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Representation of forced migrants: a case study of the east bengali migrants to West Bengal

Représentations des migrants forcés: étude de cas de la migration des migrants du Bengale de l’Est vers le Bengale de l’Ouest
Subhasri Ghosh


Le présent article souhaite aborder l’un des thèmes clés du numéro thématique, celui de la représentation du soi et de l’autre. Ce thème sera étudié sous l’angle de la migration forcée de la population du Bengale de l’Est (le Bangladesh actuel) au Bengale de l’Ouest (Inde), qui fait suite à la division de l’Inde britannique en deux États-nations (Inde, Pakistan) en 1947. Cet événement a déclenché une migration transfrontalière à grande échelle vers les régions du Bengale et du Punjab de l’Inde, alors qu’une marée d’individus déracinés vint fouetter les rives de ces deux États.
Cet article s’intéresse avant tout à l’histoire du Bengale. Il tentera de rendre compte des multiples facettes des représentations des migrants à travers le prisme du soi et de l’autre. Il s’agira de dépeindre les représentations de l’« invité » et de l’« hôte », celles des migrants en provenance de l’autre côté de la frontière et celles des populations locales du Bengale de l’Ouest.
S’inspirant d’informations obtenues à même des documents gouvernementaux, des entrevues orales et des mémoires, cet article focalise son attention sur la façon dont chacun perçoit l’autre et si, plus d’un demi-siècle plus tard, au gré des générations, ces perceptions se transforment.
Les représentations des « Bangals », comme les Bengalis hindous du Pakistan de l’Est sont populairement appelés par les « Gathis » (Bengalis hindous du Bengale de l’Ouest), par les « Gathis » possèdent de multiples facettes : la sympathie relative envers les migrants en lien avec le déracinement qu’ils ont vécu; l’antagonisme généré par le fait qu’ils sont « les fils favoris du gouvernement », singulièrement en ce qui concerne les emplois qui leur sont réservés et l’aide financière qu’ils reçoivent, un antagonisme qui génère le sentiment que des « étrangers compromettent nos droits, qu’ils occupent nos terres et qu’ils nous rendent la vie difficile ».
À l’autre extrémité du spectre, des questions se posent : comment les migrants se percevaient-ils eux-mêmes? Se considéraient-ils comme des victimes injustes des rapports de force politiques? Percevaient-ils le gouvernement comme un patriarche bienveillant et acceptaient-ils l’aide qui leur était offerte sans protester? Percevaient-ils les populations locales comme froides et indifférentes? En d’autres termes, souscrivaient-ils aux représentations que le gouvernement et les populations locales portaient sur eux ou construisaient-ils leur propre identité?
Ce sont là quelques-uns des aspects de la représentation du déplacement forcé des Hindous du Bengale par delà la frontière internationale qui ont été traités dans le cadre de notre article.

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  • 1  I am grateful to the anonymous reviewers of the journal, Dr Indivar Kamtekar of Jawaharlal Nehru U (...)

1The paper1 tries to capture the representations of the forced migrants from erstwhile East Pakistan (present Bangladesh) to Calcutta (the capital city of the Indian state of West Bengal), through the lens of the ‘self’ and the ‘other’, the guest and the host, i.e. the local people of the city and the migrants who crossed over, during the time span of Partition in 1947 to the early 1950s—the period during which Calcutta received the bulk of the migrants. From the mid-1950s onwards, migration to West Bengal, in general thinned out, with occasional bursts for specific reasons, like after the 1964 riot and the 1971 Bangladesh crisis.

2Although technically speaking host community includes government of the recipient country also, I have consciously left out the role of government (both the centre and the state) from the ambit of my study, since government perception of the refugee crisis has already been dealt with in great detail, in the existing literature on Partition and refugee historiography (Chakrabarti, 1999; Chatterji, 2001). But what is lacking in the existing discourse is a systematic study of representation and displacement from the point of view of the locals and the migrants during this span. This paper is an attempt to fill in this lacuna.

3Fleeing from their motherland in the face of impending violence and looking for a safe haven, the East Bengali migrants chose West Bengal because of its physical proximity coupled with the ties of language and religion. Over 72% of the refugees who came over to eastern India, chose West Bengal as their safe haven (State Statistical Bureau, 1951). Did they find a new home? Were the locals sympathetic towards their less-fortunate brethren that would help ease the trauma of uprootment and rebuild their lives? The question assumes significance in light of the fact that in the Punjab sector, which was similarly scarred by the ravages of Partition, animosity and rejection towards the migrants were well-nigh absent as is evident from the oral interviews. Sardar Aridaman Singh Dhillon recounts, “Several community kitchens were organized by the people voluntarily on all the main routes through which refugees were trickling in…actually the response of the people was so spontaneous…everybody pulled resources required for the people…all Sikhs and Hindus of Punjab got together to extend help…the local people provided support to let them settle down” (Talbot, 2006, 42-43). Did a similar sense of camaraderie prevail in the eastern sector too?

4Culling information from a wide array of sources, namely memoirs, oral interviews, government documents, contemporary newspaper and journal reports and novels, the paper will seek to answer these questions by pivoting on how each perceived the other and the degree of convergence and difference between the two during the said period. However, at the outset, I wish to point out that in no way should the findings be treated as absolute. Exceptions did exist no doubt. But I have left these out from the purview of this paper and concentrated on the dominant trend. As a corollary, I have fast-forwarded to analyze the situation at the turn of the twentieth century, especially at a juncture when first-generation migrants are a disappearing lot. Do the second generation migrants, brought up on a staple diet of nostalgic stories, still retain the same feeling as their forefathers? Are the migrants still looked down upon by the locals? Is the Bengali society still striated along East Bengali and West Bengali? The conclusion is drawn on the basis of answers to these questions.

The background

5The Partition of British India, purportedly on religious lines and the creation of two independent nations of India and Pakistan in 1947 resulted in the uprooting and forced migration of thousands of minorities in the Punjab and the Bengal sector in India. While in the former case, there was an exchange of population in the sense that an immigration of 4.9 millions from West Punjab and the adjoining areas in Pakistan, was matched by an outflow of 5.5 million from East Punjab and the adjoining areas in India (“Editorial”, 10 May 1960, 4), in the Bengal case the movement was essentially unidirectional, the tide of migration flowing from the Pakistan province of East Bengal (East Pakistan from 1956 and Bangladesh from 1971) to West Bengal.

6In the wake of the division of Bengal into East Bengal (that fell in Pakistan) and West Bengal (that fell in India), convoys of refugees journeyed across the frontier to West Bengal to begin their 'tryst with destiny'.


Number of Fresh Arrivals


4, 063, 474


4, 090, 555


3, 026, 211


11, 072, 928

7Source: Ministry of Supply and Rehabilitation, Report of the Working Group on the Residual Problem of Rehabilitation in West Bengal

8Between 1947 and 1950—the span within which Calcutta witnessed a spate of influx—the root cause of migration from the east remained the persecution of Hindu minorities by the East Pakistani administration in the form of arbitrary requisition of houses of the minorities, absence of Hindu representatives in the decision-making bodies, a partisan police force, rumors of minority massacres, threats like “Now that Pakistan has been formed, remember that we are no longer your subordinates” (H. Bandyopadhyay, 1970, 14-15) or “whenever we feel, we will hack you to death” (S. Bandyopadhyay, 1994, 15) or persistent anti-Hindu propaganda carried out in the press and the media to incite the masses against the Hindus in East Bengal. They came to be branded as “kafirs”, “fifth-columnists”, “a danger to our state” (Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, 1967, 138). All these created a claustrophobic atmosphere, in which the Hindus found difficult to breathe. Migration at this stage was sparked off more by the “what if…” syndrome since any actual occurrence of violence, namely, abduction, killing, rape and murder were far and few. In fact, Bengal witnessed no large-scale killings immediately after Partition. Rather the riots that preceded Partition, like the Great Calcutta Killing of August 1946 and the Noakhali carnage of October 1946, gradually petered out after the proclamation of Independence. Migration was more in the nature of what Egon F. Kunz identifies as anticipatory flight. Nearly 90% of the Hindu citizens of Dacca city—the capital of East Bengal—by 1949, had migrated to West Bengal in the assumption of impending massacres (S. Guha, no date, 9). Fear psychosis played a major role. Rumors induced people to migrate. Noakhali being still fresh in the minds, rumors of large-scale massacres, led the Hindus to scurry across the border for shelter.

9However, from 1950 onwards, hatred took a gory turn as it came to be manifested in a violent manner, with the merciless slaughter of Hindus, together with forced abduction and marriage of Hindu girls, and destruction of Hindu edifices. The watershed was the February Riot of 1950, which was the first major riot to affect East Bengal after the Partition of 1947. Violence broke out on Friday, 10 February 1950, in Dacca. The epicenter was the Secretariat Building. A meeting was convened in its compound by the Muslim clerics, after the Jumma namaz (Friday prayer). Later, a procession was taken out, which shouting anti-Hindu and anti-Indian slogans, moved along the Nawabpur Road plundering and looting the Hindu shops on the way. In no time the violence spread like wildfire to engulf the districts of Mymensingh, Comilla, Chittagong, Rajshahi, Khulna, Sylhet and Noakhali. Perhaps the worst-affected was the district of Barisal, where the casualty list touched nearly 2,500. Total casualties in the East Bengal riots were estimated in the neighborhood of 10,000 killed (Chattopadhyay, “Notes”, 1950, 346).

10Anticipatory flight, i.e., migration till 1950 came to be undertaken essentially by “those who may be called the middle classes and they generally are from amongst the lawyers, government servants and other such persons” (Constituent Assembly of India, hereafter referred to as CAI, 1099). As per the information supplied by the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission of West Bengal, of the 11,00,000 migrants who had crossed over by June 1948, 3,50,000 belonged to the urban middle classes, 5,50,000 to the rural middle classes, and a little over 1,00,000 were agriculturists and a little less than 1,00,000 artisans (Amrita Bazar Patrika, 1948). 48.2% of the total number of migrants of all ages was literate, who preferred migrating to Calcutta and the adjoining areas because of the urban influence of the metropolis, which could offer opportunities in terms of employment (State Statistical Bureau, 1951, 4). The Census of 1951 shows that 27% of Calcutta’s inhabitants were born in East Bengal, while another 17% were settled as ‘displaced’ in the city (Mitra, 1953, VII).

11In order to comprehend the nuances of the relationship between these two sets of Bengalis—East Bengalis or Bangals and West Bengalis or Ghatis—it is necessary to rewind to the pre-Partition days. Although emerging as separate political entities only after 1947, the concept of East Bengal and West Bengal has existed in the common Bengali psyche for centuries preceding the pre-Partition days. The river Ganges is looked upon as the great divider. Bengalis usually look upon themselves as hailing from ‘this side’ or ‘that side’ of the river. The relationship between the Bengali-speaking Hindu population of the eastern part of Bengal and that of the western wing has been guided by this notion of the ‘self’ and the ‘other’ right from the eighth century, where the ‘other’ is always viewed through the looking–glass of ‘self’ and its virtues are extolled, often exaggerated, to lend an aura of superiority. But why this distinction? Are not the bonds of race, language and religion strong enough to iron out such apparently ‘trivial’ differences? It is true that given the ties of kinship, cultural values and community behavior, the notion seems somewhat ambivalent to an outsider. But if one cares to lift this veneer of unity and take a closer look, the reality is that, behind this facade of apparent oneness, can be located some fundamental differences in food habits, customs, rituals and above all dialect, which set apart the ‘self’ from the ‘other’. The feeling of east and west, of them and us was very much a part of life in undivided Bengal.

  • 2  Bangals are so dull that even elementary things are beyond their grasp.

12Middle-class East Bengali Hindus had made Calcutta their temporary abode from the second-half of the nineteenth century, because of the opportunities the city offered in terms of education and employment. The locals disdained these temporary migrants, who remained the butt of ridicule of the Ghatis. R.N. Sen reminiscences that boys studying in Calcutta at the beginning of the twentieth century heard the jingle – “Bangals are not human beings/they jump onto trees/although they have no tails” (Sen, 1981, 4). The Bangals were looked down upon as uncultured, rustic country bumpkins unfit to be a part of the ‘urbane’ society of Calcutta. Everything associated with them—their dialect, their custom—were looked down upon and joked about. One popular rhyme among the Ghatis, was (Dey, 1945, 97):2

  • Du char lathi parle ghare, tabe

  • Bangal bujhte pare

  • 3  Just as a washerman can easily identify a pauper by a look at his clothes, a goldsmith knows who i (...)

13Another one goes like this (Dey, 1945, 49):3

  • Dhopa jaane konjon kangal,

  • Shekra jaane konjon Bangal

14It is in this context that the relationship between East Bengalis, who were uprooted from their ancestral homes and swarmed across the border in post-1947 to crowd Calcutta, and the local people, should be studied. It is expected that “with a common background of Bengali tradition, a pervasive Hindu religion, ties of common national kinship, similar systems and cultural values and familiar pattern for community behavior, the displaced concerned should not have any formidable hindrance to resolve problem of accommodation and assimilation” (Pakrasi, 1971, 133). But was that the ground reality? Did the divide between Bangals and Ghatis inherent in Bengali society from the pre-Partition days, widen or begin to diminish in the context of the catastrophe that threw open the floodgates of migration? Did the Ghatis come forward to apply salve to heal the raw wounds of forced migration?

The local disdain

15The general perceptions of the Calcutta locals in the early 1950s, was that the Bangal refugees were a tremendous economic liability and that their rehabilitation would make enormous demands upon the meager economic resources of the nascent province of West Bengal and jeopardize its prosperity and future development.

16Partition had reduced West Bengal to one-third of its previous size or 36.4% of the area of the parent province, and at the same time saddled it with a huge population (West Bengal Legislative Assembly, hereafter referred to as WBLA, 18). The average density of the city of Calcutta (area 32.33 square miles) was around 88,953 persons per square mile (A. Mitra, 1953, VII) – a whopping increase from 751.2 persons per square mile in undivided Bengal (CAI, 1738). The food grain situation presented a pathetic picture. In 1949, production of rice, the staple diet of the Bengalis, was estimated at 3.2 million tons as against the required 3.6 million tons. The West Bengal premier Dr. B.C. Roy declared that West Bengal had a food deficit of 2 million tons of rice and cereals (Amrita Bazar Patrika, 1949). In fact the state was suffering from a deficit in the production of different food crops, vegetables and other essential food items :


Deficit (in tons)









Fish and Meat



7.5 crores

Ghee, Butter, Mustard Oil


17Source: Prabashi: Part I, Vol.2, Calcutta, May 1951, p.250.

18In revenue sphere, Partition dealt a severe blow as a huge proportion of the proceeds of the jute-duty and income tax dried up. In March 1948, the central government informed West Bengal, that the share of the income tax receipts has been reduced from 20% to 12% or in other words, Rs.6 crores worth share was cut down to Rs.3.5 crores, the remaining 2.5 crores being distributed to other provinces (Chakrabarty, 1998, 141). The Government of undivided Bengal had a succession of mainly deficit budgets during the few years before Partition:


Surplus (+) or Deficit (–)

In Rs.'000















19* Figures relate to pre-Partition period.

20Source:Statistical Abstract of Indian Union, 1950, New Delhi, 1951.

21On the date of Partition, leaving aside the cash in treasury chests, the account of the late Government of Bengal with Reserve Bank of India showed a debit balance of over Rs 5 crores. This debit balance by mutual agreement was allocated in equal proportions to East and West Bengal. Accordingly, the Government of West Bengal started with a debit balance of Rs 2.5 crores in the Reserve Bank partly counterbalanced by the cash balance in treasuries amounting to about half a crore. In other words, it started with a net negative balance of Rs 2 crores (WBLA, 1948, 22). This was followed by a majority of deficit budgets in the next ten years:


Surplus (+) or Deficit (–)

(in Rs. '000)





















22Source:Statistical Abstract of Indian Union (1962), New Delhi, 1963.

23The growing influence of the Marwaris further exacerbated the antagonistic feeling towards the post-Partition refugees. Essentially migrant traders from Eastern Rajasthan, the Marwaris, started migrating to Calcutta in the mid-nineteenth century and gradually over the years carved a niche by gathering considerable wealth through banking, money lending, and as traders, brokers, and speculators in commodities like jute and cotton. As Anne Hardgrove shows, the Marwaris steadily gained ground in the commercial scenario in Calcutta, pushing the Bengali traders out of competition. Understandably, the ‘outsiders’ did not find much favor with the Bengalis. Hardgrove quotes extensively from the autobiography of noted Bengali chemist Prafulla Chandra Ray to show how the Bengali dislike for the community came to be reflected in phrases like ‘mere parasites.’ They were chided for siphoning off money from Bengal and investing the capital in their native villages, thereby draining off Bengal (Hardgrove, 2005, 25). Thus already cornered in the economic field by the Marwaris and with the financial position of the state in a precarious position, the host population increasingly nursed the view that ‘generous’ relief and compensation on the part of the official agencies as part of the rehabilitation package would act as a magnet in attracting more refugees from across the border. For them the simple equation was that more the amount of relief measures, more will be the number of refugees. A vicious circle would thus be created from which the state would find it hard to disentangle itself. The local population questioned – why should we sympathize with them when they themselves show no affinity to West Bengal, consciously and constantly harking back to their ‘glorious past’? That the pre-Partition contempt continued is evident when one goes through the writings in some leading contemporary Bengali journals of the time, published from Calcutta.

24Appearing in the one of the widely read Bengali journals of the period, a highly provocative article offers a glimpse of the mentality of the West Bengalis (Sharma, 1950, 462-465). Writing nearly three years after the catastrophe, it is interesting to note that he still refers to the refugees as Atithi or guests who as per the norms of a guest-host relationship, should be forever grateful to the locals for providing them with refuge and shelter. A one way flow of goods and services should be matched by a reverse show of obligations. But the author laments that such courtesies were seldom shown by the rustic East Bengali country bumpkins, whose behavior often bordered on rudeness.

25The author then goes on to unleash a tirade against the government. He ridicules the government for dissipating its precious time and money in refugee rehabilitation, at the cost of the welfare of the local residents. Their province being taken over by the outsiders, they have been elbowed to the background. He felt that the outsiders with the blessings of the government had besieged the province, while the West Bengalis were being reduced to non-entities.

26Through this article, the author urged the locals to agitate against this one-eyed policy of the government. Sri Vishnu Sharma asked the West Bengalis to shed their image as the epitome of tolerance. Instead of welcoming all and sundry with open arms or remaining mute spectators to the heinous plan of their province being bartered away to the Bangal barbarians they should act decisively. Drawing their attention to the charged situation in Assam where the atmosphere was rife with anti-Bengali agitation Sri Vishnu Sharma egged on the Ghatis to behave similarly. If they wanted to ensure a secured future for posterity, it is high time that they take suitable action to thwart the plan of gifting West Bengal to the Bangals. The bottom line of the whole essay is West Bengal for the West Bengalis, and they are not willing to give an inch without a fight.

27In the same issue, the editor urged the minority Hindus to cling to their bhita at all cost (K. Chattopadhyay, ,September-October 1950, 98). He accused the migrants of being cowards and not showing enough courage to face the challenge. Come what may, he wrote, migration was not a solution to the problem and instead of fleeing the scene of battle they should stay put and fight it out. The editorial criticized the Hindus, on the other side, as escapists, ready to flee at the ‘slightest pretext’ (98).

28It is ironical that the article was written in 1950 at a time when the worst communal riot in the post-Partition era, had scarred East Bengal a few months back and the embers were still smoldering. Coming at this juncture, to a hapless migrant, the article reeks of nothing but contempt and derision.

29Another instigating article appearing in the Bhadra (September-October) edition of the same year reminded the natives that ‘three years of freedom’ had brought no good to the real children of West Bengal (K. Chattopadhyay, September-October 1950, 385). Independence was a bane instead of a boon since it had resulted in the pauperization and impoverishment of the locals ‘pushing them towards disaster and complete annihilation’ (K. Chattopadhyay, September-October 1950, 385). Instead of showing humane feelings towards the victims, the time was ripe for some soul-searching and introspection by the West Bengalis, so as to take stock of their own miseries and seek redress of what they felt were just grievances.

30Another essay, published in 1950 in another widely-read Bengali journal of the period Mashik Basumati, harshly condemned the government policy of giving preference to refugee youths in matters relating to promotion and employment, often flouting the established set of rules (H. Chattopadhyay, July-August 1950, 436). In a bid to help the migrants acquire a firm foothold, schemes were launched by the Regional Directorate of Resettlement and Employment, namely, providing technical and vocational training, grant of loans for business and industry, provision of business premises, procurement of special quotas for certain essential commodities, preference to displaced persons in government jobs. Factory employers were encouraged to select refugee candidates for apprenticeship and stipends of Rs 30 per month were given to these apprentices during the period of training (Ministry of Rehabilitation, 1961, 4). The Director of Health Services to the Government of West Bengal appointed 100 refugee doctors to the post of Rural Medical Officers of Health on Rs 150 as pay and Rs 40 as dearness allowance per month (One Who Knows, 1949, 8). In the light of such measures the article moaned: “the local youths are a neglected lot” (436). The government did not bother to spare a thought for them. If this continued for long, the article warned, a showdown could not be ruled out in the near future.

31Examples can also be gleaned from Bengali novels, depicting that tumultuous period. These are full of instances that portray the lackadaisical attitude often bordering on hatred. Take for instance persons like Sibaprasad Gupta, one of the central characters of Bimal Mitra’s novel, Ekak Dashak, Shatak (Year, Decade, Century). Maintaining an outward facade of sympathy, they cashed in on human misery to amass huge fortune. To them the refugees were not human beings but the golden egg-laying hen to be killed at the end of the day out of greed for more profit. As per the author’s portrayal, to such people, everything came with a price tag. Even human misery. But alas! The price was too low to demand any attention. With land prices sky rocketing to an abnormal high in the post-Partition years, since living space was the main crunch (land worth Rs 50 per acre were being sold for Rs.500/- per acre), these hawk-eyed land-hungry gluttons without a hint of regret, without a tinge of remorse, under the cover of darkness, razed down the makeshift tenements of the refugees—perhaps the only roof over their head—for selling the empty plots at exorbitant prices.

32Manoj Basu’s Setubandha (The Bridge) deals with the behavior of the host community towards the refugees. As per his portrayal, the ordinary people in West Bengal were quite unaware of the problems of Partition and that of the people who were uprooted from their homes. They remained engrossed with the nitty-gritty of their own lives. Some like the local youths remained absorbed in their frivolous life-style whiling away precious time in meaningless talks, standing in queues for cinema tickets, eve-teasing, in other words not caring a bit for the world around them. The bridge between the east and the west thus remained elusive.

33Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay's Madhab O Taar Pariparshik (Madhab and His Surroundings, 1987) too portrays this indifferent attitude. Arriving penniless on this side with his good-for-nothing father and epileptic aunt, the young refugee boy Madhab, who had come to ask for some help, was driven out from the local landlord's house because of his refugee identity. Leave aside the residents—even the servants of the house had the audacity to call him an outcaste; not fit to cross the threshold of the house and violate its sanctity. The courtyard, where Madhab had stepped in, was thoroughly washed after his departure, since he had desecrated the place through his presence, and it needed to be purified.

  • 4  Refugees who came after July 1952 and were admitted to government-run relief camps, with the excep (...)

34In fact government attempt at rehabilitating the refugees often faltered at the altar of local hostility. Under the work-site camp scheme, low land reclamation projects in Sonarpur-Arpanch and Bagjola in Twenty Four Parganas were undertaken, with the help of the refugees themselves who put in back-breaking toil in the hope of a patch of land.4 Nearly 20,000 acres were reclaimed in the Sonarpur-Arpanch scheme and 10,000 acres under the Bagjola scheme (Bandyopadhyay, H., 1970, 243). However in both instances, they were not destined to enjoy the fruits of their labour.

35In case of the Sonarpur-Arpanch scheme nearly forty-eight camp families each, were allotted six acres of land (“Rajarhat Thana Elakai Janata, Udbastu ebong Police-r Madhhye Khandayudhha”, 1). But the local landless peasants could not reconcile to the fact that these ‘outsiders’ would be allotted land in their home turf, while they would be left in the lurch. Thus trouble ensued and the ‘outsiders’ were summarily evicted from their possessions. The refugees, therefore, were once again back to square one. Government responsibility ended once the refugees had been ‘rehabilitated’ on paper, with the allocation of land while in reality, rehabilitation still eluded them.

  • 5  One acre is equivalent to three bighas.

36The story of the Bagjola scheme is a photo copy of the Sonarpur-Arpanch scheme. Nearly 1500 families were made to toil, under the aegis of the reclamation process and it was hoped that 38,000 acres of new land would be available at the disposal of the government (WBLA, 1954, 342). But local hostility prevented the successful completion of the project. About 1200 acres of land was reclaimed for rehabilitation purpose (Ibid). Even title deeds or arpanpatras were presented to nearly 100 families each of whom were given six bighas (“Rajarhat Thana Elakai Janata, Udbastu ebong Police-r Madhhye Khandayudhha”, 1).5 But strong objections by the locals shattered their long-cherished dream of settling down. The locals went to the extent of filing a petition in the High Court, which issued a decree in their favor. The government was left with no other option but to abandon the project.

37The picture that emerges from the foregoing paragraphs is one of ungenerous reception accorded to the refugees. To many, the painful decision of separation from their ancestral home to some extent may have been erased by the belief of finding a safe sanctuary in West Bengal, far from the persecution of the Muslims, from the tension of living in perpetual fear, “when a tap on the door could mean death or for women, rape” (Guhathakurta, 1999). But unfortunately such hopes were belied.

The refugee psyche

  • 6  Saibal Kumar Gupta, ICS, posted as the District and Session Judge in Chittagong (East Bengal) deci (...)
  • 7  Asoka Gupta Archives, File No.3, Report on Deposition before the Commissioner of Enquiry.

38If we veer to the other end of the spectrum, to the self-representation of the refugees we find a mirror-image of the representation of the locals. Though for some, migration was a matter of conscious choice like those in the government service who were given an option by the government to take equivalent work on the other side,6 for most, the decision to migrate was taken at the behest of Muslim ire. Like one erstwhile resident of Barisal whose family had to take the painful decision when the local Muslims set fire to their haystack—a signal that this is just the beginning and that the worst was yet to come, or a leading lawyer of Barisal, who along with his family left their homeland for good, in the clothes they were wearing, because he heard one afternoon that his arrest was imminent due to his association with the local Hindu Mahasabha (Report on Deposition).7

39Arriving on this side of the border, whether penniless or with moveable resources, the general reaction of the migrants at the initial stage was one of shock and disbelief—they could hardly come to terms with the fact that they could be cut adrift from their natal setup, that their desh (homeland) has become bidesh (foreign land). East Bengalis always had ‘earned’ the distinction of being home-birds. Even during the pre-Partition days, when they had the freedom to shuttle to and fro, they could never adjust to the rubric of urban living. It is the vision of an otherwise insignificant tiny hamlet with a small rivulet flowing by, the sound of the blowing of conch-shells in the evening, the lilting tunes of the agomoni song, the endless vista of golden harvests, that sustained the East Bengalis amidst the humdrums and the drudgeries of city life. A typical recollection (Basu, 13-14):

Every night before going off to sleep, I strike out the date in the calendar and count the days when I will start off for home. One of my classmates once sarcastically asked me—'why do you always run off to the village during the holidays? What attracts you to the village life? What is there – except mosquitoes, malaria, jungles, nothing but a monotonous life?' How can I make them understand the charms of a village life? How can I make them understand the joy, the pleasure that one can derive by plunging into the waters of the Ichhamati, by inhaling the scent of 'siuli' during the festive season in autumn? How can I make those, who have not seen our village resplendent with the first ray of the sun, understand what is there in my village? The moment I step onto the banks and touch the ground, my whole body starts shivering with excitement. At least, I will be able to spend a few days in peace and tranquillity away from the mechanical city life.

40When temporary separation evoked such strong feeling, it is understandable that many would be in denial that the snapping of ties would be permanent. Snehalata Biswas of Tangramari village in undivided Nadia took several years to understand that they would never return. In her words, “My husband assured me that we would return after sometime. I therefore buried all the utensils in our courtyard. But we never went back” (S. Bandyopadhyay, 1994, 65).

41Benumbed with grief, the metropolis of Calcutta and its surroundings seemed to them a hostile city whose heart had turned to stone. The migrants, craved for sympathy—warm and full blooded—from their fellow brethren which they felt were sorely lacking. The sentiment finds echo in the narration of one erstwhile resident of Chittagong. To put it in her words, “We felt like aquatic weeds floating from one place to another. People here were oblivious of our hardships, our sufferings and consequently devoid of any fellow feelings, love and compassion” (Interview 2000). Ashim Ranjan Guha of Barisal believed that such indifference stemmed from the local's fear that the more energetic Bangals would leave them far behind in every sphere of life and make life difficult for their coming generations. At that point the refugees, he felt, were perceived more as competitors than fellow brethren desperately in need of their healing touch (Interview 2000). The locals, as Prafulla Chakrabarti (himself a refugee) points out in his seminal work on government perception and refugee rehabilitation, thus chose to ensconce themselves in a shell of cultural 'superiority'. This exclusiveness was the defense mechanism of the traditional West Bengali society against the inroads of the “uninhibited children of the Padma” (Chakrabarti, 1999, 406).

42The migrants accused the locals of failing to understand the refugee mind, ‘a tormented psyche’, which needed attention and care. A child is attached to his mother through the umbilical chord, which provides all the necessary nourishment. But even after the umbilical chord is severed the sense of belonging of closeness, of warmth, of exuberance never dies. So it is but natural that the forbidden shores of the Padma would exercise a ‘cruel’ charm upon them (perhaps they still do). As Edward Said has pointed out, “once you leave your home, wherever you end up, you simply cannot take up life and become just another citizen of the new place” (Said, 1996, 61-62). For that you need time. How can you forget your own mother and overnight start calling somebody else as your mother? Thus it is but natural that the people from East Bengal would carry “their ‘homes’ on their back.” (Roy, 2000, 182).

43East Bengal, to them, was “not merely a physical structure or a geographical location but always an emotional space…” (Rubenstein, 2001, 1). That, “… homeland is the landscape…of historical memory that offers tangible images of rootedness…” (Waetjen, 1999, 654) is best portrayed in the writings of the refugees themselves, as in Chhere Asha Gram (The Abandoned Village)—a collection of nostalgic writings of the inhabitants of the different villages of East Bengal, overnight whose status in the eyes of their Muslims co-habitants changed from friends to foes of the country of their birth. It was perhaps a cathartic attempt by the marginal men to find solace in their sufferings by giving an outlet to their pent-up feelings and emotions as also “creating a positive emotional response in the city” (D. Chakarabarty, 1998, 134). The particular words that echo through all the writings are abohelito (ignored), and abanchhito (unwanted). Not that these words appear specifically in print in all the essays, but when one goes through these, the feeling of isolation, of alienation can be easily detected.

44A refugee from the Sabhar area of Dacca district compared himself to a fallen star. Another unfortunate soul from Dhamrai lamented that by a strange twist of fate the Bangals—the connoisseurs of good food—who took great pleasure in throwing lavish feasts, were themselves knocking from door to door with their begging bowls to gather two square meals a day.

45A few selected lines from their writings will offer a better insight (Basu, 69-73, my translation):

Being a sharanarthi’ (one seeking ‘sharan’ or refuge), I spend my days in one corner of the city. When I first arrived in Calcutta, the great city turned its face away from me and tried to push me away from its angina (precincts). My wants are limited to a few bare necessities… All I crave for is a roof above my head and a decent livelihood that would allow me to live like a human being and not as a parasite…. But the cruel city has rejected me time and again.… Lost amidst the teeming millions of the great city nobody spares a minute for me to inquire – ‘Yes dear, how are you? After all, I am not a native of Calcutta, I am a sharanarthi, an udbastu (refugee).
Pleasure, security, peace, love and affection have also left the land with us. On all four sides exist the filthy picture of mean intrigues.
Only a true human being (perhaps taking a dig at the people of West Bengal) can appreciate the miseries of an udbastu (refugee).
Leaving my prosperous village homeland, I now spend my nights on pavements of Calcutta in abject poverty roaming from door to door with my infant son begging for food.
There is hardly a soul in independent India who sympathise with us – the victims of political power game.

46They spent a lot of time regretting what they had lost, envying those around them “who had always been at home near their loved ones, living in the place where they were born and grew up without even having to experience not only the loss of what was once theirs but above all the torturing memory of life to which they cannot return” (Said, 1996, 62). They remained prisoners of the memories of their homeland—the Padma, Meghna and Arialkha, the beauty of nature, the relaxed village life, the atmosphere of peace, tranquility and camaraderie, i.e., an idyllic life torn to pieces by the tornado called Partition.

47Perhaps, it is this life that the migrants sought to recreate once they moved across the border. In this context one is reminded of Satish Ghosh—the protagonist in Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay’s novel Jaal (The Web, 1985)—who tried to replicate the ambience of his desher bari (village home) within the three and a half bighas of land that he could manage to buy in the outskirts of Calcutta. Surrounded by mango, jackfruit and betel nut trees, Satish Ghosh sought, through his dedication and through his hard work, to transplant the environment of a small village home, tucked away in one corner of the Dacca district.

48It was perhaps the squatters, who by far had the bitterest experience in terms of mixing and mingling, since they came in direct conflict with the local people. Squatters are those migrants, who dissatisfied at the government’s piecemeal efforts at rehabilitation decided to take initiatives at self-rehabilitation, which included forcible seizure of lands for settlements. Thus originated the squatters’ colonies, which were basically unplanned colonies whereby the refugees infringed upon and occupied the marshy and fallow lands in the outskirts of Calcutta. The majority of these cropped up between the end of 1949 and the first half of 1950. The foundation of the squatters’ colonies resulted in a severe law and order problem as it signaled the beginning of a prolonged struggle between the two communities—one who never paid the cost of crossing and the other for whom the cost was perhaps too heavy. In their urgent need to have a roof, above their head, the squatters forcibly seized lands at dead of night. Individual plots were marked off and shacks erected. The landlords, absentee in most cases, hired local goons to evict them.

49One can take the example of the Azadgarh colony, located in the Jadavpur area of south Calcutta as a case-study. Indubaran Ganguly, one of the founding fathers of the colony pens a day to day account of its inception in his memoir – Colony Smriti (Ganguly, Memories of Colony-Life, 1997).

  • 8  One cottah is equivalent to 720 square feet.

50A very interesting feature of the Azadgarh Colony is that instead of selecting the dead of night, it was in broad daylight—around nine or ten a.m. that the division of plots began. The day: 17 January 1950. Only those East Bengali refugees, who possessed no land anywhere in West Bengal, were eligible for a plot in the colony, for which they had to pay Rs. ten. The size of a holding was roughly around three cottahs.8 By afternoon, division was complete and many of the plot holders started construction work.

51The original owner of the plots Debiprasad Chattopadhyay did not sit quiet as his land was being illegally encroached upon. He arrived at the site with two armed bodyguards in tow at about four a.m. on 25 January and started his demolition drive in ward no. three of the colony. But in face of stubborn resistance from the colony dwellers, he had to beat a hasty retreat.

52The colony people, too, viewed the locals with suspicion. B.S. Guha’s study, carried out on behalf of the Department of Anthropology, Government of India in the Azadgarh colony, shows that in their time of distress these unfortunate souls hardly received any sympathy from the local people. The survey reveals, that 30.8% of the males of the Azadgarh colony were tensional, i.e. showed an unfavorable attitude towards the locals while in case of the females the number was nearly double, the percentage being 60.4 (B.S. Guha, 1954, 83). Among the females, 72% of the higher castes were hostile to the locals (B.S. Guha, 1954, 83). Responses of the women reveal that the attitude towards local people had a gender dimension. The manners and behaviors of the local people towards women were highly provocative, as it seemed from their responses. This genderization of attitude may be due to the fact that women, who usually stay at home and carry on the day to day chores, came in contact with the non-refugee neighbors to a greater extent than their male counterparts who ventured out of the colony for employment.

53Another survey by Dipankar Sinha conducted amongst the refugees of the Samargarh Colony and Batwara Biddhasta Upanibesh—both squatters’ colonies on the southern fringes of Calcutta—shows that the residents of these two settlements were treated as ‘outsiders par excellence’ by the non-refugee neighbors of their respective localities, the relation being ‘less that cordial’ and bereft of any explicit manifestation of ‘sympathy wave’ (Sinha, 2000, pp. 142-161).

54Gargi Chakravartty, growing up in the area adjacent to the colony in the early 1950s, recalls that irrespective of whether a migrant after 1947 or living for two generations in Calcutta, East Bengalis all and sundry were denounced as ‘refugees’ where the alphabet ‘g’ was deliberately pronounced as ‘z’, in mockery of the East Bengali dialect (Interview 2000). Nripendranath Acharya of Bapujinagar colony in Jadavpur in south Calcutta, recalls that even after government recognition of their colony, the neighbors prohibited the use of the nearby pond – the lone source of water (Ganashakti, 2000).

55Manas Roy, in his autobiographical article, where he narrates his experience of growing up in Netaji Nagar—a squatter’s colony in south Calcutta—rightly sums up that just as Calcutta decontextualized them, they also decontextualized Calcutta (Roy, 2000, 162-199). As he points out, “Harmony, haphazardness, curves, bends, the dialects, the proverbs, stories of our roots: all this gave the place its nativity a structure of feeling—and we were serenely mirthfully cocooned in it” (Roy, 2000, 182). Through memory they sought to preserve their distinctiveness, their identity, their “place in the world, from a Calcutta eternally trespassing, eternally kept in abeyance” (Roy, 2000, 182).

56But, at one level Calcutta exercised its charm on them also: “perhaps a bit of desire for them as well” (Ibid). They thus led a dual existence where one part of their being yearned to be a part of the present social fabric while the other part put a check on that desire by constantly engulfing them in the nostalgia of their bhitamati (home and hearth). Manas Roy exemplifies this through the portrayal of Naru’s father, who goes to work in the city—“Calcutta to him must have been like a magic lantern show from which he returned to the magic of his restored bhita in the evening, seemingly unscathed” (Roy, 2000, 183). Two conflicting desires—to adapt to the new environment and at the same time retain the memory of the previous life as sacrosanct—characterized the duality of the situation. Caught in the web of this inner struggle, the colony-people remained ensconced within themselves.

57Thus, at one level, the perceptions of the refugees and the migrants converge. The locals treated the refugees as outsiders, who themselves looked towards the other side of the river as their home. The two groups remained more or less cocooned in their own worlds—each was unwilling to make concessions for the other and when their paths crossed on occasions, showdown, verbal and at times physical, was inevitable.

“My home on the other side”

58Assimilation and integration at this stage thus proved elusive. Assimilation is a complex phenomenon with several ramifications: social, economic, psychological. These are intertwined at one level, as one leads to the other, but this should not be taken as a general rule, as at another level, they retain their distinction. The migrants, struggling to find a foothold in their new set-up, found it well-nigh impossible to treat West Bengal as their home due to the step-motherly treatment meted out to them both by the locals as has been delineated in the foregoing paragraphs as also by the government. Joya Chatterji shows how the politicians in power preferred to turn a blind eye to the escalating crisis. While the West Bengal premier looked at the refugees from ‘the prism of politics’ and considered them as ‘canon fodders’ planted by the opposition to topple his ministry, the Indian Prime Minister refused to acknowledge the gravity of the situation in East Bengal which forced people to flee their homes in hordes. A realistic appraisal of the situation being absent, no concrete rehabilitation policy could take-off during the phase under study. That the stress was mainly on ad hoc assistance, rather than rehabilitation, is evident from the following table:


Relief (in Rs.)

Rehabilitation (in Rs.)













59Source: Government of West Bengal, Five Years of Independence, August 1947-August 1952, Calcutta, 1953.

60While in Punjab government efforts at rehabilitation being swift and prompt, West Bengal languished from neglect. Given the governments’ dithering on the crisis, a feeling of being betrayed and cheated by the government and the people alike was rife among the refugees.

61Down the years has the scenario changed in terms of lessening of the pain of separation? If one zooms into present times, can one detect any difference in the refugee psyche? Has the first generation migrants been able to come to terms with their ‘loss’ and move on? Do they still yearn for their lost homeland? Is still East Bengal their home? I present here first-person narratives of two refugee gentlemen.

Case-Study I (Interview 2000):
I hail from Parashkathi village in Barisal district. As a government servant, I exercised my option to obtain a posting on this side. But even after fifty-four years, I feel ‘bastuhara’ (homeless). My house here is nothing more than a shelter of brick and cement. Our home in Parashkathi was surrounded by gardens and orchards on all four sides, a pond full of fish, huge courtyard. Home, to me, cannot be short of anything than this. Compared to what I have lost, I have gained nothing. Even today, I long to go back and settle down in Parashkathi.
Case-Study II(Interview 2000):
My home town was located on the banks of the Padma in Faridpur. I came over in 1952. I consider myself bastuhara because I still cannot reconcile to the fact that my homeland has become a foreign country by virtue of one line drawn on the map. My eyes moisten when I think that I will never again walk along the banks of the Padma, will never have the opportunity to plunge into its waters. When I came over I expected a similar ambience here, but unfortunately instead of the Padma, I discovered a concrete jungle. My loss is irreparable. With the loss of my motherland, I have lost a part of my own self forever. I do not crave to return to Bangladesh, but still I long to catch up with my old friends and ruminate about those golden years.

62They live and relive this loss day after day. For them the pain and the scar are perhaps as raw as it was in 1947. Their mental make-up has not allowed their psychological assimilation—materially they might be well-off compared to many others who had come to this side. But their material stability has not helped in easing the trauma of the loss. In case of the Punjabi migrants, though memories still hark back to the pre-Partition days, the pining and the near-obsession for a lost homeland has somewhat watered down. Dr. Harcharan Singh, while speaking of his erstwhile home and the emotions and memories attached to it, categorically states, “If today someone offers me all the property left behind in Pakistan, I still would not go back…whatever has happened has become the past” (Talbot, 2006, 100). But the majority of the East Bengalis are still hopelessly trapped in the cage of nostalgia.

63Arthur G. Nikelly sees nostalgia as a function of abrupt changes in the social structure (June 1994, 182-199). In case of the migrant Hindus, structural changes in the family system—the basic unit of the social structure—compounded the trauma of forced migration and compelled them to ruminate those happy days of living amidst kith and kin under one roof. As I have pointed out earlier, people of the East had for long made Calcutta their temporary home. Hence many migrant families were blessed with contact on this side—albeit a remote one. Those who were lucky enough to take advantages of such connections usually sent their adolescent girls and children to the other side. The menfolk and representatives of the older generation clung, hoping against hope that things will revert to normal, that the good old days will be back again and that they will be able to die in peace in their own bhita (ancestral home). Like Anima Dhar, who along with her younger brother came over to Calcutta and found shelter in their uncle’s house. Her mother stayed back along with other relatives in Chittagong. It was only in 1986 that her mother finally came over to settle down on this side.

  • 9 ‘Screening’ refers to the procedure by which the refugees, on arrival at the border, were questione (...)

64Together with such partial migration, death and government screening contributed no less to the dislocation of family structure during this abnormal and calamitous situation.9 The upshot was an ‘immediate familiar disorganization’ in the aftermath of the Partition days (Pakrasi, 1971, 66). The system of extended or joint family—the bedrock of the East Bengali Hindu family structure—was the most significant casualty. On the basis of a study carried out by the Indian Statistical Institute in 1948 among 16,156 refugee families, it can be shown that wherever in the East Bengal areas of undivided Bengal on the eve of Partition, joint family structure with or without complex elements constituted nearly 53% of the then existing family set-up, the refugees migrating from East Bengal showed such an extended family structure with or without complex constituents in only 45.6% cases (Pakrasi, 1965, 15). That the displaced persons suffered unavoidable disintegration in their joint families due to their dislocations from regular residence in East Bengal is further attested by the rise in the percentage of elementary or simple families: 30.03% to 34.36% (Pakrasi, 1965, 15). Huddled in dingy shanties or in government relief camps and subsisting on paltry government doles, it was, for all practical purposes, becoming increasingly impossible for the emaciated Hindu patriarch to keep his extended family of kith and kin under one roof. Under the pressure of circumstances, the plinth of the joint-family system was badly shaken, forcing its erstwhile members to hark back to those days, when families could boast of entire localities being populated with relatives and acquaintances.

65Partition tearing asunder the root of the age-old practiced norm of the family system in East Bengal, it has been argued, freed many middle-class East Bengali women from the shackles of patriarchal bondage and opened the doors of opportunity. Over 18,200 women applicants were registered in the Government-managed Employment Service Organisation in Calcutta in 1948 (“Serious Unemployment in India”, 7 February 1949, 1). Women successfully made forays into the male bastion. To quote Jasodhara Bagchi, “Calcutta was no longer a city of male elites in which women also ran (43).” She sees from 1947 an unprecedented acceleration of the earlier trends and attempts at women's emancipation.

66But such emancipation had its flip side also. Karuna Chanana opines that the ideological framework which emphasizes virginity, parda, early marriage and dowry, son-preference, etc. and tended to keep women within the home did not undergo much change even when they went out apparently encouraged by the families. The traditional ‘feminine role model’ of a daughter, wife and mother persisted. Education, she feels, was viewed as an investment for future utility, not to develop their self worth or for independent training as to break out of the patriarchal mould. So long accustomed to being at the receiving end, a working woman was still rooted to the same status. ‘Emancipation’ did not change her fate; her destiny. She still acted as a shock-absorber, sheltering and protecting her family against all odds.

67The transformation from home to the workplace in fact heightened the exploitation. She was doubly exploited: in the home as well as in the workplace (in case of the latter exploitation often amounted to sexual harassment, although maybe in an indirect manner). Most of these women, married or unmarried, sacrificed their own pleasures for the sake of their families, often going without food to feed the hungry mouths at home and spending all their earnings to buy happiness for their families. Hence for such working women, East Bengal symbolized the ‘ideal life’, where confinement within the four walls, performing the matronly duties was equated with happiness. The blurring of the private sphere and the public sphere, in the post-partition days, for most of these women did not allow any breathing space, in fact constricted their space by overburdening them with responsibilities both at the home and at the workplace.

68Hena Chaudhuri, who worked for the Relief and Rehabilitation (RR) Department, Government of West Bengal, emphatically points out: “I am still steeped in the nostalgia of my motherland.” Whereas back in East Bengal, her life revolved around playing in the open fields, going to school and study, life took a u-turn after Partition when the family was ripped apart, with her mother staying back at the village and her father and siblings migrating to West Bengal. From then onwards, she led a peripatetic existence, moving from one refugee camp to another, then from one relatives’ house to another, leading a hand-to-mouth existence. Financial constraints, not known to the family back in East Bengal, now glared at them. Although she found a job in the RR Department, which eventually helped her to balance the family boat, she could not get over the trauma of severance form her natal set-up. When the interview was taken, fifty-one years have elapsed after her migration, but the desire to go back has not waned a bit. Images of village life still haunt her, make her heart heavy, and urge her to seek refuge in the lap of her ‘motherland’: East Bengal.

69One retired first-generation migrant gentleman, who worked in the topmost tier of a multinational company in Calcutta, once confided that although he has traveled extensively around the world, he has never visited Bangladesh, since he could not bear to visit his ‘motherland’ with a passport and a visa (Interview 1993).

70East Bengal still pulls a chord in their hearts and has not allowed them to accept reality. They live with these sepia-tinted images, have added to these and conjure up the concept of ‘ideal life’ amidst the sylvan surroundings, which may sometimes be imaginary, “…the place of origin remains stagnant in the memory of the migrant…” (D’Costa, no date, 5). Psychological assimilation still eludes these first generation migrants and perhaps will continue to do so. Their present socio-economic status may not always be that ‘turbulent and chaotic’ which David Lowenthal identifies as one of the principal reasons for nostalgic yearning, they cannot treat themselves to be a part of Calcutta, a part of its society: “someone who never felt at home, and was always at odds with the environment, inconsolable about the past, bitter about the present and the future” (Said, 1996, 47).


71Time and again, what came out of these interviews was that these middle-class East Bengalis could boast of an identity back home. They were well-settled in their jobs, had moveable and immovable assets, well-respected and revered in their localities. Nearly 80% of higher offices in East Bengal were held by Hindus (S. Guha, no date, 30). Nearly 80% national wealth of East Bengal belonged to non-Muslim minorities (S. Guha 30). Majority of buildings and properties in each town of East Bengal, in some cases more than 85% of the town holdings were owned by the Hindus (S. Guha, no date, 30). All noteworthy industrial concerns of East Bengal, namely nine cotton mills, two glassworks, four match factories and one cement manufacturing work, were organized, financed and controlled by non-Muslims. Four important banks, which greatly influenced economic life of East Bengal as a whole, were established and controlled by the Hindus (S. Guha, no date, 31). Partition initiated the process of robbing them of this pre-eminence back in East Bengal. It created an environment where Hindu businessmen suddenly found his field limited, the educated classes found employment becoming almost impossible, the landholders found themselves being gradually ‘relieved’ of their burdens by a heavily biased and one-sided legal process and parents with marriageable sons and daughters found it increasingly difficult to arrange marriages. Their identity was at stake and hence they decided to cross over. The migrants hoped that they would be able to carve a niche for themselves in their new set-up, but unfortunately, they were relegated to nameless, faceless entities. Anima Dhar’s eyes, even fifty years after migration (she migrated in 1958) moisten at the mention of Madarsa village of Chittagong. Hailing from a family of doctors, this housewife, laments that if they could have stayed back, by this time they would have been able to form an identity of their own: a respectable identity. Although she does not crave to go back, ‘home’ and ‘motherland’ to her means Madarsa village and East Bengal, present Bangladesh. The search for identity still opens the flood-gates of emotion and memories.

72If we percolate down to the second generation of migrants, do we find an echo of the same sentiment? Interviews reveal such nostalgic pining for a lost homeland, such emotional attachment, to a large extent being sublimated and diluted. To Archana Bhattacharya, born and brought up in Netaji Nagar Colony, East Bengal identity holds no special significance. She considers West Bengal—her birthplace—her home. At an age, when children listen to fairytales, she heard stories of a lost land, destroyed by the ogre called ‘Partition’. But even then, she feels no special bonding with East Bengal. This feeling is more or less articulated by the representatives of this age-group. Although some like Shanta Chaudhuri would like to visit Barisal—the district from which her paternal family hails—the desire stems more from curiosity to see the land of which she has heard so much rather than ‘coming back home’. The younger generation no longer speaks the dialect, nor are sticklers of East Bengali customs and traditions. They clearly feel rooted to Calcutta. Their social setting, transformed into, what Olwig calls ‘cultural sites’. While for the first generation, landed property, rivers, joint-family system represented the cultural sites, for the second generation the cultural site has shifted to the country of immigration. Dipankar Sinha’s survey, too, shows that by the turn of the millennium, the phenomenon of insider/outsider to a large extent has watered down. There has been considerable ‘mainstreaming’ of the colony population and major festivals like the Durga Puja are celebrated with verve and vigor by both the communities.

73For the first-generation migrants marrying their children outside the community was a strict no-no. Marrying a Ghati was a taboo. As a result, most of the second-generation migrants were married into East Bengali families. However, they themselves do not harbor any such strict notion. As Shanta Chaudhuri of Bijoygarh Colony stresses, “I cannot think of East Bengal the sole criterion for fixing a match for my children.”

74The locals of this generation, too, hardly bothers as to who hails from which side. The edges of differences have somewhat become blunt with the passage of time, though one elderly Ghati resident still feels that the topography of Calcutta changed for the worse after the coming of the Bangals. But for the younger lot, who were not witnesses to these changes, the general perception is articulated by the sentence, “Who bothers about such trivial issues (i.e. Bangal-Ghati distinction)?” It is true that post-Partition second and third generation men and women are aware of their identities as Bangal or Ghati, but that hardly holds any significance in their day-to-day lives, nor are they keen to uphold the characteristics and peculiarities associated with these identities.

75Together with its residents, the city, too, had lost its previous characteristics. Colonial Calcutta, the city of parvenu wealth and easy living, the city of white town and native town, of genteel prose and lyrical poetry, of colonial civil services and nationalist revolutionaries was finally lowered down to rest in peace with Independence and Partition. Instead of the white town and the native town, Calcutta came to be polarized along the Bangal-Ghati line: North Calcutta the hub of the Ghatis, South Calcutta the citadel of the Bangals. Although migration from across the border lessened down after the early 1950s, Calcutta remained a primate city so far as migration was concerned, attracting like magnet people from the rural areas as also from neighboring states. Bursting at the seams, planned intervention on part of the administrators changed the contours of the city. With the boundary of the city being increasingly pushed further to accommodate the suburban areas into the mainstream, modern communication system, housing for all, Calcutta has risen from a phoenix from the ashes, to emerge as a modern metropolitan city. No area remained the exclusive domain of any one ethnic population. The squatters’ colonies lost their characteristics—unplanned, dingy, semi-permanent structures as houses, serpentine lanes, filth and squalor spilling out. After the recognition of the colonies by the government, funds were allocated for their upgradation and fifty years down the line, most of the colonies remain so in name only, with planned metalled roads, permanent houses of brick and mortar, modern sewerage and drainage system. Colony-culture, i. e, the insular nature of the colonies where time stood still, is lost for all practical purposes, preserved and locked up only in the memories of the fast-disappearing aged residents, whose failing visions still have that faraway look when one mentions East Bengal.

76Calcutta has thus emerged as a huge melting pot, a bursting urban conglomerate nestling people from different regions, religions where there is constant interaction between various languages, cultures and customs.

77However, till the last of the first generation Ghatis and Bangals perish in the burning ghats, Bangal and Ghati identities will continue to be an intrinsic part of Bengali society, albeit not in an overt manner.

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Chakrabarty, Dipesh, "Remembered Villages: Representation of Hindu-Bengali Memories in the Aftermath of Partition", in Freedom, Trauma, Continuities: Northern India and Independence. D.A. Low and Howard Brasted eds., New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1998. English
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1  I am grateful to the anonymous reviewers of the journal, Dr Indivar Kamtekar of Jawaharlal Nehru University and Professor Subhoranjan Dasgupta of the Institute of Development Studies Kolkata for their comments and suggestions. Professor Dasgupta’s insight into emotional attachment in the sphere of human relationships helped me to a great extent in analyzing the same in the context of homeland. The interviews cited here, were taken as part of the project “The Trauma and the Triumph: Gender and Partition in Eastern India”, carried under the aegis of the Institute of Development Studies Kolkata and coordinated by Professor Jasodhara Bagchi and Professor Subhoranjan Dasgupta. The second generation interviews have been taken by Ms Suranjana Gangopadhyay who very kindly allowed the use of these interviews conducted by her for her own research purposes.

2  Bangals are so dull that even elementary things are beyond their grasp.

3  Just as a washerman can easily identify a pauper by a look at his clothes, a goldsmith knows who is a Bangal among hundreds of his customers, since it is very easy to hoodwink a Bangal.

4  Refugees who came after July 1952 and were admitted to government-run relief camps, with the exception of the Permanent Liabilities, were not entitled to any gratuitous relief. It was stipulated that the able-bodied men, among them, while awaiting rehabilitation, would be occupied in useful work like the clearing of jungles and water-hyacinth, repairing roads, developing rehabilitation sites. A new type of camp was added to the existing lexicon – work-site camps. There were two types of work-site camps. One type of work-site camps are those where reclamation of once water-logged areas were done and where the refugees would settle once these were drained. The other types were for those who still had not found any kind of land in West Bengal. They were engaged in projects of the Central and the West Bengal Government. In both types of camps, adult males and females within certain age limits worked and their dependents and the rest of the family got subsidy. Their average earning was Rs.1-6.

5  One acre is equivalent to three bighas.

6  Saibal Kumar Gupta, ICS, posted as the District and Session Judge in Chittagong (East Bengal) decided in favor of West Bengal. Somnath Chakrabarty, posted as a sub-judge in Midnapore (West Bengal) chose to shift to East Bengal.

7  Asoka Gupta Archives, File No.3, Report on Deposition before the Commissioner of Enquiry.

8  One cottah is equivalent to 720 square feet.

9 ‘Screening’ refers to the procedure by which the refugees, on arrival at the border, were questioned on behalf of the government and on satisfactorily establishing their claim of fresh arrival, were issued interception slips to qualify themselves as ‘bona fide refugees’. To those dependent entirely on the government for food and shelter, a special type of interception slip was issued which entitled them to admission in camps. They were then asked to report to the nearest reception centers, where they were further checked and moved to the nearest available transit camp. Here they were again questioned, classified according to their profession or occupation, and given cards and sent to the Relief Camps, Permanent Liability camps or Colony Camps. Many migrants could not bear the strain and pain of migration as a result of which succumbed to diseases.

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Référence électronique

Subhasri Ghosh, « Representation of forced migrants: a case study of the east bengali migrants to West Bengal », Conserveries mémorielles [En ligne], #13 | 2013, mis en ligne le 10 mars 2013, consulté le 20 avril 2014. URL :

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Subhasri Ghosh

a reçu un doctorat en histoire moderne de l’Université Jawaharlal Nehru, à New Delhi. Sa thèse s’intitule « The Impact of Immigration on West Bengal 1947-1971 ». Elle a présenté des communications sur la question des migrations forcées dans divers colloques nationaux et internationaux. Sa publication la plus récente est un chapitre intitulé « The Refugee and the Government : A Saga of Self-Rehabilitation in West Bengal ». Dans Daniel Coleman, Erin Goheen Glanville, Wafaa Hasan et Agnes Kramer-Hamstrat, dir. Countering Displacements: The Creativity and Resilience of Indigenous and Refugee-ed Peoples (University of Alberta Press, Alberta, 2012).

Subhasri Ghosh received her Phd in Modern History from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. The topic of her dissertation is “The Impact of Immigration on West Bengal 1947-1971.” She has presented papers on the issue of forced migration in various national and international conferences. Her latest publication is the chapter titled, “The Refugee and the Government: A Saga of Self-Rehabilitation in West Bengal” in Daniel Coleman, Erin Goheen Glanville, Wafaa Hasan & Agnes Kramer-Hamstra ed. Countering Displacements: The Creativity and Resilience of Indigenous and Refugee-ed Peoples (University of Alberta Press, Alberta, 2012).

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