At Work with the Paralegals of Bangladesh

A citizenship sea change for the Urdu-speaking minority in Bangladesh

By Bremen Donovan

On a normal day, fourteen years ago, Farzana Naz was six months pregnant. Her husband left for work and never returned. Farzana was left to raise two children on her own. She was not much older than a child herself.

Today, I am sitting in her living room, which is also her kitchen and her bedroom. Farzana lives in Staff Camp, one of the 66 so-called ‘camps for stranded Pakistanis’ in Bangladesh, and home to about 200 families. It is a ‘building camp,’ converted from offices abandoned by a government ministry in the early 1970’s, shortly after Bangladesh’s bloody birth.

In Farzana Naz’s room, as in many of the other building camps in Dhaka, you experience the sensation that the floor may simply crumble under your feet any moment. Gaps in the walls and under the stairways expose rusted structural rebar and rotting concrete. Electrical lines hang in webs above the hallways and are perilously frayed.   A young resident explains that when stones fall, families pool money to purchase wet cement to simply patch the spot.

There are about 300,000 members of the Urdu-speaking community living in these camps in Bangladesh. Some, like Staff Camp, are re-appropriated old government buildings. Others are makeshift shanties built up from the ground. The camps date from 1971, when fighting during the establishment of the Bangladeshi state forced the country’s Urdu-speaking minority into these supposedly temporary arrangements, where they have lived ever since.

Today, I am standing in Farzana Naz’s home because Nahid Parvin, a 20-year old paralegal from Geneva Camp, brought me here. Farzana has applied for a passport so she can take a job as a domestic worker in Saudi Arabia to support her daughters through the rest of their schooling. Nahid is helping with her case.

The reason Farzana needs help is because she is part of the large, and largely disenfranchised, Urdu-speaking minority in Bangladesh. They were targeted as allies of Urdu-speaking West Pakistan during Bangladesh’s war of liberation and refused citizenship at the birth of the new state. They have suffered discrimination and extreme poverty ever since. Despite passage of a law in 2008 that guarantees citizenship for ‘Bihari refugees’, people like Farzana Naz continue to face serious obstacles to obtaining citizenship documents like passports and birth certificates.

Because many members of the Urdu-speaking minority trace their roots to the eastern Indian region of Bihar, the camps in Bangladesh, and the people – mainly Urdu speakers – who live in them, are referred to as Bihari’. Some of the Urdu speakers currently living in Bangladesh actually trace their ancestry back not to Bihar, but to other regions in India and present-day Pakistan, and so the identification is not strictly accurate.

Because they are Muslim, do not look physically different from mainstream Bangladeshis, and those who go to school are taught in Bengali, many Biharis are increasingly able to “pass” as mainstream Bangladeshis. Passing allows them access to housing and services like education – and gives them a better shot at acquiring citizenship documents. But for Urdu speakers, “passing” in order to get the basic rights granted by law, means abandoning your culture.

Since passage of the landmark citizenship law in 2008, the Urdu-speaking minority in Bangladesh should have all the rights accorded any other citizen of Bangladesh. Many now hold national identity cards, and were able to vote in the most recent national elections.

But other citizenship documents – namely birth certificates and passports – have been more difficult to acquire. In practice, what sets them apart from the mainstream is the Urdu-inflected Bengali they speak, and for those who still live in the camps, their address.

Despite what the law says, they are being treated as if they are only partial citizens. Activist Khalid Hussein says the issue is very simple: “Either you are Bangladeshi or you are not.” Khalid grew up in Geneva Camp and is now in his early thirties, living in an apartment outside of Geneva camp with his family. He was the first person from Geneva Camp to become certified as a lawyer.

Now, Khalid is at the forefront of a practical, law-based movement to ensure that the government makes good on its promise of 2008: that Biharis are, by law, Bangladeshi citizens. He also wants to move away from the stigmatized Bihari label, to a more historically and culturally accurate “Urdu-speaking minority”.

In 2013, Khalid’s organization, the Council on Minorities, partnered with the international legal empowerment organization Namati to provide services to people seeking citizenship documents – by training a corps of local paralegals. “It’s an awesome project,” Khalid says. As of June 2013, there are ten paralegals and three volunteers working across all the camps in the country.

Since 2008, obtaining a birth certificate or a passport should be as simple as submitting a form with all the necessary information and then waiting. But it is not that simple. In the beginning, Bihari applicants were rejected point-blank. Some were told: “We have orders from our superiors not to grant birth certificates to Biharis.” Denials were often based on the applicant’s camp address.

Paralegals like Nahid are aware of the fears and the stigma – often from personal experience – and are trained to step in to provide crucial support. They are taught in the basics of the law, and the procedures for obtaining citizenship documents, and they are comfortable dealing with authorities and advocating on behalf of their clients.

One issue is awareness – not all Urdu speakers know they are even entitled to citizenship documents or that these documents are essential if they want to educate their children. Many fear trying to navigate the bureaucracy in order to get documents. Paralegals like Nahid are working to spread the word.

On a scorching day, I meet Nahid and her colleague, fellow paralegal Sabnaz, 19, in their office in Geneva Camp, where they are filing intake forms for a small group who has arrived to apply for birth certificates.

On a typical day, Nahid and Sabnaz spend the morning on community outreach then keep ‘office hours’ between 1-4pm, when clients can pop in. Today, their clients include a young man in his late teens, and two young mothers who have come to apply for birth certificates for their small children.

After filling out the application forms together, Nahid and Sabnaz lead the whole group to the regional City Corporation office to submit their forms officially. Paying a visit to the City Corporation is easier said than done: it involves a hair-raising four-lane highway crossing to hail a public bus and then a sweaty, jam-packed, twenty-minute ride. For many of Nahid’s clients, this trip will be the most daunting they’ve ever taken.

For women especially, the prospect of traveling by foot and public transportation to a City Corporation office, dealing with officials and exchanging money there, is intimidating. In general, says Khalid, Urdu-speaking women who live in the camps leave even less frequently than men.

That’s one of the ways paralegals are making sure people get their citizenship documents – by being physically present throughout the process. “Knowledge about formal institutions is one of the things that separates the Bengalis from the Bihari,” Khalid explains. Mohamed Raman, a 35 year-old trader living in a camp in the northern city of Mymensingh, about a three hour drive from Dhaka, explains: “We are simple people. We wake, work, eat, sleep – we don’t know all the government offices.”

To Mohamed, the support a paralegal provides is essential. And it extends beyond the scope of a single case. By working with a paralegal, he and others like him learn what to do, once they’ve gone through the process once, many of them feel empowered to go it alone next time. Or they spread the word among others in the camps.

The conditions of the camp in Mymensingh are dire. Houses are separated by two-foot wide passageways shared by camp residents, goats and chickens. Houses are tiny, usually less than eight by eight feet, and cram in entire families – often more than ten people. Inside, residents loft their beds to make space for pots and pans and other essential possessions on the floor underneath. When it rains, the entire camp floods, public toilets included.

For many of the Urdu speakers I met, citizenship documents are the first step toward building a viable life outside these camps. The effect on one’s economic mobility of having citizenship documents are significant. By doggedly pursuing formal, legal channels, and winning cases little by little, Khalid, the Council on Minorities, and Namati are chipping away at an entrenched system of brokers, middlemen and corrupt bureaucrats that stand in the way of Bangladeshi citizens obtaining basic citizenship documents.

“This project is important because you’re establishing citizenship rights,” says Khalid. Passing the law is one thing. Making sure what’s written trickles down to the individual – passports and birth certificate in hand – is the real challenge. And graft is rampant. “Corruption is everywhere in Bangladesh, for everyone,” Khalid says. Neysar 41, a paralegal in Meymensingh, confirms this: “The passport office is corrupte top to bottom.”

In some areas, a bad seed in a particular office means the majority of cases in that area are rejected. In other areas, cases are starting to move through more dependably. Attitudinal shift is the ultimate goal. Many of the people living in the camps, Khalid’s generation, were not even born at the formation of Bangladesh. They are interested in belonging to the only country they have ever known.

Although perceptions of the Urdu-speaking minority are changing, deep resentment remains. Last year, Nahid invited a close friend of hers, a Bengali, to her house in the camp. When she arrived, the friend turned to Nahid, shocked, and said: “This is so dirty, how do you live here?” For seven years, Nahid had concealed the fact that she lived in a camp because she was afraid she would lose her friend. And sure enough, when Keya finally did visit, she looked at Nahid in disgust. “Ah, you Biharis hide easily, your Bangla is so clear.”

When I first entered Nahid’s home it was a little past nine in the morning. I took my shoes off and laid them beside all the others on the concrete doorstep. Nahid pulled the pillows up off the floor and began sweeping. She shares this 12 foot by 12 foot room with her whole family. Her mother and father sleep on the ground so she and her younger brother can sleep on the bed.

Nahid says discrimination ran deep in school, too. Teachers would say to her, “Oh, you’re from the camps, you killed our forefathers in ’71.” I asked her how she would respond. “I didn’t say anything,” she says. “But I cried all the time.” Recently, Nahid’s mother was denied a passport, even though she has a national ID card. It’s because of the address, Nahid explains. “Some people just lie, but we are committed to pursuing the legal road.” She is working on her mother’s case.

On a personal level, being a paralegal has brought change in Nahid’s life. Although she is young, and a woman, she says since becoming a paralegal she has experienced a lot of respect from her community. “Everyone says ‘salam’, and they call me Madame.” She says she feels inspired to train as a social worker, to continue doing development work.

Khalid says: “Young people are the key for this issue.” And their efforts are starting to be seen at higher levels. At a formal dialogue Khalid organized in April, members of the Urdu-speaking minority spoke with high-profile activists and a member of parliament about their experiences of discrimination and their desire to become full citizens. The meeting engendered a good deal of support among “high face value individuals”, as Khalid describes them. Following the meeting, the campaign is about encouraging, and possibly shaming people, to recognize Bangladeshi citizens as Bangladeshi citizens.

“Urdu is not an enemy language,” says Khalid. “Our language is Urdu but we are Bangladeshi,” says Nasrin Afrin, a 19 year-old paralegal from Mirpul Camp. She is right. The law says so.





January 14, 2015 | Bremen Donovan