Building From Nothing: The Agony, Penury and Politics of Bengal's Refugees

To say that in the initial post-Partition years, refugees or forced migrants had to face a lot of difficulties on both economic and social fronts would be an understatement.

Listen to this article:

As the country waves flags and celebrates the 75th anniversary of India’s independence, it is also time to take stock. What did India’s founders and citizens dream of, how has India fared, what have been our challenges and successes?

The Wire’s reporters and contributors bring stories of the period, of the traumas but also the hopes of Indians, as seen in personal accounts, in culture, in the economy and in the sciences. How did the modern state of India come about, what does the flag represent? How did literature and cinema tackle the trauma of Partition?

Follow us for the next few days to get a rounded view of India@75.

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

On December 20, 1949, a team of East Pakistan police went to a village in Khulna district to arrest a local communist leader involved with the Tebhaga movement. Not managing to find him there, they ransacked houses in the village and mistreated women villagers.

The enraged villagers retaliated by attacking them and causing the death of a constable. According to report published in The Statesman and later authenticated by historian professor Sekhar Bandyopadhyay, the villagers were mostly from the ‘lower’ caste and Dalit communities.

The next day, a large police contingent and members of the paramilitary auxiliary force, Ansar Bahini, arrived and surrounded that specific Khulna village and other adjoining villages. After a few days, a good number of villagers – with no other chance of survival – were able to flee the area and crossed over to West Bengal, in India.

Around the same time, a similar incident took place in a village in Rangpur district of East Pakistan, where police went to nab another communist leader of the Tebhaga movement. Failing to arrest him, they assaulted some tribal residents there. Their retaliation caused the death of five policemen on the spot. Fearing retribution, a good number of villagers – tribals and others – fled and crossed over to West Bengal.

These two incidents, and others, led to the first major communal riots which engulfed both sides of Bengal in January 1950. Communal violence broke out in Calcutta, Murshidabad and several other districts in the Indian part of Bengal, and later on in various parts of East Pakistan, including Dacca.

The Union home minister Sardar Patel had to rush to Calcutta and stay there for three days to oversee the administrative steps to douse the fire. The Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru gave a lengthy speech in the parliament. In it were detailed accounts of how and why the riots started in both sides of Bengal and what the government proposed to do about it, copies of The Statesman of January, 1950, note.

Eventually, the major worry for the state government of West Bengal and Union government grew to be the first huge wave of refugee influx into India from East Pakistan after the Partition of Bengal in 1947.

In the last week of January, 1950, a Hindu family of Mymensingh district in East Pakistan decided to leave their ancestral home by night and started to make the journey westward to India. They reached Sealdah station in Calcutta)after going through a harrowing journey. Their train was attacked by marauders who looted and killed a number of passengers on board. The police and Ansars subjected them to humiliating searches and extracted whatever little cash and gold was found in their possession.

One of the survivors of that journey, who does not want to be identified, still recounts those days with vivid description. According to him, their district had been relatively peaceful and no major riots took place at that time. But local people started provoking them and gradually, the Hindu families started leaving the village one by one. The last straw was a massacre that took place in a train on the Bhairab bridge, five miles from the man’s ancestral home. Unlike thousands of others, the family had footprint in Calcutta much before the Partition took place, and were able to settle in a three-room flat in the Park Circus area. No fewer than 20 members lived in the flat.

This was not a luxury available for the majority of refugees.

A detail from Chittoprasad Bhattacharya’s painting ‘Bangladesh War – 1971’. Photo: File

According to the Census of 1951, of the total refugee population of 2,099,000 in West Bengal, 433,000 went to Calcutta and 527,000 to the 24 Parganas, the district adjacent to Calcutta. Older generations of refugees from East Pakistan still recount the experience of seeing thousands of people squatting in Sealdah station, with nowhere to go. The more enterprising among them started looking for places where they could rebuild their life from scratch. A number of vacant plots of land and farm houses on the outskirts of Calcutta and in neighbouring districts were forcibly occupied by them and turned into refugee colonies.

The first enumeration of the refugee colonies in 1952 led to a list of 149 squatters’ colonies in the Calcutta corporation area (Manual of Refugee Relief and Rehabilitation, Volume 1, Kolkata, West Bengal Publication, 2000). The list would grow when more and more such colonies would spring up in other districts bordering East Pakistan.

How many people migrated to West Bengal from East Pakistan prior to 1971?

The estimates vary from 5.8 million to 4.1 million. Noted historian Joya Chatterji suspects the number could be more. Contrary to the official stand, the refugees were not confined to areas adjacent to Calcutta and neighbouring districts alone. The poorest settled closest to the East Pakistan border.

Taking figures from the 2001 Census, reports were published (for instance, on Times of India of May 29, 2001) of the higher growth rate of population in districts bordering Bangladesh (erstwhile East Pakistan). The first major refugee transit space was established in Ranaghat Cooper’s Camp in Nadia district in March, 1950. At that time, more than a lakh refugees were sent there by the government.

Even now, for many people living in those refugee camps the only source of income is a Rs 400 monthly dole given out by the government, Achintyarup Ray writes in a report titled ‘Midnight’s Forgotten Children’ on Times of India, April 10, 2010.

A clipping from the ‘Manchester Guardian’ showing Muslim refugees trying to get to Pakistan. Source: Wikimedia Commons/ colombia.edu

The government’s response to the Partition victims in Bengal was singularly different from their response to Punjab’s refugees. The Partition caused a massive and bloody population exchange in Punjab at one go. Thus, the government had been able to resettle a number of refugees in Punjab on the land and properties of those Muslims who had gone over to West Pakistan. Also, several rehabilitation schemes were offered to them to start a new life.

In Bengal, the refugees came in waves caused by communal riots in 1950, 1964 and so on, and trickled in steadily throughout the post-1947 period. The 1950 riots also forced a section of Muslims to leave West Bengal and opt for East Pakistan. Their abandoned properties were occupied mostly by refugees.

Also read: The Pain of Partition, as Seen in the Literature of Many Languages

According to Uditi Sen, during the tenure of the short-lived state government formed after Independence, under Dr. P.C. Ghosh, the administration allowed the abandoned airstrips and barracks of World War II to be occupied by refugees for building their colonies.

I had occasion to visit one such place near Kanchrapara in Nadia district where some of my close relatives took shelter in an abandoned military barrack. The place was full of abandoned military hutments. Each family was allotted a small portion (8×10 feet) and a veranda of much smaller size. My relatives – two adults and nine children – had to make do with that space. Like many other families residing there, they were from middle and upper class landed gentry class in East Pakistan, and were not able to earn a livelihood by joining the toiling masses. They were completely dependent on the little rice and wheat that were given to them from time to time under the gratuitous relief (GR) and test relief (TR) schemes by the government. As the rations were inadequate to feed the entire family, the parents usually went hungry. Largely owing to malnutrition, the male head of the family got tuberculosis, and died after some time.

The initial influx and squatters forcibly occupying vacant land and properties created a law and order problem.

The government’s first response was to enact a new law to recover those properties from the squatters and return them to the landlords. But the squatters’ colonies joined hands, formed a united resistance and forced the government to backtrack on their move.

The then chief minister Bidhan Chandra Roy tried his best to draw the attention of the Union government to the growing economic and social crisis in the state. Writing to Prime Minister Nehru, he stressed the need for an immediate solution of the growing refugee crisis. The reasons for his concerns were not only administrative, but political too. As an administrator, he was concerned about growing tension between landlords and squatters and felt it was seriously hurting social stability. On the political side, he was concerned that refugees were concentrated in certain areas. The worry that if they were disenchanted with the Congress government they could pose serious electoral threats was not lost on him.

He had reason for worry.

The refugees had expected the Congress would help them rebuild their lives in Bengal. Perceiving reluctance of the government, they felt betrayed and gradually, their growing bitterness developed into a serious disenchantment with the Congress government. The opposition consisted of two forces. On the one hand there was the Hindu majoritarian Bharatiya Jan Sangh (BJS) founded and led by Shyama Prasad Mukherjee. The communist parties were on the other.

That the refugees were steadily aligning themselves with the opposition became evident in 1952 in the first state assembly election in independent India, when Congress, despite their glorious past of leading the freedom movement, won only 150 seats of the total 236 they had contested. Their share of vote was a mere 39%. Though Communist Party of India and BJS contested around 86 seats each, CPI won 28 and BJS, nine. Another Hindu right party, Hindu Mahasabha, got four. The minor Left parties fared poorly.

Realising that the state with its high population density and paucity of land would not be able to accommodate the entire refugee population, chief minister Roy started looking for space in other states. Despite the general reluctance of the refugees, a section of them agreed to resettle outside Bengal. Thus, the Dandakaranya project came into being, taking forest land and arid land in contiguous areas of Madhya Pradesh and Orissa.

The saga of the migration of Namasudra lower caste refugees from Dandakaranya to Marichjhapi and their subsequent massacre is one of denial, deprivation and state-sponsored annihilation of Dalits that has few parallels in post independence Indian history. Representative image. Photo: Youtube

Under the direct supervision of the Union government, a good number of refugees were resettled there. Similar initiative resulted in sending another batch of refugees to the Andaman Islands. The families of t least two of my distant relatives were resettled in Dandakaranya and Andaman.

Some of these settlers survived and through strenuous efforts managed to get rid of the ‘refugee’ label. But the general feeling among them was one of having been betrayed. This anger came to the surface first in the Communist Party-led ‘tram fare movement’ of the early 1950s and then during the food movement of the 1960s.

A few years later, when the Naxalbari rebellion broke out under the leadership of a breakaway group of the Communist Party, the youth in those refugee colonies in and around Calcutta, 24 Parganas, Nadia and Hooghly districts took active part in it just to give vent to their anger. Many of them died or were jailed. Though resettled in distant places far away from Bengal’s soil, many refugees yearned for a ‘home coming’ to Bengal.

Their efforts resulted in the infamous ‘Marichjhanpi’ incident of 1979, leaving a permanent scar on the Left’s rule in Bengal.

Also read: Fifty Years After Naxalbari, Popular Movements Still Have Lessons to Learn

It must be noted that refugees grieved for a lost world that they were forced to leave and for that, with effective stoking by Hindu right politics, they mostly blamed Muslims. Despite a strong presence of leftists among them, large sections of refugees carried an anti-Muslim sentiment – gifting a solid vote bank to the Bharatiya Janata Party in the refugee pockets of the bordering districts of West Bengal.

To say that in the initial post-Partition years, refugees or forced migrants had to face a lot of difficulties in both economic and social fronts would be an understatement. Often, original residents of West Bengal were hostile at the prospect of losing land and property to unauthorised occupiers.

With abject poverty came social ostracisation. Consequently, relatively well-off refugees – even those who left camps – were forced to form and live in designated locales.

Several refugees could emerge from penury and climbed up the economic ladder in the days to come.

With the liberation movement in East Pakistan that gave birth to Bangladesh in 1971, the East Bengal Football Club’s victory in the local league for six consecutive years from 1970 to 1975 and the Rajiv Gandhi government regularising a number of ‘unauthorised’ colonies in the 1980s led to some degree of recovery of prestige.

Yet, the wound remains in the collective memory and lives of those who have been left behind.

Rajat Roy is a senior journalist and also a member of the Calcutta Research Group that is engaged in research on refugee and migrant issues.