“That is where my sadness lies, you see, this Bengali community, getting Martyred for language is something rare in history that only Bengalis did. That is why 21st February is honored as it is (International Mother Language Day). They bled for their language, yet, how much justice are they doing to those who speak other languages in Bangladesh?”
Khalid Hussain, an Urdu-speaking Bihari, posed this question to me during our interview. That question is the central theme of the paper. On the Surface, Bangladesh is one of the most ethnically homogeneous countries in the world. However, if one looks closely, there is diversity in Bangladesh along ethnic, religious, and linguistic lines. Although pluralism in some forms exists in matters of ethnic and religious divides, linguistic pluralism is hardly witnessed in Bangladesh. As a result, the mother tongue of the minorities is not tolerated and, in many cases, shunned. In this instance, I want to shed light on one linguistic minority in Bangladesh, the Bihari community. Through the experiences of the Bihari community, I wanted to explore how linguistic inequality has impacted generations of minorities and how it has led to an erosion of their culture.
History of the Biharis in Bangladesh
To start, a bit of context on the Bihari community. Biharis are a Muslim minority in Bangladesh. They migrated to Bangladesh, which was then East Pakistan during the Partition of India in 1947 to escape communal violence. Since Biharis were preferred by the West Pakistani government for higher positions in the administration, they were seen as usurpers as well as outsiders. When the struggle for independence started for the Bengalis in East Pakistan, Biharis took an overwhelmingly Pro-Pakistan stance. Biharis kept supporting the West Pakistani authorities during subsequent uprisings. During Bangladesh’s liberation war of 1971, Biharis helped the Pakistani army against the Bangladeshi rebels by supplying information and resources. (Rangan, 1971) After the war ended, Biharis became the target of violent attacks. Atrocities against them were committed all over the country. Conventional histories assert that to protect the Biharis against such violence, they were forced out of their homes and moved to refugee camps after the independence of Bangladesh. Initially, the plan was to repatriate the Biharis to Pakistan where they wanted to go. Even though a lot of Biharis were repatriated to Pakistan, most of the Biharis still live in these refugee camps all over Bangladesh. Living conditions in these camps can only be described as inhumane, with very cramped housing quarters lacking access to stable water or electricity supply. Outside the camps, they continue to be discriminated against in all aspects of life. In this article, I center the story of the discrimination that Biharis face on the ground of language.
Experiences of Urdu Speakers in Bangladesh
To hear about the experiences of the Bihari community regarding linguistic inequality, I went to the largest Bihari refugee camp in our capital. There I met with Khalid Hussain, a prominent Bihari activist. Khalid Hussain was born and raised in a Bihari camp. Despite this, he managed to become the first Bihari lawyer in Bangladesh. He has worked tirelessly since his youth for Bihari rights. Now he runs an NGO named the council of minorities, where he trains young Biharis to take up his mantle. It was there that I conducted my interviews about their experiences as Urdu speakers in Bangladesh. He recalled how discrimination started at an early age, in school, when he and some of his friends went to study outside the camp. He had grown up learning Urdu at home as it was his mother tongue. However, the school outside the camp had a majority Bengali student body where Bangla was the medium of instruction. Trying to study in Bangla was not easy for him or for his Bihari friends as they were not familiar with the language. This situation only worsened when the Bengali students found out they were Bihari. ‘There was harassment. When they heard us speaking Urdu, they started saying stuff like you are Biharis, you live in slums. They also called us names.’ Khalid Hussain and some fellow students also faced physical harassment. Essentially, they were isolated from the majority despite being in the same class. This pattern of harassment and isolation continued as he moved on to college and then later to university. The path for Mr. Hussain did not get any easier after he completed his studies. Back then, he told me, Biharis were not citizens of the country. This made getting a job anywhere next to impossible. His desire to fight this injustice motivated him to start his campaign for Bihari rights. His prime contribution to the Bihari cause has been a Supreme court case he fought in 2008, which granted Biharis citizenship in Bangladesh. After Khalid Hussain, I decided to interview some volunteer Bihari youths to see how the experiences of marginalization have changed across generations.
Although all the youths had faced some form of abuse for their identity and language in school, their experiences were more positive than those of Hussain and his friends. All the Bihari youths had Bengali friends and they had found more acceptance in schools. However, Bihari youths still experienced discrimination for not being able to study in their mother tongue as their Bengali friends did. Linguistic discrimination extended beyond the medium of instruction to what they learned as well. At school, Bihari youth were taught about the Bengali language and culture, but nothing about their own cultural traditions. Any mention of Biharis in school books characterized them as traitors. As a result, Bihari youths felt quite ashamed of their identity in schools. The feeling of marginalization was amplified by their interactions with mainstream society, where speaking Urdu made them targets for harassment and ridicule. These young Biharis never understood what made the target of such hate. Kajol Rekha, a university student who was volunteering for the council of minorities, remembers her experience trying to rent an apartment outside the camp. The landlord told her that he would not rent her the apartment as soon he found out that Kajol was a Bihari.
Ms. Rekha was lucky to get that apartment after a lot of requests, but not all Biharis are as lucky as her. In fact. Ms. Rekha confided in me that, after she moved out, that man never let another Bihari rent his apartment. Incidents like this make Bihari youths question their identity. After all, they were Bangladeshi citizens and grew up in Bangladesh, why should a language make them outsiders?
A national identity based on language
To understand why linguistic inequality in this form exists, we need to understand the historical context of the creation of Bangladesh. Bangladesh, in essence, came to be because of the Bangla language. When the British Raj was divided, Bangladesh was made a wing of Pakistan. Pakistan was created based on religion, to be a haven for the Muslims in the British Raj.
It was believed that the Muslim identity would supersede all other ethnic and cultural identities to act as the binding glue for the national identity of Pakistan. So, despite having different cultures and languages, East and West Pakistan were lumped together because they both had a Muslim majority. They were proven wrong when East Pakistanis rose in rebellion at Ali Jinnah’s announcement that the state language of Pakistan would be Urdu only. Protests erupted in East Pakistan to make Bangla the state language. The March for language in 1952 was essentially the beginning of the struggle for the liberation of Bangladesh. When faced with the prospect that Urdu might become the state language, the Bengalis realized that the Muslim identity was not enough for them to feel like a part of Pakistan. They became disillusioned with the concept of Pakistan and concluded that their cultural identity based on a common language was something they related with more. The movement to speak in Bangla started the journey that ultimately ended with the creation of Bangladesh. (Fazal, 1999) In essence, Bangladeshi nationalism started with and is based on language. So, it is no wonder that people who speak a different language, such as Urdu, are not considered part of the dominant national identity.
Institutionalized linguistic inequality
Marginalization based on linguistic identity in Bangladesh is true on a social level as well as at an institutional level. The constitution of the People’s republic of Bangladesh states that the language of Bangladesh is Bangla.
Unlike religion, where minorities have equal rights, linguistic equality in Bangladesh is not guaranteed by the constitution. This creates problems for thousands of minorities in Bangladesh who speak their respective mother tongues. Biharis have been in Bangladesh since its inception. Similarly, indigenous people in Bangladesh have lived in the Chittagong Hill Tracts for centuries. None of these minorities Speak Bangla, but they are Bangladeshi. Why should the language of Bangladesh only be Bangla? Making Bangla the state language has denied minorities in Bangladesh their freedom to express distinct cultural identities. Children from minority groups cannot learn their language, because these languages have not been given any institutional recognition. Linguistic minorities are forced to learn in Bangla, making them feel excluded from dominant forms of social life in the state. (Chakma, 2022) Biharis cannot get a government job or a job in the armed forces because of their identity. Some of the Biharis I talked to told me that they hide their identity in Colleges and Universities to get equal opportunities. All of them speak Bangla outside the Bihari camps because speaking in Urdu instantly makes them stand out. The war has ended in 1971, but Urdu is still imprinted on the minds of the Bengalis as the language of the usurpers and traitors. This oppression of linguistic minorities in Bangladesh on an institutional level has created a trend that is leading to the erosion of minority culture.
The gradual erosion of Bihari culture
Most of the Bihari children that now live in the camps are taught Bangla by their parents as a first language since learning Urdu will only confuse them when they go to learn at schools.
He wasn’t alone, most Bihari parents I spoke to confirmed that they taught Bangla to their children as their mother tongue. It was ironic, that despite the mothers speaking Urdu, their children grew up with Bangla as their mother tongue. The reasoning was simple, there was no right for linguistic minorities in Bangladesh. To protect their children from the discrimination they faced, Bihari parents are teaching their children to embrace Bangla and Bangladeshi culture since childhood. The sidelining of Urdu in the Bihari community due to linguistic inequality has created greater problems than just children not speaking the language of their parents. One crucial thing to remember is that language is not only a medium of communication, it is a medium of culture. Language oftentimes is the foundation upon which cultures are built. When people stop practicing a specific language due to the fear of being discriminated against, as is the case with the Biharis, it doesn’t just erase their language, it also puts the culture at risk of being edged out. According to the older generation of the population, his erasure of culture is exactly what is happening to the Biharis.
When asked, older Biharis, were very enthusiastic to talk about their culture. They were very proud of the distinct culture of the Bihari community in Bangladesh, such as their unique celebrations, wedding rituals, sweets, foods, dresses, etc. Older members of the community spoke of the importance of the celebration of Moharram (an Islamic festival) in their lives while growing up. They recalled eating sweets made specially in the camps during celebrations such as weddings. But now they worry about the future of the Bihari culture in Bangladesh. The newer generations of Biharis are simply not aware of most of the cultural events of the Bihari community, nor do they participate in them. Khalid Hussain, himself a father, noticed firsthand how the erosion of culture happened, even to his children. Most of the newer generations of Biharis are taught Bangla and are told not to bother much with Urdu. Gradually this isolation from their language widens and turns into isolation from their community’s cultural practices. Since most Bihari children now speak Bangla, they start to identify more with Bangladeshi culture. Khalid Hussain and other older Biharis rarely participated in Bangladeshi culture and events growing up. They always felt like imposters during the national days of Bangladesh such as Independence Day and Victory Day. Husain expressed feeling as if he couldn’t or did not have the right to celebrate such occasions with the rest of the country. “This is why when December comes, we try to avoid it. Maybe go to school a bit less, because what is our reason (for celebration)?” was the common response of my older interviewees when asked if they celebrate Bangladeshi national holidays. However, the newer generation of Biharis do not feel the same hesitation, and they partake in national events such as Pohela Boishakh (Bengali New Year), and International Mother Language Day among others while forgoing the cultural events of their community. Most of the newer generation can speak Urdu, but can neither read it nor write it. Thus, not only are they not able to participate in cultural events, but they also are not able to partake in Bihari arts and literature. The decline of Urdu Poetry or Shayari in Bangladesh is a sign of this trend. Older interviewees recalled Shayari sessions regularly conducted in the camps, where Bihari poets would gather and present their Shayari in front of fellow poets, friends, and family. Such evenings would be accompanied by food and laughter along with an exchange of literature. The Bihari community is home to many talented poets who write in Urdu, but since the newer generation is not able to read Urdu, the popularity of these poets is fading away and there is no one to take up the mantle after them. But it is not just Urdu Shayari that is in danger. There are entire epics in the Bihari community that have been passed down the generations via oral narratives and traditions that have no written record. These epics are not just stories, they are oral histories of the Bihari community. With the disinterest of the newer generation, these epics are not as widely known as they once were. These are many other examples of how Bihari culture is slowly but surely dying out because of institutionally enforced linguistic inequality. Institutional and social hierarchies have forced Bihari children to adopt the language of the majority and assimilate into the dominant culture.
My essay on linguistic inequality and discrimination points to the urgent need to discuss linguistic pluralism in Bangladesh. Paulo Freire once wrote that “The oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors.” This quotation adequately captures the fate of linguistic identity in contemporary Bangladesh. As a Bengali, I remember growing up with stories about the struggles of my ancestors, and how they martyred themselves for the right to speak their mother tongue when the oppressive Pakistani government tried to force Urdu on them. I remember how the popular slogans of the movement left a chill on my body. “They want to take away the language from my tongue” was what the Bengalis shouted as they confronted armed police to protest their right to use their own language. Yet, in Bangladesh, no minorities have a right to their language, neither in the constitution nor in mainstream society. They are shunned for their language and forced to adapt to Bangla for the sake of fitting in. Language, which was a pillar of Bangladeshi independence, has now become a tool to marginalize and isolate minorities.
In order to avoid the mistakes of the past and for a better future, it is time there was a sobering discussion about linguistic identity in Bangladesh. Diversity is a strength. I believe Bangladesh should let past the grievances go and instead embrace linguistic pluralism. But that poses the question, how can we retain national identity based on Bangla, while creating space for other minor languages to grow and prosper?
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Hussain, Khalid. Interview by Sadman Saber. June 7, 2022
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Rekha, Kajol. Interview by Sadman Saber. June 16, 2022.
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