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Post-Partition (1947-58) Refugee-hood in Bengal – A Critical Reading of Published Autobiographies

By Ekata Bakshi

In the aftermath of the Partition (1947) of India, the plight of the refugees in Bengal was being remembered in various ways without the emergence of a single dominant narrative. Today, however, a seamless narrative of trauma survives, telling us the story of struggles and victories of the refugees. This can be accessed through cultural representations such as novels, short stories, and films that came to represent the miseries as well as the triumphs of the refugees. The first kind of autobiographies of refugees I intend to read here belongs to this genre of cultural representations of refugee-hood.

A little probing points out that these accounts were not produced in isolation but as an effort to talk back to statist accounts produced through studies commissioned by the central or the state governments. The Bengali refugees in official documents were described as lazy, childish, complaining, and lacking initiative and vigour (in the works of B.S. Guha, U.N. Bhaskar Rao, and others). The refugee response to this was the creation of a parallel story of success gained through a relentless battle against all odds and the apathetic government, despite having been forced into the conditions of refugee-hood for no fault of their own. The self-settled refugee of the squatter’s colony (settlements set up by forcible occupation of fallow land) was the exact opposite of what the government accused the refugees of being. In the popular self-narrative, these refugees are ‘assertive, resourceful, fiercely independent and too proud to be subjected to the demeaning and dehumanizing conditions of the government camps’ (Sen 2014, p 44).

Autobiographies and memoirs played an important role in the creation of this self-image. Manas Ray (2002) writes in his memoir ‘Growing Up Refugee, 2002’, “the early migrant settled in and around Calcutta…a large number of them decided to rehabilitate themselves without waiting for state support giving rise to squatter’s colonies, which subsequently became the principal sign posts of refugee presence…The government at once lauded such enterprising spirit (in an environment grossly at odds) and also actively opposed the land where the squatters settled belonged either to the government or, more often, to private owners, the refugees did not give in to state pressure but also kept the doors opened for negotiation. Over time the colonies have increased in number and spread, soaring from 119 in 1952 to nearly two thousand at present, and dotted across virtually the whole of West Bengal.” Referring to the present-day conditions, he writes about Netaji Nagar, his colony, that, “the households have become self-sufficient and infrastructure of the locality at par with rest of Calcutta.” His own life story is that of establishing oneself as a major scholar in Cultural studies in a foreign university after having completed his studies from the country’s premier institutes despite a life of hardship. The moment of refuge to him is a moment of the past. A similar story is told by Mihir Sengupta (Bastu Debatar Anweshan 2014) and Tapan Roychowdhury (Bangalnama, 2013, Romanthan Athoba Bhimrati Prapter Porochorit Charcha, 2015) in their memoirs.

As opposed to these narratives written largely by upper caste men, we find the autobiographical writings of women, which even though fewer in number, provide a different understanding of the moment of Partition and the subsequent experience of refugee-hood. The women’s narratives, though mostly from an upper caste background, lament the loss of lived relationships more than the material and ideological complex. The women’s narratives further turn the moment of male trauma, the reversal of existing domestic roles (the loss of the ideological structure) into a moment of triumph over patriarchal codes, despite being forced to face the vagaries of a public life.

Both these memories have developed against the nationalist memory of Partition and have opened up the fissures in it. The memory of trauma has helped in destroying the nationalist imagery of the Partition as a necessary cost paid for independence. What, however, is significant in these essays is the portrayal of the moment of Partition as a disruption that could be finally overcome even after immense hardship and loss.

2014 saw the publication of refugee narratives written by Dalit men refugees with the conscious identification with a Dalit self and more fissures began to open up in the dominant memory. One of these Dalit authors, Monohar Mouli Biswas (2015) writes in his autobiography:

This autobiography is a document of growing up amidst deprivation. It is a document of almost losing in life; touching the margins and then again stepping back among humans… It was living like a prisnika – a water hyacinth – living on the verge of death and dying on the verge of life!

This statement itself calls into question the loss of the idyllic home that has been lamented in all upper caste narratives. It points out to the possibility of a different meaning of home, which was lost but the loss of which cannot be lamented within the dominant trope – no less because of the material poverty of these homes as opposed to an image of bounty of upper caste homes. These Dalit refugee accounts also point to the disparate experiences of the moment of refugee-hood itself. As Monohar Mouli Biswas (2015) rightly points out, “We were not like the aristocratic rui or katla fish who could cross over the borders immediately with the Partition of the land and seek a living on the other side. We, like the common chunoputi fish, stayed back in our motherland, primarily because of sheer helplessness.”

The Dalit refugee accounts reveal that most of the lower-caste refugees were the last to leave. The more fortunate ones were able to reach the borders completely penniless and face the inhuman conditions of refugee camps while the less fortunate were never recognised by the government as refugees for crossing the border later and have been completely written out of memory. The horrors of living in Sealdah Station and later in a refugee camp have also featured frequently in Dalit refugee accounts and have been described in detail by Manoranjan Byapari and Jatinbala. This experience had earlier largely formed the background for the success stories of upper caste refuges – as a horror that one escaped by one’s constant striving – but never recounted in its own right.

The fact that camp life features in a major way in two of the four Dalit refugee narratives is not merely co-incidental but can be explained following Sen (2014) by virtue of the fact that most of the Dalit refugees also belonged to the lower classes of the society and hence lacked social, cultural, and educational capital. Being agricultural labourers, very few of them actually had relatives in Calcutta engaged in professional labour. Thus, they squarely lacked the specific properties on the basis of which they could hinge themselves on the outskirts of the city independently without seeking shelter in camps. The government was also keen to push them to the camps. Being agricultural labourers, they were not able to find suitable work in the camps. This accounts for their failure to establish themselves economically.

Byapari’s (2014) autobiography points out that while the refugees were made to work for certain government projects when residing in worksite camps, they were not allowed to partake in the benefits of the same. They were also not allowed to work outside on their own without government supervision. Later when the camps were closed down, they were offered the most infertile tracts of land outside Bengal in Dandakaranya or in heavily forested areas of Andaman. Byapari also provides a detailed account of how the political agitations of the refugees failed to prevent the closing down of the camps or the plan to deport the refugees owing to their reduced physical strength and sheer desolation. Through such accounts the differences between the success of the refugees from the squatter’s colonies and failure of the camp refugees begins sharply emerge breaking down the idea that the former was simply more enterprising and the other lazy.

Byapari’s autobiography further details quite graphically the desperation of continuing to live as a Dalit refugee. It is a life marked by proto-slavery, sexual assault, and the denial of basic human rights, to say the least. His entry into the leftist political circles does not end his miseries, and like many other Dalit lower-class refugees, he becomes fodder in a bitter battle between various political factions. The identity of being a refugee and a Dalit stubbornly sticks to him and probably even today it quite visibly marks his life. Monohar Mouli Biswas and Adhir Biswas (the authors of the two other published Dalit refugee autobiographies) might have been able to overcome the dire conditions of being a Dalit refugee through the help of formal education unlike Byapari but their accounts also bear testimony to their continued existence as Dalits. They have only been moderately successful in the face of deprivation and continued discrimination.

Dalit autobiographies break the seamless memory of refugee-hood in three major ways. First, they point to the fact that the idyllic village life whose loss is lamented fraught with caste relations and the Dalits led a life of extreme deprivation and marginalisation in these villages while at the same time trying to assert themselves on the basis of their caste. These Dalits (barring a few) cannot claim to be  innocent nationalist heroes who would be subsequently wronged precisely because their caste brought them closer to the British rule and away from the nationalist movement. Second, they point out that the times and conditions of crossing over and becoming refugees is also marked strongly by caste and hence, the immediate experience of refugee-hood did not challenge but rather reaffirmed caste. Third, it dismantles the myth of demise of caste and demonstrates how Dalits were unable to become citizens in India in a way that most upper-caste refugees could. Their lives continued to be marked by their caste identity on the one hand and their refugee identity on the other. At its worst, it would be lives as documented by Byapari in his autobiography – a life of illegal residents slogging under severe exploitation. At its best, it would be lives such as of Biswas’s – a life that can be led only by the denial of one’s identity as a Dalit while being subjected to constant discrimination on the basis of caste.

Being a refugee for such lives would mean a life of separation from one’s own family, one’s world of social relations and a life made twice as hard by the challenges of caste and refugee-hood. It would also mean for them the loss of language that had begun to help them articulate their deprivation because in post-Partition Bengal caste came to be completely disavowed and the Matua assertion that was becoming a strong force in colonial Bengal was broken up by the Partition.

These autobiographies question the simplistic idea of refugee agency – because agency as pointed out by Spivak (2012) “calls for the putting aside of difference” (436) to become a part of a collective. In this case, this collective can be called citizenship. The historical legacy of being Dalits prevented certain sections of refugees from being integrated into the society through white collar labour because they lacked the requisite skills, education and social networks.  Thus, as pointed out by Manas Ray, the refugees represent a variegated scenario whereby some refugees are a part of the civil society, living in multi-storied buildings whereas others are a part of the society and are rag-pickers or road side vendors (Ray, 2002).

These divisions have only sharpened with globalization. Dalits who have crossed over to the other side have been asked to revoke their identity as Dalits. These differences have given rise to different kinds of politics by different refugee groups (the radical left politics of Byapari and others and the pro-Trinamul politics of Kapil Krishna Thakur, for example). Reading Dalit refugee autobiographies significantly de-stabilizes the idea of Partition-induced refugee-hood itself as an exception that can has been redressed, an as an exception that redressed caste. Refugee-hood in such a reading is brought back squarely to the everyday of the post-colonial nation, deeply marked by all the customary boundaries of caste. Based on their legacy of un-fulfilment and non-recognition, the category of Dalit refugees continues to stake claims to an identity that is simultaneously hinged on these two categories rather than being easily reducible to anyone. Reading autobiographies may also help us understand the current context of refugees – Dalit politics in Bengal and its affinities and dissonances with wider Dalit politics in India, this time by foregrounding the refugee identity vis-a-vis a generalised Dalit identity.

I would like to come back to the specificity of using a critical feminist lens in engaging with Dalit autobiographies. On the one hand, it helps us rethink the idea of refugee-hood in ways mentioned above; on the other, they point out how these autobiographies produce or rather reproduce the silences present in the dominant memory. These narratives fail to engage sufficiently with the idea of gender as understood in conjunction with caste and hence account for women whom I call the Bhadramahila’s other. These women are typically produced by the very logic of caste, whereby the upper-caste chaste woman – the Bhadramahila – becomes the norm and all women falling outside its pale, the other. So far these narratives romanticise the ideological complex of gender in passages such as they fail to problematize such relationships. They do not engage with the idea of what the dual labour of working in and outside the home meant for the women in their families. They also do not provide us with much insight about the lived experiences of Dalit women in the post-Partition period.

Byapari’s (2014) account mentions his mother and his grand-mother only in passing. However, if it has been established sufficiently by now that Dalit men were forced by the exigencies of refugee-hood to occupy the lowest rungs in the informal labour market and face routine sexual harassment, it might be assumed that these conditions must have been same if not more severe for Dalit women. The conditions of refugee-hood must have only intensified for them the need to perform dual labour within home and outside. The Dalit men’s autobiographies are also silent about the existence of patriarchy within their own homes.

These accounts also fail to witness the trauma of another kind of women – those engaged in sexual labour, despite the fact that every account on Partition seems to mention a large number of women who were forced to take up professions involving sexual labour. The feminist lens seems to be inadequate to the extent that they provide a simplistic account of recovery of the trauma and triumph of women based on the fact that male trauma of women’s forays into the public sphere could be reversed to read as their moment of triumph – their entry into the field of paid labour breaking clear of patriarchal norms. For these women, unlike the Bhadramahila woman, the liberal citizen subject immortalised in Ray’s Mahanagar, it is impossible to claim feminist agency based on their essential self, for the construction of their very selves are complicit with the structure of their oppression. However, to read them as failures of Dalit assertions or as operations of ‘Dalit patriarchy’ can only be too simplistic and naïve. They have to be read within the rubric of negotiations taking place between an emerging Dalit politics and the deeply entrenched ‘Bhadralok’ codes of political conduct.

Ekata Bakshi
is a PhD student in Centre for Women’s Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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