Parties go innovative to grab Bihari votes | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, December 26, 2008 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, December 26, 2008

Parties go innovative to grab Bihari votes

Candidates set foot in their camps for the first time


Over the years it dawned on him that they, the Biharis here, had made the same mistake twice, and that was supporting Pakistan first in 1947 and then in 1971.
Now in his seventies, Moksud Alam of Geneva Camp in the city's Mohammadpur feels they have paid dearly for that.
The good thing is, he says, they did not mess it up this time. “We got registered as voters by swearing allegiance to Bangladesh as soon as the opportunity came along.”
Moksud knows their ballots weigh the same as do those of the other voters.
Left marginalised for decades, they are now quite important to the political parties and candidates in the December 29 general election. They will have a critical bearing on the vote outcome in several constituencies.
The caretaker government granted citizenship to the Biharis, also known as stranded Pakistanis, to let them be on the voter roll following a court order in May this year.
Though there has not been any census, the community leaders believe at least 70 thousand of them are spread across the country.
In the capital, they are concentrated mainly in Mirpur, Pallabi and Mohammadpur areas.
There, campaigners from the alliances led by Awami League (AL) and BNP are out to woo them with promises of better living conditions and integration into mainstream society.
Talking to The Daily Star, some canvassers said they are struggling to sense the pulse of these fresh voters. The vote might swing either way.
Moksud, who was born in 1938 in Patna of Bihar in India, first voted in 1957. That year, he cast his vote for Indian National Congress.
During the historic election of 1970, he was settled in Dhaka two years after his migration to the then East Pakistan. Like many who moved here from India since the partition, he backed Jamaat-e-Islami, the party that worked against the independence movement.
The Biharis were stripped of their right to vote after Bangladesh was liberated from Pakistani occupation in 1971. Since then, they had been stranded here as successive Pakistan governments showed little interest in taking them back.
Mohammad Parvez, a 28-year-old resident of Geneva Camp, said, “We are happy that we have a national identity and we can say we are the citizens of Bangladesh.”
In Mohammadpur, Pallabi and Mirpur, many Biharis mingling with different party workers are busy canvassing.
Interestingly, a group supporting Ilias Uddin Mollah, AL-led grand alliance candidate for Mirpur-Pallabi (Dhaka-16), has published leaflets in Urdu to seek attention of fellow Biharis.
Mohammad Abbas, 74, and Shahzada Selim, 43, were distributing the leaflets when this correspondent got to speak to them. They said they have published these on their own as many in their community can read only Urdu.
“We did this because we want them to rally behind our candidate of choice,” added Shahzada.
Rafiqul Islam Mia, BNP-led four-party alliance candidate for Dhaka-16, yesterday told The Daily Star, “My supporters in Bihari community too have decided to publish leaflets for me.”
Similarly, Biharis of Geneva Camp in Mohammadpur have published Urdu leaflets for Jahangir Kabir Nanak, grand alliance candidate for Dhaka-13.
Showing a leaflet to this correspondent, 53-year-old Mansur Alam said, “Who doesn't want to see his mother tongue in print.”
Sixty-year-old Sheikh Abdul Gafur finds it pretty amazing that both Nanak and four-party alliance candidate Moazzem Hossain Alal are canvassing vigorously for their support.
“This is the first time that politicians are coming to our doorsteps for vote. It feels like we have grown to be worthy citizens from being a bunch of losers. Till this month, there was none to look after us. Even if it's for the sake of vote, the political leaders are now asking how we do.”
The candidates have made a lot of promises in the leaflets for the Biharis. The pledges range from improving the living standards to ensuring fundamental rights.
With pledges aplenty, the Biharis have resolved to vote for the candidate they think would work sincerely for their rehabilitation and a better life.
Rafiqul Islam Mia said, “As a candidate, I naturally expect votes from the Bihari community. However, my expectation of them is a bit higher as I have fought for them in the cases regarding their citizenship.
“I think they know I can live up to the promises I'm making, and will vote for me.”
Meanwhile, AL candidate Ilias Mollah said, “I hope they'll be on my side as our family has always stood by them.”
As no official number of Bihari voters is available yet, the figures given by candidates and their campaign workers vary considerably.
While Mollah claims Bihari voters in his constituency would be 25-29 thousand, Mia says the number would range between 40 thousand and 45 thousand.
Ahmed Ilias, managing director of Al-Falah Bangladesh, an NGO working on social and economic rehabilitation of Biharis, told The Daily Star that his organisation conducted a survey for relief purposes on behalf of UNHCR in 2006.
"Though it wasn't a census of Urdu-speaking people in Bangladesh, we presume there would be around 160 thousand of them in 116 camps," he continued.
"If we consider 60 percent of them eligible to be voters, the number should be 95-96 thousand.”
Ahmed thinks there would be some 12 thousand Bihari voters in six camps and other places in Mohammadpur.

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