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For the first time since Bangladesh gained independence in 1971, Urdu speaking minorities will be eligible to vote in December’s parliamentary elections. A High Court judgment last May confirmed the group’s rights to Bangladeshi citizenship, ending nearly four decades of political and socio-economic exclusion.
But it will take dedicated action by the Bangladeshi government, with the support of international donors and organizations, to ensure that these people integrate fully into society and gain equal access to education, employment, health services, and other rights and obligations of citizenship. Only as full citizens can they help Bangladesh develop into a prosperous democracy.
A Historic Legal Victory
Past refusal by Bangladesh to recognize the Urdu-speakers as citizens is rooted in the country’s violent creation. Fleeing the religious persecution that followed partition from India in 1947, this Muslim minority, sometimes called “Biharis,” settled in East and West Pakistan. In 1970, when civil war between East and West Pakistan broke out, many Urdu-speakers sided with West Pakistan, with atrocities committed on both sides. After Bangladesh’s independence, Pakistan refused to accept all Urdu speakers who sought admission for fear of stoking ethnic tensions, particularly in the Sindh. Bangladesh, which is mostly Bengali, suspected the Urdu speaking minority had supported the enemy. Over time, perceptions of the community’s status became muddied by prolonged residence in camps established in urban areas by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the largely unaddressed history of inter-communal violence, and the determination of some community members to migrate to Pakistan.
In its May 2008 judgment, the court held that any Urdu speaker born in Bangladesh, or whose father or grandfather was born in Bangladesh, and who was a permanent resident in 1971 or who has permanently resided in Bangladesh since 1971 is a citizen “by operation of law.” Persons who affirm or acknowledge allegiance to a foreign state (such as Pakistan) may be disqualified, however. The court directed the Bangladesh Election Commission (BEC) to enroll majority age Urdu speakers who wish to be registered and to issue them national identity cards (IDs) “without any further delay.” Now with citizenship rights, one petitioner in the case declared, “We can live in Bangladesh with dignity.”
In a judiciary vulnerable to political influence and lengthy delays, the Urdu speakers’ legal success came about through a notable confluence of factors. First, earlier judgments set precedent in confirming citizenship and property rights for individual members of this group. These cases set the stage for resolving whether such rights applied to the entire community. Second, in light of upcoming elections and the introduction of national IDs, the Election Commission wanted clarification on whether the Urdu-speaking communities should be registered. Third, the petitioners, their attorneys, and the court were willing to resist whatever political pressures the case might stir up. Fourth, advocates encouraged interest among political and social elites. Fifth, the government commendably did not appeal the decision, either because the law was overwhelmingly clear or it tacitly recognized that the issue had lingered too long.
Voter and ID Registration
In August 2008, the BEC began its drive to register the Urdu-speaking communities in the settlements around Dhaka. This is an important first step towards integrating these minority communities into Bangladeshi society. Over several long days and through weekend hours, BEC “enumerators” took forms door to door, registering hundreds of people each day. One enumerator found the work “very satisfying because everyone was so cooperative.” After a person was registered for voting, he or she was instructed on where and when to report for national ID registration.
Countrywide registration for national IDs is overseen by the military, one of the few institutions with the infrastructure to carry out such an endeavor. “This would not have been possible without the military,” one UN official said. Despite these efforts, the majority of Urdu speakers are unlikely to be registered in time for the elections. Some suggested that the Election Commission should have pursued a more robust information campaign in the camps prior to the drive or extended the period for registering. However, according to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), those unable to register during the drive may go to other registration centers year-round.
A national ID is said to give access to as many as 22 social services, but the Urdu speakers’ reactions to the process ranged from positive to uncertain. Several parents felt the ID card would facilitate their children’s admission to schools and access to jobs. One woman noted that her children would not be harassed when traveling in rural areas. Others had unconfirmed concerns that obtaining a national ID card could lead to eviction from the camps. Another stated, “We will just have to wait and see if [the ID card] brings us any benefit.”
Continued Misery in the Camps
Despite recent progress in voter and ID registration, 37 years of non-recognition has left around 200,000 Urdu-speaking people living in abject poverty and vulnerable to discrimination. Living conditions remain overcrowded, with 5 to 15 people sharing one or two rooms. The threat of eviction and the need for education, skills training, and employment are chief concerns. Geneva Camp, one of the largest camps in Dhaka at 35,000, has only one non-governmental school available to 371 students. There is only one health clinic for the camp, staffed by volunteers and focused primarily on maternal health. Up until now, camp residents have been excluded from public sector jobs. Some camps have only one latrine per 3,000 people and garbage collection is irregular.
Ensuring Support for Integration
The High Court judgment and the voter and national ID registration processes have created momentum to overcome nearly four decades of the Urdu speakers’ political and socio-economic marginalization. But with serious political challenges and widespread poverty, the Bangladesh Government and donors are reluctant to target aid to this community. Such a policy misses the point of the High Court judgment, which noted the “miseries and sufferings of such people due to statelessness,” and that “they are constantly denied their constitutional rights.” The court stated:
“By keeping the question of citizenship unresolved on wrong assumption over the decades, this nation has not gained anything rather was deprived of the contribution [the Urdu speakers] could have made in nation-building. The sooner [they] are brought to the mainstream the better.”
Deliberate neglect of a community’s rights warrants speedy integration. To overcome ingrained habits of neglect by the government and the international community, ensuring the Urdu speakers’ equal rights as citizens will require conscious attention to the community’s challenges.
Recognizing Urdu speakers’ citizenship rights strikes at the heart of Bangladesh’s national identity, which, through Partition and the Liberation War, sought to distinguish itself from India and Pakistan. Incorporating a minority group with connections to these regions would signal confidence in where Bangladesh now stands and would improve the outlook for other minorities in the country, all foundations for a successful democratic transition. As stated by a lawyer involved in the May 2008 case, “If you give them some support, they will be excellent citizens.”
Katherine Southwick and Dawn Calabia investigated the situation of the Urdu speakers in Bangladesh in August