When civil war broke out in 1970, the Biharis sided with West Pakistan. After the war and the independence of Bangladesh, they were unwelcome in either country. Pakistan feared that a mass influx of Biharis would destabilise an already fragile and culturally mixed population, particularly in the Sindh, where most Bihari wished to migrate. Bangladesh scorned them for supporting the enemy. With neither country offering citizenship, the Biharis (also commonly called ‘Bangladeshi Biharis’, ‘stranded Pakistanis’, ‘a linguistic minority,’ ‘Urdu-speaking stranded Pakistanis,’ and even just ‘displaced persons’) have been citizens of nowhere for over three decades.’

Source: Bihari: From Statelessness to Citizenship, by Maureen Lynch for Refugees International, May 23 2008



<   >