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Breaking the silence of the camps – Urdu speakers in Bangladesh

Published in The Independent, June 2010

One of the photographs on display during the Ummid Photography Competition 2010 - by Farhana Islam

Bangladesh’s newest group of citizens had much to celebrate last week.  In order to mark the second anniversary of the supreme court decision that recognized the Urdu-speaking community’s right to citizenship, an international photography competition and exhibition was held at Alliance Francaise in Dhanmondi.  It was the first time in nearly 40 years that an exhibition has focused on Bangladesh’s Urdu-speaking community, who largely occupy the margins of mainstream society.
Justice Amirul Kabir Chowdhury, chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, inaugurated the exhibition last Tuesday in the presence of around 100 guests, many of whom live in Urdu-speaking camps in Dhaka.  He said, “This is now your land and you are citizens of this country.  So love this country and work for its government.  And on our part, we will support you and work for your human rights.”

As well as increasing the visibility of the Urdu-speaking community, the exhibition also suggests a shift in attitudes towards them.  Resentment towards Urdu-speakers for their perceived role as collaborators during the Liberation War of 1971 has led to the community being ostracized ever since.  Those who have protested that it was a section of the Urdu-speaking community rather than the whole who sided with the West Pakistani army have mostly been ignored. However last Tuesday, several influential public figures attended the exhibition’s launch as a sign of solidarity.  The well-known poet Asad Chowdhury said, “I realised that we are living in the same economic, cultural and environmental position, but unfortunately we do not know what each other is thinking or feeling.  There is a wall between us.”  Asad spoke of his admiration for classical Urdu poetry, and said that he recognizes a similarity between the identity crisis of the Urdu-speaking community and that of the Palestinians, whose poems he has translated.  He added, “It’s my responsibility as a writer to ask that we not patronize, but support and acknowledge other languages in Bangladesh.”

The identity of the Urdu-speaking community has been problematic for decades.  They are commonly referred to as “Biharis” or, albeit less frequently, as “stranded Pakistanis” – but neither is accurate.  Whilst it is true that many Muslims from the Indian state of Bihar migrated to East Bengal during the partition of India in 1947, there were also many other Urdu-speakers who arrived from different regions of India.  The coordinator of the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU), Dr C.R. Abrar, said: “After 1971, the term “Bihari” began as a literary term that led to implying that they are ‘the other, the reject.’  It has a connotation that they do not belong to us, that they are a separate community altogether.  This term should not be used – they should be referred to as the ‘camp dwelling Urdu-speaking community.'”  Dr Abrar explained that although sections of the media describe the group as ‘stranded Pakistanis’ and some of the older generations of camp dwellers identify themselves as such, extensive research undertaken by RMMRU revealed that the younger generations consider themselves Bangladeshi.  Once this was discovered, Dr Abrar and his team began researching the nation’s citizenship laws and high court judgments on various property issues involving the Urdu-speaking community.  Dr Abrar said, “We were absolutely convinced that these people never forfeited their right to being Bangladeshi citizens.”

One of my photos of a goat in the Geneva Camp was in Ummid's exhibition.

Similarly, Ahmed Ilias, the executive director of Al-Falah Bangladesh, which is the only NGO working to promote the rights of Urdu-speakers, has worked tirelessly over the years to mobilize the community.  Ahmed first became involved with Urdu-speakers in 1965, when he was a journalist assigned to cover refugees.  He said, “I realised that the majority of people would not be able to go to Pakistan and would have to stay in Bangladesh and make a future here.  During partition there was a great deal of resistance to integration and the leaders of the partition movement opposed me very much.”  Nevertheless, Ahmed has never altered his view that integration was the best step forward in light of the Pakistani government’s refusal to repatriate them on the grounds that they cannot accommodate such a large number of refugees.  Ahmed focused his efforts on encouraging young members of the community to file a writ petition asserting their right to citizenship, which was ultimately successful on May 18, 2008.

However despite being recognized as Bangladeshi citizens by the judiciary, Ahmed said that the government “has not come forward” to help improve the lives of around 200,000 Urdu-speakers living in poverty-stricken camps throughout Bangladesh.  The camps were initially set up to provide security for the Urdu-speakers in the aftermath of the war, but conditions have deteriorated over the years as the population in the camps grew.  The organiser of the exhibition, Shafiur Rahman, said that the government’s lack of involvement in their welfare is broadly similar to that of the wider community.  He said, “There is still a political stumbling block when it comes to this community. Otherwise progressive people and institutions still hesitate.”  This has led to the creation of a “self-help” approach within the community.  After RMMRU discovered that only six percent of the Urdu-speaking population in camps are literate, improving the levels of education became the top priority.  Schools have been set up in eight camps and classes are taught by members of the community who are training to become teachers.  Work is also underway to improve the camp dwellers’ health, shelter and livelihoods.  Conditions in the camp are dire, with up to eight family members’ sharing a single room of eight feet by eight feet square.  Sanitation facilities are inadequate, water is scarce and electricity supplies are cut more frequently than in the rest of the capital.  And without citizenship, camp dwellers were unable to apply for government jobs and state education, and have reportedly faced discrimination by private employers, which forces many into menial and unstable work.

Justice Amirul Kabir Chowdhury (right), chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, inaugurated the exhibition.

In light of the struggles that Urdu-speakers have faced over the years, it was not surprising that an exhibition celebrating their identity has lifted the spirits of many.  Shafiur said that more than 500 images were submitted to the competition and that the quality of photography was “very strong.”  He said, “It’s important that these photos don’t dwell on negativity, but rather look towards the future.   But I do hope that in a few years’ time the images will be nothing like this, because it still reflects the dire poverty and the uncertainty and difficulties of life.”

The overall winner of the “camp life” category was MRK Palash, a photographer of The Independent whose stunning image suggested exclusion by depicting a view of densely built rooftops from behind a Hessian bag.

As Mohammad Hasan, the coordinator of Al-Fallah and a resident of the Geneva Camp in Dhaka, surveyed the striking and poignant photographs in the gallery, he turned to me and said, “We are breaking the silence of the camps.”  One certainly hopes that he is right.