The Citizenship Status of the Urdu-Speakers/Biharis in Bangladesh

Paulsen, E. (2006). The citizenship status of the Urdu-speakers/ Biharis in Bangladesh. Refugee Survey Quarterly. 25(3). 54-69.


It is commonly estimated that there are some 240,000 to 500,000 Urdu-speakers – popularly known as “stranded Pakistanis” or “Biharis” – who are normally considered as existing in a situation of statelessness in Bangladesh. Bangladesh is neither a party to the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons nor to the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. Their ancestors, mainly from the Indian state of Bihar, came to East Pakistan from 1947 onwards after India’s partition. The Biharis’ statelessness stemmed from the state separation of Pakistan in 1971 and the creation of the independent People’s Republic of Bangladesh in what was formerly East Pakistan. They were therefore “stranded” by the state succession.

Historically, the Biharis’ shared Urdu linguistic heritage with the Pakistani political elite led them to be favoured by the central Pakistani Government based in West Pakistan over the majority Bengalis in East Pakistan. The Biharis largely also claimed allegiance to Pakistan and sided with Pakistan during the Bangladesh liberation war – all of which contributed to their current state of affairs.

It is important to underscore that when one speaks of the “Urdu-speakers” or “Biharis” in this context, one is not referring to a unique and distinct group of people who are readily identifi able by way of ethnicity, physical appearance, language or place of origin.1 The terms “Urdu-speakers” or “Biharis” are loosely used to refer to those Urdu-speaking persons, and their descendants, who emigrated from India during and after Indian independence. Many are currently de facto stateless and in need of an effective citizenship. They are often referred to as “stranded Pakistanis” – to use a popular reference – due to the strong demand of some Biharis for “repatriation” to Pakistan over the past decades.

In the period leading up to the liberation war, tens of thousands of Biharis were killed by mobs. There were also large scale lootings and property occupation. During the war between March and December 1971, it is commonly accepted in Bangladesh that three million Bengalis were killed by the Pakistani army. Some Biharis joined auxiliary forces like the Razakars and Al-Shams and took part in revenge killings and lootings against the Bengalis. After the end of the war in December 1971, the Biharis continued to be targeted as they were seen as collectively guilty as Pakistani collaborators. Thousands were arrested and many hundreds more were executed or simply disappeared. Properties belonging to the Biharis were forcibly occupied or acquired by the State through legal mechanisms designed to dispose of abandoned property.2 The continued persecution caused the Biharis to abandon their properties and move into settlements (popularly known as camps). By 1972, some 1,008,680 displaced Biharis were living in settlements all over the country awaiting “repatriation” to Pakistan.3

For decades, sections of the community, particularly the oldest and most well established community group, the Stranded Pakistanis General Repatriation Committee (SPGRC) have championed for the Biharis “repatriation” to Pakistan. From 1973 to 1993, some 178,069 Biharis were “repatriated” to Pakistan, although some 534,792 had registered with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) for “repatriation.”4 The rest for a long time continued to remain in Bangladesh with deep-rooted uncertainty, poverty, trauma, self-pity and hopelessness, although some have also spontaneously moved to Pakistan. However, as time passes with no real political solution and commitment to further “repatriation,” more and more community groups, and especially the younger generation of Biharis, are demanding citizenship and integration in Bangladesh.5 In a December 2005 civil society consultation on the “Urdu-speaking community’s own perception about their future in Bangladesh,” most of the Urdu-speakers said that the large or overwhelming majority of the settlement occupants considered themselves to be Bangladeshis and wanted “rehabilitation” with dignity.6 Those who call for “repatriation” in general refer to the community as “stranded Pakistanis” while those who advocate for citizenship and reintegration in Bangladesh prefer the terms “Biharis,” “Urdu-speakers” or “Mohajirs.”

The situation is further confused by occasional statements from Bangladeshi Government offi cials to the effect that the Biharis should be “repatriated” to Pakistan. The issue of “repatriation” was reportedly included in the February 2006 bilateral meeting in Pakistan between Bangladeshi Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, although at the conclusion of the meeting, no clear indication was made as to whether the issue was discussed at all.7 Pakistani Government offi cials have been careful in not referring to the Biharis as “stranded Pakistanis” and instead termed them “Bangladeshi Biharis.”8

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