Bihar: Hindu refugees from East Pakistan want land, living, identity

Hindustan Times, Bettiah | By
Mar 02, 2018 08:05 AM IST

Many of the Hindu refugees from East Pakistan settled in Bihar are yet to be granted land and have no source of income. In a state in which caste plays a major role, these Bengali-speaking people are struggling for recognition

Seventy-eight-year-old Anil Havildar is disconsolate. He points to his field, which had once won him the badge of a successful farmer from the Bihar government. He had grown a record 492 quintals of rice in one acre, in 1977.

Bangladeshi refugee, Girija Lal Sahu, at Hazari camp in Bettiah. Sahu, who came to the camp in 1974, plies a rickshaw for a living.(AP Dube/HT Photo)
Bangladeshi refugee, Girija Lal Sahu, at Hazari camp in Bettiah. Sahu, who came to the camp in 1974, plies a rickshaw for a living.(AP Dube/HT Photo)

But for this man, who resettled at Biranchi tola number 3 colony -- one among 46 other East Pakistani Hindu refugee colonies in west Champaram -- life is not the same. A flooded Manihari river left piles of sand on his farm and destroyed his fields and his pride. Havildar, who made his way here in 1956, is a broken man after losing four acres of land which are either filled with sand or have been eroded by the river. “Nobody from the government has come here. I am virtually landless,’’ he says.

Havildar is not alone. Shyamal Prasad Saha (70) and nonagenarian Rabindra Nath Poddar too lost huge chunks of land to sand, making them virtually landless. Saha, one of the educated Bengali refugees grew rice, wheat and sugarcane in the four acres of land he got from the government as part of the rehabilitation policy. He has now shifted base to one of the refugee colonies situated in Bettiah town.

Poddar, who earned name and fame for his treatment of snake bites, lives with his extended family. Nearly 55 families out of 113 families rehabilitated in Biranchi no 3 in 1956, have lost nearly 121 acres of agricultural and 69 decimals of housing land. They now live on the edge of poverty.

Land for settlement

Many Bengali speaking Hindus were forced to leave East Pakistan and take shelter in India.

The Centre arranged for their rehabilitation in West Bengal, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Delhi, Andaman and Nicobar, Assam and Tripura.

In Bihar, these Bengali speaking refugees were first set up in a camp near Paschim Hazari area. They were then relocated to the 46 refugee colonies spread across West Champaran. Bihar has 115 refugee colonies. West Champaran has the maximum, followed by 38 in Purnia and 13 in East Champaran.

Each of the displaced families were given two types of land -- five acres for farming and 18 decimal to build a house, or four acres and 18 decimal land. They were given voting rights only two years back in 2015.

Not all refugees were lucky. Nearly 24 families – 14 of whom are from Myanmar and living at Paschim Hazari camp set up in 1956 – are still to get any land. “It is not the issue of citizenship. They all have voting rights,” said Dr (Capt) Dilip Kumar Sinha, former vice-president of Bihar Minority Commission and president of Bihar-Bengali Samiti. He did not address the issue of non-allocation of land.

“We never visited our relatives who stayed back…. But nobody cares for our plight,” said Girija Lal Sahu, a refugee, who came to Hazari camp in 1974. Sahu makes do plying a rickshaw. Other refugees left out in land settlement either work in fields as daily wagers or are into petty business.

While some still do fight for land, at Majaharia, another refugee colony, situated near the Udaipur ox-bow lake, encroachment of their land by locals resulted in a bloody fight in 1997.

Caste Recognition

In a state where caste plays a major role, these Bengali speaking people are also vying for a caste identity.

Raja Kumar Das, a student of class 10 at Swatantra Senani Kedarnath Motani High School, has been trying to get a caste certificate to apply for his board examinations for the last eight months.

The Bihar School Examination Board has announced the schedule, but Das is still struggling to get the caste certificate that is mandatory.

“It has been proved that more than 65% of them belong to Scheduled Castes (SC) but they are shown in the list of backward castes and extremely backward caste list in Bihar. This is making it difficult for them to get caste certificates. This deprives them of different welfare projects of government,” said Madan Banik, vice president (zone 4), central committee, Bihar Bengali Association.

A study conducted by Asian Development Research Institute’s Centre for Economic Policy and Public Finance (CEPPF) reveals that 36.2% people fail to find their caste in the state list, whereas 66% have been placed in extremely backward class. The survey reveals that 97.1% people claimed themselves to be SC, of which 49% and 38% are in East and West Champaran districts respectively.

“The same people find place in SC list in neighbouring West Bengal. Does change of place change the caste also?” wondered Banik.

“This has happened despite the state general administration department issuing instructions (letter no 20810, dated 16.6.2009) to district authorities to issue caste certificate.”

The association’s Bettiah chapter president, Radhakant Debnath, had written a letter in October 2017 to the district magistrate to consider the state directive, but has not had a response.

Socio-Economic Conditions

The CEPPF study reveals that only 16.2% Bengali speaking refugees have passed matric or taken to higher education; 11.2% refugees can read in their mother tongue Bengali with difficulty, while just 23.6% can write in Bengali.

The economic condition of these refugees has not changed either with only 3.3% of their population in government services.

While 43.7% are wage labourers, 28.7% are self-employed, mostly in agriculture. More than half their population, 56.6% have shown their income below Rs 3000 per month. Over 30% of the population does not have ration cards and only 15.2% have concrete shelter.

The demand for the formation of a Refugee Development Authority is long pending. In 2011, Bihar government announced the constitution of Tharu Development Authority for the development of Tharus living near the borders with Nepal and gave them the status of scheduled tribes. The Bengali Association has also demanded that they be included. The government has, however, been found lacking.

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    Vijay is chief of bureau, Patna. He has spent 21 years in journalism and covers political beats and public affairs.

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