Writer Migrant: Ahmed Ilias - Dhaka
Ahmed Ilias is a writer, journalist, social worker and poet. He is widely recognized and has received prizes for his poetry. He is a 'Bihari' who migrated from Calcutta in 1953 to what was then East Pakistan. He wrote a book called Biharis. The Indian Emigres in Bangladesh: An Objective Analysis (2003) which was translated into Bengali. He has been one of the only older Bihari voices talking about integration. He currently heads the Al-Falah NGO which works with the Urdu-speakers who live in various camps to help them integrate into mainstream Bengali society.
Ahmed Ilias' family have a history of migrating:
My father was born the day the British introduced electricity-driven trams. We come from a family of migrants. My grandfather was from Munger in Bihar. The reason why he ran away was because he fell in love with a Hindu girl. The couple eloped to flee the communal riots that were sparked off in the village after their union. My grandfather lost contact with his family as he went to work in Burma.
The rest of the family settled in Jamshedpur. The family met again when his elder brother got married. By some stroke of fate his wife-to-be happened to be the grand-daughter of their grandfather’s brother. So the family was reunited again 50 years after having fled their village.
My mother was first married to my paternal uncle. He died without leaving any children so it was decided that she, a young widow, should marry my father, the second in line after my dead uncle… As my mother died giving birth to me I was raised by the neighbors, a childless couple. The neighbors were Bengali Muslims – they were originally from East Bengal and had settled in Calcutta because this is where my adopted-father had found a job. He worked at the Khidirpur Port. They always hired people – usually on a temporary basis but there was good money to be made. People worked as butlers, cooks, stewards – they were all called 'sea-men' – and they were mainly Muslims.
They used to travel aboard ships and cargoes for a whole year – during that time their family got a little salary each month and they got a hefty sum upon return. The reason why we were forced to take up these jobs was because the Hindus were educated, we Muslims weren't.
Ahmed Ilias was born in Calcutta's Taltola area and is 74 years old.
I completed my education when I was 15 years old from Calcutta Alia Madrasah – the first school established in 1781 by the British for Muslims. I was admitted there in class 4 and always came first until class 9 when I had to leave. This is because due to partition the scholarship I used to get was stopped and the money got diverted to Pakistan.
Around the same time a friend sent me a card from Dhaka telling me to come visit. This was in 1950. Unfortunately I arrived the day the government stopped registering new refugees coming to Dhaka or Khulna so I wasn't registered as a refugee which means I couldn't get access to funding to complete my education. I returned to Calcutta and got admitted to Islamia High School in class 9 but just as I was going to sit for the SSC exams I fell seriously ill.
As my adopted mother did not have any means she couldn't afford any treatment nor was I admitted to hospital. My father's elder sister who had married a rich man wrote in to ask me to come join her in Dhaka. I took a Pakistan permission migration certificate from Calcutta and left for Bangladesh again – it was in 1953. My aunt paid for the treatment, I got better. But the problem was that as a refugee one had privileges, as a migrant, one had none.
I came to Dhaka as a migrant so I know the sufferings of migrants. Here in Dhaka I passed my school certificate exam and was recruited as a survey trainer for the Pakistani government. This enabled me to travel all over Bangladesh – I went and stayed six months in the Chittagong Hill tracts, then Rajshahi and Rangpur. But because I was an urban boy from an urban society I decided to give up my training as a surveyor and joined the Dhaka Press Club. I was soon appointed secretary.
This gave me the chance to work in my preferred domain which was literature and meet journalists, poets and writers and start a relatively comfortable life in Dhaka. The political situation of those times was very interesting and I started writing reports. I had joined as a journalist and was soon reporting on the issues of the needs and demands of the East Pakistanis.
In 1964, there were terrible communal riots and many people came from Jamshedpur and Rourkela. I was assigned to cover their life as refugees in Dhaka. After 1964 politics took a new turn in East Pakistan. In 1966, Mujib [Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, founder of Bangladesh] proclaimed a 6-point plan titled 'Our Charter for Survival' at a national conference of opposition political parties at Lahore and in 1971 East Pakistan became Bangladesh – an independent country. We lost our homes, our jobs, our rights.
Migration continues with his children:
We have a son [two other sons died] and six daughters. Of my six daughters, five are married, the youngest is unmarried and doing a hospital management course. My eldest daughter married a boy from Kolkata, but they both live here in Dhaka. My second daughter is married to a Bengali boy from Faridpur. My third and fourth daughters are married to two Bengali businessmen from Noakhali. My fifth daughter is married to a Bengali, also from Noakhali, and they are both settled in Canada. Their children will remember me as a foreigner to their country.
Ahmed Ilias still sees difficulties within the community he lives in:
The main problem of our community is that we lack education. And because of this we've been time and again misguided. India was divided on religious issues and Urdu-speaking people knew that Bihar or Uttar Pradesh would never be part of Pakistan. In Bihar, Muslims were in minority, they were just 12% of the population and they were uneducated. Their social and political status was very low. They were made to believe that they would benefit when Pakistan was created. And then they were exploited and finally abandoned for their lack of understanding of history.
They still believe in an ideology which is dead – the idea of Pakistan based on one's Muslim identity. …Cultural identities are important too. Pakistan may not even be there a few years from now – it might just dismember again on cultural issues. Before 1940 nobody thought there could be a Pakistan, it took seven years to create a new country and this country lasted only 24 years. Now people are not a two-nation theory but a two-community theory. The two-nation theory did not make sense even in the beginning as there were more Muslims in India than in the Pakistan of 1947.
Our chapter is going to be closed and a new chapter is going to be open. So you have to give them freedom to shape their lives in this country. Otherwise, what is the benefit of the education and experience which I have earned? There is nothing there. You don't have a root to go back to. History has abandoned you so you have to make your own history. Urdu wasn't the language, Persian/Farsi was. Urdu has no value, it may be your mother-tongue but it now has to be Bengali. Just as Persian has gone, Arabic has gone, so too Urdu will go.
I 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. Maybe one of my children will emerge as the greatest Bengali poet. Tradition will be carried on like that.