An impression that Urdu is the language of Pakistan is cemented in Bangladesh's popular imagination, unleashing hostilities and discrimination against thousands of Urdu-speaking residents who are called 'Biharis' in disdain.

Close to my neighbourhood is the Geneva Camp, where a huge chunk of people from the Urdu-speaking community (in the common Bangladeshi vocabulary, they’re referred to as ‘Bihari’) reside. The cramped, squalid quarters of the camp accommodate more than 40,000 people. 

After Bangladesh’s independence in 1971, more than a million Urdu-speaking people were stranded in the country as they could not make their way to Pakistan. They remained ‘stateless’ until 2008, when the government of Bangladesh recognised them (those who were minors in ’71 and those born after Bangladesh’s independence) as Bangladeshi citizens. 

The citizenship issue regarding the stranded Urdu-speakers was unpredictable. A 1973 New York Times report asserted that 'a Government poll indicated that 260,000 Biharis wanted to go to Pakistan, while 150,000 opted to stay in Bangladesh’. 

In the report, Pakistan’s reluctance to accept the ‘Biharis’ seemed to be based on its economic and political frailty. Between 1973 and 1993, 178,069 ‘Biharis’ were repatriated to Pakistan. 

Pakistan, however, couldn't pay much attention to accepting the remaining Biharis. One reason, as per Karachi based analyst Abdus Sattar, could be that by 1979 Islamabad had to bear the burden of over a million Afghan refugees. And secondly, the Sindhi community held massive demonstrations against the repartition of Urdu-speaking people of Bangladesh, forcing the government to put the matter on the back burner. 

In May 2003, a Bangladeshi High Court ruling allowed voting rights and citizenship to ten ‘Biharis’. Ever since independence, lobbying for the acceptance of the ‘Biharis’ into the social fabric of Bangladesh continued, and finally in 2008, they were granted citizenship on a case by case basis. 

But many among them could not get Bangladeshi passports since they lived in temporary slums and one needed a permanent address to obtain a passport.

Khalid Hussain, Chief Executive of the Council of Minorities and a lawyer who once used to live in Mohammadpur’s Geneva Camp, has been tirelessly working for the full integration of the camp-dwelling Urdu-speakers—assisting them in legal matters and getting National ID Cards, passports, bank accounts, trade licenses and so on. 

The collaborator tag 

The Urdu-speaking community has been stigmatised in the popular imagination ever since Bangladesh's independence, as a section of the East Pakistani Urdu-speakers (alongside extremist Bangla-speaking Muslims popularly known as Razakars) had reportedly supported the brutal military campaign of West Pakistan during the 1971 war. They were seen as Pakistani collaborators and sympathisers. 

Growing up, I myself witnessed many people around me viewing Urdu-speakers from the Geneva Camp in a bad light. The stigmatisation against Urdu-speakers had its roots in the post-Partition East Pakistani atmosphere, where clashes between Bengali-speakers and Urdu-speakers would often break out. 

During the Liberation war, some Urdu-speakers had to indirectly bear the brunt of the West Pakistani military’s actions. They had to live in constant fear of backlash, as one can find in Archer Blood’s memoir, The Cruel Birth of Bangladesh, and Aquila Ismaeel’s family’s story. I remember my grandmother narrating the story of how their Urdu-speaking neighbours suddenly, without any notice, fled one night in the thick of the war.

Bangladeshi policemen detain a man following clashes between local Bengali youths and Biharis at the Geneva camp in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Saturday, June 14, 2014.
Bangladeshi policemen detain a man following clashes between local Bengali youths and Biharis at the Geneva camp in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Saturday, June 14, 2014. (AP)

In a 1973 report for The New York Times, Bernard Weinraub highlights how the ‘Biharis’ found themselves in a precarious position after Bangladesh’s liberation.

Weinraub wrote that just like the Asians in British Uganda, a section of the ‘Biharis’ were used by the West Pakistani forces ever since the 1947 partition to keep the ‘restive’ Bangla-speakers of East Pakistan in check.

The then rampant belief—that the ‘Biharis’ were West Pakistani collaborators—made them particularly vulnerable in the new country. In his report, he says that although a mass slaughter against the ‘Biharis’ was expected, the actions taken by the Indian Army Guards and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman averted any such incident. 

Stigmatisation is rooted in the faulty, problematic spirit of ‘othering’. This ignorant act seeks to brush aside facts and rest in distorted fiction. As such, it might come as a surprise to those who stigmatise an entire community based on the actions of a few, that the Urdu poet Naushad Noori staunchly opposed Jinnah’s decision to make Urdu the lingua franca of Pakistan in 1952. He even lost his government job due to the poem — Mohenjo Daro — he published in protest. Like him, many Urdu speakers were sympathetic to not only the cause of the Bangla Language Movement but also to condemning West Pakistan’s brutal military actions — be it in 1971 or prior.

With an estimated number of 300,000 Urdu speakers remaining in Bangladesh, Urdu literature continues to exist here, although its future remains uncertain due to the lack of young Urdu writers. 

The complicated relationship between the Partition of the Indian Subcontinent, the 1971 Liberation War and the subsequent emergence of Bangladesh from East Pakistan, largely defines a huge portion of Urdu literature’s presence in Bangladesh.

In his book, A Brief Profile of Urdu Poets of Bangladesh, prominent Urdu writer Ahmed Ilias suggests that the language started seeping into Bengal from the mid-17th century. In the madrasas of British Bengal, Urdu was the medium of instruction.

One reference of this fact can be found in the case of Aliya Madrasah, which opened in 1780 in Calcutta and embraced Urdu as its medium. He maintains that Urdu flourished alongside Persian in places like Murshedabad and Dhaka during the rule of Nawab Murshid Quli Khan, Shujauddin Khan, and Alivardi Khan. 

In Fort William College, which was founded in 1800, the Department of Urdu existed alongside Bengali and Persian since the beginning of its journey. Ilias further writes that Urdu’s spread became more prominent as Urdu-speaking workers from Bihar and Orissa migrated to the tea gardens of Bengal for work during the 19th and 20th century. Alongside them, employees of the Eastern Bengal Railways also played a significant role in diffusing the Urdu language throughout Bengal.

As India and Pakistan became separate states in 1947, many Urdu-speaking Muslims from states like Bihar, Orissa, Maharashtra, and Uttar Pradesh migrated to East Pakistan. 

In the summer of 2014, the Bengladeshi police said arson attacks and clashes between Bengali-speaking slum dwellers and Urdu-speaking stateless people have left several people dead in Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka.
In the summer of 2014, the Bengladeshi police said arson attacks and clashes between Bengali-speaking slum dwellers and Urdu-speaking stateless people have left several people dead in Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka. (AP)

The language movement in West Pakistan

Soon after the partition, tensions started brewing between East and West Pakistan. The ruling Muslim League steadily became unpopular in the western side because of issues ranging from the lack of Bengali-speaking representation from the eastern regions, to shortage of food and famine in the countryside as well as administrative and cultural subjugation. 

The question of language was one of the crucial points of contention. According to the Muslim League, Urdu was to be state language of Pakistan alongside English, although East Pakistanis were allowed to practice Bangla as their mother tongue. 

However, the Bangla speakers of Pakistan staunchly opposed this decision, arguing that it was yet another move played by the League to suppress the Bangla speakers. Moreover,  the total population of Pakistan back then was 69 million. Among them, Bangla speakers amounted to 44 million, most of whom resided in East Pakistan. 

The promotion of Urdu to the status of state language therefore came as a blow to East Pakistani representation. Against this backdrop, the language movement broke out on February 21, 1952, which brought East Pakistan to a grounding halt and paralysed it in the throes of protests. That fateful day witnessed the deaths of five protestors at the hands of law enforcement. 

As a result of the movement, among other factors, Bangla was recognised as one of the state languages four years later. One of the interesting things about the movement was the way in which a solidarity was forged between Bangla speakers and Urdu speakers. The late poet Naushad Noori remains the perfect embodiment of the solidarity offered by non-Bengalis. He was a strong opponent to Jinnah’s decision of making Urdu the state language while ignoring Bangla. He composed the poem Mohenjo Daro, protesting Jinnah’s decision. Translated by his grandson Osama Rahman, the poem reads:

“Our manuscript, our song Our ancestor's fables! 

To each his own lullaby To each his own alphabets, 

Inscribe them in leaves, stones, skin, papyrus leaves, silver and even iron…” 

In the words of Osama Rahman, Noori’s love for language and freedom outmanoeuvred the elements of nationalism. 

Noori championed the minority rights instead of being subsumed by the powerful state machinery. That he was an Urdu-speaker and yet supported the Bangla-speakers against West Pakistan’s decision came as a huge blow. He had to resign from his government job due to the onslaught of backlash he was receiving after publicising his support for Bangla language. He continued supporting the East Pakistani Bangla-speakers well beyond the 1952 episode. He had developed good ties with the firebrand Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and other eminent political personalities like Maulana Bhashani. 

In 1966, when East Pakistan was booming for the return of democracy from the authoritarian rule of Ayub Khan, Noori composed another poem in favour of the East Pakistanis’ six-point movement. The movement demanded greater autonomy for East Pakistan in the face of West Pakistani tactics of suppressing and depriving the East of government funds and foreign investments. 

Published in the Urdu literary weekly Jarida, one of the poem’s lines read: “Your freedom, my freedom, six-point, six-point.” At the end of March 1971, after the merciless crackdown of the West Pakistani military on the Bangla-speaking population of East Pakistan, Noori wrote the poem ‘Blood-tinged day’, detesting the government for the atrocities it had sponsored.

“There’s no way other than war/ Nothing to give except hatred,” he wrote in the poem.

Noori was responsible for the publication of the weekly, Jarida, since 1970 in East Pakistan. A large portion of the weekly was dedicated to publishing the Urdu translations of contemporary Bangladeshi writers’ works. Following the ban by the West Pakistani government on the propagation of Tagore’s literary works, many Urdu-speaking writers (including Noori) like Salahuddin Mohammad and Ahmed Ilias signed a protest petition in Jarida.

Besides Noori, Ahmed Ilias is also a notable Urdu poet, who was among the crop of Urdu-speaking people sympathising with the East Pakistanis. In a poem titled ‘Kalbaishakhi’ (this word refers to the vigorous annual storm that heralds the arrival of summer in Bangladesh), about the military’s ruthlessness, he wrote, “I know, I know/ where the light has vanished/ the sun will surely rise.” He was the East Pakistani representative of an Urdu literary platform called ‘Bazm-e-Sakafat’. He was also a regular in the Urdu literary gatherings that used to take place at the office of Anzuman-e-Tarakkiye Urdu, near a Bata store at Dhaka’s Gulistan. 

In 1969, Ilias was the East Pakistani correspondent of poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s political weekly called Lail-o-Nahar, which was based out of Karachi. Lail-o-Nahar was used as a tool to educate the people of West Pakistan about the plight of East Pakistanis in the late 1960s. Writer Asrar Chowdhury calls Faiz “a crucial bridge between the East and West speaking about the injustices towards the Bengali people”. 

In the weekly, Faiz had warned that if the National Assembly didn’t take place on March 3, 1971, as the East Pakistanis so desperately wanted, “the history of Pakistan would change forever”.  

After all, the taking place of a National Assembly meant the official transfer of power to the election-winner, which was the most popular political party of East Pakistan, the Awami League. 

As fate would have it, it did change forever as Yahya Khan and other West Pakistani stakeholders kept delaying the assembly and suddenly, on the 25th, the West Pakistani military swooped upon the sleeping masses of East Pakistan, sparking a war that would last nine months and turn East Pakistan into an independent Bangladesh. He has two poetry collections to his name: Ainey Rezey' (Broken Mirror) and 'Harfe Darida' (Torn Letters), which are, as written by Professor C R Abrar “reflections of a person who is 'in exile in his own country' and 'universal cry of all the refugees and the exiles the world over'”.  

After Bangladesh’s independence, Ilias founded the Al-Falah NGO, devoting his life to helping the Urdu-speaking dwellers of the camps strewn across Bangladesh meant to accommodate the stranded Urdu-speaking population after the Liberation War. This foundation played an instrumental role in advocating for the stranded Urdu-speaking population and their citizenship in Bangladesh. His book of nonfiction, Biharis-The Indian Émigrés in Bangladesh, is considered a seminal body of text in the study of Bangladesh’s Urdu-speaking population, which I could not retrieve because of its unavailability. 

In his illustrious career as an activist and writer, Ilias was supported by eminent Bangladeshis like the poet Asad Chowdhury and the freedom fighter Kamal Lohani. It was Asad Chowdhury who founded the Bangla-Urdu Sahitya Forum, which was later renamed the Bangla-Urdu Sahitya Foundation. Its current editor is the Urdu writer Shamim Zamanvi. This literary foundation, since its emergence in 2007, has been working towards Urdu-Bangla literary solidarity. It offers patronages to writers who practice in Urdu and also translates works of Bangla literature into Urdu and vice-versa. In one of its anthologies, Awaaz (Voice), there are poems and Ghazals written both in Urdu and Bangla (translated).

Part of the Progressive Movement in the 1950s, Ahmed Ilias and Naushad Noori are some notable examples of the East Pakistani Urdu-speaking writers who championed the cause of the East Pakistani people’s self-determination after the partition. As suggested by Rukhsana Rahim Chowdhury of BRAC University in her paper ‘A search for the self: Trials and tribulations of Urdu writers in Bangladesh’, their aim was to speak for equality and protest social injustice. 

Under the auspices of the poet Asad Chowdhury, a book named Barir Kache Arshinagar was compiled which consists of 100 Urdu poems translated into Bangla, Shamim Zamanvi tells me. Although I could not retrieve a physical or digital copy, he tells me that the poems, among other issues, dwell on the subjects of home, exile, migration, self-determination, alienation, and language.

While Naushad Noori passed away in 2000, battling a long-term illness, Ahmed Ilias continued spearheading the Al-Fatah foundation, focusing on the needs of the Urdu-speaking population.

The assembly of poets

About the present state of Urdu literature in Bangladesh, Shamim Zamanvi tells me that it is mostly surviving by virtue of translation—Urdu works from and beyond Bangladesh are being translated into Bangla, while classic Bangladeshi works are also being translated into Urdu.

Originally from the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, Zamanvi has been involved with Urdu poetry since his junior school days. In Khulna, where he lived, his teachers used to call him “Ghalib”, alluding to his flair for Urdu poetry. His love for the literature drove him into opening an organization back then with his school friends called “Bazm-e-Shai-in”. 

Attending mushairas, assemblies of poets, and reciting his own work paved the way for his journey towards honing his poetry skills. After the 1965 Indo-Pakistani war, a poetry assembly held a poetry-writing contest surrounding the topic of that war. Against many big and well-established names, Zamanvi’s poem stood out. Other poems he wrote in that century included the themes of migration, belonging, the language-movement, and so on.  When I asked him if he could show me his poems from the last century, he said he couldn't. 

One night, twelve years ago, he got mugged and lost his poetry collection, which was in a heavy bag he was carrying, near Dhanmondi on his way home, after attending a mushaira. After that incident, he stopped writing for two years due to frustration. Then the poet Asad Chowdhury motivated him to start from scratch. Zamanvi tells me that without the support of eminent Bangladeshi literary figures like Shamsur Rahman, Asad Chowdhury, and the trustees of the Bangladeshi Liberation War Museum, the journey towards preserving Urdu literature would be much more exhausting.

An activist and Urdu writer from Saidpur, Majib Iqbal says that most people who write in Urdu are getting older, and individuals from younger generations aren’t practicing the literature. “They want to be completely assimilated into the Bangladeshi fabric,” he says. Haikal Hashmi, a writer himself and son of the late Naushad Noori, echoes the same sentiment. According to him, since learning Urdu doesn’t come with any incentive, today’s youth—whose parents are Urdu-speaking—don’t find themselves leaning in that direction. Both Iqbal and Hashmi assert that Urdu isn’t being taught at the primary schools, and that is also contributing to the lack of new generation Urdu writers from this country.

“Only the University of Dhaka and Rajshahi have Urdu departments,” Hashmi says. “Even in those places, many people do not go solely out of passion for literature.”

Professor Mahmudul Haque tells me that presently there are more than 400 students enrolled in the department at University of Dhaka. This department ranges from undergraduate courses to even PhD programs. He says that the only incentive behind enrolling in this department is that the students are getting their degrees from a famous, historic university. Career prospects in this sphere, after all, are very slim. He adds that the courses of this department are designed in such a comprehensive manner that the students are steadily readied for the job market. 

Enayatullah Siddiqui, a writer adept equally at writing and translating Urdu and Bangla, shares the same comments—that among the new generation coming from the Urdu-speaking community, an interest in the literature is lacking. 

According to Rukhsana Rahim Chowdhury, “The post 1971 environment was not at all conducive to Urdu as a language let alone its literature. Urdu schools were closed down; optional paper in higher studies was also dropped. Urdu journals and newspapers ceased publication, regular Urdu news broadcasts and Urdu plays stopped being broadcast. 

The Department of Urdu and Persian continued to exist at the University of Dhaka, but more students opted for Persian than for Urdu. The number of mushairas dwindled down. Against this backdrop, the Urdu speaking community found itself questioning its own identity.” Zamanvi tells me that it was due to the backing of Bangladeshi personalities, like writers Asad Chowdhury and Shamsur Rahman among others, that the Urdu literary landscape was able to survive in a post-independence atmosphere. Besides, the Al Falah foundation has also played an instrumental role in encouraging the practice of Urdu literature.

Daughter of Urdu fiction writer Arman Shamsi, Sadia Arman says, “I used to bring my Bangla-speaking friends to mushairas to highlight the beauty of Urdu literature, in a bid to popularise it.” She also thinks that the standard of Urdu has degraded among the new generation of Urdu-speaking people. She adds that this is evidenced by the fact that there’s a huge dearth of modern works of Urdu literature. However, writers like her father and SM Sajid continue to do so.

Even though Urdu literature from the new generation isn’t finding a firm ground in the country, there are translators such as Javed Hussein, Sabera Tabassum, and Saleh Fuad, who have been translating South Asian Urdu literature into Bangla. 

About the possible future of Urdu literature in Bangladesh, Hashmi foresees a bleak future. He, like Javed Hussein, Saleh Fuad, and Sadia Arman, suggests that although it may not be organically practiced by the older generation in the future, it may remain alive through translation. 

In this regard, translator Saleh Fuad says, “The future of Urdu literature in Bangladesh doesn’t look very bright, due to very limited scope for publication and also the small number of Urdu-speaking writers. However, translated works[Urdu to Bangla] have nice prospects, due to the readers’ interest and the quality of Urdu literature.”

Professor Haque added that given Bangladesh’s political history with Pakistan, the practice of this kind of literature has been unable to reach a decent level of popularity among the masses.

“Even if the literature dies, the language will live,” Zamanvi says. “It has been here since the 17th century. Why would it so easily die out?”

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