Life, death and land

By Victoria Redclift

Last month nine people were burnt alive in a ‘refugee camp’ in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The fire occurred after a clash between the Urdu-speaking ‘Bihari’ camp residents and Bengali locals from a nearby slum. Some reports allege that several hundred Bengalis carrying machetes attacked the camp, setting houses ablaze. Most reports suggest that the victims were locked in their homes as the houses were set on fire. Eight of the nine casualties were from the same family and 50-100 others are thought to have been injured in the clashes. It has also been reported that a tenth individual was shot dead by police intervention. The Bangladeshi New Age newspaper suggests that the police targeted their gun fire and tear gas at the camp residents they had been called to protect.

Most commentators have suggested that this event can be understood as nothing more than ethnic conflict between ‘Biharis’ and Bengalis; a legacy of Bangladesh’s Liberation War in 1971. I want to suggest that while the event certainly speaks to this history, it tells us as much about what unites these groups as what divides them; and a great deal more about what it means to be landless across the postcolonial world.

‘Biharis’ in Bangladesh

Originating in North India, the ‘Urdu-speaking Bihari[1] community’ were displaced to East Pakistan (present day Bangladesh) at the time of Partition in 1947, before the involvement of some in Bangladesh’s War of Liberation in 1971 displaced many for a second time. Following the war and the creation of Bangladesh, the entire ‘Bihari’ community were branded enemy collaborators and socially ostracised. Thousands were arrested and executed and, having been dispossessed by the Bangladeshi state, others were forced to flee. Those who had the resources to do so fled overseas, particularly to Pakistan, the US and the UK, while those who did not found themselves in ‘temporary camps’ established nationwide. Around 300,000 people still live in these camps today, including the approximately 8,000 people living in Kurmitola camp (Al Falah, 2006) in the Mirpur suburb of Dhaka, where the recent fire occurred.

Between 1972 and 2008 the entire ‘Bihari’ community were recognised as a ‘de facto stateless community’ in Bangladesh. Then, after nearly forty years, they regained their citizenship in a High Court Ruling that has been described as a ‘major breakthrough’ in the battle to reduce statelessness across the globe (UNHCR, 2009). However the meaning of their newfound citizenship has been thrown into relief by recent events. What in fact does it mean to be a citizen when you live in an eight foot by eight foot room which can be burnt to the ground with your family in it while the police do nothing to help?

The spatialization of citizenship

The camps in which most ‘Biharis’ currently live were built in 1972 as ‘temporary shelters’ until a decision could be made about whether people should be ‘repatriated’ to Pakistan or settled somewhere in Bangladesh. But, for the vast majority, unwanted in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, that decision was never made[2]. The camps were built on any land left vacant and their names – ‘Cinema Hall Camp’, ‘Godown (warehouse) Camp’, ‘Football Ground Camp’, ‘Madrasah Camp’- attest to the desperate ad hoc search for shelter. The emergency conditions under which sites were chosen, and the impermanence of the original structures, have generated problems ever since. The vast majority were built on land that was not formally set aside by the Government. They developed on land belonging to ‘Biharis’ as well as land belonging to Bengalis, and the ownership of such spaces remains very much contested. As a result, camp residents live in fear of eviction. The impending possibility of a ‘third displacement’ is alive in the discursive ether. And concerns are certainly not without cause.

Many of the camps were built on land owned by Housing Associations and, in the thirty-eight years since, attempts to reclaim the land have only increased. A particularly precarious situation exists in the part of the capital where the Kurmitola camp fire occurred. In the suburb of Mirpur the land on which all forty camps were built was sold by the Government’s Housing and Settlement Authority to Government employees in 1995/1996. Those who bought the land have not yet been given their plots and they are, naturally, upset. In 2007 the new owners of the land filed a case against the ‘camp-dwellers’. Parts of Mirpur were actually evicted and camp properties demolished.

The 2008 High Court Ruling, in which the camp residents regained their citizenship, might seem to have secured them new found rights. However, the acquisition of formal citizenship has paradoxically weakened their position, by enabling those who bought the land to raise their voices once more, arguing that the gift of this land to camp residents is incompatible with the formal civil status they now possess. Some suggest that, through the acquisition of citizenship, those in the camps have lost the ‘special status’ that ‘statelessness’ provided, and attempts to evict them continue. The land on which Kurmitola camp was built is lucrative real estate, and many camp residents believe the fire was one of numerous attempts to displace them.

In previous research (Redclift, 2013) I compared experiences of citizenship among those ‘Biharis’ who were forced into camps with those who had been able to retain their homes during the war, examining the ways in which inequalities of class and space generate uneven claims to rights. Those ‘Biharis’ who had the resources to remain outside the camps following the war have been accessing citizenship for the last forty years. With money, status and a non-camp address they have been able to physically and culturally integrate into Bengali society, through which they achieved the formal recognition of civil status. However, for thirty-six years residence in the camps effectively denied ‘camp-dwellers’ similar treatment. For poor ‘Biharis’ it is the camp itself that positions them outside the state. After 2008 little has changed in this respect. While the middle class ‘Biharis’ who live outside the camps continue to be accepted as citizens in all substantive respects, for those in the camps citizenship is not a stable identity of law and fact but a shifting assortment of exceptions, rejections, inclusions and denials. Six years after the 2008 High Court Ruling camp residents are still facing problems acquiring passports, but more worryingly still, as the recent fire demonstrates, some cannot even feel safe in their homes. The negotiated instability of citizenship may be exaggerated in postcolonial space, where, for many marginalized populations, citizenship and its slogan of universality “is often a mask to cover the perpetuation of real inequalities” (Chatterjee, 2004, p.22)

But this story is not just about a formerly stateless population in Bangladesh navigating uneven claims to rights. At its root is a battle for resources which is familiar the world over. As some commentators have made clear, tensions between the ‘Bihari’ residents of Kurmitola camp and the nearby Bengali dominated Bauniabandh slum had been high for some time. A few days before the fire, residents of Bauniabandh visited Kurmitola camp to try to establish an illegal electricity connection. The camp residents refused, arguing that the single transformer with which they had been provided would not bear the load of extra connections. Many camp residents believe this incident precipitated the attack. Whatever the truth of those claims, it reminds us, of course, that it is not only poor ‘Biharis’ who are positioned outside the state. Among slum dwellers, as well as stateless people, there is no equal and uniform exercise of citizenship (Chatterjee, 2004).

Most commentators have understood the fire that took place last month as a tragic legacy of ethno-linguistic conflict rooted in the events of the Liberation War. And there is no doubt that such an event speaks to the long term consequences of major historical events, as well as the power of the historical memory within which ‘Biharis’ and Bengalis are still positioned. However, I argue that it tells us more than this. First, it draws our attention to the ‘long durée’ of displacement, and in particular the long term implications of settlement practices in facilitating livelihood opportunities for those displaced. Second, the socio-economic polarisation of the ‘Bihari’ community which camp residence has reinforced reminds us that ethnicity and identity are re-imagined within the histories and spatialities that frame them and the fabric of the discourses that time and space construct – the source or shape of ‘ethnic conflict’ is not static over time. Finally, it draws our attention to a ‘political space’ in which, regardless of legal status, not everyone is constituted with the same humanity. Across the postcolonial world today, the domain of property has been cast as fundamental to entitlements and obligations (Hansen, 2001, 2005; Zamindar, 2007). And, as the fire in Kurmitola camp reminds us, it is through the domain of property that we can best observe “a struggle over the real, rather than merely formal, distribution of rights” (Chatterjee, 2004, p.74). Legal status is often conceived of as an unambiguous ‘good’, but in the specificity of Bangladesh’s historical imagination the value of citizenship is socially and spatially produced.



AL FALAH BANGLADESH, 2006. Urdu-speaker settlements in Bangladesh. Dhaka: Al Falah Bangladesh.

HANSEN, B.T., 2001. Governance and state mythologies in Mumbai. In: T.BLOM HANSEN AND F.STEPPUTAT, eds., States of imagination: Ethnographic explorations of the postcolonial state, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 221-56.

HANSEN, B.T., 2005. Sovereigns beyond the state. In: T.BLOM HANSEN AND F.STEPPUTAT, eds., Sovereign bodies: Citizens, migrants and states in the postcolonial world. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 169-91.

CHATTERJEE, P., 2004. The politics of the governed: Reflections on popular politics in most of the world. New York: Colombia University Press.

GHOSH, P., 2004. Unwanted and uprooted: a political study of migrants, refugees, stateless and displaced of South Asia. New Delhi: Samskriti.

REDCLIFT, V., 2013. Statelessness and citizenship: Camps and the creation of political space. London: Routledge.

UNITED NATIONS HIGH COMMISSION FOR REFUGEES (UNHCR), 2009. Statement by Antonio Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the General Assembly, 64th Session, UN Headquarters, New York, 3rd November 2009. Available at:

ZAMINDAR, V., 2007. The long Partition and the making of modern South Asia: Refugees, boundaries and histories. New York: Colombia University Press.



[1] A label that literally means ‘from the state of Bihar’ but is coupled today with a range of derogatory concontations.

[2] Pakistan’s Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto accepted some but not all and over the years ‘repatriation’ was never more than modest (Partha Ghosh, 2004).



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