Citizenship and contested identity: A case study

Bina D’Costa and Sara Hossain.

Published in the Daily Star 20th Anniversary supplement on 14 March 2011.

This piece looks at Bangladesh’s citizenship laws, using Father Timm as a case study.

We begin this write-up in honour of one of Bangladesh’s great and faithful friends, who dedicated his life to human rights of our citizens for nearly sixty years. Yet Father Richard William Timm (known to most people as Father Timm) has until this month not been recognised in a meaningful way for his contribution to Bangladesh. While many of Bangladesh’s citizens have left the country to seek the creature comforts of developed countries, Fr Timm left his native country, the United States, for his homeland, Bangladesh. In a personal conversation with the authors, he noted ‘I never think of the US because this is my home and my family and my work. When I return on home leave every year I enjoy myself but by the third month am anxious to get back ASAP.’ However, for him, ‘one challenge was getting my visa renewed annually.’ During BNP rule, Father Timm had fallen out of favour with the former Minister Nazmul Huda, who was Father Timm’s former student. As a result, his visa was held up for 22 months. In 2010, for the first time, he received a 5-year visa, the first ‘non-citizen’ priest to receive one.

He told the authors, ‘I applied for citizenship 4 times but was never accepted. First I was told that it is not the custom. Next that my petition was rejected. The last time, under BNP, there was no answer at all. Two Fathers have been given honorary citizenship – one for literature, one for work with drug addicts…’

Almost two decades before Bangladesh became an independent nation-state, Father Timm made the journey from the United States to East Pakistan in October 23, 1952 to found the Science Department of the St Gregory’s College in Laxmibazar, Dhaka. He fell in love with the countryside and never had the desire to leave it. In his words, ‘I never at any time had any intention of leaving, though Father Hesburgh, the President of the University of Notre Dame for 35 years, often invited me to join the Parasitology Department. My only temptation was when I was a Visiting Professor at the University of California, Davis Campus, in the Department of Nematology. I was invited by the Riverside Campus, which also had a Nematology Department, to join after my two years were up but my Indiana Provincial said, ‘Don’t you think it is time you re-join the community?’

The Bhola Cyclone and the National Struggle
Father Timm returned briefly to the US in October 1970, only to return in November following the cyclone to begin his life as a relief and social worker in Manpura Island, which was worse affected. After a month’s work there he was invited by Fazle Hasan Abed, one of the founders of HELP to work in Manpura as the Director of Rehabilitation. Father Timm worked there for six months and meanwhile the Liberation War started. His advocacy at the international level during the struggle was crucial in drawing attention to Bangladesh’s cause. In particular, Father Timm’s work with the Hindu community during 1971 was notable.

In his letter of June 21, 1971 to Senator Fulbright in the United States, Father Timm emphasised the discrimination against Hindus in relief operations. He recounts,

‘I have just returned from Manpura Island where I have been working for seven months as Field Coordinator for the HELP organisation, of which Dr Jon Rohde was one of the founders. In view of the massive and outrageous lies of the highest Pakistani authorities, which are now beginning to deceive many visiting delegations, I feel forced to come out with some of the facts which remained hidden until now and which will greatly affect the American attitude towards Pakistan.

Since I am the only foreigner living and working in the main cyclone affected areas of Manpura, Hatiya and Bhola, the outside world has received no news of the way the relief and rehabilitation work have been affected by the Army occupation…I will restrict my account of incidents to Hatiya, since two American AID people went on a fact-finding mission, to Bhola a week ago and hopefully will send out information soon. On May 13-14, the Pakistan Army came to Hatiya and selectively looted and burned out four square miles of Hindu houses, killing 11. Muslim and Hindu young women were raped and two later died (one had been in labour). The two-storey house of the Awami League member of the National Assembly was razed to the ground and his safe broken open and looted, while the home of the independent member (Amirul Islam, “Kalam Saheb,” who later became Minister of Culture and Sports under President Ziaur Rahman) of the Provincial Assembly right next door was spared. On June 8, the Army came to Hatiya with an LC (landing craft) of relief food, accompanied by a gunboat, and when the six officers went to the bank four miles away, the soldiers rounded up animals and beat people around the landing area.

As you can well imagine, disclosure of my name would mean my immediate expulsion from Pakistan for spreading false propaganda and engaging in “Zionist activities”. Also, one of my good friends would probably be implicated, a Bengali. I would authorise you to use my name only if it becomes absolutely necessary, but I feel that my continued presence on Manpura Island right now is a matter of life and death for several thousand Hindus. Please contact me only through the US Consulate General, if necessary, or through Dr Rohde.’

Father Timm identified himself at the end of the letter as a Fulbright Professor at the Government Medical College in 1953-54. A copy of the letter was also sent to Joseph Farland, the then US Ambassador to Pakistan, who Father Timm thought was markedly unsympathetic to Bengali interests and who had refused to believe the atrocity accounts conveyed by other priests to him earlier. He also enclosed a copy of this letter to the British Parliamentary Delegation, who persuaded Yahya Khan to allow foreign journalists back into East Pakistan. Father Timm perceived this step as the beginning of the end of the Army propaganda in East Pakistan. Further, in his words,

‘Jon and Candy Rohde informed me on July 19 that my letter to Senator Fulbright “was timely and important and did a lot to tighten his hand against the heavy onslaught of Defense and Senate Departments”…They had just exposed in the New York Times , which published it on their front page, secret arms sales to Pakistan in spite of an existing embargo. Shortly thereafter the Gallagher Amendment passed in the House of Representatives, and the Saxby-Church Amendment was introduced in the Senate. It was a great triumph of swift lobbying by a small and relatively poor but highly organized, intelligent and dynamic group. I felt proud to have played a small part behind the scenes.’

From Father Timm’s memoir, it is clear that he also lobbied various other senior political figures in the United States at that time. For example, on September 11, he wrote to the Indiana Senators Birch Bayh and Vance Hartke about some of the crucial developments of the national struggle of Bangladesh:

‘I am a Holy Cross priest from Michigan City, Indiana. I am writing to thank you for your co-sponsorship of the Saxbe-Church Amendment (S #1657) to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1971. There is still great need today of following a “hands off” policy until a favourable climate is created for the return of the Bengali refugees from India. I have seen in the local papers that Mr. Rogers is asking for a lifting of the temporary ban on developmental aid to Pakistan. There are certain recent developments in East Pakistan which may trick the outside world into thinking that conditions have changed substantially in recent times and that American aid given now would no longer be in support of a fascist militarist regime. These developments are the lifting of press censorship and the proclamation of a general amnesty. However, just the day before lifting of press censorship, Martial Law Order No. 89 was promulgated, which forbids the publication or dissemination of anything which can in any way be interpreted as prejudicial to the welfare of Pakistan, i.e., of the military regime. The General Amnesty was proclaimed on September 5th and a photo was published in the papers the following day showing prisoners who had allegedly been released. However, no one has seen a single one of these prisoners. Pressmen have not been able to learn from government the name of a single person who had been given amnesty. Moreover, and this is far more serious, the slaughter of caste Hindus as “enemies of the people” continues unabated. Yesterday I returned from a tour of Tangail and Mymensingh Districts in my capacity as Field Coordinator of Relief Programmes of the Catholic Relief Services. I saw entire Hindu villages which had been looted and burned out, large centuries-old Hindu temples wantonly destroyed, and heard gruesome tales of torture of those Hindus who had refused to become Muslims…I can tell you some things which the 3-day visitor and foreign journalists cannot easily find out: 1) every Bengali hates the Army, since everyone has been affected in some way by their atrocities; 2) every Bengali lives in mortal fear of the Army and what it might do to him and his family. There may be millions of Bengalis who still stand for a united Pakistan but at least they are all united in rejecting the military oppression, which continues unabated, as if the only possible solution to the problem is to crush by military might.’


Photo: Amirul Rajiv

Justice and Peace Advocacy
Sister Rosaline Costa, who works very closely with Father Timm provided us with a concise but vital summary of his contribution in Bangladesh following the war. He was the first Executive Secretary of the Justice and Peace Commission (CJP) in 1974 and was also the National Director of Caritas Bangladesh at that time. She reflects, ‘He felt very strongly that injustice was hiding in the Church and so he first he tried to promote justice at home.’ He circulated a letter to all the Parish priests and asked them to pay fair salaries to their employees.

Father Timm was involved in various crucial surveys such as the survey on 600 domestic workers and another on 1000 garment women workers in 54 export-oriented garment factories with regard to their rights and pay scale; the forced sterilisation of the Mandi (Garo) women in Halughat Thana in the early 1980s following the publication of which the USAID funding of the project was stopped; and on the rights of the tea garden workers in Sylhet. After fifty years of sustained advocacy, in 2010, finally the pay scale of tea garden workers have been increased from Tk 21 to Tk 48 per day.

Father Timm’s work on the land rights in the Chittagong Hill Tracts highlighted the question of contested citizenship in Bangladesh. He wrote the first book on the question of indigenous rights in 1991, titled ‘Adivasis in Bangladesh’ which was published by the Minority Rights Group in London. He also formed the Coordinating Council for Human Rights in Bangladesh (CCHRB), which was the first and largest platform of both human rights and development NGOs in Bangladesh, and led it for six years. Fr Timm’s commitment to human rights was recognised internationally and nationally when he won the prestigious Magsaysay Award and the Justice Abu Sayed Justice and Peace Award in Dhaka in 1987.

Despite repeated applications by him and pleas by his friends from Bangladesh over the years, successive regimes have denied him the right to citizenship of the country to which he has dedicated himself. His fearless and persistent human rights activism that brought him many accolades has been a key source of anxiety and mistrust of the state and its governing actors. Father Timm reflects, ‘Another challenge was writing openly and strongly against such blatant injustices as RAB killing “listed” criminals at 2 a.m. when they broke loose from police custody and got killed by crossfire, since his gang always sense police presence and fire first. No one has ever brought my writings up to me, but some big politicians have told me I was often discussed, mainly for “giving Bangladesh a bad image.” Once I was on a list of 30 whose life was in danger following the near death of Rashed Khan Menon by shooting.’

When we asked Father Timm what he thought was one of the main challenges Bangladesh faced today, he commented that ‘the neglect of duties in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a major source of misunderstanding among politicians. I use the example of a former President who said they have a right to march in the streets and it is guaranteed by the Constitution. Two errors, one on the Constitution and the other on his understanding of who has the prior right to the use of the roads.’

Following Partition, the Pakistani Citizenship Act of 1951 (Act No. 11 of 1951) governed former East Pakistan’s/Bangladesh’s citizenship rights. After Independence, this remained in force, and was adapted for application to Bangladeshi citizenship. In addition, the Bangladeshi Citizenship (Temporary Provisions) Order, or President Order No. 149 of 1972, (commonly referred as P.O. No.149 of 1972), was first issued in the Bangladesh Gazette Extraordinary, on 15 December and has subsequently been amended by the Bangladesh Citizenship (Temporary Provisions) (Amendment) Ordinance, 1973 (Ordinance No. X of 1973) and then by the Bangladesh Citizenship (Temporary Provisions) (Amendment) Ordinance, 1978 (Ordinance No. VII of 1978) and again by the Bangladesh Citizenship (Temporary Provisions) Amendment Act, 1990 (Act No. LVIII of 1990).

Over the last three decades two significant advocacy efforts on citizenship rights have resulted in some success. Women’s rights advocates have lobbied to eliminate discrimination against women and expressed concern about the outdated laws (namely the Citizenship Act, 1951 and The Bangladesh Citizenship (Temporary Provisions) Order 1972 that deprive women of equal rights in citizenship, specifically by preventing them from passing on their citizenship to foreign husbands or children born to foreign husbands. The Caretaker Government in 2008, and then the current Government in 2009 finally amended the law to allow women to pass on their citizenship to foreign children (and to foreign husbands though only if they live in Bangladesh for an unbroken period of four years). It has also amended some provisions to extend the range of countries with respect to which dual nationality may be held. Similarly, human rights and refugee advocacy networks highlighted the plight of Bihari population in Bangladesh who remained stateless (and non-citizens) following 1971. High Court rulings in 2005 and finally on 19 May 2008 allowed those Biharis who were minors at the time of the war of independence and those who were born after the war the right to Bangladeshi citizenship.

While the Bangladeshi state has until very recently been rigid in its refusal to grant equal citizenship rights to women and minority communities it has offered the most relaxed regulations in South Asia for foreigners who are able to pay and buy citizenship. Bangladesh encourages foreign investments by offering a) citizenship following a minimum investment of US $ 500,000 investment or by transferring US$ 1,000,000 to any recognised financial institution (Non-repatriable ) or b)Permanent residency by investing a minimum of US$ 75,000 (non-repatriable).

The apprehension then naturally arises about the Bangladeshi state’s reluctance to grant citizenship to Father Timm and other long-term foreign residents who are in similar position. On 5 March, Banglanews reported that the Government is going to accord formal recognition to 52 foreign nationals for their outstanding contribution to the Liberation War. Out of a list of 388 recipients these 52 personalities have been selected to receive this honour- 17 are Indians, eight Americans, seven Britons, four Russians, three Japanese, one each Nepalese, French, Bhutanese, Irish, Australian, Dutch, Swedish and German and four organizations.

On the eve of the 40th anniversary of the independence of Bangladesh, we think it is indeed important to consider inclusive citizenship, not only in terms of race, gender, religion and sexuality, but also in recognising foreign nationals who are long-term residents of Bangladesh and have been active participants of the national/political community. If this is to involve participation and indeed greater participation as citizens with regard to their civic and political rights, we believe Father Timm has earned his right to be a citizen of Bangladesh many years ago. However, his work has been perceived as unconventional and threatening to various regimes over the years. As we have seen in recent weeks, even democratically elected Governments have little tolerance for our most distinguished citizens if they are perceived as independent voices and actors to the dominant parties, no matter what their achievements, and see them as a threat not an asset to the state and to society. While the state cannot silence such people, it does its best to marginalise and harass them even in an ostensibly democratic dispensation. While the Bangladehs state could not silence Father Timm or stop his human rights activism over the last forty years, it continued to deny him the identity of a citizen, even as an honorary citizen, which is the only recognition he wanted from Bangladesh. Finally, the award of Fr Timm’s honorary citizenship, we hope is the beginning of an end to this particular political game of intimidation.


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