Though promised much by the ‘Hindu’ west after Partition, Dalits who crossed over from East Bengal got the opposite of a warm welcome.
The Wire’s #PartitionAt70 series brings a number of stories, through text and multimedia content, that will attempt at drawing a comprehensive picture of those weeks and months when entire geographies and histories changed forever.
As the citizens of Pakistan and India celebrate 70 years of independence this year, the commemoration of Partition and its myriad effects on their lives and those of their ancestors remains a sobering and unhappy work that troubles any easy valorising of hard-won anti-colonial sovereignties. As one of the biggest events in the history of the 20th century, what Partition meant and means for the innumerable many whose lives were drawn willingly or not into its maelstrom is a theme that has commanded the attention of several generations of scholars, artists and literati. Arguably one of the central insights emerging from this vast corpus of reflection is just how multifaceted was the human experience of this watershed in the South Asian past.
Defying uniformity, Partition was triumph and tragedy; loss, displacement, unlikely accommodation and recovery; enabling of unexpected agency; rebirth and reconciliation; terror and horror; trauma and relief, seemingly, all at once. In collective imagination however, the event remains framed as the political consequence of communalism; the religious community – whether Hindu, Muslim or Sikh – as the source of irreconcilable difference. While there is no denying the self-evidence of this proposition, what the ineluctable logic of communalism obscures are the stark variations between how groupings supposedly within the religious community endured the burden of the event which were indeed significant. Partition, in short, did not deliver the promised homeland to all.
This is perhaps especially the case with the Namasudras of late-colonial Bengal. One of the largest (scheduled) castes of the province, the leaders of this labouring and agricultural community sought to effectively challenge the caste Hindu domination of public life through their negotiations with the colonial state over the course of the late 19th and 20th centuries. Like the Mahars of Bombay presidency, they took the lead in Dalit movements to secure social justice, respectability and equality, and actively pursued the opportunities to be gained from articulating critiques of anti-colonial nationalism coupled with a deep-seated loyalism towards their colonial interlocutors. Situated predominantly in the eastern districts of Bengal, a historical accident that would have lasting implications for their postcolonial existence, Namasudras combined with Muslims to seriously undermine the kinds of privileges caste Hindus had grown accustomed to enjoying. They kept aloof from nationalist mobilisations, and over the course of provincial autonomy responded favourably to B.R. Ambedkar’s call for Dalit self-determination, a certain radicalisation.
There nonetheless remained powerful segments of the community receptive to the amalgamating social reformism of Hindu and Indian nationalism, and the assurance of a seat at the table in the nation-to-come. Indeed, the caste-Hindu leaders of the movement to partition Bengal certainly had them in mind when they rose to articulate and muster support for their demand that the province be divided along religious-majoritarian lines in response to the Muslim League’s search for Pakistan. The territorial division of the province however, far from providing them with security as promised, unleashed an onslaught of consequences that effectively shattered Namasudra political mobilisation, stripped the community of its most precious natural resources, displaced them from their ancestral homes and dissipated them throughout the subcontinent over the course of the first few decades of freedom. In a manner quite unlike any other, the Namasudras bore the brunt of Partition’s various violences, yet seem to have gained precious little by way of its promise. Partition’s impact on the Namasudras suggests that true intended beneficiaries of the divide were not the unmarked Hindus per se, but the caste Hindus in particular. They became, in the words of Jogendranath Mandal, their most controversial and renowned Ambedkarite leader, the “worst victims of the partition of our country…”
The vast majority of the Namasudra community was not consulted in the complex negotiations that led to the decision to divide the province of Bengal along the axis of religious difference. The divide made little sense from their perspective as it would involve abandoning hearth and home for uncertain futures in the “Hindu” west. This is clear from the patterns in migration from eastern to western Bengal. While many caste Hindus took advantage of their connections with relatives and acquaintances in the west to migrate well in advance of August 1947, despite the fact that a significant majority of Namasudra MLAs ultimately voted in favour of Partition as well as their involvement in the riots of 1946, substantial numbers of them did not leave East Pakistan until several years after the measure had been enacted and life had become intolerable due to anti-Hindu aggression, itself a response to the reciprocal violence from Hindus against Muslims. The communal logic of Partition thus severely strained relations between Namasudras and Muslims, which while far from uniformly congenial, were nonetheless composed of solidarities born of living and labouring together in the moffusil world of East Bengal.
From the late 1940s onwards, Namasudras confronted the dubious prospects of remaining in their new and hostile homeland and increasingly decided to take their chances with the neighbouring territory that had come into being with the explicit purpose of providing a safe haven for Bengali Hindus. Each major incident of rioting prompted their mass migration, punctuated by a steady trickle of those who had given up on Pakistan. The idea had always been that the west would receive their traumatised Hindu brethren with a warm embrace. Yet, like many hastily and instrumentally extended assurances of the late-colonial moment, this too was suitably modified under the drastically-transformed circumstances of post-independence West Bengal to become all but meaningless. They were not exactly made to feel welcome by a society reeling from anomie born of famine, riots and a rapidly-escalating refugee crisis. Indeed, as they soon discovered upon arrival in the land where they expected salvation, the spoils of Partition were intended for the relatively rarefied tier of Hindus. The fervent appeals to Hindu brotherhood when making the case for a West Bengal just a few years prior, quickly transformed to a beleaguered helplessness at charitable best, or (rather more baldly stated) callous indifference, hypocrisy and betrayal.
Namasudras constituted the bulk of the refugees that swelled the camps the governments of India and West Bengal constructed to accommodate those seeking asylum from humiliation and depredations in the east, spiking the population density of an already fairly saturated geography. Maintaining these camps and their residents placed exceptional pressure on the cash-strapped state and thus was born the alibi of “non-availability of land,” marshalled by caste Hindu Congress politicians to make the case for their rehabilitation beyond the boundaries of their jurisdiction. Proximate states had extended a helping hand, but there were limits to such generosity. By the late 1950s, the refugee movement (mobilised, in no small part, by organisations affiliated with Leftist opposition parties) confronted a state determined to evict them, amidst mounting tensions. In a manner that recalled the colonial state’s dealing with mass anti-colonial protest, and eerily if faintly reminiscent of the rounding up of the European Jews, Namasudras were faced with the full coercive might of the Nehruvian state to ensure their removal from West Bengal: the imprisonment of prominent leaders, police brutality, sexual violence, the withholding of doles and allowances to induce the willingness to leave, dispersal of protestors beyond city limits to prevent their recombination, forced evacuations on trains beyond the borders of the state. The consequence of such actions was to effectively decimate any chance of contiguity in Namasudra existence. From being concentrated in four districts in eastern Bengal, by the early 1960s they found themselves scattered in sites tracing an arc as far afield as the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh, unlikely guests in cultures far removed to their own.
There were those amongst them who attempted to return to the more familiar terrain of West Bengal upon discovering surroundings and being assigned a home inhospitable to a people accustomed to the riches of deltaic land. On doing so, they were met with further state violence, but this time under the agency of those they once followed. Most notorious of course, and supremely ironic and janus-faced, was the manner in which the CPI(M) government dealt with refugees who had camped in Marichjhanpi in the Sunderbans upon escaping from their designated habitations in the late 1970s. Having strategically utilised Namasudra migrants in their bid to topple the Congress, once in power, the caste Hindu communists unleashed a reign of police terror on those who refused their plans for them, resulting in the death by some estimates of nearly 400 individuals, the loss of property and already scarce resources, and the molestation of women. Marichjhanpi, a name that has become metonym for caste atrocity in Dalit activist circles, remains a painful if poignant reminder of the disposability of precarious lives even by those committed, at least in theory if not in practice, to their well-being.
It has indeed been a “long partition” for the Namasudras of eastern India. Even today, the shadow of that divide touches the lives of those who are yet to been granted citizenship under suspicion of being illegal migrants from Bangladesh, or the deeds to the small parcels of land they acquired through their own initiative. And they have of course also contended with that other great partition in their everyday lives – that of casteism, its unrelenting prejudices and exclusions. That they have endured such insurmountable circumstances is a tribute to the resilience of the human being. Yet one is not entirely sure of the value of such comforting pieties. As Lawrence Langer’s studies of testimonies of holocaust survivors suggest, the assumption that the coordinates of morality remain intact after the prolonged experience of unearthly trauma may not be appropriate. Accounts that seek to redeem the human spirit partake of a moral compass unavailable to those who have experienced systematic dehumanisation. Despite the modest gains Namasudras have wrested in the decades since Partition and independence, it is hard to think of another community that has suffered as much for the wages of freedom, but are yet to earn its dividends; certainly, neither wholly or in full measure, nor, for that matter, very substantially. The steep price they paid for Partition was entirely out of joint with the essentially negligible role they played in reaching the fateful decision.
Dwaipayan Sen is assistant professor in the departments of History, and Asian Languages and Civilisations at Amherst College.