The Forgotten Survivors: Two Voices of Partition Refugees in Bangladesh

By Arani Acharya

“If Allah, praise be upon him, gives the verdict then everybody will come together as one.”

Shahezadi Begam

The Partition of British India into its successor dominions of India and Pakistan in 1947 triggered a two-way exodus across the newly formed border around East Bengal, resulting in an estimated 1.5 million Muslim refugees moving from West Bengal to East Pakistan between 1947 and 1961. This number does not count the hundreds of thousands of people who crossed the borders of Assam and Tripura, or those who sought refuge in the newly formed Eastern wing of Pakistan from regions further afield such as Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu [1]. There are no accurate counts – only crude estimates – of Partition refugee numbers in East Pakistan due to the inaccuracies of the 1961 Pakistani census and other hurdles.

Partition historiography has tended for decades to be centered around Punjab, though recent focus has been given to the Partition of Bengal including Isha Lahiri’s excellent article in these pages that chronicles the resettlement of refugees in West Bengal and the effects of their political mobilization on Left politics in the state [2]. Lahiri’s article is crucial reading in modern treatments of the Bengal Partition. There exists, however, a glaring blind spot in the existing Partition history writing towards the experiences of refugees to East Pakistan. East Bengal arises in discussions of Partition typically to address the reasons for the event – colonial policy, the Indian nationalist and Pakistan movements, Hindu and Muslim communalism [3], and discourses on violence – but is discarded in analysis once the two new postcolonial states are formed. Indeed, as Anushah Hossain writes in these pages, East Pakistan as a whole is often forgotten as a time and place in discussions about South Asia even though there were “complex overlappings of language, culture, religion, and ethnicity that were present… and persist in the minds of its diaspora [4].” This article intends to take a very small step in bridging this gap and addressing what happened in the aftermath of 1947 in what is today Bangladesh, by pulling together scarce secondary sources on Partition refugee movements to and resettlement in East Pakistan and discussing two interviews in the 1947 Partition Archive at UC Berkeley of individuals who were displaced from modern day West Bengal. 

From interviews in the Archive it can be observed that those who arrived in East Pakistan after Partition belonged to diverse economic, ethnic, and linguistic segments of society, and thus often possess widely different tales of displacement and resettlement. Many fled the rioting that gripped India when the British hastily vivisected the subcontinent along religious lines. Others migrated for purely economic reasons – it remained common well into the 50s and 60s for people to travel either direction across the border for jobs, education, and medical care [5]. Among the first arrivals were ‘optees,’ or public servants in the former colonial administration who moved to East Pakistan to serve the nascent state after being given the choice of which successor dominion to British India they wished to serve. Some who came were industrial workers from Kolkata and its surrounding regions. Others were agriculturalists who had become dispossessed of their land in India, or merchants dispossessed of their businesses. Some had preexisting ties to East Bengal and could return to ancestral homes and villages, whereas others were forced to navigate an entirely new land and either resettled themselves by squatting on the large amounts of abandoned evacuee property or availed of government resettlement schemes. Refugees brought culinary cultures, languages, dialects of Bangla, clothing, and even entire religious orders, such as the Naqshbandi Khanqah which migrated from Tiljala in Kolkata [6], from what was now India to what is today Bangladesh.

Much of the existing historiography on the Bengal Partition cites the asymmetry in numbers flowing either direction to deem refugee movements to East Bengal as insignificant – by 1961 roughly thrice as many non-Muslims had been displaced westward across the Bengal border as Muslims eastward [7]. Cambridge historian Joya Chatterji argues however that the size of the Muslim exodus from West Bengal can hardly be understated. Kolkata witnessed a fall in the proportion of its Muslim population from 32.5% in 1941 to merely 14.4% in 1951. This number was as high as 44% in 1901, with Muslims having been integral to the city since its very foundation. The first census commissioner of West Bengal, Asok Mitra, described the violence against Muslims in Nadia district in 1950-51 as being so severe as to effect a total exchange of populations. Refugees from West Bengal mainly hailed from urban areas and border districts of the state – with the exception of Murshidabad where the Muslim population almost entirely stayed put. The West Bengal government was an active participant in the displacement of Muslims to East Pakistan, with the administration of its first Chief Minister Bidhan Chandra Roy carrying out mass uprootings in border districts on spurious grounds of national security. These were ended only after intervention by Prime Minister Nehru prior to the Nehru-Liaquat pact of 1950. State neglect towards and open suspicion of Muslims in West Bengal have since widely remained [8].

Largescale migration to East Bengal started in earnest before Partition with the Calcutta Riots of 1946, with movement in either direction across the Bengal border never quite ceasing – a steady trickle always present arguably to date. At times this movement flared up, with large exodus of Muslim refugees from West Bengal in 1947, 1949, 1950-51, and after the Hazratbal Shrine incident in 1963-64 [9][10]. As they did in Punjab, the railways served as the arteries for these movements – bringing refugees daily from Sealdah to Goalondo. From there steamers linked Dhaka which like Karachi and Kolkata grew crowded with frequent batches of souls being deposited to its streets [11]. Spikes in refugee numbers typically mirrored each other in either direction: unrest in one country triggered unrest in the other, a ‘gruesome application’ of the ‘hostage’ theory of religious minorities that both new countries adopted [12][13] – a prime example being the 1962 riots in Noakhali where violence against Hindus and mass displacement to West Bengal was prompted by the arrival of Muslim refugees expelled by Indian authorities in Tripura [14]. Significant refugee movements occurred after the 1946 Bihar Riots, and various journeys to East Pakistan are documented from the numerous riots that gripped other regions of India after Partition. Of the 700,000 refugees reported in the 1951 Pakistani census as residing in East Bengal, roughly two thirds had originated in West Bengal and Assam, and a third from Bihar, UP, and elsewhere [15]. 

For some new arrivals, East Pakistan was only a temporary home. After the initial violence subsided, many returned to West Bengal but moved elsewhere within the state and within the city of Kolkata to seek safety in numbers. This indirect internal displacement via the East is but one process by which the Muslims of Kolkata have been ghettoized and marginalized since the creation of West Bengal [16]. This is also a process by which the Muslim populations of some northern districts of West Bengal increased as a result of Partition [17].

The Pakistani central government initially responded to the inflow of refugees to East Bengal with disbursements from the Quaid-e-Azam Relief Fund for immediate relief work, beginning with the construction of twelve refugee camps in Mirpur [18]. The government began taking concrete action towards refugee rehabilitation in 1950, when a flood of arrivals made the problem very visible, by establishing the East Pakistan Refugee Council to coordinate resettlement. The Council, part of the Pakistani Joint Refugees Council established after 1947 that brought together provincial refugee councils across the new country [19], allocated land left behind by Hindus to agriculturalist refugees, issued loans to non-agriculturalist refugees for starting new businesses, allocated money for scholarships and stipends for poor refugee students, organized special trains to transport refugees gathered in Dhaka to other towns and villages in East Bengal, and began planning but abandoned satellite towns around Dhaka for refugees [20]. The manner in which these schemes played out on the ground warrants serious study. High level talks ensued between the Indian and Pakistani governments resulting in the 1950 Nehru-Liaquat pact on refugee and minority rights. The railway authorities of both Bengals mutually agreed to ensure safe evacuation of refugees by train in 1950 when stations in East Bengal effectively became refugee centers, mirroring the role Sealdah station played in Kolkata [21]. New arrivals in Dhaka often resettled themselves in homes left behind by Hindus, who had been a majority of residents in the city prior to their exodus in the decades before and after Partition and were subject to instances of eviction from their homes by the municipal government in order to house arrivals [22]. Dhaka itself grew rapidly from the sleepy provincial town it was prior to independence to the diverse bustling administrative and political center it became with the establishment of Pakistan.

Native Urdu speakers who settled in East Bengal after Partition are generally referred to as Biharis. Though many had indeed fled the Bihar Riots, the term is a misnomer. Urdu speakers flocked to East Pakistan from all over India, many originating from Kolkata where Urdu has historically served as lingua franca among the socially, ethnically, and religiously diverse local Muslim populations – today spoken by 70% of Muslims and 13% of residents overall in the city. In East Pakistan, Biharis were heavily represented in the railways and other public employment. Most public servants in East Bengal prior to independence from the British were Hindus who left for West Bengal after its state government promised jobs to optees who migrated. Bihari migrants filled many of these gaps as well as numerous new administrative jobs created with the new Pakistani state [23].

In 1971, Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan after months of protracted guerilla warfare by the Bengali-liberationist Muktibahini and large scale acts of genocide by the Pakistani Army. The Bangladesh Genocide and Liberation War were of course the most important direct consequence of the Partition of Bengal. The conflict saw intervention by India on both fronts through the 1971 India-Pakistan War. For many people, 1971 was a repeat of violence and displacement experienced in the years after 1947. Within Bengali nationalist historiography, this moment is treated almost exclusively as one of immense pain arising from the acts of genocide carried out by the Pakistani Army, or as a moment of jubilation at the national liberation of the Bengali people. In his book Partition as Border Making, Sayeed Ferdous observes how 1971 is remembered completely differently with a broad range of meanings among Bihari Bangladeshis and identifies the moment as also being a Partition [24]. The Liberation War saw an end to the friendship between Bengali Muslims and Bihari Muslims that had existed in East Pakistan, with Urdu speakers viewed as being collaborators of the Pakistani regime and being targeted by Bengali nationalist mobs – resulting in 400,000 being rendered stateless and fleeing to at least 116 refugee camps across the new country, the most famous of which is the notoriously congested and squalid Geneva Camp in Mohammadpur, Dhaka which houses 30,000 souls on its 14.5 acres of land [25]. This was not the first arrival of refugees in Mohammadpur – the area had attained its Urdu speaking character from the resettlement colonies established there for refugees after Partition [26]. 

Many internally displaced Biharis migrated to Pakistan after 1971, fleeing persecution in search of a better life. Those who stayed found it difficult to ever leave the country without the passports denied to people in the camps. Even though in 2008 the Bangladeshi High Court finally granted Biharis citizenship they continue to face rampant discrimination [27].

With each passing day ever fewer voices remain with memories of Partition. As a result, in searching for individual narratives of refugees in Bangladesh the 1947 Partition Archive at UC Berkeley is an invaluable resource – serving as a repository for over nine thousand oral interviews of witnesses and refugees of the Partition of India. 57 of the video interviews are provided for public viewing by the Stanford Libraries as part of its ongoing Survivors and their Memories exhibition. Two of these are conducted in Bangladesh. 

One interview is of Mohammad Shamsul Alam Joarder, a Bengali who grew up in the industrial suburbs of Kolkata and left amidst a hostile atmosphere in West Bengal in 1949 when he was twelve. His family returned to their village home in modern day Chuadanga District, Bangladesh for what was thought to be a brief stay that ultimately never ended. He served in the Pakistani army in the wars against India in 1965 and 1971. After his service in 1971 he was imprisoned for two years by the Pakistani Army. He went on to serve in the Bangladesh armed forces, and to start a new life as a religious preacher.

The other interview is of Shahezadi Begam, who was displaced from urban Kolkata during Partition at about five years of age and was brought to Dhaka before being displaced again within Dhaka to a relief camp by Bengali nationalists in 1971 on account of being an Urdu speaker. She continues to live in the poor conditions of the camp while numerous family members have since relocated to Pakistan. Two of her sisters were internally displaced within Kolkata during 1947 – one of them via Dhaka, both ultimately charting movements from an area where Hindus and Muslims lived together on the outskirts of the city to more neglected inner city areas with their coreligionists. Her family today is split across three countries – Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan – after repeated rounds of displacement. 

I strongly encourage readers to watch both of these interviews. Surely the exhibit curators chose to publicly present these two because they have particularly intriguing stories, and they certainly cannot be taken to be representative of all migrant experiences. Crucially, they do not answer many questions about resettlement processes that other interviews in the archive address. Nevertheless, they provide a wealth of information about the Partition of Bengal, as well as deep insights into nation-building and border-making in East Pakistan and modern Bangladesh. They also give us insight into the particulars of human memory and recounting of the traumas of Partition. Joarder’s conversation with interviewer Farhana Afroz is mainly in English with segments in Bengali. Begam’s, with interviewers Deborshi Chakraborty and Shama Parvin, takes place in the Bangla inflected Urdu common in Kolkata and Bangladesh. Her interview is a fascinating case study in Urdu language memory of Partition(s) from a neglected geographical center of the tongue [28]. I am tremendously indebted to the interviewers and to the Archive for documenting these histories, and to the Stanford Libraries for presenting them.

The summaries below have been arranged in chronological order of the interviewees’ experiences even though the conversations often darted rapidly between widely different time periods. I am aware that the framing of their narratives heavily reflects my choices as a writer, the choices made by the interviewers in how they posed their questions, and the choices made by the interviewees in what they said. For Joarder the interview is a “momentous occasion” [29] where he speaks as a storyteller, detailing his life experiences performatively in long chronologically ordered arcs with only occasional interjection by Afroz. By contrast Chakraborty and Parvin actively steered and framed the conversation with Begam. She appears uncomfortable with and often confused by the ways in which questions about her experiences are posed, frequently gesturing with her arms and entire body as if to say that some things should be obvious or that the interviewers are failing to understand what she is saying or are asking strange questions, and often responds to queries about traumatic incidents with reference to her old age and fading memory. The line of questioning she faces is geared heavily towards facts, which she cannot always recall or did not always have awareness of. It must be kept in mind that she is being interviewed by a man and has male relatives present in the room offscreen. In the interest of word economy I have ignored entire sections of both interviews in drafting the summaries. Feel free to reach out to me for the full translated transcripts I have prepared. Only through watching the original footages of both interviews can readers make judgements about body language, tone, word choice, periods of silence, and the other innumerable little details of human speech that hold immense information for some.

Through these two individuals we see two contrasting experiences of 1947 and 1971. One is ethnically Bengali, another is Urdu speaking. One had pre-Partition family land holdings in East Bengal, while the other had no prior connection to the soil. Begam moved to urban Dhaka, whereas Joarder moved to a rural area. One has staked out a successful career today in a Bangladesh that defines itself as a Bangla Desh, literally Bengali Country, whereas the other is excluded from the national image and lives on the margins of society. In her oral history of Partition, The Other Side of Silence, Urvashi Butalia observes that tellings of Partition are highly gendered, “From the women I learned about the minutiae of their lives, while for the most part men spoke of the relations between communities, the broad political realities.” These differences can clearly be seen between these two interviews [30]. Both accounts remind us that the new borders formed in 1947 were merely political constructs. Members of both Begam’s and Joarder’s families were able to fluidly cross for some years after Partition. Joarder refers to Gandhi and Jinnah in the same breath and does not express any contradictions in his relationship with India, the land he was born in and displaced from, fought war against twice, and now regularly visits and deeply loves but acknowledges the shortcomings of. These borders proved very real for both families in the years after 1949 and were recrystallized in 1971, redefining their identities that had already been displaced and metamorphosed once before. The account of Begam’s family’s division across three countries makes us question the identity of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh as Nation-States. If anything, it appears from her account that these are three occupying states of one nation that she hopes by the grace of Allah will be unified again. 

In tracing the nation’s origins back to the later events of the mother language movement Bangladeshi historiography often neglects the importance of Partition. These accounts remind us that 1947 and 1971 are linked events whose memories cannot be separated from one another. It is striking how similar personal descriptions of these two years are. Joarder explicitly connects his experiences after 1947 and 1971 citing the personal and economic insecurity his family faced after both. Begam frames both of her tales of displacement as evictions by a religious community. Perhaps her perception of invading Indian troops in 1971 as ‘Hindus’ stems from her prior experiences in 1947. 

The interviews raise a number of questions for which we will probably never get answers. What happened between Begam’s arrival in Dhaka and her moving into the railway housing quarters – in other words how was she resettled? Or giving her family more agency, how did they resettle? What does the same event look like from the point of view of her sisters in Kolkata? What did Joarder feel, apart from regret, seeing Bangladesh be born while imprisoned in an army camp in Pakistan? What about his wife, who gave birth to a son in those conditions? What did his father experience after 1949 during his bouts of unemployment, torn from the life he had built for himself in what was now West Bengal?

The history of Partition refugees in Bangladesh is one that has only in recent years begun to be highlighted. The individual stories of souls displaced are crucial to understanding the modern histories of Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India. They allow us to interrogate the forces of nationalism at play in each of these countries and provide wisdom about how to navigate statecraft and issues of identity going forward. Each of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh is divided on questions about treatments of its minority communities, the position of religion in public life, and on relations with one other. I hope that the two accounts presented in this article, the rest in the exhibit, and the other thousands preserved in the 1947 Partition Archive will be heard by people seeking answers to these questions.

Mohammad Shamsul Alam Joarder

Mohammad Shamsul Alam Joarder was born in March 1937 in the town of Jagatdal, colloquially pronounced Joarder, in what was at the time the 24 Parganas district in undivided Bengal and presently part of North 24 Parganas district in West Bengal. His ancestral home is in Nagdah, near the village of Munshiganj in modern day Khulna Division, Bangladesh, and at the time part of Nadia District in undivided Bengal. The son of father Late Ghulam Rasul Joarder and mother Late Shehr Bano, Joarder was born and grew up in a large two storied house owned by a Muslim landlord in a mostly Hindu area. There were no schools in Jagatdal so his father, who was employed for thirty years at the Alliance Jute Mill in the jute milling town, would regularly bring home books to teach him. Most of the laborers employed in the Mills, Joarder describes, were Bihari and Oriya Hindus with his father among the few Bengalis and the few Muslims in service. His family held large land holdings of more than a hundred acres in their village home and led a comfortable life during his childhood. Joarder describes visiting Kolkata, a city only about forty kilometers away and easily accessible and traversable by trains and local trams, almost every weekend during childhood. He wistfully recalls how his father would take him to Belur Math, where the Hindu organization Ramkrishna Mission is based, and other places he felt would be educational for his children.

Joarder recalls how Dr. Abdul Motaleb Malik, the last Governor of East Pakistan, was a relative of his father’s serving at Campbell Medical College (Today Nil Ratan Sircar Medical College and Hospital, Kolkata), and treated Joarder through illness while contesting the Bengal provincial election in 1946 on a Muslim League ticket. In that election, the League won Joarder’s constituency. He recounts his experiences of Direct Action Day, the day the Muslim League called a general strike across the city of Kolkata demanding the creation of Pakistan triggering largescale rioting across the city. His father asked him if he wanted to go watch the demonstrators, unaware of the violence brewing. Joarder and his sister were unable to stray far from home because the buses were all full, everybody seeming in a haste to go to the city. His father did manage to go to Sealdah station and returned in the evening grateful to Allah that his children did not come along, recounting stories of violence and bloodshed at the station. Joarder says that the violence was a result of misunderstandings between communities and a feeling of shakiness among Bihari Muslims in Kolkata. 

On the day Pakistan gained its independence, Joarder and his father caught a train to the new border at Darshana and made their way to Chuadanga, near their village home in East Bengal. There they witnessed a civilian parade led by his uncle Shahabuddin Malik celebrating independence and watched, for their first time, the Pakistani flag being raised. After the celebrations they spent the night in their village home and returned to Jagatdal the next day, the morning of Indian independence.

After independence, Joarder remembers, Muslims around him began to observe that it was becoming increasingly difficult to live in West Bengal. Though he personally never witnessed any violence around Partition, he recalls escalating tensions with the Hindus in his area. He recounts the story of a firewood seller who had promised free firewood to the family after Joarder’s father had loaned him one hundred rupees in a time of need. Some days after Partition, Joarder visited the seller and was shocked when he refused to give them firewood and said that he would no longer repay the loan. A member of a minority community in their area with no recourse, Joarder’s father had no ability to recoup his money. In 1948 after Mohandas Gandhi was assassinated by Nathuram Godse, rumors were spread in the area that the assassin was a Muslim. This led to tensions in the area that softened only much later in the evening, due to the slow spread of news at the time. Jinnah’s death, he recalled by contrast was hardly registered. Joarder describes how circumstances were mostly peaceful both around Kolkata and around his village home until 1949, when killings flared in both Bengals.

One day in 1949, seeing the worsening situation for Muslims in West Bengal, Joarder’s father decided to send their belongings to East Pakistan by train. At the station he was told that he could not take his belongings with him so he left it all behind and left for Nagdah empty handed. When the rest of the family came later in 1949 they too did not bring anything with them. Soon Joarder’s father, worried about his livelihood while living away from Jagatdal, sought to return. Around this time, all of a sudden widescale fighting broke out on both sides of the border. When Joarder’s father reached the border point at Darshana he was not allowed to cross. He was advised in letters from his family members in East Pakistan and Hindu friends in Jagatdal not to return to India amidst the violence and to forget about his life there. Joarder’s father never returned to India. Citing the ransacking of Hindu homes in Nagdah and nearby villages in East Bengal, Joarder says that there is no way his family property in India would have remained after 1949. He claims, however, that most Hindus who left his area of East Bengal had managed to sell their holdings prior to departure, unlike his family which had not because they thought they would be returning. The family’s land holdings in Nagdah ensured their livelihoods in East Bengal, but they still suffered financial stress because Joarder’s father held irregular employment after Partition. After 1949 Joarder was enrolled in school for the first time, joining Munshiganj Academy which was two and a half miles from his village.

After finishing his matriculation, Joarder joined Daulatput College (Kushtia, Khulna division) as a science student. He could not, however, understand ‘even the P of Physics,’ and soon ran away from college. He then started a business but was left with a sour taste in his mouth when in 1959 he went to a food office and the gentleman misbehaved with him. Joarder decided to quit business and joined college again in Magura where he studied economics, a subject which made much more sense to him. Upon completing his intermediate degree, he joined the Army. 

Joarder was commissioned in 1965 and posted in West Pakistan, where he fought during two wars against India – in 65 and 71. After the 1965 ceasefire he was posted as an artilleryman on the border in Sialkot sector. In 1970 he was transferred from a posting in Comilla to Lahore, where he was located on the day the 1970 Pakistani general elections took place in which Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League received a thumping victory. Joarder was promoted to a major and fought the 1971 War against India on the western front as part the 35th Heavy Regiment. Joarder says he enjoyed fighting and rationalized his will to fight for the Pakistani Army in terms of survival – “If a projectile came from India and hit me I would die.” He was not fully aware of the Pakistani Army’s actions in the East at first. As the war was ending one day he began to feel morally repulsed and ill because people were dying in East Pakistan while he was in West Pakistan. He told his feelings to his wife who, pregnant at the time, handed him his revolver and told him to shoot her and their daughter and son, fearing their fate after the war. He did not have the heart. 

As the war closed Joarder’s family was placed in what he calls a ‘concentration camp’ in the Pakistani military training school in Kohat, where all the Bengali officers had been ‘dumped.’ There his family lived briefly in a cramped room where his wife birthed a second son, before being transferred to a similar camp in Mandi Bahauddin. With the signing of the Delhi Agreement, after two years of being held by the Pakistani Army Joarder’s family returned to Dhaka on 30th September 1973 carrying many hopes and aspirations for their lives in the new country, but upon arrival were treated as if they were criminals.

Joarder went on to be posted all over Bangladesh in the Army. He regrets that he could not do anything for the creation of Bangladesh, because he never got the chance and was not even aware at the time that the Liberation War was about to start because it was very sudden. They used to think that by 1985 Bengal would be separated from Pakistan because people did not like their treatment by the Pakistani government, but were surprised when independence came much earlier. Joarder connects his experiences after the 1947 Partition and in 1971 saying that in both instances his family faced financial and personal insecurity.

Joarder laments the treatments of Biharis and Hindus in Bangladesh. He notes that many Biharis were refugees from West Bengal like him, citing an inability to create brotherhood among people as the cause for their ill treatment and describes the contributions made by Bihari Bangladeshis to the railways and other industrial sectors. He frequently meets Bangladeshi Hindus in his new life as a traveling preacher of Islam, and compares their condition with that of Muslims in West Bengal. In his capacity as a Major in the Bangladeshi Army, Joarder regularly visits India. He makes it a point to take his daughter to Kolkata and show her the city that he loved to crisscross by tram during his childhood. He is nostalgic for the Calcutta of his youth, describing the city today as dirty and unkempt, and laments the ghettoization of Muslims, drawing attention particularly to those living in the New Market area. He says that he still feels unsafe as a Muslim in Kolkata, opting not to wear the skullcap he regularly dons in Delhi, Madras, and other cities. 

Shahezadi Begam

Shahezadi Begam was born in Kolkata in a Hindu neighborhood in a region she calls Badi Dargah. She does not remember many details of her experiences in Kolkata, having left for Dhaka at about five years of age during Partition. The youngest of seven sisters and two brothers, she grew up in a large home with seven households of her extended family including her uncles and aunts. Her father Kabir Mian owned a construction business and had relationships with Hindus in the neighborhood and through his business dealings. She describes her mother, whose name she cannot quite remember (Samra, Kubra, it’s all the same), as, like all the women in the family, seldom leaving the house and interacting with their Hindu neighbors. She describes her father’s pride in his business, recounting a memory of her father taking her and her brother to look at a famous and expensive building that he had built. The interviewers ask her where her family was originally from before coming to Kolkata, to which she responds that they were from Kolkata itself. She does not know any prior connection to any other place.

Begam’s family was forced from their home by Hindu rioters during the 1947 Partition. Due to her parents’ advanced age, the onus fell on her eldest sister to ensure their escape to East Bengal. She describes being brought by members of the Haji cigarette company who now are all like her ‘sons-in-law and sisters.’ During their hurried escape by train amidst the ‘tumult and killing,’ many family members were left behind including some of her sisters. They abandoned their large house, which had been looted by Hindu rioters, without receiving any compensation. Begam struggles to recall those who were among the many family members who passed away, listing an uncle and aunt, and her eldest sister’s husband. Their journey brought them, empty handed, to Dhaka.

Shortly after bringing Begam and other family members with the Haji Company to Dhaka, the eldest sister was called back to Kolkata by her grandparents who had not crossed the border. She married again and built a home in the Khidirpur area of Kolkata. Begam still speaks with her and her children. Begam would later come to know from brokers who ferried people without passports across the new border that one of the sisters who was left behind when they fled had survived and continued to live in Kolkata, moving to the Park Circus locality. Even though she has wished to, Begam has never returned to the city of her birth.

Begam arrived first in Mirpur, presumably at a relief camp, and then settled in Shahjahanpur, a locality in Dhaka with a large railway station, where she studied Arabic at home from a woman named Sharfa with whom she would read the Holy Quran and other religious texts. Though she is fluent in Urdu and Bengali, she never received an education in these languages. She went on to marry a man named Abdul Hameed in a simple ‘hand holding’ folk ceremony. Hameed himself had come from Benares, his family having moved to Dhaka after his mother accepted a job as a nurse in the railway hospital after Partition. After their marriage, Begam and Hameed lived together in the railway housing quarters in Shahjahanpur, near the railyards where Hameed worked as a technician. Other members of her and her husband’s family, including an uncle and aunt, lived in their building.

In Shahjahanpur, Begam recounts living in a diverse area with Urdu and Bengali speakers and Muslims and Hindus alike, describing good relations with her neighbors during this period which is coterminous with the existence of East Pakistan. Local Hindus and Muslims, she says, typically kept to themselves. Intercommunity relations soured during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, as years of coexistence unraveled when Hameed’s own Bengali coworkers appeared at their doorstep and told them to leave their home and all of their possessions. Begam and Hameed asked why they should do such a thing to which their coworkers responded that in a few days they would just take it anyway. The family was helped to leave by some members of the railway staff and took shelter in a Pakistani army camp in Rajarbagh, a neighboring area in Dhaka, leaving behind a four-room apartment full of their belongings. 

In Rajarbagh, Begam and her family survived for twenty-two days in desperate conditions with little food available. They survived on rotis made from flour given to them by visiting cloth merchants and fruit from trees. In all the chaos the army people did not even have bathing water. There was no question of bathing because they had no clothes. The Pakistani Army personnel began to grow worried when pro-independence mobs (Bangladeshis, she calls them) began killing local Hindus (the interviewers expressed much incredulity at this). Chaos around the army camp started when, in Begam’s words, ‘they came from India, Hindus,’ referring to the Indian Army, and ‘started cleaning.’ Begam’s family had anticipated danger, expecting to ‘get cut up.’ They were unable to leave the camp because ‘right outside the gate a river had formed’ of pro- independence rioters brandishing sticks. The Pakistani Army promised to take them to Mohammadpur, where displaced Biharis were gathering in camps, and arranged for five cars. Rioters attached electric cables to three of the cars, electrocuting the people inside, and sank them in the river. After that, the Indian Army (‘the Hindus’) arranged for three more cars which the Pakistani Army personnel used to transport the survivors to Mohammadpur. They were dropped off at Asad Gate, and subsequently rehabilitated in camps established for ‘Biharis’.

When asked if any of her family members died inside the sunk cars, at first Begam responds that there must have been, but she does not recall. She was ‘senseless’ at the time. Later she counts her son and his wife, and her sister and niece, among the dead during the violence of the 1971 war. She responded to questions about whether any rioters or Indian Army personnel had ‘been forceful’ with the women in her family with a vehement no. When asked why her neighbors had done this, first she responded that ‘An entire frenzy happened to people, and they got to cutting.’ When pressed for the reason for this frenzy she responds “To end everybody. We are not Bangladeshi – of a Bangla Desh.” She describes how this enmity towards ‘Biharis’ continues to this day “When I go to the market they say ‘Arre! Hey look away mausi.’ I become silent and walk away.”

Begam has lived since 1971 in a camp in Mohammadpur. After their resettlement there, her husband purchased a bicycle and worked as a roaming oil salesman. His customers included ‘Biharis’ and Bengalis who caused no trouble to him. The two never attempted to return to Shahjahanpur due to fears for Hameed’s life. Begam describes a bad atmosphere and cramped conditions in the camp as reasons why she misses her comfortable life in Shahjahanpur. “They keep leaving… we keep leaving,” she says, remarking that everybody on her in-laws side has migrated to Pakistan since 1971, including one of Begam’s daughters who was taken by her paternal grandmother. Begam too used to harbor a desire to go, but was unable to because she did not have a passport. When asked why, she said that if somebody had helped them submit a ‘correct address’ to authorities she may have received the documents she would need to leave. Begam now has the right to vote, after people in the camps were granted citizenship. Even though she can now get a passport she considers herself too old to travel, saying that the only place for her to go now is up. She does not wish to leave behind her five sons in Bangladesh and live with her daughter in Pakistan.

Begam’s family remains split across three countries – Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan. Her daughter has visited her twice or thrice from Karachi. She speaks on the phone sometimes with her family members in Karachi, and with her two sisters in Kolkata. She also has family in Benares and Medinipur in India.

Begam sees no fault in Bangladesh, citing the fact that nobody is yelling at or killing or beating them, but acknowledges that life was better in East Pakistan. She optimistically points out that conditions have improved for her family, with all her children receiving an education and her daughter having moved to Mirpur, a wealthier area in Dhaka. She often visits her daughter in Mirpur but that forms the extent of her travels – she has never left Dhaka since Partition. Struggling to understand the reasons for her first displacement from Kolkata she exclaims ‘we had been there for so long!’ When asked if the political parties at the time of the 1947 Partition could have stopped the events that ultimately transpired, she answers no. “If they could have stopped it then they would have stopped it right? Ya Allah.” She believes that if “Allah, praise be upon him, gives the verdict then everybody will come together as one,” but also that the three governments of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh too can effect change to make this happen.

  1. Chatterji, J, The Spoils of Partition (2007), Chapter 4, University Press, Cambridge, pg 166.
  2. Lahiri, I, Chronicling the Search for a Home in Post Partition West Bengal (2020), Bengal Gazette, UC Berkeley,
  3. See Joya Chatterjee’s Bengal Divided and Taj ul Islam Hashmi’s Pakistan as a Peasant Utopia.
  4. Hossain, A, Remembering East Pakistan (2020), Bengal Gazette, UC Berkeley,
  5. Rahman, M and Schendel, W, ‘I Am Not a Refugee: Rethinking Partition Migration,’ (2003), Modern Asian Studies, Vol 37. No.3 pp551-584. Cambridge University Press.
  6. Siddiqui, MKA, Muslims of Calcutta: A Study in Aspects of Their Social Organization (1974), Anthropological Survey of India, Kolkata.
  7. For a prime example of such historiography, see the authoritative text on refugee experiences in West Bengal, Prafulla Chakraborti’s The Marginal Men (1990), Lumiere Books, Kolkata.
  8. Chatterji, J, The Spoils of Partition (2007), Chapter 4, University Press, Cambridge.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Das, M, Calcutta Cauldron: City-life during the January 1964 Riots (2018), Indian History Congress Proceedings.
  11. Khan, T, Kiran, N, Rehabilitation and Settlement of Refugees in East Bengal: Role of Federal Government of Pakistan, 1947-1950 (2020), Journal of the Punjab University Historical Society, Volume No. 33, Issue No.1, January-June 2020.
  12. Azad, MAK, India Wins Freedom, pp 228-29.
  13. Fazila-Yacoobali Zamindar, V, The Long Partition and the Making of Modern South Asia (2007), Columbia Univ Press.
  14. Talbot, I, Picking up the Pieces: Pakistan 1947-49, Chapter 3 in Bandyopadhyay, S ed. Decolonization and the Politics of Transition in South Asia (2016), Orient Blackswan, Delhi.
  15. Talbot, I, Picking up the Pieces: Pakistan 1947-49, Chapter 3 in Bandyopadhyay, S ed. Decolonization and the Politics of Transition in South Asia (2016), Orient Blackswan, Delhi.
  16. Hasan, MS, The ‘Other’ Victims: The Ghettoization of Muslims in Post-Partition Calcutta – Another Resettlement (2020),, and Hasan, MS, পুনর্বাসনের এপিঠ ওপিঠ: দেশভাগ ও কলকাতার মুসলমান সম্প্রদায় (2020),Public Lecture, Facebook Live,
  17. Chatterji, J, The Spoils of Partition (2007), Chapter 4, University Press, Cambridge.
  18. Ghoshal, A, The Invisible Refugees: Muslim ‘Returnees’ in East Pakistan (2018), Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh (Hum.), Vol 63(1), 2018, pp. 59-89.
  19. Ansari, S, Life After Partition (2005), Oxford University Press, Karachi, pg 78.
  20. Khan, T, Kiran, N, Rehabilitation and Settlement of Refugees in East Bengal: Role of Federal Government of Pakistan, 1947-1950 (2020), Journal of the Punjab University Historical Society, Volume No. 33, Issue No.1, January-June 2020.
  21. Chakraborty, P, The Marginal Men (1990), Lumiere Books, Kolkata, Chapter 2.
  22. Rahman, MA, Dhaka before and after Partition (2022), The Daily Star.
  23. Ghoshal, A, The Invisible Refugees: Muslim ‘Returnees’ in East Pakistan (2018), Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh (Hum.), Vol 63(1), 2018, pp. 59-89.
  24. Ferdous, S, Partition as Border Making: East Bengal, East Pakistan, and Bangladesh (2022), Routledge.
  25. Rashid, MU, Identification of Housing Crisis in a Confined Settlement: A Study of Mohammadpur Geneva Camp (2020), Chitkara, Creative Space, Vol. 7, No. 2, January 2020, pp. 125-142.
  26. Ghoshal, A, The Invisible Refugees: Muslim ‘Returnees’ in East Pakistan (2018), Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh (Hum.), Vol 63(1), 2018, pp. 59-89.
  27. Parveen, S, Citizenship Debate Comes to End But Doubts and Worries Remain (May 26, 2008), The Daily Star, Dhaka,
  28. This was pointed out by Dr. Gregory Maxwell Bruce.
  29. Mukhopadhyay, S, “I Am a Refugee in This Land”: Performative Narration, Recollection, and Resilience in Refugee Narratives of West Bengal, India (2022), Narrative Culture Volume 9, Number 1, Spring 2022, Wayne State University Press.
  30. Butalia, U, The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India (1998), Durham, Duke Univ Press.

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