By Nirendra Dev

Bengalis are the third-largest ethnic group in the world, after the Han Chinese and Arabs and the largest ethnic group within the Indo-Europeans. Like Punjabis they are also found in most parts of the World besides their own countries India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. They are active culturally and even intellectually but keep low profile politically for various reasons. But it is an irony that like Punjabis they face many problems in their own countries even though they are born and brought up there for generations, the former for the religion they practice and the later for the language they speak and at times a deadly mixture-both language and religion!

Attack on Hindu Bengalis in Bangladesh and Muslim Bengalis in India because of their religion from time to time is highlighted in media and other fora. But the community, which is quite large in Pakistan, is silently suffering even though they belong to the same religion but speak different languages. So such people are facing a crisis of identity in their own motherland.

Bengali Hindus have one type of complaint in India and in states such as Assam. The Muslims among Bengali speaking people could be easily dismissed as ‘Bangladeshis’ and it is not only a ‘bad word’, but the issue also pertains to a major political row too.

The plight of Bengali speaking Hindus and Muslims in Indian states mainly in Assam, West Bengal and other Northeastern states, the ‘ethnic Bengalis’ in Pakistan are stateless and thus ‘helpless’ and are deprived of official recognition and citizenship. The Bengali population in Pakistan could be anything between 20 lakh to 30 lakh. But an overwhelming number of them do not have CNIC – the Computerised National Identity Card. The CNIC is the Pakistani version of the Aadhar card – so essential and easily understood in India. Here too the question is about Voters Identity Card and National Registrar for Citizens both certifying citizenships.

In fact, the CNIC norms go a step further. – In Pakistan, one needs CNIC even to buy vehicles and train tickets. The CNIC is in effect compulsory for people in Pakistan who are 18 and above for voting rights, as well as to get their passport and driving licence. Besides these “luxuries” even primary things like education and jobs will not be available without CNIC.

In 2018 there was a major controversy about ‘citizenship’ of these sections of Bengalis in Pakistan. Social and political activists belonging to the Bengali community of Karachi alone had estimated this number to be around 1.2 million, that is 12 lakhs. “…………… a sizable number of people (Bengalis in Pakistan) do not possess a government- issued ID or their CNICs have been revoked on suspicion of being illegal immigrants from Bangladesh,” said a report in the country’s leading English daily ‘Dawn’. In 2021 – three years since then nothing much has changed on ground.

Reports in Aljazeera, a prominent media outlet claimed recently: “Approximately 65 percent of Machar Colony inhabitants in Karachi are ethnic Bengalis and more than half of them have no citizenship or are stuck in a process of getting one”. It also said that residents of Zaman Town in Korangi complained that they have “not been issued CNICs despite filing applications several times” at the local administrative offices. Reports both in mainstream media and social media say- the charity organisation Imkaan Welfare Organisation has taken up the issue of these ill-fated people.

This stateless situation is affecting the younger generation more than the older ones. They cannot get formal education and cannot excel in fields like sports which goes with schooling.

One example is a matter of concern that two promising young female gymnasts- Kiran Jaffar and Kulsoom Yamir, may never represent the country at national or international events just because they are Bengalis. “. they stand no chance of fulfilling that dream”, says media reports making references to two teens as they do not have the possibility of representing Pakistan without an “official identification document”.

There are issues of getting justice for ethnic Bengalis – who could be Muslims but there is no let-up in their woes. “Courts in Pakistan are generally considered expensive and inaccessible, and women especially have to deal with additional gender barriers to access to justice as there are a limited number of female legal staff in Pakistan,” says a New Delhi-based Pakistan observer.

The Pakistan Citizenship Act 1951 stipulates that people who were residing in territories that make up Pakistan prior to Dec 16, 1971, would continue to be citizens of Pakistan, and their children would be considered citizens of Pakistan by virtue of their descent. But Bengali speaking ‘residents’ in Pakistan continue to be deprived of citizenship and social and legal remedies. There is another version.

The cut-off year was kept in 1978 to ‘differentiate’ between Bengalis who are legally entitled to residence in Pakistan and those who ‘emigrated from Bangladesh’ in search of a livelihood.

The Bengali life in Pakistan on ground relates to some sections of people who have been coming to Pakistan on several important global calendars. First, 1947 when partition was imposed on the people of both India and ‘newly’ created Pakistan. Then again, a substantial number in 1971 when Bangladesh was created carving out of Pakistan, when many Bengalis working or settled in Pakistan declined to move back home. It is also estimated by Bangladesh media and officials that “Bengalis who arrived in Pakistan before 1971 have now assimilated with the Urdu-speaking people mostly in Karachi”.

But there is a counter to this theorem also. It is estimated that over the years, economic migrants (Bengali speaking) have mostly moved out of Pakistan because it is no longer profitable to work and earn in Pakistan due to the Pakistani rupee falling weaker than the Bangladeshi taka. As of Nov 7, 2021, 1.98 Pakistani Rupee make only one Bangladeshi taka! Now it is almost rivalling the Indian rupee too. It is a case of splinter-nation Bangladesh doing better than Pakistan in economy; but the Bengali speaking population in Pakistan need to wait for some more time when things could possibly improve in their favour. It is also not possible for all Bengalis in Pakistan, especially the poor and illiterate, to come back to Bangladesh one day just because the country is doing well and they are deprived in their home country.

Source: Himalayan News Chronicle