Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Outside the Pail: Refugees beyond Camp or Colony in Post-Partition Calcutta

Kaustubh Mani Sengupta
(Kaustubh teaches history at Bankura University, West Bengal, and can be reached at

      This essay looks at the variety of ways the refugees became a part of the urban work-force in post-partition West Bengal. Government schemes could not provide for everyone. The desertion from the government camps is quite well-known. The government was keen to disperse the refugees from the bulging population of Calcutta to avoid a breakdown of the system. But the solution of dispersal faced immense resistance from the refugees and the various refugee organizations. Dispersal and consequent desertion from the camps left the refugees on their own, without any aid from the government. They now had to fend for themselves. What happened to the people who were thus out of the pail of government rehabilitation scheme now? What is the story of those refugees who never went to the camps or were part of the colonies? Through a close reading of the autobiographies of Sadananda Pal and Manoranjan Byapari, I attempt to answer these questions.[1]

Pal was born in a family of potters in East Bengal. He came to West Bengal before his parents migrated. He was supposed to set up the family on this side of the border, and then the entire family would migrate. He, along with his brothers, tried their hand in various trades, but could not establish their business. They were in a better condition than the camp-dwelling refugees, and found a place to stay on the eastern fringes of Calcutta. They had some capital to start a business, knew certain people who could help them. But these were often not enough to sustain them in the new land. Pal, among other things, worked as a tailor, learned to make sweets, hawked betel leaf, set up a stationery shop. He ultimately moved back to his ancestral profession, and started making pots on a small scale. He faltered on these activities, could not learn the tricks of the trade enough to continue with one business. But he kept on trying various ventures to make a living. The urban informal economy gave him the opportunity to try his hands in different jobs. This made him look for other avenues of income. His condition was not as bad as those refugees who had to take shelter in government camps and rely on the doles. On the other hand, he was not a part of the early, mostly upper-caste migrants who could establish colonies in and around Calcutta. He thus occupies an interesting place in the narratives of rehabilitation of refugees in post-partition West Bengal. Government accounts or community-memories do not have room for these individual voices. But they open up a new dimension of the process of rehabilitation where individuals had to negotiate with a range of actors, identities, and situations to make their space.

Byapari was born sometime in 1950-51 in Barishal. He came to West Bengal with his family within a couple of years. From Sealdah station they were sent to Shiromonipur camp in Bankura. But soon they left that camp and went to Ghola Doltala ex-camp site in 24-parganas. Byapari spent a couple of years there. Then he left the camp in search of job. Thus began his wandering life with a variety of vocation and experience of many lifetimes.

Byapari gives detail description of the camps he stayed in. The infrastructure was inadequate to say the least. In Shiromonipur, for more than two thousand refugees there were only two tube-wells to obtain water for drinking. There was a dispensary with one doctor but with hardly any medicine. A primary school was opened but it did not run for long. The residents had to live in tents, there were no huts. The notorious heat of Bankura was life-threatening for them. Child mortality rate was very high in the camp.

After leaving the camp-life, Byapari went on to a number of odd-jobs to survive. Looking for a job, he went to Calcutta, Siliguri, Guwahati, Darjeeling, Lucknow, Kanpur and Dandakaranya. He worked in domestic households and tea-stalls, became a coolie, pulled a rickshaw, assisted a truck driver and a cook, swept floor in a city school. Abject poverty, exploitation of the employer or sheer misfortune pushed him from one place to another. He came back to West Bengal and got embroiled in the extremist politics. He got arrested and was sent to prison.
He learnt reading and writing from a fellow prison-inmate. He was fortunate to have a helpful police officer who encouraged in his endeavours. After his release from the prison, he started to pull a rickshaw and a fortuitous encounter with Mahasweta Devi changed the course of his life. She asked him to write in the journal Bartika. He wrote many books subsequently depicting the life and experiences of the dalits.
Byapari is conscious of his identity as a dalit refugee. He constantly reminds his readers the injustice and violence he had to face from upper caste people. His depiction of refugee camps shows the wretched condition in which the refugees had to stay. But he clearly makes a distinction between the upper caste and lower caste Hindus who were displaced from East Pakistan. He categorically states that the bhadralok refugees did not want the dalit refugees to stay in the numerous colonies that sprang up in and around Calcutta. While the triumphant narratives of the genesis and consolidation of these colonies are abound in literature now, Byapri’s narrative shed light on the process from an opposite end. He argues that the bhadralok refugees had prior contacts with the government which facilitated their way into the urban life while the lower caste refugees became the victims of the faulty rehabilitation policies of the government and had to languish in the camps.
The condition of the government camp forced Byapari to desert it. He eked out his living from various corner of the country. His wandering years were traumatic. But on the other hand his peripatetic life opened up new avenues for him; he had the perseverance to study in jail and then start writing. In a sense, he could overcome the initial difficult years by moving out of the government schemes. While on one hand this shows the failure of the government rehabilitation schemes, on the other it also marks the reconfiguration of identity. While he was supposed to become an agriculturalist according to government classification, his desertion from the camp led him to become ultimately a part of the informal sector of urban labour force.

These narratives point to the limitations of the policies of the government. Byapari and his family left the Shiromonipur camp at Bankura although they had nothing to fall back upon once they came to Calcutta. But they preferred to eke out a living in the city rather than face the hardships in the camp. This desertion can make us think of the countless people who were not accounted for in the government registers. The government had a classificatory scheme, with men and registers at Sealdah station, marking the migrants with their location, profession and caste. But there were lots of people outside this pail of government database, who did not have proper documents to travel. Thus they took other routes. They did not belong to the paper regime of the government. Sadananda Pal travelled to India without any paper. He was successful in going back also, before returning to India with proper visa.

Secondly, if we look at the way these people try to find a job, we realise that they were ready to move beyond their family profession. Pal did not want to become a potter, and in West Bengal he did a range of other things before settling down to make clay pots again. This shows that profession could be changed, people were ready to take up new avenues. Government rehabilitation schemes missed this attitude.

[1] Sadananda Pal, Eka Kumbha:Ek Udvastu Kumbhakarer Matimakha Atmakatha, Kolkata, 2009; Manoranjan Byapari, Itibritte Chandal Jibon, vol. 1, Kolkata, 2012.

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