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Culinary cultures of Bengal: Lost Homes and homes rebuilt

The Partition of 1947  disrupted the livelihood of millions of  people (both Hindus and Muslims) in East Bengal (present Bangladesh)  as well as West Bengal. While the Hindus from East Bengal migrated and tried to rebuild their lost homes in new India, the Muslims (majority of whom were earlier in a deplorable situation) tried to mould their identity and build homes in Bangladesh. These individuals  for the first time understood who they were while on the other hand, the Hindu migrants felt the urge to save their identities from the Epar (Hindu) Bengalis.

The process of losing and rebuilding homes impacted the culinary cultures of both Bengals (West Bengal and Bangladesh). When the people of East Bengal reached their new land, their first priority was food. They had to settle for whatever that was available – a situation that stood in sharp contrast to the happy abundant life that they enjoyed in Opar Bangla. I grew up listening to stories from many of my relatives and neighbours about the large tracts of land their ancestors used to have in Opar Bangla (present day Bangladesh). This constant reiteration about what they had comes from the trauma of displacement – a desperate need to remind themselves as well as others of their identity and their place of origin. The Bengalis in Bangladesh (mostly Muslims), had to define themselves against the Bengali Hindus who had migrated to the newly divided India and also Hindus in general.

It is interesting to study the culinary cultures of Bengal (West Bengal and Bangladesh) as the differences that arose mainly came into existence because of habitual differences but evolved further with succeeding socio-historical events. However , before we proceed, we need to understand what Bengalis mean by Opar and Epar Bangla. While the word “Opar” in present times means the other side of the border, it traditionally signifies the land located on the eastern banks of the Padma river. Thus for example, while Jessore district is part of Bangladesh now, it is considered to be a part of  Epar Bangla among the Bengalis. East Bengal owing to its abundant water bodies has ample amounts of fish and fertile lands compared to rough terrains in most of West Bengal. Therefore, East Bengal was never short of food. This abundance reflects in the recipes of Bangals (a term used by Indian Bengalis to refer to those who are originally from East Bengal) who use more spices and have elaborate cooking techniques. Compared to this, Ghotis (a term used to refer to those who are originally from West Bengal) have simpler cooking styles. Moreover, East Bengal has plenty of coconut trees which results in use of coconut in every other dish of East Bengalis. However, one needs to keep in mind that the culinary culture of either of the two Bengals is not homogenous. The technique of cooking, use of spice and delicacies vary according to the districts. What is surprising is that the Muslims of Bengal had food habits according to the habitat of the  place they belonged to. There was originally not much difference on the basis of religion. However, after the 1947 Partition and later the Independence of Bangladesh in 1971 made the Muslims of Bangladesh (who were originally of East Bengal and had relocated there) change their culinary cultures catering to their religion. The food habits of Muslims who stayed back in West Bengal however remained similar to that of the Hindus (except a few occasional delicacies specific to their festivities). Why the difference happened for Muslims in Bangladesh is a fascinating account worth mentioning and I have dealt with it in considerable detail towards the end of this essay.

My neighbour Horinath Das, 60, a second generation migrant from Opar Bangla (East Bengal) talks about having Saplar dal (dal made with stem of lily), Mulor ambal  (a sour dessert made with radish), Kochu shak or loti (Taro Stolons), Kach kola r khosa bata shorshe {mashed raw banana (which is cooked like a vegetable and cannot be eaten raw unlike the fruit banana) peeling made with mustard seed}, Oler torkari (elephant foot curry), Lau shaker ghonto (dish made with bottle gourd leaves), Mocha r torkari (curry made with banana flowers), Thor (curry made with banana stem) . “Ma (mother) made puli-pithe (sweet dessert) and Patishapta (sweet dessert, a variant of flat bread) during Poush Sankranti (a celebration made on the last day of Bengali month Poush). We even enjoyed having Taler bora (Sugar palm fritters) every year,” Horinath Babu reminisced. He also tells me how his mother carried on the tradition of these special delicacies even after settling down in Kolkata. She also taught her daughter-in-law how to prepare these dishes with great care and affection to help preserve emotions and traditions of the land and the life she and her family had to leave behind. I have even heard my mother talk with great enthusiasm about having dishes like Chatni (sour dessert, a variant of North Indian chutney) everyday with lunch at her maternal home. She often prepares Chalta r chatni {a sour dessert, (a variant of North Indian chutney) made of elephant apple} – a special delicacy of Bangal homes. While West Bengal is famous for its sweets, people of Opar Bangla are more into tok (sour) and jhal (hot, use of a lot of chilies) food textures.

Shyamashree kakima, another neighbour of mine prepares sweet desserts Tiler naru (a dessert made with jaggery or sugar and til) or Narkel naru (a dessert made with jaggery or sugar and coconut flakes) during Lokkhi poojo (people in Bengal refer to Lakshmi as Lokkhi) which  she says is quite a different experience for people of Opar Bangla. She also often makes Chach – a rare sweet delicacy hardly heard of now-a-days. Moreover, there is sharp contrast in rituals concerning food during different poojos in Bengali homes. Firstly, Bangals celebrate Kojagori Lokkhi poojo (worship of Goddess Lakshmi) on a certain full moon night in the Bengali month of Ashvin, fifth day after Durga Poojo ( literally Kojagori (mean ‘night of awakening’); whereas Ghotis (people originally of West Bengal) worship Goddess Lokkhi after Deepabali (Diwali). Naru made with coconut or til is specially served to the Goddess. While during any poojo, the Ghotis break their fast with Luchi (puri, a variant of flat bread), the Bangals do that with Sabu dana (sagoo). Furthermore, on the next day of Saraswati poojo, the Ghoties have Gota sheddho (boiled vegetables in whole not chopped) whereas the Bangals relish Dodhikorma (Chire/ churra mixed with sweet curd). To add to the list is Panch rokom bhaja or five fries that Bangals cook to serve their brothers during Bhaiphota which is uncommon among Ghotis.  Thus, while Bengalis are famous for their quintessential Ilish (Hilsa) vs Chingri (Prawn/Lobster) fight (i.e., which tastes better), the differences in food habits and culinary practices is more extensive than that. There is another unique dish among Bangals and that is Shutki (dried fish). Ranging from Bata Shutki, Shidol shutki, Shutki r torkari (different curries of Shutki), the delicacies concerning Shutki are prepared in varied  ways and primarily depend on local culinary practices of the various districts of East Bengal. I have never heard of any Ghoti Bangali having Shutki or Lote (Bombey duck) fish but have found them complaining about the strong smell gondho) of Shutki maach.

Apart from these delicacies, there are several new items which were invented immediately after Partition to cope up with the food crisis. I have heard painful stories of food crises – there were times when all members of a family had to depend on a single egg. To survive, some potato was smashed and added to the egg pieces to serve all the members of the family. My  paternal grandmother, while taking rice from a container into a pot for cooking our daily meal, used take a handful of rice grains from the pot and keep it back in  the rice container.  There was an awful food crisis following the Partition and such practices are reminders of those difficult. Perhaps , in some ways she could never forget those troublesome days of despondency and crisis and  kept doing this  even after so many years since Partition. It was important to consume enough – just what was needed and not engaging in excesses if we want to survive harsh times.

As a third generation Partition migrant I have often had food of both Opar and Epar Banglas hardly recognizing the difference in the recipes. They have changed with time. While originally Ghotis used sugar in their recipes which was almost never used in Bangal dishes who love use of chilies, now-a-days, the recipes have been adapted and there is a fusion of culinary nuances. It is mainly because the people of both East Bengal and West Bengal have been sharing recipes and food delicacies with each other. They also come across various dishes at restaurants which usually balance the use of chili and sugar to suit the taste buds of both Ghotis and Bangals . Today any Bengali home irrespective of their origin enjoy consuming Posto (poppy seed curry). However, people of Opar Bangla retain it as an Other – something that is not native to them. Similarly, a person from Epar Bangla even if she likes an East Bengal delicacy, will not fail to point to its regional specificity. These practices concerning food and the deliberate maintenance of distinct food habits is a practice of  memorialising traditions of the lost ways of life. It is an endeavour to ensure that the culture of Opar Bangla survives and remains in living memory and doesn’t subsume into the culture of Epar Bangla. Even though people are born in India, if asked about their desh – people who have migrated will say they are from Opar bangla. It is as if to never forget the Partition. Desh here is beyond the English translation of country or nation. It is a nostalgic reminiscing of one’s original land – a motherland of all Bangals .

Now, what happened to the gustatory culture of Bangladesh? While it is understandable that the Hindus (who are a minority making 8.5% of the total population of Bangladesh according to the 2011 census) who stayed back retained their culinary cultures, what did the Muslims do? Well, they had to think anew. Food anthropologist Manpreet Janeja in her book Transactions in Taste: The Collaborative Lives of Everyday Bengali Food  that documents her ethnographic research on Bangladesh explains this phenomenon in detail. The consultant to Janeja describes that prior to 1947 Partition; the original Muslim inhabitants of East Bengal were extremely poor, vulnerable and were completely dependent on the upper class, upper caste Bengali Hindus. While the upper class Muslims identified themselves with the prevalent socio-cultural milieu of  Calcutta, the  poor Muslims faced a severe identity crisis. The experience of the Partition alerted them to the specificity of their religious identity as Muslims.  However, soon they realized that while before Partition, they had to identify with the socio-cultural practices prevalent in Calcutta, after Partition they were supposed to mould themselves according to what was proposed by Pakistani officials. Thus, again they were left with no choice of their own. Only after 1971, did they understand who they were. They got a desh (here he means Nation) and started to define who they were and what they stood for. According to the consultant, this process of defining is still in flux and is an ongoing phenomenon. The people of Bangladesh (I mean, the Muslim population) understood that they hardly had any similarity with people of West Bengal- although they were both Bengalis.  Even there are significant linguistic differences with the dialect being very different across the two Bengals. This process of gaining a sense of their identity and how they would like to be defined is impressed upon the food culture of Bengalis of Bangladesh. The consultant narrates that originally being poor, the majority of the Muslims were dependent on vegetables. But now they have money and have meat everyday. In Bangladesh, meat and poultry are identified with social status. Interestingly, most Bangladeshi platters (Muslim platters) do not have fish. They rely on gosht of beef mainly. As a dish, fish is mostly identified with Bengali Hindus. Thus the food culture of Bangladesh is in sync with their identity, not habitat. In the riverine country, people have taken up only meat in accordance to Mughlai culture (although according to the consultant, Mughals did not use beef in their delicacies) to maintain that they are Bengalis but Muslim too and far distinct from Bengalis of West Bengal (which now includes both Bangal and Ghoti population).

Thus, in present West Bengal, both Opar and Epar Bengalis are undergoing acculturation in terms of food, whereas in Bangladesh, Bengalis (who are mainly Muslims) are redefining the Bengali platter altogether. Processes of food ownership has much to do with the pain of displacement for the Opar Bangalis whereas for the Muslim Bangalis of Bangladesh it testifies the years of struggle against the exploitative Hindus and the forced dependence on the gentrified Bengali culture of Calcutta. Moreover, the recipes with all its original methods and variations register the dictates of the tumultuous changes that followed Partition and processes of assimilating and accommodating the new socio-cultural practices that these political changes bore. While Partition is an event of losing home and identity for one, it is also a tale of gaining independence and seeking a new identity for some. This process of ghar bandha (rebuilding homes) shall continue as the culinary cultures of Bengal stay afloat.

Sreemoyee Paul, Intern, Chronicling Resettlement Project

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The Aftermath of the Bengal Partition through Ritwik Ghatak’s Lenses: Dole Smṛti Dole Deś Dole Dhunucir Ondhokār

The catastrophic exodus of millions of East Bengali refugees into West Bengal has changed the socio-political spaces of West Bengal and erstwhile Calcutta. Already faced with an unsympathetic government with minimal help, Calcutta witnessed the long one-sided influx continued till three decades after the traumatic event; the prime period for riots and revolution. The city was jam-packed with the poor in railway stations, while the rich who had contacts were assimilated into new social life. While the Partition of Bengal has been prey to underexposed research, post-Partition resettlement has been even less noticeable.

Ritwik Ghatak never grew out from the disturbances the Partition inflicted on him. This, along with his association with the Indian Peoples’ Theatre Association (IPTA) cast a permanent effect on his trilogy, Meghe Dhaka Tara [‘The Cloud Capped Star’] (1960), Komal Gandhar [‘E-Flat’] (1961) and Subarnarekha [‘Subarnarekha’] (1962). His films involved complex thought-provoking prospects related to the “refugee problem” and an ambiguous sense of a “home.”

A recurring theme in Ghatak’s cinematic work is that of the ‘home’. In Subarnarekha, the phrases notun bari [‘new home’] and the desher bari [‘ancestral home’] in Komal-Gandhar encourage this. Subarnarekha paints a picture of constant migration. Its protagonists – Ishwar, Sita and Abhiram are people who have been displaced for life by the Partition. As a child, Sita dreams of a new home–located between mountains, beside a beautiful river while living in a chaotic squatters’ colony with her elder brother, Ishwar– ironically named nabajiban [‘new life’] colony. Abhiram joins them here, after he loses his mother to a sudden police raid in the colony. The three migrate out of the city to a land that resembles Sita’s promised home – only to be displaced again due to the marital union of her and her foster-brother Abhiram. Later, she is seen singing to her son (Binu), Aji Dhaner Khete Roudro Chhayay Lukochuri Khela [A Hide and seek of the Sun and Shade on the rice-fields] and Binu “sees” the rice fields come alive. While Binu is with Ishwar, the motif returns. The home here is not always a physical space or four walls, but an existence of an idea of warmth and love in times of downheartedness. The Desher Bari [ancestral home] keep the two to-be lovers closer at heart, both emotionalising the home in East Bengal, beyond the Padma river, that they had left.

In another film, Meghe Dhaka Tara, Nita, the sole bread earner, gives up everything to suffice for her poor family’s daily needs. The selfish family pushes Nita’s younger sister to cater to Nita’s lover, unbelievably, just to protect their own financial inflow. Ghatak verifies “motherly love” oud epitome of protection is but farce luxury. Subarnarekha’s Rambilas-babu, the affluent manager admittedly assumes a higher moral ground by affirming a then life-saving job for Ishwar and later condemns strongly of Abhiram’s caste; “he is the son of a baagdi-bou [a widowed woman of the milkmaid caste]. During the initial scenes, Abhiram and his mother are refused stay in the colony due to their previous region of residence.

Ghatak’s films generally often employ symbols of the broad swelling rivers, gigantic terrestrial sceneries and trains rushing past, and mountain ranges in far-reaching frames, perhaps to encapsulate his East Bengali landscape. Three distinct symbols from each one of the trilogy have placed a deep influence and a viewfinder through which the pain of Partition and displacement can be highly analysed. This has been immortalized in the evergreen frame of Meghe Dhaka Tara, wherein a sick Nita looking out of the broken bamboo-frame window, her face covered. More than being a survivor of Partition, she is prey to petty betrayal from her own family she fended for. Her claims to raise voices soon are left in despair. Her rights snatched, just like her homeland.

Nita looking out of the broken bamboo frame window in Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960)

In Subarnarekha Sita and Abhiram walking through the abandoned military base is the prime motif of the repercussion. Sita playfully sings Aaji Dhaaner Khete categorized as a children’s song: “The sun and shadow play hide-and-seek amidst the rice fields” on an abandoned runway of the Second World War which reeks of post-War assassinations. She walks on the cracked dry ground, signifying strikingly the border-lines, with a dry leaf lazily rounding past the ground. Ghatak’s juxtaposition of childish innocence amidst post-apocalyptic remains, like ‘rice fields’ is emotionally spectacular.

Sita walking on dry cracked ground in Subarnarekha (1962)

In Komal-Gandhar it is a two-minute dialogue between two friends with only the words ‘Ardhek Hoyechhe’ and “Ardhek Hoyeni” [‘It has been halved’ and ‘It hasn’t been halved!’]. While the fight starts over a cigarette, the contextual concern is apparent. In the milieu, many denied to recognize the intensity and the “reality” that their homeland is halved. Shibu screams “it” hasn’t been halved yet, and smokes to his heart’s content only to leave the cigarette butt for Rishi, who is exploited even after a promise, but cannot complain: he has lost his voice.

Komal Gandhar (1961)

Over seven decades, the modern metropolis has forgotten the scent of the revolutionary golis [‘alleys’] of its ancestors. The unauthorised squatter colonies have turned into ‘aesthetic’ cityscapes for photography. The city has settled down, but has its occupants? Where can one settle down once they are unsettled? We might expect to find untold stories from an octogenarian sitting on a bed within the four walls of a darkened room, far away from where they ‘fit.’ Their once-expectant indifferent eyes mock the “epaar Bangla” [this Bengal] and “opaar Bangla” [that Bengal] truce blurted out in reality shows. They know not whom to blame, no one bothers to recognize how they endured. If we look around, there are countless Sita(s), Nita(s), Ishwar(s), Binu(s) and Anasuya(s) amongst us, probably near us, inside the rusty by-lanes and broken houses; waiting with their stories to be unearthed. Are they re-settled, or are they displaced still? Only the barbed wires know.

Arna Dirghangi, Intern, Chronicling Resettlement Project

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‘Are we really going to our new home?’ An Eternal Quest

There are certain times, especially after massive upheavals such as the Partition of 1947, when the word “home” acquires a certain ambiguity: the image of the home becomes emblematic of both rootedness and up-rootedness. In Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines, for instance, Thamma’s ancestral house in Dhaka not only holds a position of nostalgia, but also serves as an allegory for the Partition and thus, the houses acquire a synecdochical relationship with nation-states. The partition forms a parallel in the division of the ancestral house between her father and her uncle in Dhaka, caused by an atmosphere of ill will, hatred and jealousy in the family; and both the Partition and the division of the joint family lead to the disintegration of values, rootlessness and alienation. Thus, the coherence of our idea of self is mediated through the recurring motif of the house divided, which reinforces the sense of identity being constructed and dismantled through the imagery of homes.

The memory of lost home has been discussed heavily in Partition literature, in which the home not only symbolizes a physical space but also a psychological space that goes beyond the materiality of identity and existence. A home includes the people, culture and values that shape an individual. This lost home has various names – desher bari (native house), bhita or bhite, etc. In particular, bhita, a word connected to the word “bhitti” meaning foundation, carries the notion of home having a foundational role in constructing one’s own identity, as suggested by Dipesh Chakraborty: “One’s permanent home is where one’s foundation is.” A distinction between one’s permanent home and a temporary residence can be made by distinguishing bari from basha. In Bengali, basha, generally, used in order to refer to a bird’s nest, holds a sense of transient belonging—a temporary lodging. After Partition, it was mostly upper-caste Hindus, commonly termed as the bhadralok, who migrated to places around Calcutta and the city gained, for the first time according to the scholar Sukanta Chaudhuri, a substantial population who now had no other home but the city itself. The city, which was a collection of basha(s), suddenly started hosting bari(s)–on the one hand, and on the other, the image of desher bari gained a mythic quality in post-Partition memoirs, a quality permeated by a sense of sacredness and defined by sentiments of nostalgia and trauma. For instance, in The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, Nirad C. Chaudhuri emphasizes how the village-house continued to occupy the position of being the permanent and actual home.

For ‘rehabilitation,’ however, the image of the home acquired yet newer dimensions. This sense of the home is concerned about the struggle of resettlement and the disrupted identities. The home, the refugees continued to search in West Bengal, acquired a cruel realism of homelessness. Ritwik Ghatak’s Subarnarekha (1965), almost entirely revolves around the politics of resettlement and the refugees’ struggle to find their ‘own’ place in a ‘new’ land. The recurring motif of “natun bari” (new home) acquires different dimensions throughout the film.

[Ishwar, Sita and Abhiram see their notun bari for the first time. Subarnarekha (1965)]

Although the first utterances of the phrase ‘new home’ is associated with the utopian image of greenery, garden, butterflies fluttering around the it, this image in young Sita’s mind is continuously suppressed by, at first, her elder brother Ishwar’s cruel realism, and towards the end, through her own harsh experience in Calcutta. There is a noticeable absence of any mention of their lost home in East Bengal, which makes Subarnarekha unique in its representation of resettlement. The narratives of post-Partition Resettlement is presented with a literary quality of open-endedness which symbolizes the ever-exiled ‘self’ of the refugee and their forever quest for a natun bari. And yet, Sita’s repeated questions about their “natun bari” does not keep the image of the home in the confinement of the typical narrative of the ‘lost home’ and thus, records the struggle of the continuous search not only for a physical resettlement but also a psychological one. Furthermore, one may recall the metaphor of the mirror, used by Amitav Ghosh in The Shadow Lines, where he represents the borders between the two nations as “looking-glass borders”. In Ghatak’s Subarnarekha, this metaphor of the mirror helps to formulate a relationship between the two contradictory images of the ‘home.’ Where the ‘lost home’ defines everything about the refugee’s identity and well-being, the ‘new home’ is the shadowy “unreal” reflection of the lost home, which remains inaccessible and unreachable. It is as if the refugees have not only been exiled from their own land, but also from their own selves.

This existential crisis is highlighted when Ishwar’s friend Haraprashad, once a committed activist, now cynical and tired of life, calls himself his own ghost:

“I had protested. Protested against what? There is no protest… It’s all blank. We are body-less, ethereal.”

Partition as a historical event and a phenomenon and the struggle of resettlement possess a certain open-endedness which continues to traumatize generations. Subarnarekha ends with Sita’s son Binu, who continues to represent the naïve hope for a ‘natun bari’. We, as the viewers, can only anticipate an exhausted, unsettled self who will be left heart-broken in his continuous quest for a new address, as Binu repeats what once his mother asked decades ago: “Are we really going to our new home?”

[Binu asks ‘are we really going to our notun bari [new home]?’ Subarnarekha (1965)]

Someday Binu too would soon learn the Vedic which runs like a theme throughout the film and also is heard in its entirety at the end of the film–

charanavai madhu vindhati / charanawadum udumbaram /

suryasya pasya shremaanam / yo na tandrayate charana.

charaiveti charaiveti 

[The moving person gets the nectar (success) and all the pleasures of the world, see the Sun that moves on – its feet do not tire. Move on move on]

Aishani Pande, Intern, Chronicling Resettlement Project

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The Dandakaranya Project: How an Escape Route Became a Death Trap

“Millions of fathers in rain

Millions of mothers in pain

Millions of brothers in woe

Millions of sisters nowhere to go”

(September on Jessore Road)

Allen Ginsberg’s poem about refugees during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 paints a picture that anyone with even a perfunctory knowledge of the Partition of India would at once recognize. The Partition of British India which led to violent territorial and political separations continues to evoke a specter of massacre and mayhem. Nation building is a refugee generating process but the figure of the refugee does not simply indicate a minority who ‘does not belong’ but also points to a crisis within the nation-state that tends to reduce anyone who is not a national into a human being devoid of political rights.

Since the partition of British India in 1947, there has been a movement of about 2.5 million people from East Pakistan into India. Of these, about 1.5 million had moved into the Indian state of West Bengal. As refugees fled to the west from East Bengal, the government in Calcutta had to accept responsibility for their rehabilitation and resettlement. The refugees who had come to West Bengal immediately after partition found themselves in transit camps, Permanent Liability camps (like the Cooper’s Camp and Dhubulia Camp for instance), worksite camps, squatter’s colonies or in government aided colonies. When people from East Pakistan flooded into West Bengal, the government was already struggling to provide for famine victims of the 1943 famine and those displaced by the communal riots of 1946. Since the partition, West Bengal had been reduced to 1/3rd of its original size in addition to the complete disruption of the regional economy, particularly the jute sector, Partition had also contributed significantly to acute food shortage, scarcity of employment and rising prices of essential commodities in the state. Naturally in such circumstances, refugees from East Pakistan were looked upon as unwanted additions to the problem of overpopulation and deemed detrimental to the state’s economy. Baffled by the burgeoning stream of migrants after partition, the West Bengal government shifted the liability of rehabilitating refugees from East Pakistan onto the Union Government.

The ‘Dandakaranya Project’ was seen as a solution to an almost intractable human problem – of rehabilitating a large number of displaced families who were uprooted from their homeland in East Pakistan and were now living in different camps in West Bengal. It was the central government’s response to Dr. B. C. Roy’s demand that West Bengal’s refugee problem be solved on a national scale. The resolution of West Bengal’s refugee problem initially consisted of tighter border controls and denial of official relief and rehabilitation within the state. The Dandakaranya Project was the final element in such a resolution and it was conceived as the sole path to rebuilding lives for the majority of East Bengali refugees languishing in the state’s camps. Run by the autonomous ‘Dandakaranya Development Authority’ (DDA) and entirely funded by the Union Government, the ‘Dandakaranya Project’ launched in 1957 was spread across the districts of Bastar in Madhya Pradesh and Koraput and Kalahandi in Orissa and the entire area was divided into four zones – Paralkote, Pharasgaon, Umerkote and Malkangiri.

As opposed to Bengal, this regions is characterized by intermittent rainfall, deficient underground water sources, undulating hilly tracts and porous soil. But despite such uncompromising physical features, this region’s low population density (around 100 per square mile) was a major factor for its choice as a rehabilitation zone for East Bengali refugees most of whom belonged to lower caste.

Location of the Dandakaranya Region

Among the refugees in West Bengal, those belonging to the upper and middle classes were able to secure employment in Calcutta through education and kinship ties. From 1950 onward, refugees who came to West Bengal belonged primarily to the lower castes and consequently  lacked the resources necessary to rebuild their lives in a new land. Devoid of any skill or capital and in desperate want of land for resettlement, these refugees were mainly agricultural peasants like the Namasudras who had previously been employed in rice cultivation, fishing, boating and in carpentry. It was at this point that independent India began seeing the refugee problem through the lens of national development and the arrival of hundreds of refugees was viewed by the government as merely a source of cheap labour that could facilitate rapid development of backward regions which were interestingly enough almost always tribal areas. The Dandakaranya Project then was not so much a feasible refugee rehabilitation scheme but rather a strategy compatible with the broader contemporary goal of nation-building. The East Bengali peasant refugees were thus visualised as ideal citizens provided that they acted as productive agents of national development.

Dandakaranya Residents at Work in the on-site Workshop

The Congress government in West Bengal saw Dandakaranya as a ready site for the disposal of unwanted refugees as well as for undesirable future refugees. The government decision to close all camps inside the state by July 1959 meant the forced movement of refugees to Dandakaranya and was met with violent opposition from the United Central Refugee Council (UCRC) and Shara Bangla Bastuhara Samiti. This scheme of rehabilitation was also discouraged by opposition parties in West Bengal. The Communist Party of India and Forward Bloc saw the government’s attempts to send refugees outside the state as an attack on “the united aspiration and legitimate movement” of the refugees and a deliberate ploy to sabotage their unity.  They in turn urged that the refugees be settled in an environment similar to their origin and followed this up with a proposal of land allotment in the tidal areas of the Sundarbans together with the discontinuation of the Dandakaranya Project. With the declaration of the closure of all camps by July 1959, camp refugees who were opposed to dispersal began protesting. Dulalendu Chattopadhyay’s 1983 novel Ora Ajo Udvastu [‘They are Still Refugee’] discusses the rehabilitation plans of Dandakaranya and its effects on the camp inmates :

“The government decided at this time to rehabilitate refugees in Dandakaranya. The directive was—anyone who refused to go there will no longer receive government     help…will the rootless people continue to face the blows that land on them, or will they             protest against the new rehabilitation plans?… Soon the refugees began to speak a language of rebellion- we will not be sent to Dandakaranya.”

Refugees being loaded into trucks on their way to Dandakaranya

Once in Dandakaranya, each refugee family was forced to carve out an existence from a plot of 6.5 hectares and loans for purchasing bullocks and building houses. Small traders were offered a business loan of a Rs. 1000 and a maximum of three months’ dole. The refugees who were accustomed to a riverine land and wet climate in East Bengal found it difficult to earn their livelihood in the rugged terrain and soil unretentive of moisture in Dandakaranya.

In the Pharasgaon zone, 6% of the land was unfit for agriculture and only 9% were of good quality. In 1964, Saibal Gupta, the chairman of the DDA pointed out that less than 10% of the land allocated to the refugees was arable and the rest of the land was uncultivable. Besides these, when the infrastructure promised by the government (like electricity, drinking water, medical facilities) failed to materialize, it added to the despair of the refugees. This led to a sense of resentment among them which was further aggravated by the new tenancy acts that restricted automatic succession. In the course of Tanvir Mokammel’s 2017 documentary Seemantorekha [The Border Line], an elderly gentleman who had been one among the first batch of refugees to arrive at Dandakaranya, describes the condition of the region during the initial days of the project – “No food. Hot weather. Hot waves used to occur. No water.” Shaktipada Rajguru’s novel Dandak Theke Marichjhapi [From Dandak to Marichjhapi] set in the 1970s has one camp inmate say:

“For seven years we have lived on the charity doles…What is the good of reducing us to beggars? Instead of making the entire race beggars, give us land, a little homestead, let us work and earn our keep.”

It must however be remembered that the resettlement of East Bengali refugees in Dandakaranya went hand in hand with the complete dispossession and marginalization of the area’s tribal inhabitants. The forests which had been cleared by the forced labour of refugees had been the traditional habitat and source of livelihood for the Gonds of the region. When the project was conceived, little attention was paid to the indigenous people who were already residing in the region and the DDA’s policies have often been blamed for destroying the tribal social and economic structures without any sustainable alternative in view. It becomes obvious that the larger plan did not take into account the ground realities and the consequent clash between the refugees and the local populace was a classic case of peasant—tribal confrontation over land.

Forestland being cleared by the DDA.

The Left political stronghold in West Bengal was strengthened and the party’s rise to power in 1967 was prompted by mass support from the refugees. Beginning in 1965, refugee families deserted the Dandakaranya settlements and by 1978 between January and June, 120,000 refugees sold off their belongings in the hopes of returning to West Bengal where a left coalition government had come to power. Hoping that this government would seriously consider the cause of their rehabilitation and grant them a decent life, men, women and children thronged the Jagdalpur bus stand and Raipur railway station. The Left government however sensed in these returns a potential blow to the state’s economic recovery. The then Chief Minister Jyoti Basu at first attempted to cajole the refugees to return to Dandakaranya. However, his efforts failed and in April 1978, about 25,000 refugees crossed the waters and set up a cooperative settlement at Marichjhapi, an uninhabited island in the Ganga-Bramhaputra delta in the Sunderban region of West Bengal. Such a resettlement initiative was not looked upon favorably by the government and the administration invoked clause no. 24 of the Indian Forest Act, 1927, citing the refugees’ resettlement initiative as detrimental to Marichjhapi’s ecological balance.

When the government’s ultimatum to the occupants of Marichjhapi to leave the island by 31st March 1979 fell on deaf ears, the government played out an economic blockade thereby preventing the access to essential goods including drinking water. One interviewee in Mokammel’s documentary attests to this and consequently remarks –

“And then with war preparation, the semi-military forces and police encircled Marichjhapi. For sixteen days, no food and medicine was allowed to enter Marichjhapi”.

In a cruel accident of fate, the year 1979 was incidentally the International Year of the Child and the economic blockade by the government ensured prohibitory orders that led to the starvation of almost 300 children in Marichjhapi. On 31st January 1979, police opened fire and on 13 May 1979, party cadres set fire to the markets and refugee settlements were razed to the ground, women were raped and people slaughtered. Several sources claimed that dead bodies were dumped in the sea or were bundled off into deep forests as tiger-fodder. Afterwards the remaining refugees were forcefully loaded in trucks and sent to the Dudhkundi Refugee Camp, Mr. Buddhadeb Bhattacharya who was then the Minister for Information and Culture voiced a rather complacent declaration in the State Legislative Assembly: “Marichjhapi is finally free from refugees.”

With the formation of new nations, thousands of people find themselves stranded in lands they can hardly call their own and more often than not, as evinced in the case of the East Bengali refugees who were packed off to Dandakaranya, they endure starvation and state brutalities and their quest for survival in a foreign land meets with a tragic failure.

Annesha Saha, Intern, Chronicling Resettlement Project

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A City of One’s Own: Refugee Mobilization in the Calcutta Tram Movement 

The date was 7 July 1953, and most trams in Calcutta ran nearly empty. Acid bulb crackers were slinging, tramcars were being burnt, and roads were being barricaded. Protestors were parading the streets repeatedly chanting slogans. This had become a typical day in Calcutta during the Tram Fare Resistance Movement in 1953. 

Crowded Trams in the City of Calcutta

On June 25, 1953 the British-owned ‘Calcutta Tram Company’ decided to hike the fare in the 2nd-class tram-coaches by one paisa (approximately, US$ 0.05) , and the revised fare was to be effective starting July 1. To make matters worse, in an already charged atmosphere, this fare hike was supported by the government. The events that followed this decision culminated into one of the largest protest movements that post-partition West Bengal was to witness since the Calcutta riots of 1946. These violent demonstrations were more than just a resistance to the surge in tram fare. It was an outlet for refugees to address several other grievances. As historian Prafulla K Chakraborty put it: 

“the refugee population found cathartic expression in a violent movement quaintly called the ‘War for a Pice’ or the Tram Fare Resistance Movement.”

However, it is crucial to place the Tram Movement in perspective, particularly in the context of an increasing dissatisfaction against the government especially among the refugees. The government’s indifference at the plight of the refugees and its policies of ‘denial and dispersal,’ generated strong anti-establishment sentiments capitalized by the Leftist factions in politics such as the recently legalized Communist Party of India. The tram fare increase came around the same period the Left political factions were trying to find an outlet to test the government’s strength. If it wasn’t for the extra paisa, it would have been some other issue. The United Central Refugee Council (UCRC), a refugee organisation founded in 1950 too was planning to launch a wide-scale refugee movement around the same time. For the refugees, the tram movement was not entirely about the increased tram fare but rather about what it stood for. The extra paisa was a symbol of the disregard of the unresponsive government towards its people. Hence the stage was set for a demonstration of strength between the government and the combined forces of the Left and UCRC. 

When the initial protests began on July 1, 1953, a committee called the Tram and Bus Fare Enhancement Resistance Committee (or, TFERC) was formed. It comprised members mostly from the left-leaning parties like the Communist Party of India (CPI) and Marxist Forward Block and was pivotal in mobilising different stratas of society. The UCRC officially played little role in this movement, but the TFERC’s agitational model of intense propaganda campaigns and picketing resembled the methods popularized by the UCRC. However, a key difference was that the TFERC had a broader base of protestors comprising teachers, students, the unemployed and the like — a majority of who were refugees from the squatter colonies that had sprung up in the suburbs of post-Partition Calcutta. 

While the post-partition circumstances affected almost everybody, records show that refugees were disproportionately more affected. For example, there were 187,200 unemployed  in Calcutta during this time of which around 70,000 were refugees. Unemployment, food shortage and soaring prices of essential goods made the 1950s one of the worst periods for a refugee to live in Calcutta. The TFERC’s success lies in the fact that it was able to act as a valve on this rage that accumulated and channel it in a controlled manner to ensure the movement was sustained and not sporadic. 

The importance of refugees in the movement could be demonstrated from the actions of police towards them. Police raided refugee colonies regularly during the movement. These raids were so brutal that in some cases the men fled from the colonies leaving the women behind. The reason for such police brutality was to subdue the manpower of the TFERC and suppress the anti-eviction movement developing simultaneously. Such extreme police brutality indicates the scale of refugee involvement in the movement. It nothing else, it shows the extreme indignation of the administration towards the refugees and the existing state of conflict between the two. 

For some, the movement was an extension of the refugee movement itself as it was conducted by the same leaders who were involved in the anti-eviction movement. This was their attempt to broaden the base of the cause for refugee resettlement. But more than expanding the base, the tram fare resistance did something more: it united the Calcutta population under one umbrella, and it made it clear that the economic and political concerns of the general West(ern) Bengalis weren’t much different from those of the refugees. The protestors did not participate in the movement as refugees or students or peasants but rather as the ‘people of Calcutta.’ This movement could be looked at as one of the first instances of the different stratas of Calcuttans orchestrating joint efforts to successfully carry out a political movement. 

Refugee Agitation lead by the Leftists ca.1959

While the immediate outcome of the movement was the rescission of the tram fare-hike order, one of its long term effects was to render the refugee colonies with a political character. The movement placed them firmly within the realm of left-politics and increased the prominence of the UCRC even though its direct involvement in this movement was limited because it played a passive role in mobilising the refugees to participate in the protests. Its help to the left parties made the UCRC and the refugee colonies a symbol of resistance against all movements taken up against the government in that period. This new character of refugees became evident in their involvement in subsequent movements such as the ‘Teachers’ Movement’ (1954) and the Food Movement (1959). This finally gave refugees a certain level of political power (particularly after the Leftists entered the Legislative Assembly in 1966) and a more stable footing in the city of Calcutta – which they could now slowly begin to call their own. 

Nishitha Mandava

Intern, Chronicling Resettlement Project

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Squatting and Squalor: Search for Home and Hearth in Post-Partition Kolkata

The Partition of India along its Western and Eastern borders saw a huge influx of refugees into India from both sides. Apart from a section of the bhadraloks gentry who had townhouses in Calcutta, most of the refugees left behind their ancestral homes, land, and most of their personal belongings in what became East and West Pakistan. This short article deals with the acquisition of land in West Bengal by the refugees and how they gradually converted these, (often) marshlands, into hospitable settlements which today make up some of the most densely populated neighbourhoods of Kolkata. Most of the land that the refugees built their settlements on (often referred to as “colony” in common parlance) was initially occupied illegally by squatting or jabardokhol [forced occupation]. It was only with the election of the Left-Front administration in West Bengal (in 1977), that the refugees were gradually given legal rights of occupation.

The major colonies around Calcutta. Line demarcates approximate boundary of the then city of Calcutta.

The government had set up three different types of camps to accommodate the refugees coming into West Bengal – namely, ‘transit camps,’ ‘work-site camps,’ and ‘permanent liability camps.’ The move towards occupying lands was driven by the desire to escape the inhospitable conditions of the refugee camps. When the government encountered difficulties to resettle the refugees, it became a common practice to deprive them of food so that they would comply with government orders. Interestingly, one significant reason to search for a residence outside official (or unofficial) camps appears to be the continuous disgust at having to share habitation with lower castes. Several families from these camps started moving out to different areas around Calcutta, occupying land through squatting, and erecting temporary settlements overnight. They started reclaiming marshlands and in rare cases, cultivating some of these areas. Such practices, although rare, can be seen in the Panchanna Gram colony in the 24-Parganas district. Gradually, a total of 149 such squatters’ colonies emerged gradually in Calcutta, 24 Parganas, Howrah and Hooghly districts. As the process of acquiring land by squatting began, so began the active politics of agitation, civil disobedience, and periodic rallies by the refugees.

Temporary shanties were erected overnight.

In 1948, the Nikhil Banga Bastuhara Karma Parishad [All-Bengal Refugee Council of Action] was established. In its early days, it housed a mixture of Congress activists and Left workers, but by 1949, it was taken over by Leftist activists. The latter remained at the forefront of the struggles of refugee rights for the coming years, assisted strongly by the United Central Refugee Council (UCRC), another refugee organization formed in 1950.

In 1950, the Chittaranjan Colony, another major refugee settlement emerged to the south-east of Jadavpur. It started off as a collection of kuccha [mudbrick] houses walled by bamboo and having roofs of ‘hogla’ leaves. The colony was converted into hospitable conditions over the years, by filling out ponds and eventually strengthening the house structures. Meanwhile, acts of squatting generated considerable opposition from the government which was concerned about the rights of the landowners whose lands the refugees had occupied. The squatters faced regular violence from both the police and the goons of the landowners. However, the refugees did not remain silent victims. They organized themselves into ‘colony committees’ to carry on the simultaneous tasks of planning the development of the colonies and organizing on the issue of refugee rights. This was further magnified by two incidents.

Earlier mud-brick houses in Bijoygarh Colony.

Firstly, in lieu of the state administrations’ reluctance to resettle lower-caste migrants within the state (and especially around Calcutta), the Government of India had planned on rehabilitating them in areas outside Bengal (such as the Andaman islands and later, Dandakaranya) which were often not only inhospitable but not suited to the aspirations of living conditions that people possessed. The stories from such places reached Calcutta, strengthening the claim to rehabilitation within West Bengal.

Secondly, the government introduced the Draft Eviction Bill in 1951 inserting provisions to evict squatters from illegally occupied lands. This incident saw the different refugee organizations coalescing under the United Central Refugee Council. Colony committees also started to raise funds from members to invest in the development and protection of occupied land. Chittaranjan Colony Committee started charging a Rs. 2 per capita while a one-time fee of Rs. 15 was required to live in the Netaji Nagar Colony, another refugee colony that was located in its vicinity.

Establishment of the Bijoygarh College (1950) in the presence of Prafulla Chandra Sen who would go on to be the Chief Minister of West Bengal.

Throughout the 1950s, the state government continued to cite issues related to a paucity of land available to accommodate the refugees. However, government records from the same time show that the state government effectively possessed 26,000 acres of fallow land. Facing immense agitation and protests, the Draft Eviction Bill underwent several revisions and was finally passed as ‘The Rehabilitation of Displaced Persons and Evictions of Persons in Unauthorized Occupation of Land Act’ which may be read as a major reconciliatory move.

In March 1969, the Committee of Review of Rehabilitation Work in West Bengal under the direction of N. C. Chatterjee published The Report on Rehabilitation of Displaced Persons from East Pakistan in Ex-Camp Sites in West Bengal. The Committee recommended the conversion of ex-camp sites into rehabilitation colonies and provision of homestead land smaller than usual size. The prevailing concerns about acquisition of land from unwilling owners reflects strongly in the report. Interestingly, the report notes, in certain cases the refugees themselves ‘may be encouraged’ to negotiate their purchases with the landowners. The report also provides a cautionary note on the possibility of a rise in land prices due to speculation.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, colonies continued emerging in and around Calcutta. In 1967, 121 displaced families led by Debendranath Sarkar, arrived at Panchanna Gram. By 1974, the area was turned hospitable. Most of the families came from work camps. In areas like Bagjola and Sonarpur, on the southern fringes of the city, the displaced families worked and reclaimed several thousand acres of submerged land. The claim for recognition of legal right of occupation gained impetus after the Left-Front government was elected to power in 1977, but only culminated in the 1980s. The residents of the Netaji Nagar Colony, for example, received legal rights of occupation only in 1989. In many ways, the legal recognition of the ownership of colony-land is still an ongoing and unfinished process.

In many ways this quest for a home and a hearth are still continuing. For decades now, the refugees have occupied these lands, by what they like to call ‘practical rights’ instead of legal rights which is a very apt reminder of the ‘denial and dispersal’ attitude and policy implemented by the legal institutions officially charged with the task of resettling the refugees. The tale of these refugees is a stark reminder of the importance of civic agency in the face of bureaucratic negligence.

Sujato Datta

(Intern, ‘Chronicling Resettlement’ Project)

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Where ‘Death Looked Down’: Refugees at Post-Partition Sealdah Station

The Sealdah Station, one of the biggest train terminals of the city of Calcutta has a very specific historical significance in the context of post-Partition refugee camps and squatter colonies. It had the unique locational advantage with well-connected routes to various parts of East Pakistan through Goalundo, the river port situated on the river Padma. Moreover, the location was a favourable shelter for the refugees because it helped them in their search of livelihood in the city of Calcutta. Consequently, as the historian Anwesha Sengupta notes, the railway junction was over-congested where “everyday there were new faces scrambling for a tiny plot on some platform.” The bhadraloks [upper caste gentlefolk] in Calcutta were made thoroughly uncomfortable by this over-congestion. Several attempts, however feeble and unimpactful, were made in order to evict the crowd, they had evidently coalesced like a singular mass which was described in the following words:

“Sealdah station has become a veritable hell on earth; it is emitting that odour which the famished crowd of ’43 used to spread wherever there was any congregation of theirs.”

Amrita Bazar Patrika, April 1950.

Their presence amidst the commuters served as a brutal reminder of the existence of impoverished lives of refugees that nobody wanted to be reminded about, because  it aroused in their hearts fear, anxiety, and doubts of various kinds. The junction therefore no longer retained the humdrum of a physical space but transformed into a metaphorical junction of refugee memories, woes, survival and negotiations where they took shelter to find sleep.

The land in West Bengal was overwhelmed with the influx of 246,000 refugees in 1947, over the following years the migration continued, with approximately 600,000 Bengali Hindus who had left East Pakistan for West Bengal in 1948 and the figure had crossed 1.95 million by April, 1949. In 1950, widespread communal riots provided causes to aggravate the crisis with an influx of another 1.8 million refugees. In an illustration published in Jugantar on May 4, 1950 captioned — “সম্প্রতি কলিকাতার গঙ্গায় একটা হাঙ্গর ও নিউ মার্কেটর রাস্তায় একটি বাঘ ধরা পড়িয়াছে” [Recently, a shark was caught in the Ganges in Kolkata and a tiger was caught near the New Market Road.] A man (‘Calcutta Resident’) had found his escape-shelter on a tree from the two life-threatening problems he had been caught amidst — a tiger (‘Housing Problem’) on land and a shark (‘Cholera germs’) in the river. [Left: Jugantar, 4 May 1950.]

The illustrative construction was a sardonic indication at the State grappling without resources, incapacitated to fulfil the refugee resettlement and rehabilitation requirements. Every day, in Sealdah station, cases of cholera, tuberculosis and dysentery were reported, primarily caused due to the poor public health conditions. Despite that, the refugees preferred the platform over refugee camps which were located in remote areas and did not promise viable options of livelihood.

Bilas Ray Katra Seva Dal was amongst the many non-governmental charitable organizations that took the initiative to provide help and support to the refugees at Sealdah station. They aimed at providing food, water and other basic necessities to them. Amrita Bazar Patrika documented two such photographs — where they are seen distributing utensils necessary for the refugees and one of a huge cauldron being carried on the shoulders of volunteers, in which food for over ten thousand refugees was cooked every day. “Despite the traditional red-tapism, which did not show any sign of weak existence in the face of the emergency, the non-official Calcutta-Bengalis and non-Bengalis working in close collaboration – built up a central coordinating organization which is successfully doing the stupendous job of feeding 10,000 people daily,” wrote a staff reporter of Amrita Bazar Patrika in April 21, 1950.

[Left & Right: Amrita Bazar Patrika, 21 April 1950.]

The women and children were the worst affected refugees. A photograph published in Amrita Bazar Patrika, on March 19, 1950, documented the murder of a mother who had left behind an infant of three years—the youngest surviving refugee, spoon-fed by Calcutta Relief Committee Volunteers.

[Left: Amrita Bazar Patrika, 19 March 1950.]

Women were considered as pawns of negotiation for the plot of station platforms with station masters, ticket checkers, policemen who would threaten to evict the families. Strangers would often promise bread to solicit favours out of the women; they would be ogled at, bothered with queries in order to determine if they had anybody to resort to when faced with dire circumstances. They often feared bathing at the station washrooms and would mysteriously disappear for days. Adhir Biswas writes in his book Amra Toh Akhon India-e (2005):

“By then we had become familiar with the ticket checkers. There were two police uncles who used to give my little nephew some bread. One day I saw them giving some money to my sister-in-law. When they were around, she always hid her face with her sari.”

Over the years due to increase in the heterogeneity of the refugee population the social boundaries had become increasingly difficult to distinguish, which further concerned the bhadraloks in Calcutta. Their condition was reflected through a letter written on July 14, 1957, by Ila Sen, an elite woman from Calcutta to the editor of the Times of India, with a squalid description of Sealdah station:

“Calcutta has its own Frankenstein — the four and a half million refugees are now holding the city at ransom. It is impossible to enter from any direction without climbing over their heads. They are in possession of the railway stations. Desperate and despairing, this is a classless society. Each one has been ground down to bear an identical face — a face from which all distinguishing marks of education, culture or occupation have been effaced. No longer is it possible to tell the school master from the postman…”

Most pathetic was the way Death arrived and consumed the “classless society,” which was extinguished by the ransom they had endured while alive and their endurance went unacknowledged. Instead, they were accused of “holding the city at ransom” for depleting the resources which were not in abundance to be provided for their relief. The plethora of hardships they came across, the incurable trepidation in recognising the risks that surrounded them, culminated in their woeful surrender to Fate and eventually to Death. Jatin Bala writes in Jashorer Smriti O Udbastu Camper Jibon:

“Dead bodies of refugees were common sight at the station. Every day, the dead body carriers used to come to Sealdah station.  They used to tie together four, seven or ten bodies and carried them away. We were told that these bodies were cremated together. No one could tell what happened to these bodies finally, their relatives also did not know.”

Their loss of identity in the absence of a ritualistic cremation was evident and unfortunate, which marked the victory of the perpetual threat to their identity despite the resistance against the inevitable.

Priyanka Das

(Intern, ‘Chronicling Resettlement’ Project)

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Two Faces of Resettlement: Punjab and Bengal

The apathy and sheer carelessness of the government to a humanitarian crisis as big as the partition in the eastern part of the British India (Bengal, Assam, Tripura, Sylhet etc.) has always been obvious. The extent of this deprivation becomes clear when seen in the context of the compensation and rehabilitation measures extended to the refugees from West Pakistan (primarily, the provinces of Punjab and Sindh).

Starting from the conflicts within the Indian National Congress – who never managed to secure a confident mandate in Bengal – to those within the Muslim League between Mohammad Ali Jinnah and A. K. Fazlul-Huq, since the inception of the proposition of partition, the politics of Bengal had been significantly at odds with that of the rest of the country. Unlike in Punjab, the general public opinion in Bengal was opposed to the idea of Partition and regionalist sentiments triumphed over the religious – at least initially. However, as Jinnah had maintained throughout, the partition proved to be inevitable and the people of Bengal were disastrously unprepared. Most of the displaced people saw it as a temporary inconvenience and were resolute in their belief that they would be able to return to their homes. This misconception was shared by the Nehru administration, who remained in denial about the severity of the refugee crisis in Bengal.  From what scholar Prafulla Kumar Chakrabarti could discern from his letters, Nehru was convinced that the migration was only temporary and would eventually stop when peace was restored. Thus, he only sanctioned interim measures, which were not meant to be rehabilitation programmes but mere short-term assistance required for sustenance. According to P. K. Chakrabarti, the union government was hesitant to dole out more permanent forms of assistance and compensation, afraid of providing further impetus to Hindus from East Pakistan hoping to migrate to India.

The migrants from East Pakistan had to face innumerable hardships with little to no government support. Those who had no other options sought shelter in government camps. These camps were plagued by horrible living conditions, from a shortage of drinkable water, sanitation and rations to the absolute lack of privacy.

Thousands died of suffocation and dysentery caused by dirty water and expired food. While the United Central Refugee Council (UCRC), a quasi-political organization with leftist leanings, attempted some relief work, it was barely enough. The official policy operationalized their concerns primarily in providing them with shelter and housing and regarded facilitating sustainable occupations and in general, the literal task of ‘rehabilitation,’ as secondary. The latter was limited to a grant of a single meagre loan meant for housing and starting a small trade.

In stark contrast to this, all possible measures to ensure a smooth rehabilitation process were taken in Punjab.

One of the major differences here was that the Punjab saw a two-way exchange of population where the minorities on each side of the border migrated to the other, unlike in Bengal, where largely East Bengali Hindus moved to West Bengal. A compensation pool was created out of vacated properties in almost all states and the government contributed a very generous amount to the same. The Muslim evacuees left almost 6 million acres of land in Punjab and Haryana alone and the union government provided the funding for building new houses, as well as townships with schools and hospitals across various states. According to an official estimate provided by Chakrabarti in his magnum opus The Marginal Men, 1.03 million families received either proprietorial or monetary compensation, whereas only 0.943 million families had migrated from West Pakistan. This may lead us to conclude that some families effectively received more than one unit of aid.  Every last asset that one may have left behind or lost was compensated to the full and no stone was left unturned to provide additional assistance.

The question thus remains as to why was there such an enormous disparity in the approach of the government at two ends of the nascent republic?  In Bengal, a voluntary exchange of property did begin, but the scheme never really took off. The government, it seems, jeopardised the lives of thousands of refugees for a number of reasons.

First: Prime Minister Nehru wanted to keep Muslim-majority Kashmir in India and project his secular and minority-friendly image to the rest of the world. The only way to ensure it would have been to retain a significant Muslim population in West Bengal. The government insisted that the exchange of population in Bengal would be a “communal solution”- under the pretense that the Partition was not communal.

Secondly, the fledgling administration was aware that the handling of the refugee crisis in Punjab was a prerequisite for maintaining stability and they could not agitate the Punjabis who formed a significant part of the army. Punjab was also much closer to Delhi and the risk of an uprising so close to the national capital would have been detrimental to the very core of a new nation.

While in Punjab, the migration was a one-time affair, in Bengal, the refugee influx continued till as late as the1970s and it was almost impossible for the government to continue taking the required measures. In fact, rehabilitation assistance to Bengali refugees was hastily minimized by 1958, when almost all residual problems of rehabilitation had been completed in the West and the government wanted to discontinue the rehabilitation machinery.

The Bengali and the Punjabi refugees were both unfortunate victims of one of the most traumatic and violent communal displacements in contemporary history. However, the Union Government directed all their resources towards them while deliberately overlooking the plight of the refugees in Bengal and deeming it an irreparable disaster. Thus, while the refugee condition in Punjab was stabilised in less than five years, a major section of refugees from East Pakistan continued to rot in neglected, unsanitary living conditions with a slowly developing, collective unconscious desire to return to “home.”

Hirannya Sen

(Intern, ‘Chronicling Resettlement’ Project)

 

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“All We Had Till the End”: An Interview with Shantilata Sarkar

Writing about the Partition, refugee crisis and post-partition resettlement for the Kolkata Partition Museum Project seemed to open up the perfect opportunity to record and document the old stories that we heard from our grandparents as we sat huddled around them during rainy days, in the light of an old lamp. As I sit in front of Shanti Dida [grandmother], one of the thousands who had migrated from East Pakistan, I realise, growing up in West Bengal a couple of generations post independence, I had some basic knowledge about the 1947 Partition, but almost no awareness about the personal experiences of the people who had to uproot themselves and re-establish their homes in an unknown land. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, resettlement is ‘the transfer of refugees from an asylum country to another state that has agreed to admit them and ultimately grant them permanent settlement’. Textbook definitions mean nothing to my octogenarian neighbour Shantilata Sarkar (ne`e Biswas), but we do have to look into the words and their significance before we embark on a journey of emotions and reminiscence with her.

A frail and delicate old lady dressed in a pale blue salwar kameez, Dida welcomes me with a smile.  I explain that I had come to hear the entirety of the story which I had heard bits and parts of, this time, for recording it. She laughs. She is ready. I switch on my recorder, keep it aside, fold my legs comfortably and she begins her story.

Pre-Departure:

At that time India had just gained independence and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru had assumed the office of Prime Minister in India and Jinnah, that of Pakistan. East Bengal was East Pakistan or Purbo Pakistan at that time. “জিন্না বলছে জওহরলাল রে, আমায় মুসলমান সব দাও, পাঠায়ে দাও। আর জওহরলাল বলছে আমায় হিন্দু সব দাও।” [Jinnah asks Jawaharlal to send all the Musalmans from India to Pakistan. Jawaharlal asks for all the Hindus to be sent to Hindustan] This led to conflicts within the governments and resulted in extremely violent attacks by the Hindu and Muslim communities on each other. The military barged into villages and tortured innocent people and caused havoc. In East Pakistan, the Hindus faced the wrath of the Muslims. Riots had started dotting the entire country. Hindus and Muslims could not step out of their houses wearing clothes that gave away their religious identity in order to prevent attacks by the other community. The men wore pants and people hung crosses in front of their houses to disguise themselves as Christians. Dida’s family was to leave on the twentieth of the month of Jaistha [second month in the bengali calendar]. Her father had sold the entire harvest from their thirty-five bighas of land and all preparations had been made. Two days before they left, Dida’s mejo bhai [younger brother], Deben, had gone to play when a Muslim boy stabbed his palm. The little boy, terrified, kept the incident and the injury a secret. By the time the wound was discovered by Dida’s parents, it had morphed into a deep bruise resulting in swelling and severe infections in the entire hand. Thus the journey that was supposed to start the next day was delayed. Only Dida with two elder brothers, younger sister, boudi [sister-in-law] and Dida’s maternal grandmother embarked on the way to India the following day.

Departure:

They started from their village Gopalgunj in her mama’s [maternal uncle] two-storied boat. Seventy-five people along with their belongings traveled for fourteen days before they reached Khulna. On reaching Khulna, eight-year old Dida and her sister saw the rail-tracks and trains for the first time. The excitement waned when the train to Bongaon arrived and the doors were forcibly closed, barring entry through them. A series of aggressive pushing of people and luggage through the windows followed, leading to a myriad of casualties, injured passengers and destruction of belongings inside the train. The train stopped at Benapole, the check post on the Pakistani side of the border, and the doors were opened. The men were made to stand on the platform, the women were ushered away to a room and everyone was extensively stripped, searched and checked. Their trunks were cut open using a dha; money which was hidden and sewn into the sole of the shoes were taken away and everyone was given just fifty rupees to fend for themselves. Again the doors were closed and people threw each other and the broken suitcases inside the train. “A train had arrived from Hindustan the day before, filled with broken shankhas [nuptial bangles for women]. It had not stopped at Sealdah station for even a minute and people died while boarding it. Women whose husbands had been killed in the trains had broken their bangles in grief. The train was splattered with blood.”

The train stopped at Petrapole, the checkpost on the Indian side of the border and another series of checking followed, this time, inside the train. When the train finally reached Bongaon, they were welcomed with food and clothes. “We stayed on the platform for seven days. We were still in the same clothes we had on when we started. There were new stalls made for us on the platform but the number of people living on it was so high that there was no space to defecate even.” There were huge vessels in which khichuri [a rice preparation] was cooked every day. It was just turmeric powder, rice, salt and chilli in hot water but it tasted delicious to their starving selves.

“We had become refugees now.”

Post-Arrival:

“Certificates were handed to us soon afterwards, you know. I still have them”, Dida says.

                                                                                            (Above: Dida’s Certificate)

They were taken to Sealdah station next, where they stayed for one and a half months on the platform. A sudden cholera outbreak resulted in extreme panic and several deaths. There were no bathroom stalls and people defecated around the taps. One single room was appointed for serving food. Chire [flattened rice] was served for breakfast and afterwards her eldest brother Mukundo went out in search of work everyday. When he sometimes left early, it took the little girls almost up to six hours in a queue to get food. Other people skipped past them and they would remain hungry and starving. One day a volunteer took pity on them and took them to sweetmeat shops and small hotels to feed them, bought them a loaf of bread but they did not accept either, because no stranger was to be trusted. That day when Mukundo returned, he talked to the volunteer and realised that the person had meant well. It was a revelation! There were good people in their midst as well, something they hadn’t even considered before that day.

Soon Mukundo came across a friend who had relocated some days prior to them. He took them to a camp set up by the Brahmo Samaj in Cornwallis Street. The camps were supervised by a Bipin babu [call of respect] who took a hundred families each month and provided lodging. It was in those camps of Brahmo Samaj that they first tasted wheat rutis [flat-bread]! The rooms were clean and had a hygienic sanitation system.  They finally had a home until Mukundo got a job. Other relatives parted ways; some of them went to Dandakaranya while some went to Ranchi and settled in camps there. Dida’s grandmother went back to Bangladesh.

Within a month, Mukundo got a job in a factory that made bottle-caps at a pay of seventy-five rupees and they had to move once again. Bipin babu gave them sacks of rice and other amenities and they shifted to a small room in Entally beside a family who would later marry into theirs. Mukundo used to go to work in the mornings while Dida, then an eight year old girl, learned how to cook. Once home, he would console the youngest sister by telling her stories of places left behind, times long gone. Stories of mango trees, banyan trees and shiuli [night-flowering jasmine] flowers haunted them but kept them safe. A year down, the riots had considerably cooled down and the situation seemed better, so Mukundo made passports and visas for the sisters and sent them home to Bangladesh with a relative, to continue schooling. This ended their first phase of resettlement.

Two years later Dida once again prepared to come to India with her father and her maternal aunt. They travelled to Khulna on a steamer. On reaching Khulna, their steamer faced a disastrous accident with one of the trains. The train collided with the anchoring steamer, resulting in the drowning of several passengers. Dida, along with some others swam to the shore and was rescued by an elderly man who took her home safely. Her father and her aunt had also been rescued separately. After much trouble, they reunited but the damage had already been done. Huge bonfires had to be lit in order to dry the belongings. Many people were lost and injured. Dida herself suffered from severe trauma and remained mute for quite a few months after the incident. Her memory lapsed and she couldn’t remember anything apart from her first name which resulted in the loss of a school year because the school didn’t want to admit her. A year later, her condition bettered and she resumed her studies. She had to leave her boarding school at Banibon, two years later when she became severely ill. She went to Bangladesh once again and returned to India once every two months to renew her visa as she continued her studies back in East Bengal. This episodic phase continued for two whole years before she came back to India permanently and got married at seventeen. There was no permanent settling down for Dida. Marriage led to further relocation from one place to another till she came to Shaguna, in the district of Nadia. Now she sits in front of me at her son’s house in Kalyani, Nadia where she is currently quarantined because of the pandemic.

(Above: Dida’s certificate. As the date indicates, this was issued much later, probably when she came back to India permanently after getting married).

Dida’s story made me think of the anxiety and danger one had to undergo in order to barely survive during those tumultuous times. She calls herself extremely fortunate; she is present to tell her story because of the humane people she had the good fortune to encounter. We have no knowledge about thousands of  people who relocated to India during the partition. Hundreds were either tortured to death, or they never could cross the border because of the communal riots. Women were raped, sacrificed in the bloodlust of religious aggression, children were lost, trafficked. Many of them ended up in brothels and red-light areas. Rita Manchanda in her research on gender conflict during displacement talks about how ‘women and children made up a majority of the forcibly displaced’. ‘The contemporary image of the forcibly displaced, the refugee and the internally displaced, fleeting life and livelihood threatening situations, is a woman usually with small children clinging to her.’ She says.

                                                                                            (Above: The certificate that was issued to Dida’s husband.)

This story validates the lack of knowledge surrounding resettlement in Bengal from Bangladesh. Alternatively silent voices have become more apparent in the past fifteen years in the historiography of Partition, in context of the relocation and resettlement of refugees from Pakistan to Punjab. As Bangalis [essentially, Bengali speaking people], we seem to gather our knowledge about the partition exclusively from petty bangal and ghoti [people originally from East and West Bengal respectively] squabbles and frivolous living-room banter. Many of our own grandparents are survivors of the partition yet we do not seem to be concerned about the intense personal experiences and the severe trauma surrounding the relocation. Our revelations about the Partition do not  come close to the sufferings of our own people. What must have it felt like to swim towards the shore from a crash knowing nothing about the condition of the family you came to an entirely strange place with? We do not know. We cannot even imagine. Time has healed the shock she faced, but I see a tear strolling down Dida’s face as she talks about the times when she thought she was completely lost. I had come to Dida, hoping for a story of material loss, hatred and antagonism, maybe to satisfy the only image of partition that we as passive readers had. What I left with was a story of growing up, a tale of moving on and letting go, a story of good men and women, a story of overwhelming emotions and a lesson to cling on to our memories, because that is all we had till the end.

 

Deya Bhattacharyya

(Intern, ‘Chronicling Resettlement’ Project)

 

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An Untold Story

A Namasudra peasant of Bangladesh can easily cross and recross the international border without passport and visa and come to his relations in the district of Nadia in West Bengal. From Nadia he can pass through Midnapore to Malkangiri in Koraput district in Orissa. From Malkangiri he can proceed through Bastar district in Madhya Pradesh to Bareilly and Nainital districts in Uttar Pradesh. Then he can pass to Delhi and Rajasthan. Everywhere he will find his Namasudra brethren…….the dispersed Bengali refugee who moves throughout India but returns every now and then to the Earth Goddess – ‘Bengal’….

“The Marginal Men” by Prafulla K. Chakrabarti

There is no dramatic beginning to this story. Like the first post of this series, this story seeks to narrate a personal encounter with something that was equally political – my first encounter with Prafulla Kumar Chakrabarti (1922-2001). It obviously happened through his seminal book, The Marginal Men: The Refugees and the Left Political Syndrome in West Bengal (1990) which I had to repeatedly refer to in the course of writing my undergraduate dissertation. The usual anxiety and pressure of coming up with something “meaningful” and “worth researching on” for my dissertation had pushed me in a variety of directions, and my sojourn had finally ended with my decision to engage with a topic that I had often heard about in my family – Partition. As I ventured further into my research, I discovered that this book had been widely cited by multiple scholars working on the Partition of Bengal. I found it surprisingly lucid for a scholarly work and empathetic towards its subject. Every time I read the book, I was reminded of film-maker Ritwik Ghatak, who had made the Partition theme his own, repeatedly engaging with the dreams and disappointments, struggles and yearnings of East Bengali refugees in his work. Chakrabarti’s book rigorously documents the different processes involved in their resettlement in West Bengal.

Anyone acquainted with Bengal today would probably know about the kinds of hardships that the refugees had to face, owing to the prevalence of these experiences in collective memory and popular culture. While some of the refugees were able to secure homes in West Bengal, many, especially the lower caste refugees, were refused accommodation within the state and dispersed widely across the Indian subcontinent, as is evident from the quote above. The hardships that the refugees faced, irrespective of caste or class, were the result of the complex politics of resettlement that had played out in post-Partition West Bengal. The book delves into the minute details of this politics and shows the symbiotic relationship between the refugee movement and the rise of the Left in West Bengal – how the Left parties had championed the cause of the refugees, built a strong support base in them and then came to power on their mandate in 1967.

Chakrabarti’s research however gave me very little information about his own life. All I could gather from the internet was that he was a professor of History who lived and worked in West Bengal. But I was eager to know more. My immense respect for the book and curiosity about the author was probably reflected in the frequent conversations I had with my dear friend, Sagnik Bhattacharya, regarding our dissertations. In one of them, he (very excitedly) informed me about the availability of Chakrabarti’s personal documents and interviews at the International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam. Therein was born the project of “Chronicling Resettlement”.

How relevant is this project in the tumultuous times we are living, with the Corona virus raging havoc in most of the world? Even as we asked ourselves this question this year, the migrant crisis unfolded in front of our eyes in India, reminding us of how, as a nation, we had forgotten about the plight of our own fellow citizens who run our cities and factories. This came soon on the heels of protests (just prior to the pandemic) against the newly passed Citizenship Amendment Act, which can be directly traced back to the consequences of Partition.

In such a scenario, reading and knowing more about the lived experiences of Partition refugees and of a historian who was trying to vigorously document their struggle for life and land, suddenly assumes a new meaning. We can only hope that what we eventually learn from our findings will increase our understanding of our present realities and help to make a difference somewhere.

Atmadeep Sengupta

(Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts)

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Raison d’etre 

This story begins literally, on a proverbial foggy morning in January when I was visiting a friend in Amsterdam for the New Year. I was supposed to return on January 2 , but decided to stay on for a couple of days and finish some archival research works at the archives of the International Institute for Social History (IISG). While in the reading room and paging through some 200 letters sent to the International Union of Socialist Youth in the 1960s and 70s, a seemingly curious entry captioned “Prafulla K. Chakrabarti Papers” caught my attention and brought back memories of Rituparna-di telling me how brilliant this collection of primary sources was. I knew very little of Prafulla Kumar Chakrabarti when I opened the three odd-boxes containing the hand-written materials, when I had finished with them, I was convinced that more people need to know about them. That evening, was born this project—Chronicling Resettlement.

Growing up in West Bengal, I had observed that though partition and the refugee crisis it led to had been the defining experience of the state, there is very little general awareness of what exactly happened to the 5 million or so people who poured into India over several decades. When it comes to refugees, I found public imagination in my home state to be largely occupied by popular gossip, an identity politics, eternal debates over ghoti and bangal supremacy, tales of nostalgia— once strong, now diluted, sometimes invented, and of late by charlatans writing, re-writing and passing judgment on History. The scarce scraps of “true History” that remains when all this is subtracted is locked away in the various government archives of India—written in dull words on dull-looking paper stacked between even more dull-looking cardboard covers entitled with the names of different ministries and departments—Home, Foreign, Finance, Defense and of course—the Ministry of Labour, Employment and Rehabilitation. Whatever they are, they are inaccessible to the public. And “the nation [that doesn’t] want to know.”

As a (to-be) historian, I had the luck to see some of these documents myself while on the rampage, trying to connect some broken strings for explaining the Food Movement of 1959. These papers, however drab and dreary, are proud, boasting the achievements of the government in rehabilitating a ‘mass of people.’ They operationalize people in money, and rehabilitation is for them, a financial problem.

P K Chakrabarti’s notes on the other chronicle of an exodus and a mass disaster – the refugee migration. Sifting through those yellowed pages, careful not to tear any, was therefore a humbling experience as it was one of methodological self-reflection. Here one could read of the tragedy from bottom-up. Where death has not been reduced to mere figures. Though every once in a while, a small note on the margin popped up – “1200 refugees arrived today from Barishal. Sent to T. C. [transit camp]” they resembled nothing of the self-confident government reports that lie in the similar boxes 6000 miles away. These papers spill the beans. They talk of a disaster – of unmanageable, unfathomable crisis where ‘civility’ had become a farce.

It struck me all the more because these discoveries came right in the middle of the anti-CAA protests, when the politicians running the country had decided to re-run the same episode – of state-making and state-breaking. What lessons did Prafulla–babu leave in his notes? Some of those are alternative proposals for resettlement that were never put into force but speak of what could have happened and shatter our comfortable teleologies. They also challenge the rhetoric of a government-induced rehabilitation. Some of these files on the other hand, are “chronology”-cal outline of events that challenge the very contour of History by reorienting the markers by which ‘Time’ is recorded and periods divided. As the paper below shows, Gandhiji’s death earns a mere ‘marginal’ mention in Chakrabarti’s narrative of the plight of partition refugees.

For this story, India After Gandhi is a title without a meaning. And Chronicling Resettlement is designed to tell this other story.

 

Sagnik Bhattacharya

(Department of History, Groningen University, the Netherlands)

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