Chronicling the Search for a Home in Post-Partition West Bengal

By : Isha Lahiri

The Chronicling Resettlement project, undertaken by two graduates, Atmadeep Sengupta and Sagnik Bhattacharya and supported by the Kolkata Partition Museum Trust, aims at researching post-Partition resettlement of refugees from East Pakistan in West Bengal.

“Communal divisions… radicalized nations… it wasn’t supposed to happen like this. Free, sure. But broken. And it’s our responsibility now.” 

– Chotu: A Tale of Partition and Love

In June 1947 when the last Viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten, put forth his plan of balkanizing British India to ensure a speedy transfer of power and put an end to the political squabble that the country was experiencing, there were different anticipations. This announcement led to the formation of a predominantly Hindu State in India and a Muslim State was created in West Pakistan (now Pakistan) and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). As a consequence of this historic decision, Bengal and Punjab – the two provinces with the largest Muslim populations – were partitioned between the successor Dominions of India and Pakistan. So when the British finally left in August 1947, they had not only left the country territorially and politically divided but also unleashed the unprecedented movement of 12 to 14 million people across the borders of the two nations. This resulted in the largest mass migration in recent history that ended in the loss of at least a million lives, large scale violence, and devastating communal hatred that in many forms continues to this day.

“Map of the Boundary Commission Award of Bengal,” Dundee Heritage Trust

Although both Punjab and Bengal had to bear the brunt of this decision, the event of Partition played out somewhat differently for these two provinces. Punjab witnessed a two-way exodus of populations across the borders in 1947 with massive communal violence being tackled by the federal government on a war footing. The government also adopted measures such as the development of planned townships and provision of financial assistance to refugees for building houses, on the six million acres of land in Punjab and Haryana vacated by the Muslims moving to Pakistan; which translated favourably for refugees from Punjab. Resettlement of these refugees was also managed by the federal budget in Punjab and around the then federally administered union territory of New Delhi. 

In Bengal, however, things were unfurling differently. This was not the first time Bengal had its borders redrawn. Ajit Kumar Neogy in his work, Partition of Bengal, remarks, before the partition of 1947, Bengal had its borders altered on no fewer than five occasions: 

In 1835, the North-Western Provinces were excised from the Presidency of Bengal and Arakan became part of Burma. In 1874, nine districts in the east were split off from Bengal to form the province of Assam. In 1892, two more districts in the south-east, Chittagong and the Chittagong Hill Tracts, were taken from Bengal and given to Assam. In 1905, the Curzon’s partition went much further: it stripped away all of the eastern districts of Bengal to create a short-lived  province of Eastern Bengal and Assam. That partition was revoked in 1911, but Bihar and Orissa were then removed from the province, and Bengal’s new frontiers remained unchanged for only three and half decades before the major partition of 1947.

As opposed to Punjab, after the Partition of 1947 Bengal experienced a continued influx of refugees for several decades after 1947 with migration chiefly in one direction – from East Pakistan to West Bengal. Cambridge historian Joya Chatterji reports: “Between 1947 and 1967, at least six million Hindu refugees from East Bengal crossed into West Bengal.” However the Bengal and central governments, who had to take up the daunting task of rehabilitating these refugees, failed to conclusively understand the refugee problem that persisted in post-partition West Bengal and came up with policies that did not address the complex issue adequately. As Chatterji puts it, the government’s attitude towards refugee resettlement that brought with it its share of chaos and complexity became one that reeked of “denial and dispersal.”

Refugees squatting on Sealdah Station in Calcutta, 
Source: ‘They Live Again,’ Director of Publicity, Government of West Bengal, 1953, p.11.

So what did the rehabilitation of refugees look like? To begin with, the resettlement experience was not uniform for all refugees. The relatively well-off with some pre-Partition connections in West Bengal were not solely dependent on the government for their rehabilitation, and tried to survive with whatever little they had. There were refugees who had nothing to fall back upon and had to survive the toils of the government camps to begin their lives on the other side of the border. There was yet another category of refugees who despite lacking resources attempted to rehabilitate themselves on their own. They forcefully occupied deserted houses, military camps, established squatter colonies, and raged protests to voice their struggle and found ways to survive by coming up with their own initiatives. This modus operandi came to be known as jabardakhal (seizure by force). These complex modes of rehabilitation that were at play in post-partition West Bengal had protracted political and economic implications that affected the state both economically and politically. It radically paved the way for the ascendency of leftist politics and Communist Party of India (Marxist) to win its way into the state-cabinet in 1967; turning West Bengal into a leftist stronghold that was finally dismantled in 2011.

Courtesy: Anwesha Sengupta (2017), The Railway Refugees: Sealdah, 1950s -1960s 
Source: Jugantar, May 4, 1950

While a lot of research has been conducted on the partition with a specific focus on the Province of Bengal, one would be surprised to note the asymmetry or chasm as far as  research on the resettlement of refugees in post-partition West Bengal is concerned. Although attempts have been made to delineate the pathos and condition of the refugees in recent years, a report by scholars Sucharita Sengupta, Paula Banerjee and Anwesha Sengupta published in 2016 highlights the absence of academic deliberation into the micro-movements that developed into what can be called the “long 1950s”. These include discussions on events like the Tram Movement referring to massive protests that nearly jeopardised Calcutta and its hinterland in 1953 over a 1 paisa (roughly US$ 0.05) raise in tram fares, or the Teachers’ Movement of 1954. 

Within the limited exploration of the refugee-issue, there exists two broad tendencies. On the one hand there is bureaucratic research on the partition and resettlement that reduces the event to a number of governmental decisions and paints the management of migration from an administrative vantage point. On the other, a large body of media representations such as the poetry of Jibanananda Das, Buddhadeb Basu, the novels of Hasan Azizul Haq, and films such as Chinnamul [Uprooted] (1950) by Nemai Ghosh, Meghe Dhaka Tara [The Cloud-capped Star] (1960), Komal Gandhar [E-flat] (1961), and Subarnarekha (1965) by Ritwik Ghatak capture the pathos of displacement and the psychological trauma of becoming a ‘rifiujee’ [refugee]. These narratives typically downplay the potential for agency in negotiating the circumstances of the refugees in their new “homeland”. Scholar and activist Prafulla Kumar Chakrabarti researched and chronicled the politics of resettlement with a certain focus on the agency of the settlers themselves. Duly stressing the role of the ‘United Central Refugee Council’ (a quasi-political organization with leftist leanings that repeatedly fought for the rights of refugees) as well as documenting the portrayal of the partition and the refugee crisis in the media of the day; his research shifted the narrative from one of refugee victimization to refugee agency. His research can be found in his magnum opus, “The Marginal Men: The Refugees and the Left Political Syndrome in West Bengal”, which is considered to be one of the most authoritative works on refugee rehabilitation in West Bengal today.

Relief Work organised by local non-governmental committees. 
Source: Amritabazar Patrika, April 12, 1950

The Chronicling Resettlement project, undertaken by two graduates, Atmadeep Sengupta and Sagnik Bhattacharya and supported by the Kolkata Partition Museum Trust draws on some of Chakrabarti’s research notes and aims to start conversations and begin to bridge the chasm. In this project, they are helped by a team of 11 talented interns and advised by the initiator of the Kolkata Partition Museum Project, Dr. Rituparna Roy. 

This project aims to digitize the research notes of Prafulla Kumar Chakrabarti and with its help, locate all of the government camps and unofficial colonies where refugees were resettled in West Bengal with additional help from government reports and existing literature. Chronicling Resettlement will map their location using GIS software with each node on the map containing information about the location. These bits of information include details like the dates of opening and closing of the camps, money invested, residents by period, pictures and also descriptive information such as important events and politics happening in the camps. The routes of refugee movement will also be mapped using similar resources from the Indian Ministry of Labour, Employment and Rehabilitation. “This way, the project will try to graphically present resettlement data and refugee politics in a broader context, making the presentation more interactive and available in public domain”, explains Atmadeep. 

Even at this early state, the research has yielded interesting insights and surprising facts. One such fascinating discovery was regarding the Dandakaranya Project–a federally administered and funded project started in 1958 aiming to relocate refugees from East Pakistan outside Bengal, on cleared forest-lands in Central India. Sagnik explains, “while it is widely known that the Dandakaranya project failed because the people felt completely out of place in hostile environmental conditions, and took the first opportunity they got to return to Bengal, it was believed that the ‘politically motivated’ desertion happened around 1976-77 when they settled on the island of Marichjhapi in the Sunderbans. However, our research shows that deserters from the federal project were returning to Bengal and settling in ex-camp sites as early as 1965-66! One of the most prominent examples of the official efforts of rehabilitating the refugees was the Cooper’s Camp in the district of Nadia in West Bengal. Although this was ‘officially’ closed in 1962, it records a total of 111 families residing there who are marked as ‘deserters from Dandakaranya and other places’ in a government report from 1969.” What are those ‘other places’ mentioned in the report is something that this project hopes to uncover. 

The displacement and increasing ghettoization of the Muslims of Calcutta following the in-migration of Hindu refugees is another dimension that the research is slowly bringing to light. These alternative discourses which have so far remained outside popular consciousness are being explored and presented by the project directors and interns in the form of a public-history blog on the website of the Kolkata Partition Museum.  

Attempts at the resettlement of refugees, or the lack thereof, is of pivotal importance to the history of contemporary West Bengal and India as they help explain what Chakrabarti had called the ‘left-political syndrome in West Bengal.’ It is fascinating to wonder if the protests and the left political radicalism that became synonymous with West Bengal over the decades would at all have been possible in the absence of a mass of agitated, unemployed and uncertain people crammed into a hostile political landscape where their identity is defined by the two words–“permanent liability.”

In the end, the migration of refugees and their rehabilitation are almost universal and  intrinsic to processes of nation-building and perhaps a close engagement with them may help address pressing questions about existing modes of state surveillance, governmentality and accessibility of resources.

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