Wednesday, September 14, 2016


A little more than a month ago, India celebrated her 70th Independence Day. Whenever we talk of independence of India from British domination, we are reminded of the territorial division of British India into two independent nation states, India and Pakistan. Consequences of partition have been fundamental to the society, economy and polity of the subcontinent, so much so that Ranabir Samaddar has suggested “Partition lives on in post-colonial times to such an extent that we should truly prefer the phrase ‘partitioned times’ to the more common ‘post colonial times.’”[1] The riots that had happened in the subcontinent since 1947, the wars that India and Pakistan had fought and most importantly Kashmir remind us that we all live in the long shadows of partition.

     Nonetheless, in recent years we have witnessed increasingly “apolitical” initiatives to memorialize partition as an event of the past that primarily aim at recording as many eyewitness accounts of 1947 as possible in regions that were directly affected by partition (like West Bengal, Assam, Punjab of Pakistan and India). Such projects, important though for various reasons, iron out the ‘longness’ of partition, as Ravinder Kaur has mentioned in a recent article.[2] Moreover, the tendency is to perceive the interviewees as victims, denying their roles as agents who might have been the perpetrators of violence and most certainly had to negotiate with the governments, family, and locals as refugees or minorities. In the existing academic literature about ordinary peoples’ experiences of partition, the need to perceive the refugees as ‘agents’ was acknowledged quite a few years back. In the recent works on partition, we see more nuances being added as categories like class, region, gender, caste and age are being used to understand the varied experiences of partition. Once we bring in such categories to see how people were negotiating with the government and vice versa, we begin to get glimpses of the complexities of postcolonial governmentality.

     This issue brings together some of the young scholars working on partition now. All of them have primarily focused on the experiences of partition in West Bengal. One article complicates the idea of partition as longue durée, connecting it with the contemporary riots in various parts of India (a much needed addendum to the memorialization initiatives that we have just mentioned). Instead of treating refugees as a homogeneous mass of people, some of the articles in this issue point towards the varied experiences of ‘colony refugees’ and ‘camp refugees’ and relevance of caste and gender in studying partition. Partition studies in West Bengal have largely focused on the issues of rehabilitation, not giving enough importance to the conditions of the Muslims, the violence they faced after 1947, communal riots and their exodus. By describing the riots of 1950 in Howrah (West Bengal), one article reminds us of these little-discussed areas of partition studies.

My stray thoughts on 1947

Debjani Sengupta
(Debjani teaches English at Indraprastha College, Delhi, and can be reached at

The 1947 partition in Bengal is significantly different in its aftermath than the sudden cataclysmic division in Punjab because of a number of historical, social and political reasons. The Bengali literature that is based on the partition’s experiences is therefore also varied and multifarious in its responses to 1947 not simply as an event, but as a metaphor, or a trauma or a site of enunciation for thousands of people living through and resisting communal polarization,migration, rehabilitation and resettlement.Taking a cue from the Annales historians, one can surmise that the partition in the East is the longue durée rather than the short time of political event/s, where the structures and pluralities of social life under its shadow can be ascertained only through a study of the particular and the local. Even after all these years after Independence (1947), the partition in the eastern part of the subcontinent has been a neglected area, although some recent historiography has drawn our attention to the economic, political and historical issues of decolonization in the region. Unlike the sudden and catastrophic violence that took place in Punjab, enunciated through the metaphors of madness, rape and murder, the Bengal region has seen a slower, although no less violent, effect of the vivisection with the trauma taking a more metaphysical and psychological turn.This is evident when we study the enormously rich and varied literature that partition has produced amongst the Bangla speaking peoples of West Bengal, the Northeast and Bangladesh that has not been studied together in an organic manner; it deserves critical attention because it destabilizes certain assumptions about 1947 just as it demarcates the way geographical areas, not always contiguous, become the theatres of recuperation, mythmaking and sustainability that in turn give rise to different kinds of literary representations. After 1947, the issues of gender, livelihood and labour have had different momentum in the Bangla novels although the issues of status and independence amongst the refugees may be common to narratives both in the East and in the Punjab. Literary imagination plays a vital role in a process of recovery where authors, Hindus and Muslims, undertake to map the contours of the mutilated land in a bid to create a site of belonging, habitation and memory while changing the dynamics of fiction, particularly the form and content of the novel in Bangla that has responded to 1947 in heterogeneous ways. When colonialism and the partition destroyed a sense of belonging to the land, these texts offer a renewed sense of place that contribute to the processes of decolonization and reinstate the ‘human subject’ at a time when it is most dehumanized. As Lacan (and Freud before him) has reminded people, the event of trauma, by its very ambiguous nature, recedes to the background while fantasies based on it overpower individual and collective psyches. The initial trauma of the partition is now distant but its ‘fantasy aspect’ has taken over the subcontinent through the legacy of violence and bigotry. The spectacular dance of death that has begun in the post-partition years has given way to those in recent times like the violence that erupted between the Bodos and Muslims (2012) in Assam or the Muzaffarnagar riots (2014) in UP. There are numerous studies that have looked at the history of conflicts in India so going back to 1947 may seem pointless to some people but not enough has been written about the ways whole communities of people felt, remembered and tried to resist in nonviolent elliptical ways the cataclysmic divisions and growth of sectarian hatred over a long period of time. Even a cursory glance at Bengal’s partition literature lays bare how the vivisection has shaped and moulded the land and people, spanning generations and several geographical sites, through the processes of resettlement, migration, border-crossings and rehabilitation that must be understood as sites of meaning making for the region and in the long run, the postcolonial nation. Literature that deals with these wide ranging issues, written over a long period of time, try to reconstruct the lives of individuals and communities, marginal or elite, whose memories of trauma and displacement had dissociated them from their own life stories. Bangla partition fiction captures the diffusion, through a great degree of self-consciousness, of the longue durée of continuous migrations and counter-migrations that give refugee-hood a different complexity in Bengal. Reading these imaginative renderings of the diverse facets of the partition becomes therefore an act of creating a literary historiography that are alert to the silences of history, and aware of the ways in which individual and collective memories can be brought into play with each other by studying the micro-history of localities and particular communities. This literary history may not have all the facticity of history but the questions of voice, temporality, lack of closure may say something about the ways in which the partition is remembered by diverse kinds of people. Rather than making a point about the un-representation of partition violence (and there was a great deal of violence in Bengal) Bangla partition texts seem to look at the little histories of people in the margins and use strategies of refraction rather than a simple reflection of conventional realism. Many of them foreground minority (in terms of class and religion) subjectivity, and use fragmentation to index the fracturing of narrative representation that the partition brought in its wake. The less visible and delayed effects of displacement and violence are seen in the family and community spaces that these texts foreground. They give an added dimension to an event, often unspeakable, within the partition and lay bare the notion of how ‘literature’ transforms the actual into the apocryphal and the mythical.

Settling the Bazaar: The Colony Market and the Refugees

Tista Das
(Tista teaches history at Bankura University, West Bengal, and can be reached at

This paper focuses attention on a colony in the northern part of Calcutta, the Netaji colony, in the two decades since the Partition. As homes were created, lost and re created on station platforms, camps or squatters’ colonies, the thread of a normal everyday existence was held on to at all costs. The governmental policies of economic rehabilitation were hardly enough to keep this process going. The state functioned on a notion of charity which was necessarily meagre. As the colonies came up, so did the colony markets geared to the needs of the refugees and built by the refugees themselves. There is a need to trace and grapple with the stories of these markets. The narrative becomes layered and rather complex since the markets were not just a source of earning for the refugees or a means of shaping their path of rehabilitation but were also important in establishing the much desired foothold on the right side of the border. The markets would help the refugee shopkeepers belong to the nation. The markets would also become a space for communication, social or political for the community of the refugees. The intervention of the colony committees with all its political implications must be noted. They created spaces in sync with the space of the colonies. Just as the colonies, while creating a space of their own also tried to fit into the nation space – with its history of the nationalist struggle for independence, with the names of national leaders being used to name the colonies and their photographs adorning the walls of the committee offices – so did the markets. The markets became typical of the colonies as did the schools and local temples. As the government tried to fit the refugees into neat pockets by classifying them and creating different economic groups to funnel the programmes of relief in degrees, the refugee leaders refused to be grouped and in their efforts at mobilisation, harped on the umbrella identity of being a refugee, whether of the camps or the colonies. The need, therefore, was to create a midway where the worlds of State charity and of refugee enterprise could meet.

One has to tread this middle ground and trace the narrative of the agency of the refugees in general and the establishment of the refugee markets in particular. Of the many things that being a refugee implied, creating economic networks which could sustain the refugee population in the long run was one. This was especially true of the refugee in the colony because it was he/she who could not depend on State aid and who depended heavily upon these informal networks to earn his/her bread. The colony- refugee was conscious of the resources of the neighbourhood in which he/she had settled down. In many cases, old kinship ties had helped them gain a foothold on the right side of the border. He/she had to be in constant touch with his/her neighbourhood. Unlike the camp-refugee he/she had not lived in some sort of forced isolation. Therefore, his/her hope for survival depended on his/her interactions with the people around. It hardly needs to be mentioned that such interactions were not necessarily friendly interactions. Almost every step outside the colony involved bargaining (on many occasions unpleasant or even bitter) with the world outside. In most cases, the refugee markets that grew up around the colonies did not develop haphazardly with time. They were, rather, settled overnight. The pattern of settlement was similar to that of the colonies themselves. Hurry underlined refugee lives in colonies, unlike life in camps which remained seeped in forced idleness.


       In December, 1949, about 20 families were settled in a vacant plot off B.T. Road under the leadership of the Bangali Bastutyagi Samiti.[1]This became the Netaji Colony. The colony soon took the shape of other refugee colonies, with roads running around the community ponds, and thus sprang up a school, a temple and the market. It must be noted that this pattern of settlement which was followed in almost all the colonies was not accidental. It was a set pattern tried and tested in most colonies which became the smaller versions of the villages left behind. Before the establishment of the colony market, the refugee settlers had to go to the Baranagar Bazar nearby to meet their daily requirements. In December, 1950, exactly a year after the colony was established, a colony market was established in one corner of a vacant plot of land adjacent to the colony by the central committee of the colony. A separate fish market was opened when Lakshman Das, Chandrashekhar Bhattacharya and Satish Samaddar brought fish from the wholesale fish market at Patipukur and opened stalls. It must be noted here that the meat business, traditionally dominated by Muslim butchers, did not change its nature even in the colony market. Along with Lakshman Singh was Hedayatullah who opened the meat shop. The threads of continuity defined life in the colony as much as transformations and change. The bazaar became a gated space meant to cater to the needs of the colony on the one hand and to provide employment for the inhabitants of the colony on the other. The colonies presented the picture of plans and organised settlement patterns. If life had meant loss of life and home and an unending journey across borders for a very long time, life in the colony became one of relocation and re-creation of old patterns. Such relocation needed planning and organisation. Life was guided by committees and associations. As the colony had a central committee, so did the bazaar. With time shops changed hands, the hogla leaf ceilings were replaced by tin shades. The market was also extended.  In the decade of the 70’s, another market came to settle itself on the main road outside this colony market. This had its separate committee to look after its affairs. When the road was widened, this market had to resettle itself inside the colony market. A pond was covered up to create the extra space needed and the market became bigger.

      The market became a means of interaction with the world outside the colony. As the market space came to be legitimised and its conspicuous presence became a habit for not only the colony settlers but other local inhabitants, it also came to legitimise the colony settlement in the eyes of these local inhabitants. As the threads were re woven to create an old world, albeit a truncated and incomplete one, the noise of the bazaar had a very important role to play in creating links with a world that was already abuzz and with a life that was already being lived. The colony settlers became a part of the flow. As squatters’ colonies were later recognised by the government as legitimate living quarters through charters usually called the Arpan Patra, the market was also recognised by the municipal authorities. There was a plan to transform this market into a super market but factional squabble quashed the plan. Motish Roy, the local MLA, had been in charge of the committee for long. Later, when Shivapada Bhattacharya became the MLA and the plans to create a supermarket were afloat, there was word that the committee under Motish Roy opposed the plan. The market committee was a politicised unit that created local links. It was through these links that the refugees created their space within the nation that they claimed as their own historically. Even the fights and squabbles helped in making the refugees belong to the space that they had occupied forcefully.   

      Refugee life in colonies was different from the ghettoised existence in camps, which was defined by government surveillance. However, colony life was all about living in a community. It was this that gave one the strength to squat on lands belonging to the government or to private individuals. It was therefore important to ritualise the process of foundation of the efforts. The foundation day of the market was celebrated with programmes of songs and drama (Kabigaan, Yatra, Baul) for a long time. As the establishment of the colony was a political process, the domestic space itself was a political space. The settlement was a story of success in the face of eviction operations by the government as also the landlords’ men. Every story of success had to be celebrated and ritualised to make the colony a legitimate space of living. To create a home, the colony market was needed as was needed the colony school or the colony temple. The buzz of the bazaar provided the sanction for the colony homes.

[1] Sajal Chowdhury, “Netaji Colony Theke Bolchi”, published in 4 installments, in, Dishari, April-July, 2009.  

The Fort of Freedom: A study of ‘Refugeehood’ through the formation of ‘Azadgarh Colony’

Sucharita Sengupta
(Sucharita is a researcher at Calcutta Research Group. She is working with Paula Banerjee on refugee politics in West Bengal as a part of CRG-RLS project on Popular Movements in West Bengal and Bihar, and can be reached at

  In this essay I reflect upon the history charted by persons who were turned into ‘refugees’ or Bastuhara (the homeless) overnight after the independence of India. These colonies were illegal in nature. By not reducing the refugees from East Bengal into victims, this paper will examine the role of refugees in settling themselves in a new society through forming localities of their own by force (Jabardakhal Colony), emerging in the process as an economically productive subject. Azadgarh Colony in this paper is studied closely. It provides a glimpse of the individual negotiations that refugee leaders made in building colonies, their politics in asserting their sphere of influence over a certain area and the political tussle between the left and right wing political parties. We shall rely mostly on the memoir of Indu Baran Ganguly, a firebrand refugee leader who played a decisive role in establishing the Azadgarh Colony. Ganguly was an active member of the undivided Communist Party of India (CPI). He left the party in 1942. But he rejoined the party in 1948, the year when he came to Calcutta with his family as a refugee[1]. The CPI then was trying to build up a strong opposition against the government and the refugee issue provided them with much needed instrument to articulate and mobilize their protests through forming groups and organizations, for instance, the ‘United Central Refugee Council’ in 1950. Ganguly mentions in his memoir that their rebellion against the Congress government in West Bengal embodied a glory that was larger than the pain they bore for the partition. Expressing apprehension on how historians will read partition history and interpret their memories, Ganguly in his memoir states that for him the history of refugee movement in the 50s was not solely of losses. It was instead a history of emancipation and stupendous success of winning over all odds to emerge powerful citizens of a new state.

      Ganguly’s memoir is interesting because it brings out the nuances of clashes among refugees over their political affiliations, the structure of power blocks they formed and using emotions to legitimize forceful occupations of lands. On one hand it reflects negotiations with the locals (in this case Muslims), on the other hand it also tells us about the tensions between neighbouring colonies, different political parties and ideologies. Each colony had an individual committee associated with a political party. For instance, Ganguly mentions that after being part of forming the second squatter colony in Calcutta, the Deshabandhu Nagar Colony in 1949, he was residing in the deserted house of the then prominent Muslim leader and zamindar Ghulam Ali Minar near Tollygaunge in exchange of a rent of Rs.50. The entire neighbourhood belonged to Ghulam Ali and poor Muslims, most of whom shared cordial relations with Ganguly. By this time Ganguly had re joined the CPI and he was being aided by the party to pay the rent. Incidentally CPI was declared illegal in March 1948. The party could not continue to pay the rent for long resulting into a scuffle between Ghulam Ali and Ganguly. Taking advantage of this situation, one group approached him to make false papers to confiscate the entire plot. They tried to evoke anger in him by saying refugees were forced to leave their land in East Bengal for the Muslims and hence ‘snatching’ their land was their right. Ganguly, in his own words, was a man of high morals and could not accept this proposal. It is clear from this narrative that for refugees like him, forming colonies through force in deserted lands was certainly not illegal but making false papers to confiscate the same was. Here Ganguly portrayed his conflict with Ali as an absolutely non-communal one, related solely to the payment of rent. Another day, Santosh Dutta, a fervent supporter of the refugee cause and main architect of the first squatter colony in Calcutta – Bijaygarh- along with Dhirendranath Roy Chaudhury, famously known as Kalabhai came to visit the area Ganguly was residing in. Both were famous freedom fighters and were supporters of the Congress. Apparently, they told Ganguly that they wanted to make the area an extension of the Bijaygarh Colony. On the same evening, he was approached by a rival group of Santosh Dutta, belonging to the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), to build an independent colony there, which will have a new committee with Ganguly as the new President. Ganguly apprehended that giving the plot to Bijaygarh Colony would make Santosh Dutta more powerful and resourceful. Hence Ganguly took up the proposal of forming an independent colony and this is how the ‘Azadgarh Colony’ was formed[2]. These plots of lands were then divided among refugee families on a first come-first served basis in exchange of a rent of Rs. 10. This is the history of the formation of the ‘Azadgarh Colony’[3]. Members of the Azadgarh colony did not compel the Muslims living in the neighbourhood to evacuate the land but members of Bijaygarh colony, as says Ganguly, attacked them and they were forced to flee the entire area. Later, few residents of the Bijaygarh Colony came and helped Ganguly in building the colony and complained about concentration of power and corruption among few leaders within the colony[4]. There were repeated clashes between the Azadgarh and Bijaygarh Colonies and Ganguly himself was attacked by some residents of Bijaygarh mainly because he was a communist and since he formed an independent colony there instead of giving the plot to Bijaygarh[5].
      Although Bijaygarh Colony is in paper the first squatter colony established by refugees, Ganguly rejects this claim owing to the nature of its establishment. He echoes what Prafulla Chakraborty writes in The Marginal men, about the formation of Bijaygarh Colony. Chakraborty says that the Colony was made possible due to the help it received from the government and that Santosh Dutta had taken verbal permission from both Jawaharlal Nehru and Bidhan Chandra Roy before establishing it with the help of Jadavpur Engineering students and Jadavpur Refugee Association. So it cannot be called a ‘jabardakhal colony’ or illegal squatter of the refugees. It was neither illegal nor legal as the tacit support of both Nehru and Roy cannot be denied in establishing Bijaygarh, writes Chakraborty[6]. Uditi Sen writes “the dispute over Bijaygarh’s status” provides insights on the nature of refugee negotiations. It was the passive mode of protests that distinguished the Bijaygarh Colony from the rest. Santosh Dutta was very close to the Bengal Congress and also to a section of the elite Calcutta Society. The fact that Ganguly talked of a ‘secret pact’ between Santosh Dutta and Bidhan Chandra Roy reflected their differences in political outlooks and modes of protests. While colonies like Azadgarh adopted radical modes of protest, Bijaygarh refrained from violent opposition due to its allegiance to the congress and hence the clash between Indu Baran Ganguly, as mentioned in his memoir with leaders of the Bijaygarh Colony was only inevitable[7].

[1] Indu Baran Ganguly, Colonysmriti : Udbastu Colony Pratisthar Gorar Kotha (1948-1954), Kolkata, 1997, pp. 4, 42-43.
[2] Ibid, pp 54-56.
[3] Joya Chatterji, “ ‘Dispersal’ and the Failure of Rehabilitation: Refugee Camp-Dwellers and Squatters in West Bengal”, Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 41, No.5, 2007, pp.995-1032, p.996.
[4] Ganguly, Colonismriti, p.57.
[5] Ibid, p.112.
[6] Prafulla Chakraborty, Prantik Manab: Pashimbange Udbastu Jiboner Kotha (Bengali translation of his Marginal Men), Kolkata, 2013, p.39.
[7]Uditi Sen, ‘Building Bijaygarh: A Microhistory of Refugee Squatting in Calcutta’, in Tanika Sarkar and Sekhar Bandyopadhyay (ed.) Calcutta :The Stormy Decades, New Delhi, 2015, 416-418, pp.410, 411.

Outside the Pail: Refugees beyond Camp or Colony in Post-Partition Calcutta

Kaustubh Mani Sengupta
(Kaustubh teaches history at Bankura University, West Bengal, and can be reached at

      This essay looks at the variety of ways the refugees became a part of the urban work-force in post-partition West Bengal. Government schemes could not provide for everyone. The desertion from the government camps is quite well-known. The government was keen to disperse the refugees from the bulging population of Calcutta to avoid a breakdown of the system. But the solution of dispersal faced immense resistance from the refugees and the various refugee organizations. Dispersal and consequent desertion from the camps left the refugees on their own, without any aid from the government. They now had to fend for themselves. What happened to the people who were thus out of the pail of government rehabilitation scheme now? What is the story of those refugees who never went to the camps or were part of the colonies? Through a close reading of the autobiographies of Sadananda Pal and Manoranjan Byapari, I attempt to answer these questions.[1]

Pal was born in a family of potters in East Bengal. He came to West Bengal before his parents migrated. He was supposed to set up the family on this side of the border, and then the entire family would migrate. He, along with his brothers, tried their hand in various trades, but could not establish their business. They were in a better condition than the camp-dwelling refugees, and found a place to stay on the eastern fringes of Calcutta. They had some capital to start a business, knew certain people who could help them. But these were often not enough to sustain them in the new land. Pal, among other things, worked as a tailor, learned to make sweets, hawked betel leaf, set up a stationery shop. He ultimately moved back to his ancestral profession, and started making pots on a small scale. He faltered on these activities, could not learn the tricks of the trade enough to continue with one business. But he kept on trying various ventures to make a living. The urban informal economy gave him the opportunity to try his hands in different jobs. This made him look for other avenues of income. His condition was not as bad as those refugees who had to take shelter in government camps and rely on the doles. On the other hand, he was not a part of the early, mostly upper-caste migrants who could establish colonies in and around Calcutta. He thus occupies an interesting place in the narratives of rehabilitation of refugees in post-partition West Bengal. Government accounts or community-memories do not have room for these individual voices. But they open up a new dimension of the process of rehabilitation where individuals had to negotiate with a range of actors, identities, and situations to make their space.

Byapari was born sometime in 1950-51 in Barishal. He came to West Bengal with his family within a couple of years. From Sealdah station they were sent to Shiromonipur camp in Bankura. But soon they left that camp and went to Ghola Doltala ex-camp site in 24-parganas. Byapari spent a couple of years there. Then he left the camp in search of job. Thus began his wandering life with a variety of vocation and experience of many lifetimes.

Byapari gives detail description of the camps he stayed in. The infrastructure was inadequate to say the least. In Shiromonipur, for more than two thousand refugees there were only two tube-wells to obtain water for drinking. There was a dispensary with one doctor but with hardly any medicine. A primary school was opened but it did not run for long. The residents had to live in tents, there were no huts. The notorious heat of Bankura was life-threatening for them. Child mortality rate was very high in the camp.

After leaving the camp-life, Byapari went on to a number of odd-jobs to survive. Looking for a job, he went to Calcutta, Siliguri, Guwahati, Darjeeling, Lucknow, Kanpur and Dandakaranya. He worked in domestic households and tea-stalls, became a coolie, pulled a rickshaw, assisted a truck driver and a cook, swept floor in a city school. Abject poverty, exploitation of the employer or sheer misfortune pushed him from one place to another. He came back to West Bengal and got embroiled in the extremist politics. He got arrested and was sent to prison.
He learnt reading and writing from a fellow prison-inmate. He was fortunate to have a helpful police officer who encouraged in his endeavours. After his release from the prison, he started to pull a rickshaw and a fortuitous encounter with Mahasweta Devi changed the course of his life. She asked him to write in the journal Bartika. He wrote many books subsequently depicting the life and experiences of the dalits.
Byapari is conscious of his identity as a dalit refugee. He constantly reminds his readers the injustice and violence he had to face from upper caste people. His depiction of refugee camps shows the wretched condition in which the refugees had to stay. But he clearly makes a distinction between the upper caste and lower caste Hindus who were displaced from East Pakistan. He categorically states that the bhadralok refugees did not want the dalit refugees to stay in the numerous colonies that sprang up in and around Calcutta. While the triumphant narratives of the genesis and consolidation of these colonies are abound in literature now, Byapri’s narrative shed light on the process from an opposite end. He argues that the bhadralok refugees had prior contacts with the government which facilitated their way into the urban life while the lower caste refugees became the victims of the faulty rehabilitation policies of the government and had to languish in the camps.
The condition of the government camp forced Byapari to desert it. He eked out his living from various corner of the country. His wandering years were traumatic. But on the other hand his peripatetic life opened up new avenues for him; he had the perseverance to study in jail and then start writing. In a sense, he could overcome the initial difficult years by moving out of the government schemes. While on one hand this shows the failure of the government rehabilitation schemes, on the other it also marks the reconfiguration of identity. While he was supposed to become an agriculturalist according to government classification, his desertion from the camp led him to become ultimately a part of the informal sector of urban labour force.

These narratives point to the limitations of the policies of the government. Byapari and his family left the Shiromonipur camp at Bankura although they had nothing to fall back upon once they came to Calcutta. But they preferred to eke out a living in the city rather than face the hardships in the camp. This desertion can make us think of the countless people who were not accounted for in the government registers. The government had a classificatory scheme, with men and registers at Sealdah station, marking the migrants with their location, profession and caste. But there were lots of people outside this pail of government database, who did not have proper documents to travel. Thus they took other routes. They did not belong to the paper regime of the government. Sadananda Pal travelled to India without any paper. He was successful in going back also, before returning to India with proper visa.

Secondly, if we look at the way these people try to find a job, we realise that they were ready to move beyond their family profession. Pal did not want to become a potter, and in West Bengal he did a range of other things before settling down to make clay pots again. This shows that profession could be changed, people were ready to take up new avenues. Government rehabilitation schemes missed this attitude.

[1] Sadananda Pal, Eka Kumbha:Ek Udvastu Kumbhakarer Matimakha Atmakatha, Kolkata, 2009; Manoranjan Byapari, Itibritte Chandal Jibon, vol. 1, Kolkata, 2012.

A Critical Analysis of the Category of the ‘Refugee-Woman’ in post-Partition Studies

Pallavi Chakravarty Ghoshal
(Pallavi teaches history at Ambedkar University, and can be reached at

Nearly a decade ago Gargi Chakravartty coined a new term in the historiography of partition studies in India—the ‘Refugee woman’. Before this intervention Urvashi Butalia, made a pioneering breakthrough in bringing out the voices of the women who had suffered the trauma of partition and who had for long been neglected in the study of independence and partition of the subcontinent. Partition history had till then been a study of ‘high-politics’ alone, neglecting what is now seen as the ‘human dimension’ of this greatest human tragedy experienced in the Indian subcontinent. Scholars like Urvashi Butalia, Ritu Menon, Kamla Bhasin, Gargi Chakravartty and Veena Das altered the course of partition historiography in India by introducing a gendered analysis of this traumatic episode in the subcontinent’s history.

 This article discusses the two images perceived of the post-partition refugee-woman in the Indian subcontinent: that of the victim, and that of the one who survived it all. Finally, I critically assess such perceptions regarding the refugee-woman, by raising the following questions: how did she perceive these roles assigned to her by the exigencies of the situation? Was she a willing participant to these roles or did she simply take these roles upon herself based on the dictates of the family, society, and nation?

The Refugee-woman as the Victim:

Women were abducted, forcibly converted to the other religion, raped, and killed by the men of the ‘other’ community in the name of religion, as a message to the rival community. As noted by Urvashi Butalia, such an assault upon the body of the woman, was not an attack upon the woman alone, rather it was an attack upon the family, community, and nation of the woman. Thus, the body of the woman did not belong just to her, but it epitomised the trinity of family, community, and nation.
 However, the violence did not just end there, as the erstwhile protectors of the woman, now became her tormentors as well. The notion of honour diluted all notions of love and belonging, as now fathers, brothers, husbands, took upon themselves the responsibility of preventing the defiling of family honour and killed their own daughters, sisters, and wives, to save this ‘honour’ of the family, community, and nation. It is this very skewed notion of honour, that brought feelings of sorrow or anger instead of joy and relief upon a family when their daughter was returned to them by the efforts of a government-sponsored recovery and restoration project undertaken for abducted persons (children below the age of 14 and women of all ages). It is this very notion of honour which makes the Punjabi Hindu refugee proudly narrate stories of how the brave women of Punjab, of their families, ‘chose’ death over abduction/rape/forcible conversion to Islam, while, despite much prodding, they remain silent or feign ignorance about the women who survived this torment, deep within some also felt why did these ‘shameless’ women not die? Rajinder Singh Bedi’s Lajwanti and Amrita Pritam’s Puro, in different ways, epitomise these silent voices of the woman who were ‘restored’ and yet not accepted within their own family and home.
In Bengal, women were victims of not only direct violence but also subtle and discreet forms of violence. Any memoir of the Bengali bhadramahila during these troubled times would show how the routine violence was even more difficult to bear than the experience of direct violence. A first-hand account of this omnipresent fear in the minds of the Hindu women can be observed in Nalini Mitra’s statements: ‘It became increasingly difficult for me to pass through a locality infested (sic) by Bihari Muslims on my way to college.’ But it was only when in the workplace too, she heard obscene remarks being directed towards her, that she realised it was time to leave—‘At that instant I realised that it would no longer be possible to stay in my beloved motherland. How could one live in such a filthy environment?’[1]
The Refugee-woman as a Survivor:

This was the new image of the refugee woman which recent scholarship has unearthed, and this comes from a use of non-conventional sources and a re-reading of the conventional archive. However, it was not an altogether unexplored area as Bengali literary works and cinema had brought this aspect to light in the 1960’s itself. At a time, when narratives of gruesome and inconceivable violence from the west was dominating all popular memory in the works of Sadat Hasan Manto, Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud Capped Star), a novel by Shaktipada Rajguru, later brilliantly translated into a cult partition movie by the same name by Ritwik Ghatak, started bringing a change of perspective vis-a-vis partition and the refugee-women. It is this film which set scholars to find the many lost Nitas (the protagonist in the film: a refugee-woman who becomes the sole breadwinner of the family in post-partition Calcutta and in the process gives up her own desires and ultimately dies in the end). Hereafter, many such narratives of women giving up their own personal wishes, and becoming the sole breadwinners of the family started pouring out. Manikuntala Sen, in her memoir, notes that it was the women from East Bengal who taught the women of West Bengal to get educated and employed.[2] A survey conducted by the Directorate of National Employment Service, West Bengal, shows that in the post-partition period there was an increase in the demand for employment among women.[3]Similar narratives of the refugee woman from West Pakistan also started coming up.        

The Problem:

However, was it always a happy story of women empowerment at the end of a traumatic experience? Did these women ‘choose’ this life? Did it bring them the empowerment which is often assumed in these narratives? Was partition truly that violent break which set women upon a different path of their own? These are some questions one wonders when talking of this refugee-woman who became the sole earning member of the family.
 Meghe Dhaka Tara, the novel as well as the film, do not conceal the fact that Nita had a few desires of her own—be it higher education, marriage, motherhood, and perhaps something as basic as slippers for her feet or to visit the mountains, however with her father getting incapacitated, brothers not earning enough, she took upon herself to sacrifice all her wants and keep the family alive with her earnings. But the final scene in the movie, makes us ponder whether at all she wanted to make all such sacrifices or not—‘Dada, ami bachte chai!’ [ Dada, I want to live][4]
         Not all such narratives ended on a sad note, Bithi Chakravarti, would be a case in point. Like Nita, she too, was the sole breadwinner in the family and kept refusing marriage till her family had become financially stable. Unlike Nita, her partner waited for her and eventually they did marry.[5] But did she go back to work after marriage? This has not been explored.
Asok Mitra problematises this idea of the woman’s ‘choice’ i.e. her willingness to take up the entire burden of the family upon herself, most poignantly in the following words—‘She has nothing to look forward to, she has nothing to plan for, except the short term arithmetic of how much to try to borrow from which neighbour or school colleague… [brothers would waste away the money earned by her in expensive restaurants, but she could not] for she was the leading earner in the family, and the entire salary she meticulously hands over to her mother. Nobody cares to ask how many saris she has…There is no question of marriage… you need a minimal glow of health even for divertissements like that. This Bengali girl is nobody’s desire… she has nothing to look forward to, spinsterdom, give or take a few years, is going to set in early…’[6]
An Annual Report of the Ministry of Rehabilitation mentions that marriage was the ultimate means of rehabilitating the ‘unattached displaced women’. One may also note that under the Government of India schemes, it was the family which was a unit of rehabilitation, not the individual. And families were further divided into those headed by the ‘able-bodied males’ those which were headed by ‘women’. The latter came under various categories of permanent liability and were taken care of in the permanent liability camps. If at all there was an individual unit for rehabilitation it was that of the ‘unattached woman’. Such women were sent to Women’s Homes, but hereto, the final solution to their rehabilitation was considered to be marriage. Thus, the patriarchal notion of state as protector was not betrayed even in the times of grave trauma and travail for the refugees.
Apart from the problem of choice and gendered notion in the scheme of rehabilitation, let us look at the issue of victimhood. We may ask can the question of survival be completely divorced from that of victimhood? This woman had been inflicted by the scars of partition violence and the misery of displacement. But her story of victimhood did not just end there as being a woman she became the most vulnerable victim of sexual abuse even after crossing over to what was being considered as safety in the new homeland. Beginning from the lack of private space in the cramped tents in the refugee camps to entering the flesh trade (willingly or being duped into it), the refugee woman became an easy prey even in these times which should have reflected more sensitivity from the public and the state. The workplace, too, was not free from harassment of various kinds: going to work itself was often accompanied by derisive looks or comments from men directed not just to these women, but also to the men of her family, who had allowed such a role reversal to take place.  
Of course, there are narratives of those women as well who found freedom in this whole traumatic experience of partition violence and displacement. For many, it was the first time that they had stepped out of the home and that they were earning for their families.
On the other hand, there is a class question involved as well in this glorification of ‘triumph’ after ‘trauma’. Women from the rural background and lower income groups had always been working to supplement the meagre family income. For them this toil was not a new found enterprise, rather, it was business as usual for them. They had even previously toiled in the farms, or worked as domestic help in pre-partition times. Their stories go unheard and unwritten. Even Rameshwari Nehru, the head of the Women’s Section (a special Board set up by the Government of India to look into the matters of the refugee-women) commented that it was easier to resettle the women from rural backgrounds or those who were not so educated as they were easily absorbed in the agrarian work or as domestic helps in the urban areas, it was the educated middle class women which were difficult to rehabilitate as it was difficult to find ‘suitable’ jobs for them.[7]
Further marginal to this narrative of victimhood and survival are the women from the lower castes. The story of rehabilitation of refugees is essentially that of the middle-class and upper caste refugees. Very little research has been done on the rehabilitation of the refugees belonging to the lower castes, and among them much less is known about the refugee-women of this caste.
To conclude, this article has tried to present how the category of ‘refugee-woman’ has been perceived in recent scholarship. I have also pointed out to the strengths and weaknesses of such an analysis and suggested further areas of research on this theme. The idea is to suggest that while research on this new category of the refugee-woman has certainly enriched our understanding of partition, it has also made a very significant contribution to gender studies and further opens up a greater avenue for studying the history of the oppressed in a new light.

[1] Nalini Mitra (Director of the Refugee Rehabilitation Department of the West Bengal Government) interviewed by the research team, School of Women Studies, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, in Seminar, 510, Interviews.
[2] Manikuntala Sen, In Search of Freedom: An Unfinished Journey, Kolkata, 2001.
[3] ‘Employment among Women in West Bengal’ Directorate of National Employment Service, West Bengal, November 1958.
[4] Nita develops tuberculosis and is sent to the sanatorium, she is aware that she cannot live long and it is a final outburst from her where she expresses this desire to live.
[5] See Bithi Chakravarty interview in Jasodhara Bagchi and Subhoranjan Dasgupta (Eds), Kolkata, 2003, pp.150-154.
[6] Asok Mitra, ‘Take a Girl Like Her’ in Calcutta Diary, London, 1977, pp.16-20.
[7] From Rameshwari Nehru Files, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Delhi.

The Other Side of Partition Migration and Rehabilitation: Minority Displacement and Dispossession in Bengal

Subhasri Ghosh
(Subhasri teaches history at Asutosh College, Kolkata, and can be reached at )
        In the annals of 1947 Partition historiography, communal riots occupy a pivotal position. On the Bengal side, the corpus of works essentially focuses on how the mayhem triggered by the 1946 Great Calcutta Killing spurred a whole train of communal frenzy in eastern India, prior to independence and the “riots, which preceded partition gradually petered out after the Proclamation of Independence.”[1] Post-independence, the Barisal riots of February 1950 occupy a pre-eminent position in Partition literature, being the catalyst of the largest mass migration in a single month in the eastern sector. Deviating from this high politics of communal violence, but nonetheless pregnant with far-reaching consequences, this paper attempts to explore a somewhat ‘sporadic localised’ riot in Howrah in March 1950. While the Barisal riots of those days grabbed the headlines, the riot nearer home failed to garner much attention.
Trouble broke out in the third week of March in 1950. The jute belt along the bank of the river Hooghly was the worst affected. The then Additional District Magistrate of Howrah, Asok Mitra recounts, that on 24 March a few Muslims were killed. Situation worsened to reach its peak on 25-26 March when around 16 Muslims were killed, following which military was summoned to control the situation on 28 March. Between the evening of 27 March and the early mornings of 30 March, from the lanes and by-lanes of Ghusuri locality of the town, the mutilated bodies of around 60 Muslims were recovered by the district administration. Situation calmed down from 30 March with no further report of casualties.[2]
This ‘localised’ riot was pregnant with consequences of great depth. The riot, carried out with the covert support of the government was meant to act as a pressure tactic to force the Prime Minister of Pakistan Liaquat Khan to come down to Delhi for peace talks. Moved by the plight of the Muslims at Howrah, Liaquat Khan declared on 29 March that he would reach Delhi on 2 April for peace talks. The very day rioting stopped. Asok Mitra laments, “…it is a tragedy that in order to bring Liaquat Khan to Delhi, it was necessary to instigate riot in Howrah.”[3] The Commission of Enquiry formed to enquire into the 1950 riots, headed by Ms Mridula Sarabhai very eloquently, in the context of the Howrah riots, pointed out, “Personal experience of the Howrah episode confirmed my doubt…the flaring up in the industrial areas was a planned affair abetted by the local authorities. Those who were behind it appeared to be confident of support from the higher quarters. This was substantiated by the Government’s action in not taking steps against those…the manner in which the officers behaved left no doubt that they were involved in it.”[4]
Also, the larger issue at stake was the rehabilitation of the burgeoning stream of Hindu migrants from across the border.[5] The ulterior motive of the government was to rehabilitate the Hindu migrants, by evicting the Muslims and instilling fear psychosis so as to prevent their return for good. As Sarabhai notes, “On the eve of the Inter-Dominion talks…the policy of the Government seemed to have changed overnight…everywhere the District Officers were busy provoking the Muslims…to migrate to Pakistan.”[6]Ironically, while the Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru was crying hoarse in the Parliament on the persecution of the minorities in East Bengal, in West Bengal, too, the minorities suffered from insecurity as is evident from these incidents. Not only Howrah, but minorities in Hooghly, Nadia, too suffered the same fate in active connivance of the administration. The then Relief and Rehabilitation Commissioner, Government of West Bengal, Hiranmoy Bandyopadhyay opines in the context of Nadia, “If the refugees had not occupied these abandoned plots and houses, I shudder to think how the Government would have shouldered the burden of accommodating thousands of refugees in the relief camps.”[7] Thus Hindu rehabilitation at times became co-terminous with minority persecution, eviction and displacement and the minorities became pawns in the political power play.

[1] Prafulla K. Chakrabarti, The Marginal Men: The Refugees and the Left Political Syndrome in West Bengal,”  Kalyani , 1999, p. 6.
[2]Asok Mitra, Tin Kuri Dash, Vol. III, Kolkata, 1997.
[3] ibid, p. 122.
[4] West Bengal State Archives (WBSA), “Statement of Smt Mridula Sarabhai”, No File No., 1950.
[5] Between 13 February 1950 and 23 July 1950, an estimated 15,51,820 Hindu  migrants poured into West Bengal.
[6] “Statement of Smt Mridula Sarabhai”
[7] Hiranmoy Bandyopadhyay, Udbastu, Calcutta, 1970, p. 73.

Friday, July 22, 2016


Cartoons published in the infamous French magazine, Charlie Hebdo, brought the complexities of representation and politics to the fore, in the recent past. In the cartoon depicting a drowned immigrant figure next to a Jesus like figure walking on water, was also the legend, “Christians walk on water, Muslim children sink”. Yet another featured dead Aylan Kurdi’s figure, next to a McDonald type advertisement.
The detractors were quick to condemn Charlie Hebdo’s overtly racists and insensitive cartoons, while the magazine’s editors and several others pointed out at the satire inherent in their representational practices. They claim, the satire was not directed at the migrants themselves, but Europe’s response, inadequate, to the migrant crisis.This debate points at the complexities inherent in the ‘circuit of culture’, pointing at the tensions between signifying practices, modes of production, consumption, identities and regulations.

The current issue of Refugee Watch Online seeks to tease out the politics inherent in cultural representations of migration and forced migration, From the differential and evocative use of a term to the popular imaginary of a space definitively forming an identity and a desire in the universe of Malayalam cinema, to the imaginative use of borders and crossings in search of a supportive and irreverent Europe— this issue brings together a host of articles reflecting on the representations of migration across mediums, spaces and modes.

The articles in this issue are as follow (click on the links below):

The Gulf on the Malayali Big Screen: An outline history

IO STO CON LA SPOSA: A Video-Graphic Review

Migrations and Identities: A Study of Sea of Poppies

Harraga: Snapshot on A Migration and Its Representation

Fratricide: A Review.

Mein Hoon Yusuf Aur Yeh Mera Bhai: The Story of a Real People

Samata Biswas (