Tuesday, August 11, 2009

United in Poverty

by: Toni Kaatz-Dubberke

(At the entry gate of Patgodam.)

In the Patgodam poor community (Mymensingh) I get introduced to a totally different aspect of urban poverty in Bangladesh. The houses made from bricks are rotten and it appears to me that the walls could collapse at any time. The narrow roads between the houses are muddy and covered by garbage. The place is crowded. At first view it seems to be a slum like many others that I saw in Bangladesh, albeit one of the worse ones though. But that is only half the story, a fact I realize when I spot a big sign, which says: “Stranded Pakistani General Repatriation Committee”. “This is an organization of the Urdu speaking minority. We call them Biharis, but they have many names”, my translator answers my questioning look.

(One of the "main roads" of the settlement.)

I meet Mohammad Shakir Ali, a leader of the community. When he introduces himself I am rather confused. He was born in 1944 in Uttar Pradesh (India), speaks Urdu, Hindi and Bangla and seems to be a smart and educated guy. Why is he working as a night guard and lives in this miserable place? The story of him and his family is the story of three countries and a lot of tears and blood. During the unrest after the partition of India in 1947, his father and his family escaped the communal riots that threatened their lives and came to Mymensingh in then called East Pakistan. From zero they had to build up a new life in a new environment far away from their ancestral homeland. He joined the Pakistan Railway Company and so did his son Shakir Ali when he was sixteen in 1960.

(Shakir Ali, the local leader of the community in his house.)

Shakir Ali made a good living as train driver, so the Railway Company provided him with a house and a comfortable salary. But in 1971, history again turned against his family. The liberation of Bangladesh from Pakistani domination jailed him in the slum where he still lives today. In the first place, it was for his own good to stay here. Bengali “freedom fighters” branded all Biharis as enemies of newly born Bangladesh and collaborators with the Pakistani army, killed many of them in revenge of war crimes done by the Pakistanis and evicted them from their living places. The Indian army, which helped Bangladesh to get independence, “resettled” about 600 Urdu speaking families in Mymensingh who were scared and scattered all over the town. Their lives were saved but almost the whole community had lost property, jobs and standing overnight. Calm and without bitterness Shakir Ali tells me how he lost family members and friends.When the community found itself unwelcome, unsecured and reckoned as non-Bangladeshis anyways they considered themselves as “Stranded Pakistanis” hoping that Pakistan would take them to its territory, providing them safety. Indeed, after the independence of Bangladesh the government in Islamabad evacuated some 100.000 officials and loyalists to former West-Pakistan, amongst them also many Biharis. Shakir Ali also applied for departure to Pakistan in the 1970s, but that has never happened. Just one of his four brothers could manage to go. Since then the family was divided while he stayed and kept the history of the Biharis in Mymensingh. Nowadays Shakir is on the secretariat of the “Stranded Pakistanis General Repatriation Committee”, an organization that pushed for a suitable solution of the Bihari issue from the beginning. As the name implies, the main objective in the past was to “repatriate” the community into Pakistan, although most of them have never been there. Still the name is the same, but the attitude changed over three decades: “We no longer want to go back to Pakistan. All our children were born and raised here. We want to be accepted as Bangladeshi citizens”, Shakir says. He thinks that, once they are accepted as citizens they will get some kind of compensation for their lost properties. For more than 36 years the whole Urdu-speaking community had no status at all in the Bangladeshi society, were in fact literally stateless, neither Indian, nor Pakistani, nor Bangladeshi citizens. Although they got enrolled in the voter's list during the last election after a remarkable High Court decision (2007) and therefore are legally seen as part of the Bangladeshi people, the situation in different camps all over the country is hardly becoming better. The same applies for Padgodam where most of the people have Voter's Cards now but still only five places to get drinking water for more than 3,500 people living here.

(One of the few places where the community can get access to drinking water.)

Following an invitation for tea I sit together with Mohammad Hussein and his family. During the War of Liberation he was 17 years old. He spent his entire live in Patgodoums, and is currently working as night guard in a private market. Mohammad also lost everything during the bloody days of 1971 but he somehow made his peace with the past. “What can I do? There is no alternative to this place to live.” However, his children want to get out of the poor conditions. The younger generation did not witness the events that happened in 1971 and played no role in it but they have to manage the present situation.

(Mohammad Hussein's family sitting in their home. From the left: Hira, Mohammad, Liza and her mother.)

Mohammad’s daughter Liza already realized that the key to escape the slum is education. But in school the young Urdu speakers do not feel fully accepted by their classmates and teachers, the eighteen years old girl tells me. “The Bengalis are not interested in mixing up with us people. Also the teachers are treat us differently,” she says. Her cousin Hira dropped out of school because he did not feel welcome there. Nevertheless, Liza set her priorities and continues to study. She just deals with the situation by staying with her Bihari friends. Apart from going to school she never leaves the slum because especially her mother is afraid of “bad speaking” that could occur. However, to mix up with the Bengalis is not becoming easier this way. But one day she wants to leave the community to study at the Mymensingh University, following her successful brother Raju. He already managed his Engineering diploma (mechanical). But when the family shows me his CV I realize that Bangla and English, but not Urdu is mentioned there as language skill and the address at the head of the document is different from the place in Mymensingh where his family actually lives. “We have to hide our identity, if we want to mix up with the Bengali people. Otherwise they will not accept us,” the father Mohammad Hussein comments.

(From the left: Golati, her son, Bengali neighbour Halimat and her daugther.)

Although the Bihari community here is quite isolated and homogenous there are some Bengalis who are also living here. I meet Golati, who is originally from Sherpur, together with her eldest daughter Mousumi at their place. Golati came here for her love 15 years ago. Because her husband works as an assistant on a bus he is frequently going to Sherpur and met Golati’s brother who has a tea store there. The two men made friendship and Golati got introduced to her husband when he visited her family. After he asked to marry her, she agreed and moved with him to Mymensingh. For her family there was no problem with that. The first two years she felt uncomfortable because she could not speak Urdu and the living conditions were worse than what she was used to. “I feel comfortable now, because it is my husband’s house”, Golati tells, “Because we do not have a better alternative we consider this as a good place.” She thinks that the mix-up between Bengali and Bihari people today is much easier than in the past. For her livelihood that fact does not matter too much. “The relationship with the neighbors is not the problem. We have many other problems: too many kids, bad sanitation and housing conditions and insufficient water supply”, Golati tells me. It appears to me that the conditions of poverty unite people wherever they are from and whatever language they speak.

Some resources for further research in the web:

Many reports and documents on the issue (especially: related High Court decisions) on:http://www.statelesspeopleinbangladesh.net/home.php

Website about a documentary on the Bihari issue from 2007:

"Imperfect World 2009", with special features about the Biharis during the last parliamentary elections:


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