South Asia

Different kinds of Muslim communities (mainly Bengali and Bihari) left eastern India for East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) after India's break-up and independence in 1947. Many also came after the riots in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal in the 1950s and 1960s.

Bengali migrants

Gandhi in Bihar, March 1947Bengali migrants who left West Bengal in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s were of two kinds. Some were landed owners who exchanged their lands, orchards and ponds with Bengali Hindus from East Pakistan. Others, often those in villages where Bengali Muslims were a minority, had to leave their huts overnight and seek shelter in camps when things became very difficult for them or they feared for their lives. Their crops would be routinely burned down or eaten away by the cattle grazed by the newly arrived East Bengali refugees from East Pakistan, their orchard fruits stolen and very often, for those who were educated, access to jobs made difficult or impossible. Sometimes they even had to forego their religious customs and were made to feel like their way of life was inferior or even illegitimate in a newly independent India.

The Bengali migrants have not always been accepted with open arms in the areas where they settled. They are still called 'refugees' and the locals did not always allow their sons or daughters to marry into their families. Many amongst the older generations have remained bitter against India and predominantly voted for the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. However, those who were educated got jobs in the education and administrative spheres and the differences between the ex-refugees and the locals are now getting less.

Bihari or Urdu-speaking migrants

Lane in camp, SyedpurBihari migrants or those migrants from Urdu-speaking backgrounds and living in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Calcutta have usually been twice-migrants. They were hounded and massively killed on two occasions, once during the Calcutta and Bihar riots – many left their homes and settled in the newly formed state of East Pakistan – and then again in 1971 when they were at the receiving end of the Bengalis' reprisal against the west Pakistani ruling elite, as, being Urdu-speakers, they had, on the whole, supported them. Half of them still live in camps all over Bangladesh; however, since 2008, they have finally been allowed to register as Bangladeshi citizens. The stigma attached to them is slowly being eroded; many have intermarried with Bengalis and speak in Bengali. The new generation is totally bilingual and most children of Urdu-speaking migrants are more fluent reading and writing Bengali than they are Urdu.

G M Syed Ali – victim of riots in the Sundarbans area of West Bengal

Syed Ali is from Kalitala, West Bengal, India. Since 1964 he lives in Koikhali in the southern end of the district of Satkhira. He married twice and has five children from his first wife and one daughter from his second wife. He also has three young grandchildren. He started the ‘Association for Refugees’ in Koikhali.

Naihati Rail Station, North 24 ParganasWe were about 500 houses to flee over to Bangladesh during the 1964 riots. We used to live in Kalitala in Shamsernagar [North 24 Parganas, Hingalganj] and my father Md Ahad Ali Ghazi was the Anchal Pradhan [headman] there. Eight of my family members were killed that night; had the rest of us not left we would all have been killed.

We were resettled by the Pakistanis in this 'Mohajir colony' in Tengrakhali and Koikhali. I have started the Mohajir Society of Koikhali. People don't like to mix with us because they think we were razakars. Razakars were on the Pakistan's army’s pay-roll, they would relay information, tell them which families had beautiful young girls for them to prey on, receive favours from them. So the local population used to be suspicious of us. Now things are better for the younger generations.

Md Ashraful Haque Babu - what it means to be a second-generation Urdu-speaker

Md Ashraful Haque Babu (popularly known as 'Babubhai') is the local Bangladesh Nationalist Party candidate for Syedpur and Chairman of 'The Shamsul Huque Foundation' (a partner organization of Al-Falah Bangladesh - a non-governmental organisation.) At author Ahmed Ilias' book-launch, Babubhai gave a speech where he said:

We're suffering from a disease called 'identity crisis'. We want to forget the past, forget the repeated insult of being called 'razakar'. These bring tears to our eyes. Our forefathers may have been at fault but I want to say with my head held high that I'm a Bangladeshi, I want to live here and I want to die here amongst my Bangladeshi friends and brethren.

Ahmed Ilias – hopes for Biharis to be more integrated into the Bengali community

Ahmed Ilias is a writer, a poet and the proud father of eight children and three grandchildren.

I didn't organize the weddings of my daughters. We've always lived outside the camps and they were free to marry whoever they wanted. My mission in life has been to see that the Biharis should leave the camps and integrate into the mainstream Bengali society. Only this can save the present generation.

Ghalib poemI am proud to be considered an Urdu poet and I am known for my Urdu poetry. But I know that after me there won't be anybody carrying on the legacy. This is a historical process and one shouldn't get saddened by it. Maybe amongst my children, amongst future generations of Biharis, one will emerge as one of the greatest of Bengali poets.

All I want is to build a new world for my descendants where our first identity will be as humans.


Girls walking in Green St, NewhamAround half of the people who described themselves as Bangladeshi in the 2001 Census were born in Britain. The population is very much a young one; the average age of the Bangladeshi community is 18 years (compared to the White population, which is 37 years). 40% of Bangladeshis in Britain are under 16 years old. Statistics show that Bangladeshis had the largest families in the UK, with an average of 4.7 people in each household (Office of National Statistics, 2002), although this is getting less. Over 40% of Bangladeshi couples have four or more children. Bangladeshi households are some of the poorest in Britain, with over two-thirds of Bangladeshi children living below the poverty level (three times the national average). Bangladeshi children have traditionally done less well than other ethnic groups in education. However, recent figures suggest that Bangladeshi young people, particularly young women, are performing well in education and more and more of them are going into further and higher education.

Shamuz Miah (Burnley): Bangladeshi young people and drugs

Shamuz Miah, who has lived in Burnley since 1964 and has nine grown-up children spoke to us of some of the problems he sees with the younger generation of Bengalis in Burnley:

Heroin in powder and pill formsSometimes our children create trouble in the street. We can't only blame White people. Nowadays, Pakistanis are making progress. They are getting educated. In the past, they weren't good – they used to quarrel and fight a lot. Then, Bengalis were good. They didn't fight much. Now our kids have become involved with drugs.

He continued, jokingly:

But they haven't even earned money from drugs… The Pakistanis were involved (in drug dealing). The Bengalis are their juniors… I've said to our boys, 'Why are you doing this job? If you're going to do it, do it in a big way. Earn money and go to jail. At least you'll be rich!'

Jubair Ahmed (Newham): two kinds of young people

Jubair Ahmed lives in Chadwell Heath in Essex with his wife and two daughters. He spoke of two kinds of Bengali young people – the first were what he saw as 'gangs':

The new generation of children who grow up in East London have a gang culture. They hang around in gangs. This is not uncommon with teenagers, but recently they are getting involved in drug taking, and I think a rough attitude is developing among these children. Being rough means being tough… Because of this you will see that some boys deliberately do things that they know are wrong. By doing this, they are sending the message that, 'We are very bad, don't mess with us!' -  something like that.

The second group were younger people attracted to Islamist beliefs. He described them:

Islam symbolIn the universities there are some young students who are high calibre, well educated, well informed…They believe in an ideology which is based on anti-Western views. They explain events in an Islamic way… they maintain a strong belief, strong views and they are well-informed. If you talk with them, you will find they are aware of everything, they explain events in that [Islamic] way. We may not agree with them.

Although he could see some benefits of this Islamic identity, Jubair was saddened that some young people were dismissing their Bengali heritage:

From this Muslim identity, one thing is coming out which, I think, has a positive side – at least they are doing something that keeps them off of drugs. But they are not feeling proud of their Bengali identity – there is nothing significant about it. Once I talked about it with them in my school, they replied, 'There is nothing to say about Bengalis, they only eat dry fish'.

Selim Rahman (Bradford): changing mentalities

Selim Rahman came to Britain in 1973 and is married. He described the differences between his generation and the later generation of British-born Bengalis:

The mentality, the attitude, the way of thinking of the Bengalis here and the Bengalis in Bangladesh are different. For example, jokes: here Bengali children will laugh hearing an English joke but they will not laugh hearing a Bangla joke. It isn't funny to them. There have been lots of changes. Bengalis who are brought up here, including myself, are not the 100% Bengalis we think of. I have been here for 30 years. There have been lots of changes to my mentality. I accept many things from this country.

Shoeb Chowdhury (Birmingham): teaching Bengali culture

Shoeb Chowdhury came to Britain in 1971, but later returned to Bangladesh until he was a teenager. He told us how he tries to teach his two children Bengali culture and traditions:

Pohela Boishakh 2008, Tower HamletsIn this country, the fourth generation is coming through: there have been my grandfather, my father, myself and my children. I've seen many changes, ups and downs. I want my children to learn mainstream education and establish themselves in mainstream society. But at the same time, they will be the ones to uphold our culture. So I take them to our cultural functions, teach them Bangla, and they watch many programmes on Bangla TV channels, so they can learn many things about our traditions. I think our main responsibility is to highlight our culture, traditions, values to the next generation, along with English education, and to motivate them to look at our own roots.

Khaled Ahmed (Oldham): British or Bengali?

Khaled Ahmed came to Britain from the United States in 2003. He told us that he thought that young Bengalis in Britain were more British than Bengali:

Here, many Bengalis are third generation. They are almost like the people of this country. The first generation speaks Bangla. Later on the young people lose their language. If you lose your language, can you be a Bengali? I don't think so.

He talked about the different values of British Bengali young people:

In this country there is a difference with those who are born and brought up here… In Bangladesh the situation inside the house and outside the house are the same. But there are differences here. The situation in the house is one thing and outside the house it's different… Inside they probably eat Bengali foods, but outside, they don't eat Bengali foods… Outside they have boyfriends, girlfriends and they mix freely, but inside the home parents object to this… They have to live in two cultural environments.

Nazrul Islam (Tower Hamlets): Not 'going home'

Nazrul Islam came to Britain in 1990 and is married with two young children. He expects that his children will not feel any ties to Bangladesh:

I might go to Bangladesh but, believe me, my son won't go… He was born and brought up in this country. He wouldn't be able to adapt to Bangladesh. Basically the children in this country think about this country… I might find my country good, but my son won't find it good. This is natural.

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