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