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Carrying on an ‘Imaginary Rooting’ in the Journeys of ‘Uprooted-ness’: Refugee Women and Bengal

By Anindita Ghoshal 

The Partition of colonial India into the two newborn nations India and Pakistan in 1947 not just divided the geographical areas along the Radcliffe line, it also initiated one of the largest processes of human displacements in the twentieth century. The Partition was a political event, it was rather a negotiation accepted by the leaders of the major political parties. But in consequence, the uprooted masses in both the countries had to migrate from one land to another, created for them officially. But the decision was the toughest one, as it was a journey from uncertainty to certainty, chiefly to be a part of the ‘majority’ community in a foreign land, for not remaining as ‘others’ or ‘minorities’ in their respective birthplaces. In all contemporary so called legal and official documents, including the Partition proceedings, both the nation-states were comfortable to categorize them just as ‘refugees’. The officials designed policies and just stamped on them without verifying the required geo-physical factors and practical situations to resettle them or thought about repercussions of the locals at regional levels.

The trends in viewing the refugees/refugee women

Since the refugees as an explicit community were introduced in academia with the background of Partition, historical works related to this pattern of writing first started questioning how the policymakers perceived the making and settlement of refugees in post-1947 India and Pakistan. Yet, after the first few decades after the Partition, a trend of viewing the whole event just as a ‘political move’ became widely acceptable. It often put the refugees in form of ‘political blocks’; Partition related violence and refugee movements were seen as inevitably corollary and therefore it needed not be in the foreground. The nature of scholarship on Partition studies as well as refugee studies altered time and again. It shifted from the notion of ‘high politics’ to the South Asian Perspective, the trend of viewing the whole discourse through area studies.

Yet, it was only during the last decade of the twentieth century an inclination has developed within the structure of refugee studies to understand the issue of trauma and nature of refugee experience with a new psychological dimension by unveiling the voice of margin of the margins. Some feminist writers/activists such as Urvashi Butalia (1998, 2015), Ritu Menan and Kamala Bhasin (1998) came forward to restore agency of non-elite groups, largely influenced by Partition related memoirs of Kamla Patel (1985) and Ashoka Gupta (1999). They stated firmly, “our focus is on the human dimensions… with a clear emphasis on the gender perspective.” Indeed, Partition literature and refugee-related texts or writing in the Eastern borders were more intermittent, though from the last decade, some autobiographical sources have started coming out. It depicts personalized trauma on the basis of what researchers have to construct and analyse the crises of the refugees. This particular trend challenges the dominant tendency of writings official histories of Partition and try to establish the notion of layered refugee identities.

This concomitant trend to document and construct narratives highlighting the gender issues based on oral sources is primarily seen in the works of Jasodhara Bagchi and Subhoranjan Dasgupta (2003), Gargi Chakravarty (2005), Paula Banerjee and Anasua Basu Roy Choudhury (2011). They focus on how the Partition-borne trauma has changed the perspectives of women’s lives and view the whole discourse from the macro level approach of writing histories. Jayanti Basu (2013) terms the ‘designed violence’ as ‘soft violence’ in case of Bengal, while focusing on the traumatic time that remain in the psyche of the generation. Interestingly, Ananya Jahanara Kabir (2013) discusses the prolonged impact of Partition, three generations later, on contemporary cultural procedures from Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan. Her account departs from previous Partition scholarships by arguing that 1947 and 1971 are linked epochal events, by excavating the connection between violence, memory, melancholia, and modernity –overall a new memory studies in South Asia.

The mainstream story of the displacement of the refugees, their experience and stories of migration, feeling of uprooted-ness, and further struggle for settlement in a new space have formed a part of the growing historical literature in the subcontinent. But major constituents of these refugees were women. ‘Refugee’ as a category was gender neutral and hence there was no special policy regarding refugee women. They were therefore invisible to the state and the patriarchal cultural milieu. But since in the sub-continental cultures, women are the makers of families, they bear the major burnt of this displacement and re-settlement in a new environment. Although the refugee studies are growing, the predicament and role of women and their experiences have not been studied. Hence, by consulting literatures, memoirs, incorporating oral sources (like interviews of survivors or experience of the second and third generations), this article focuses on the refugee women, who migrated from erstwhile East Pakistan to India and provides information and perspective on the struggle of these women, who faced a different socio-economic, political, and cultural milieu, despite being from the same religion. Their story is much more complex than when seen through the looking glass of the political history of the Partition of India. So, there is a need to look at the humane side of it through the prism of literatures and personal memoires (by putting up diverse voices, mostly in vernacular languages). Literary sources depict not only the mentality of communities within a particular phase, but also rightly portray the diversity of crises, difference in experience through classes and castes or social groups. It helps to understand dimension of problems, change in psychological world, and their identity.

The actual scenario: memoires and memoirs

The nature of the community relationship was very unique in pre-Partition Bengal. The society was based on the idea of composite culture, but in case of women, the elders in families (mostly widows) used to possess and exercise some kind of power in decision-making. In his memoir, Atmasmriti (1989), Abu Jafar Samsuddin describes how the exchange of vegetables and other raw ingredients between ladies of Hindu and Muslim families in the andarmahal is a normal affair in late 1920s. Yet from early 1940s, the political undercurrents lead to a sea-change in socio-cultural bonding, and both the communities start perceiving each other as the ‘other’ with a sense of fear. Partition-borne riots not only impacted the women, but their whole psychological world was altered. During the 1946 riots, women became the primary target of abuse and were abducted mostly for a whole community. Suhasini Das (2004) in her diary, ‘Noakhali: 1946’, has given an intricate description of her experience while working with Gandhiji. She describes how Noakhali Relief Committee was formed under the leadership of Neli Sengupta. Saibal Kumar Gupta (1994) remembers in his autobiography, Kichhu Smriti Kichhu Katha, how they started working among the abducted, raped, and converted Hindu women. Tarashankar Bondyapadhyay (1385 BS) in his novel, Uttorayan, deals with the mental world of women who are victims of riots. He portrays their rational side – how they negotiated later with the worst experiences they faced and changed their expectations from life, especially from previous relationships.

A similar heart-wrenching narrative of rape of a Hindu maiden by Muslims amidst Dacca Riot of 1946, followed by abject denouncement by her own family, has been portrayed through the imaginary character of Jhhinuk in Prafulla Roy’s (2007) novel Keya Patar Nouka. Her molested, bruised, and tormented persona merges with the condition of the land where she suffers. The relatives in India, the so-called ‘safest place’, suggests to her to stay in a government home in Calcutta, meant for these kinds of girls. There are several such stories written with same emotion and feeling of emptiness and erosion of humanity at a moment of all round insecurity and degeneration. Jyotirmoyee Debi (2001) situates her novel, Epar Ganga Opar Ganga, after one decade of the riots of 1946 in East Bengal. The chief focus is on changed identity and life of the central character, Sutara. The rejection of her family to accept Sutara (as she stayed with Muslim neighbors) is conjoined with a feeling of loss that continues to dominate her life. In a short story, “Korunkanya” (2004), Romapada Choudhury narrates the tale of Arundhati, the central character, who finally opts to live her life with a husband who forces her to be with him during the riot, because of the social pressure and mass mentality. Hasan Azizul Huq (2008) in his novel, Agunpakhi, portrays how from the 1950s the majority community tries hard to find out right excuse to traumatize minorities, so that they could encroach upon their properties, looting all material assets including Hindu women.

After Partition, communities firmly started linking one’s identity attached to the land it belonged to. A strange way of distinguishing ‘my land’ and ‘your land’ began to emerge. In Bolmik (1905), Narayan Sanyal compares the refugee exodus with a gigantic snake moving to find some food and reach for a destination. Adhir Biswas recollects in Mogurar Smriti (2014) that his mother always wished to settle down in India. The reason was not that their life would be more comfortable there. But she thought if they could manage to migrate in West Bengal, they might not have to change the country again in future, as India was meant for the Hindus. Mihir Sengupta describes a pattern of staying back of elder family members in his novel, Bishadbriksha (2013). He narrates how this tendency had grown further after 1950. Rumors spread by the press played an important role in inciting communal feeling among communities and occurrences of violence in Bengal. Nurjahan Bose, who survived in both the wings of Pakistan during this particular phase, remembers in her memoir, Agunmukhar Meye (2011), how a group of people used to wait at the steamer ghat of Khulna with swords and other weapons for daily newspapers from India during the riot of 1964, which were delivered in every evening. She noticed an absolute change in human behavior at that point of time. For them, it became a daily routine to attack and assault Hindu women after they finished reading newspapers, just as a revenge for their Muslim brethren, who suffered in India.

Partition and the influx of refugees was an anticipated fact on both sides of the Bengal borderland. Getting a piece of land became more difficult in West Bengal, while land price suddenly escalated after declaration of the Radcliffe line. Establishing townships in name of the freedom fighters in suburban areas and calling them a ‘colony’ became a culture. The refugee camps/colonies became signs of going back to the earlier days of civilizations and women were the worst victims. In his Anupasthit Mahakabyer Chhaya: Danga, Deshbibhag o Bangla Kathasahitya (1991), Achintya Biswas describes how the women refugees were in such a miserable economic condition that they could not afford to oil their hairs or use powder or a bindi. They worked hand in hand with male members to run their families and protect themselves from ‘other men’. In Ujantolir Upokatha (2011), Kapil Krishna Thakur narrates how they were often termed as jyanto Kali (Goddess Kali in her most angry, arrogant, shrewish, tough avatar) and khyapa (rude and dangerous). In his novel, Suchander Swadesh Jatra (2003), Samaresh Basu writes how the womenfolk became the ‘colony bhataris’ for the police or babus, just to get some portion of rice for maintaining their families and livelihood. These were the same women, the griha-laksmis, who left their desh to keep their honour and family pride. They migrated from their places of origin and ended up in places which came to be known as colonies about which they never thought of. The author also poses a question: why did the leaders who planned the division and played with the life of millions not get punished for their acts?

The journeys of ‘up-rootedness’

The female members of elite or middle refugee families, who settled in Calcutta and its suburbs, had experienced a life qualitatively inferior to that of East Bengal. The houses and colonies, which the refugees built, not only reflected needs of a middle class population desperate for property and some semblance of security, but also indicated a reorganization of space. Narendranath Mitra’s short story Palanka (1975) depicts a desperate daughter-in-law from a pompous East Bengali zamindar family, who urges her father-in-law to sell off the huge bed gifted by her grandfather in her marriage, so that she could buy at least a single bed for her children. Her husband could not make it to Calcutta for years, as his income was extremely low in comparison to their monthly expenses. Since the women members of the uprooted families were more burdened to play a crucial role in homemaking, they were compelled to come out from the traditional protected family system. Thus, for most of the educated middle or lower class women, Partition played a crucial role in shaping their life to the place of their migration, enabling a process of socio- cultural ‘construction of self’. On the contrary, they always lived in their ‘utopian’ make-believe world with a feeling of loss. Anjali Neogi, a schoolteacher by profession, often mourned about some old books, which she had left in her bari (home) in East Bengal. In pre-Partition days, when she was a kid, she could not manage to get permission to read quite a few books, which were marked as ‘boroder boi’ (books meant for the elders). She had sent the books to India with the first batch of the family migration and lost control over that bookrack, what she had dreamt of inheriting. 

Photo: Pratiti Devi, twin sister of Ritwik Ghatak

Anindita Ghoshal teaches history in Diamond Harbour Women’s University, Kolkata, West Bengal, India. Her area of research includes Partition and refugees’ studies with special emphasis on eastern/northeastern India and Bangladesh. She has recently received a post-doctoral research grant from Manchester University, UK, funded by AHRC. She has been awarded some other grants/prizes, including Charles Wallace Trust Fellowship (2015), an Academic and Foreign Travel Grant from ICHR (Cardiff University, UK, 2013), ‘Gautam Chattopadhyay Memorial Prize’ for best paper by the Paschimbanga Itihas Samsad (2013), Research-Writing Fellowship From Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group (2012), UGC Minor Research Project Grant (2010), and an Academic Affiliation and Fellowship from the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh, Dhaka (2009). She has presented papers in many conferences in India and abroad, published articles in reputed journals and edited books. She is currently working on another post-doctoral research project, titled ‘Experiences and Experiments over Refugee-hood: A Study on Camps-Colonies and Spatial Change in Northeast India (1947-1971)’ as chief investigator, in collaboration with OKDISCD, Guwahati, Assam, India (2017-18).


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

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