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In Bangladesh a Supreme Court decision this May recognized the right to citizenship for a formerly stateless population, the Bihar, an Urdu speaking minority.
Bangladesh is an extremely young country, formed only 37 years ago after a violent conflict to sever its ties with Pakistan, achieved independence and preserve its Bengali culture.
Refugees International for several years has been working to encourage a resolution of the statelessness of the Bihari population of about 300,000, about half of whom live in 66 squalid settlements. We came to see how the integration of the Bihari was proceeding during a period when this very young nation was struggling to reform its electoral process, develop democratic institutions, reduce its endemic poverty and deal with severe flooding and land erosion.
In meeting with the Bihari community, we found many willing to step forward and apply for citizenship, despite their fears for their future as a linguistic minority. But we also came in contact with a small group of young enthusiastic activists seeking to reach across ethnic and social differences to bridge the linguistic and historical divides between Bengali and Urdu speaking groups. One group decided to publish a bilingual journal of literature and opinion, called Khayaal (Opinion).
The editor in chief is a recent university graduate who discovered his love for languages and literature by studying Urdu. Like many other young writers and poets, he spurned more financially promising fields to start and publish a bilingual journal. He found likeminded friends from different social and ethnic groups and together they pooled their very limited resources to reduce the divisions between their communities and to build bridges of respect and understanding.
Most of the contributors and production staff are young and of modest means, but excited about the chance to share and explore the rich treasures of poetry and literature of both communities. The senior member of their group is a poet and illustrator, honored for his role as a freedom fighter in Bangladesh’s struggle for independence and for his enthusiastic role in introducing his colleagues to poetry and song.
We sat in their modest office in a garage apartment and thought of the challenges this country faced and the international pessimism on its future: nearly 140 million people in an area the size of Iowa, repeated natural disasters, rampant corruption, national political stalemate and growing indebtedness. But then we remembered the warmth of hospitality, and the energy of the people, the children following you in the street asking in English who are you? Where do you come from? What do you think of Bangladesh?
These young men saw a different Bangladesh. Some had grown up in the Bihar camps, hemmed in by suspicion and hostility because of their families’ perceived support for Pakistan, forced to live as an underclass without access to their rights, decent livelihoods, and education, even health care. Now they were enthusiastic nationalists – why – because Bangladesh was “wonderful”; it was a place of opportunity, of great resolve, of hope and determination. One after another the young poets exclaimed their love and enthusiasm for their country and for its future and its culture. “We love it.., we are willing to work to build it…we have opportunities…we can make it a great country…we can work together.” Their enthusiasm reminded me of sitting in crowded apartments and tiny offices in New York in the 1960’s with other writers, dreamers and poets determined to bring civil rights to all Americans, to end apartheid, to break down barriers and end the wars. Who says that poets cannot bring about change? Khayaal is about trying. May it succeed.November 04, 2008 | Tagged as: Bangladesh, Statelessness