In this essay, we will try to understand one of the unique refugee experience of the Indian Subcontinent; partition refugees through the lens of the transition of one of the largest transit camps “Cooper’s camp” in Nadia District. This essay will reflect on “ the processes and practices by which specific images, meanings, and identities of the refugee have been historically produced, differentiated from other subjectivities, institutionalized, and deployed as effective resources of and for practices of statecraft”.
On 11 March 1950 Cooper’s Camp was established by the West Bengal Government. It was one of the largest transit camps in West Bengal. The camp offered a basic medical facility in the form of Cooper’s general hospital and it functioned till 1977.Acording to Tushar Sinha ( 1999), despite being one of the largest transit camps, which once functioned as a military base had the basic infrastructural facilities of housing people. The lighting facility of the camp was limited to 18 petromax and 1000 hurricane. For every 750 people there were 40 tubewells. The camp was full of open latrines and open drainage system which was hazaradous and was responsible for the decline in health among camp residents. From 21 March 1950 the camp was supported by the central Government. By this time 126 people died after suffering from cholera. On 3 April, 1950, J P Narayan visited the camp.
Gouranga Das’s family was of the 22 families who arrived in Coopers in 1950. Cooper’s Camp was divided into several blocks and huts for administrative purposes. Each resident was registered in the relief office and was registered in the “Ranaghat transit centre records” according to his Ration Card No, Date of admission and Name and family details. After this classification, the displaced was allocated a Hut which had to be shared and Block number.
“We had read in the newspaper about Cooper’s Camp. I was among the first twenty two refugee families to reach the camp. The camp started functioning on 11 March 1950. There were some tents, shops along the railwayline and langarkhana. We were served rice, dal, wheat, clothes and financial assistance of Rs 1.
My family was forced to migrate to West Bengal in 1949. I was eighteen years old. In 1948 Communist Party of India (undivided) was banned. I belong to Sheyalguni village of the Barishal District. We first took a boat from our village to Barishal and then we boarded a steamer and there were 2000-3000 families who migrated with us. We are issued a border slip at Benapole border.
The air of Benapole was filled with dirt and death. But at every step we felt that we will go back. Shree Guru Sangha had set up a camp near the border and various places for refugee. There were various welfare organizations who were organizing relief camps. From Bongaon we reached Sealdah station and stayed there for nearly fifteen days. Almost Lakhs of people were stranded there. We were served free food (rice, dal and vegetable curry) in make shift langarkhana( adjacent to platform No. 8 ) by Marwari Relief Society. We thought it’s a temporary phase. Specially our forefathers believed that we will return to our “desh”/ “homeland”.
There were communal outbreaks at various points of time but the worst of the riots took place in late 1948. Every year we used to celebrate Durga Puja and we had huge brass cooking vessels which were used to cook food during festivals. When the riots broke, we used these brass cooking vessels filled with water for defense purposes. We adopted various tactics to save ourselves from the onslaught of the rioters. When the rioters attacked we often splashed water all over the house to save our lives. When the rioters attacked our house and burned down our puja mandap; we had managed to run away. We were not attacked by anybody. We left our house in the night.
By 1951, one lakh people poured in refugee camp. The refugee movement began as protest against bad quality of food grains that used to be served. Often stale wheat, rice and dal were served. Alorani Dutta died due to lack of medical help. Dijen Dutta organized the movement with the support 70000-80,000 people in Coopers Camp, 25000 in Rupashree pally , 30000 from women’s camp.
The first martyr of refugee movement of 1950 was Paresh Das, resident of 7 No. Godown. From 1950-52 refugee movement subsided after his killing. People were scared.
On 18 Oct, 1952,144 No. House , Jatin Saha and Ratish Mullick spearheaded the refugee movement. Jatin Saha opened up a tea shop and in his tea shop the communist newspaper “Swadhinata” was available for public reading. The tea shop was the base that Jatin Saha used to initiate a communist movement in Coopers Camp. Jatin Saha also distributed leaflets in the night among the refugee households.
In 1952, we planned our communist struggle in 174 No House, G Block currently Ward No. 11. We had twenty one party members. We initiated the refugee movement in the Cooper’s Camp. One of the main demands of the refugee movement was to recognize Cooper’s as industrial colony and B.C. Ray did recognize Cooper’s under the urban scheme. Other demands were to improve the quality and increase the quantity of food grain “doles”. One of the mistakes of the refugee movement I feel was our decision regarding rehabilitation in Dandakaranya and Nainital. People who settled in Nainital are better off. Their land is of much worth than ours. Our slogan was “Lathi khabo, guli kahbo kintu banglar Baire Jabo Naa”. We never wanted to be rehabilitated outside West Bengal. We could never think of being settled anywhere else.
After 1954 when passports were introduced, there was huge influx of refugee population. In 1971 with the formation of Bangladesh, Central Government offered relief to the refugees”.
From his narrative we can deduce some common refugee experiences and their transit points. People came with the hope that this is a temporary phase and once things settle down they are going to return. The bordering Nadia District of West Bengal mainly, Benapole and Darshana were the entry points. What is also evident that before the refugees shifted to Government camps they stayed primarily at Sealdah station . There are several accounts relating to the refugee situation in Sealdah station. In one of the newspaper reports in Amrita Bazaar Patrika also quoted in Prafulla K. Chakrabarti’s work, the station is described as dumping ground of people from the eastern border.
As soon as they arrive, they are given inoculation against cholera and such other diseases. Then they are assigned a shelter camp by an officer of the Relief and Rehabilitation Department. An area of 39/ 39 square feet has been designated for the refugees to use before they are transferred to refugee camps. The report mentions that a group of five to six thousand men, women and children had access to three taps for drinking water. Apart from drinking water, there were two latrines for women and about 12 latrines for men.
So what we see here is that the “refugee” is uprooted from his state and is forced to live life in make shift arrangements under most inhuman circumstances. It is at this critical juncture we are left to ponder whether or not “Right to life” is an individual question or a political question? Political responses to the mass displacement has always tried to “negotiate” with the “refugee” who is a stateless, and immediate efforts to classify, regiment this stateless figure by the newly adopted state one hand is embedded in the notion of “care” and on the other is trying to make space for the refugee through statecraft. The earlier one is regimented the better.
These circumstances led to a very active refugee movement within cooper’s camp which initially began with protesting against bad quality of food grains specially rice, dal and wheat flour which was often stale. The refugee movement within Cooper’s was organized by the people who were devoted Communist party activist even when the party was banned in 1948. Gouranga Das proudly informs that he used to work as a messenger to communicate to other workers about meetings. Another cooper’s camp resident informed even in late 1970s the communist party activity was secret in nature and orientation.
On 6 July 1956, Central Government Minister Mr. Arunchandra Guha visited the camp and the camp residents were prevented from presenting their deputation before him. There was police lathi charge and in protest of that there was a public demonstration organized by Nadia District chapter of Bastuhara Parishaad. Police firing was a frequent feature in Cooper’s Camp. On 16 July 1956, police organized a combing operation in Cooper’s and arrested 44 protesters of which 7 were women. Various noted left refugee actvists were arrested. On 11 August, 1956 under the leadership of Amritendu Mukhopadhyay, a protest meeting was organized to release 44 activists which was attended by 5000 people. From 1957, a separate demand was placed before the Government- to recognize and carry out reform activities to convert Coopers into an industrial township. The police declared this meeting as illegal. By early 60’s there was a change in the demands of the refugee movement in itself and one of the prime reasons was the winding up process of various camps.
The West Bengal government Relief and Rehabilitation Directorate initiated a study on the relief and rehabilitation of displaced persons in West Bengal and the report was published in 1957. According to this report, the findings suggested that there were certain camps like coopers which have a large number of refugees and an attempt is being made to convert them into townships”. Various rehabilitation alternatives and schemes were laid down. The Government decided to shut down the transit camps by 1951.After the disbursal to rehabilitation centres in 1949, there was a sudden wave of migration in 1950-51 which swelled the number to 360769. At this time there was a decision to close down all the camps by March 1951 as a result of which camp families were dispersed to rehabilitation sites and the camp population came down to 80000 by the end of 1951.
The next phase of Refugee movement within Cooper’s Camp is to be understood against the following backdrop of the findings of the reports on rehabilitation and economic opportunities. Cooper’s Camp of Nadia district is treated as one of the ex-camp sites. In 1961, The Government asked the refugees in all relief camps either to move to Dandakaranya for rehabilitation or to leave camps on receiving 6 months cash doles. In September 1961 about 10000 families were left in campsites. The Government had already closed the camps. Not only the camp benefits such as doles, medical and educational facilities were withdrawn but even tubewells for drinking water was withdrawn by the Indian nation-state. This marked another phase in the refugee discourse and statecraft. The emphasis of refugee discourse changed from refugee care to economic rehabilitation as the perfect solution to the refugee problem. The Committee of Review of Rehabilitation work in West Bengal appointed by Government of India in 1981 report revealed that 45,000 displaced persons are living at 74 ex-camp sites. Around this time in Cooper’s Camp there were 1068 families awaiting rehabilitation of which 387 were ex-camp site families.
Since 1956 there was a growing concern among the displaced population for the available economic livelihoods and resources in Cooper’s Camp. The then Chief Minister of West Bengal Dr. Bidhan Chandra Ray in a written statement had promised to develop Coopers into an industrial township. This promise was a ray of hope for most of the families who stopped receiving financial assistance or doles from Government after 1961. The camp residents lived with the hope that they will receive proper economic rehabilitation through the development of small cottage industry and spinning industry in RIC scheme. Most of the refugees were waiting for almost 20-22 years in Coopers Camp for economic rehabilitation. Community Party of India Activist Ashok Chakraborty observed 10 days hunger strike in 10 June, 1978 and again in 19 October, 1981 to appeal for economic rehabilitation and securitisation of livelihood.
The hunger strike was called to declare Coopers Camp as a notified area and to appeal to the government for industrial development as most of the persons had no source of income after the Government ceased to support any refugee apart from those in Permanent Liability camps. There was also an appeal to recognize the marketplace and to renovate the Cooper’s Hospital. The Cooper’s hospital the protesters claimed was suffering from adequate doctors, nurse and medicine and thus the people from Coopers had to travel some miles to reach the general hospital.
The demands of the Communist Party of India according to party pamphlet were: -
1. Government should restart the scheme of doles for the 385 families who refused to rehabilitate in Dandakaranya and encourage small cottage industry, which will help in economic rehabiliation. Increase in loan assistance for the rehabilitable families from Rs 10000-Rs 15000 and single unit family should receive Rs 10000. Coopers Rupashreepally Women’s Camp residents should be rehabilitated after proper planning.
2. The government should immediately live up to its promise of declaring Kirtinagar Colony, Coopers Urban (RIC), Colony, Rupashree, Women’s Camp and Coopers should be given the recognition of Cooper’s Camp notified Area. The Government should also initiate a spinning mill in RIC industrial area, it should take steps to re-open the ceramic industry as it will meet the demands of increasing unemployment figures among the youth and old in camps.
3. The cooper’s camp hospital should be renovated. It should introduce specialized departments. 100 beds should be introduced in the hospital. A new Secondary Girls School should be established and the Coopers Junior School should be upgraded to Senior Secondary School and appeal to establish 5-6 primary schools in RIC colony, Rupashree Colony and Coopers.
According to Gouranga Das, “Cooper’s Camp never saw the light of industrial development. In the name of RIC, land was traded between the central and state Government and leased out to private players. This did not survive for along time”. The struggle from Cooper’s Camp to Cooper’s camp Notified area was marked with violence, killing, Panchayat vote boycott. Finally after several years of vote boycott under the Nagarik Committee, which was comprised of all party leadership Cooper’s camp was declared as a Coopers camp Notified Area in 1997. Coopers Camp Notified Area has a separate municipality and people who dreamt of an “industrial township” are yet to see any industries in Coopers even after its fight for autonomy.
Infact residents across ex-camp sites are the “most distressed refugee population in West Bengal”.
The main emphasis on refugee rehabilitation in Cooper’s is issue of Free Hold Title Deed; under which the land allotted to a family cannot be sold for ten years and under certain circumstances like marriage of a girl child, diseases like cancer, AIDS and any unforeseen nature of financial hardship the family has to seek permission from RR& R directorate to sell the land. The status report on refugee rehabilitation in Ranaghat subdivision till 25.2.2008 reveals:-
Total land involved 3280.3 acres
Total no. of deeds (large) to be distributed 16001+(8)
Total no. of deeds already distributed as on 31.03.06 14,205+(8)
Target Fixed for 2007-2008 200
Number of deeds already for registration 100
(Source: Sub divisional OfficeRecords of Ranaghat Subdivision)
Coopers Camp Notified Area Municipality was formed in 1997. For administrative purposes it has been divided into 12 wards. According to 2001 census, there are 17,555 people of which 51% males and 49% females live in Coopers. Almost 70-75% of the camp residents belong to the scheduled castes. According to census data of 2001, 13,533 people belong to SC and 18 people to ST. There is a higher secondary school in Cooper’s camp and there are several primary schools in a number of Wards. The primary school in Ward No 6 houses is one of the largest primary schools. Most of the boys stay away from the school to lend a helping hand in teashops.
These measures demonstrate the changing attitude of the Indian state towards the refugees. The refugee experience of economic development and economic rehabilitation at Cooper’s Camp of West Bengal is an illustration of the state responsibility towards refugees- who were seen as a problem. The constant emphasis to wind up homes and camps across the state speak about the fact that “ refugee problem” is a thing of the past whereas the rehabilitation schemes merely encouraged a shelter and self-employment. In places such as Cooper’s where most of the people are unemployed and women have taken to bidi making and men in adhoc jobs like carpentry it remains a far-fetched dream of Coopers to transform into an “ industrial township”.