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Are Biharis in Bangladesh Diaspora?: A succinct overview

Arifur Rahaman
15 February 2023

Are Biharis in Bangladesh Diaspora?: A succinct overview

Geneva Camp, Dhaka

Since Bangladesh's independence in 1971, the despondent condition of the Urdu-speaking Bihari Community has been a nuanced issue. Due to their distinct cultural identity, which distinguished them from Bengalis, Urdu-speaking people supported Pakistan and opposed Bangladesh's independence movement during the 1971 Liberation War. The post-war period was a period of uncertainty and destitution for the Biharis as they faced the outrage of Bengalis due to their supporting Pakistan. Biharis migrated to Bangladesh assuming it was a part of Pakistan, the ideological home of Muslims. But the independence of Bangladesh displaced them again, as they were Pakistani in a primordial sense. Since the independence, many national and international organizations attempted to send them back to Pakistan strongly supported by the Government of Bangladesh. But due to diplomatic failure and several other causes, only a few people could repatriate, leaving the majority behind. Their difference in language and culture, along with unalike communal sense, Biharis could never assimilate here. As a result, their identity crisis began, neither are they accepted by Pakistan as a citizen nor are they recognized as a citizen of Bangladesh. Now, a question might arise here, can we call Biharis a diaspora? Some scholars would agree whereas some might oppose. Let’s apply popular theories to see whether we can categorize Biharis as a diaspora or not.

To my knowledge, every theorist of the diaspora discussed some major characteristics of the diaspora like six characteristics by Safran, nine by Cohen, seven by Sheffer, six by Tölölyan, and three by Brubaker. The common characteristics among them, as Kafle (2010) said, are the following: retaining originality, orientation to the homeland, and empathy among the groups. Brunaker (2005) integrated all characteristics defined by Cohen, Tölölyan, and Safran into three: Dispersion, homeland orientation, and boundary maintenance.

First, let’s look into the characteristics defined by Kafle and Brubaker in the light of the Bihari community. Biharis were forced to leave their original homeland under a traumatic situation created by the partition of India and Pakistan. Communal riot triggers their displacement. This goes with the first characteristics mentioned by Brubaker. The second characteristic of homeland orientation (first of Kafle: retaining originality which also means homeland orientation) is present among the Biharis. They retain some distinct cultural values that are different from mainstream Bangladeshi culture (or what has been described as Bangladeshi to some extent). For instance, their practices of Islam are different from that of Bangladeshi Muslims (Rahaman et al. 2020; Masoom and Ahmed, 2022). In addition, some other cultural practices include speaking Urdu, listening to Urdu songs, and celebrating festivals (like Moharram).

The third characteristic of Brubaker and Kafle, boundary maintenance and solidarity among the ethnic community, can be found among the Biharis. Bihariis have not been fully assimilated into the Bengali culture even after living here for more than 70 years. They are still living in an overcrowded camp, protested together for their purpose, and created diaspora organizations like SPGRC. All these together, however, reflect a sense of boundary maintenance and retention of distinction from the host country. These three criteria align with Biharis. In previous works, Redclift (2000) and Haque (2013) called Biharis a diaspora; where Haque called them a victim diaspora influenced by Cohen’s (1997) writing, who categorized various types of diaspora like Armenian and African Diasporas. Redclift called Biharis a linguistic diaspora, as an ethno-linguistic group.

The trouble with the Bihari diaspora can further emerge as they never migrated from their homeland or they never been at ‘home’ appropriately. Biharis migrated from India which they never perceived as their original home; rather, they called termed it the “land of the enemy”, after the separation of India and Pakistan based on religion. The homeland they were yearning for all those years prior to the independence of Bangladesh was Pakistan. Pakistan, however, called them citizens by the act of 1951, but the independence of Pakistan transformed East Pakistan into Bangladesh. They became de facto stateless as a consequence of the liberation war. During the post-war period, Pakistan was not that much interested to call the Biharis their own people due to the economic downturn and other political issues they were encountering then. So, Biharis might not match the ideal definition of diaspora. Yet, in his book Diaspora Politics, Sheffer (2003: 148) talked about the dichotomy of state-linked and stateless Diasporas. Based on this dichotomy, Biharis can be categorized as a ‘stateless diaspora’. Sheffer (2003:131) stated that any group of migrants becomes a diaspora group in a staged process. In the first stage, the new migrants usually maintain contact with the place of origin. They try to be acquainted with the conditions in the new place. The diaspora group tends to organize themselves for the sake of maintaining contact with the homeland and to cope with the new environment collectively. A sense of “dual” or divided loyalty develops among them. Some of them might wish to return to their homeland but others decide to remain permanently in host countries. For instance, in the late 19th century and early 20th century many Italian, Greek, Polish, and Irish migrated to the United States and retained a sense of “being there only a short period” even among second and third generations. Though they became fully integrated into the cultural, social, economic, and political system (Sheffer 2003:133).

Sometimes, diaspora groups retain contact with their homeland through the social leaders in host countries. On occasion, religious leaders play a significant role in terms of adjustment in new countries. The association of using homeland language, the presence of social leaders, the availability of cultural materials, etc. all contribute to cohesive entities in host countries as well as maintaining ties with the homeland. Sheffer further talked about how a diaspora group adopts a strategy to assimilate into the host culture, the degree of assimilation depends on the socio-political context (Ibid: 160). Some diaspora organizations develop (like SPGRC among Biharis) to advocate for their rights in host countries as well as maintain contact with the home country. These organizations play a significant role in defending a group’s communal identity in the face of assimilation. If we analyze Sheffer’s argument and relate it to Biharis, we might divulge a similarity between Sheffer’s ideal type and the condition of the Bihari community in Bangladesh. Biharis, too, initially faced challenges to settling in East Pakistan. With the help of West Pakistanis living in East Pakistan prior to 1971, Biahris were able to settle and work. The positive attitude of West Pakistanis, nonetheless, intensified their belief that this is their new homeland and they are living in Pakistan, their ideological homeland. Later they figured out the cultural and social dissimilarities between them and Bengalis. They followed the culture of the original Pakistan (West) as well as their own; thus, usually presumed Bengalis as inferior for not following the culture of Pakistan. They didn’t stand with Bangladesh for their claim for independence as they didn’t feel that Bangladesh could be their homeland, and the separation from Pakistan was not welcomed. After the independence of Bangladesh, they became ‘Stranded Pakistanis’ in the newly formed country. Some of them were waiting for repatriation to Pakistan, their original home. After failing to move to their home, they developed a diaspora identity in Bangladesh. Their yearning for homeland didn’t fade for a long time, but maybe still persist among the older generation. They established some organizations and protected their language, culture, and communal sense. The relationship with the host country was not good at the beginning, since the issue of “dual loyalty” became apparent after they opted to move to Pakistan which was administered by UNHCR and ICRC. Later, many of them adopted an ‘assimilationist’ strategy since they applied for citizenship and called for rehabilitation.

Other theorists of the diaspora extended the characteristics, but all criteria evolved around those three discussed earlier. Like William Safran talked about collective memory, a sense that they would never be accepted in the host country, idealizing ancestors' homes as original, and relating homeland in all their activities. These all criteria have been found in my fieldwork in Mohammadpur and Kalshi Bihari camps (Rahaman et al. 2020). They still remember the incidents that occurred after their migration. Only a handful, especially the young generation, assume that they are fully accepted by the Bangladeshi people. Excluding them, most of the Biharis still think that they would never be accepted by the Bangladeshi people as their own. Biharis also try to relate their cultural activities with Pakistan. Household patterns, food habits, decorating the neighborhood, festivals, and group interaction all reflect a sense of Pakistan in the camp.