Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Settling the Bazaar: The Colony Market and the Refugees

Tista Das
(Tista teaches history at Bankura University, West Bengal, and can be reached at

This paper focuses attention on a colony in the northern part of Calcutta, the Netaji colony, in the two decades since the Partition. As homes were created, lost and re created on station platforms, camps or squatters’ colonies, the thread of a normal everyday existence was held on to at all costs. The governmental policies of economic rehabilitation were hardly enough to keep this process going. The state functioned on a notion of charity which was necessarily meagre. As the colonies came up, so did the colony markets geared to the needs of the refugees and built by the refugees themselves. There is a need to trace and grapple with the stories of these markets. The narrative becomes layered and rather complex since the markets were not just a source of earning for the refugees or a means of shaping their path of rehabilitation but were also important in establishing the much desired foothold on the right side of the border. The markets would help the refugee shopkeepers belong to the nation. The markets would also become a space for communication, social or political for the community of the refugees. The intervention of the colony committees with all its political implications must be noted. They created spaces in sync with the space of the colonies. Just as the colonies, while creating a space of their own also tried to fit into the nation space – with its history of the nationalist struggle for independence, with the names of national leaders being used to name the colonies and their photographs adorning the walls of the committee offices – so did the markets. The markets became typical of the colonies as did the schools and local temples. As the government tried to fit the refugees into neat pockets by classifying them and creating different economic groups to funnel the programmes of relief in degrees, the refugee leaders refused to be grouped and in their efforts at mobilisation, harped on the umbrella identity of being a refugee, whether of the camps or the colonies. The need, therefore, was to create a midway where the worlds of State charity and of refugee enterprise could meet.

One has to tread this middle ground and trace the narrative of the agency of the refugees in general and the establishment of the refugee markets in particular. Of the many things that being a refugee implied, creating economic networks which could sustain the refugee population in the long run was one. This was especially true of the refugee in the colony because it was he/she who could not depend on State aid and who depended heavily upon these informal networks to earn his/her bread. The colony- refugee was conscious of the resources of the neighbourhood in which he/she had settled down. In many cases, old kinship ties had helped them gain a foothold on the right side of the border. He/she had to be in constant touch with his/her neighbourhood. Unlike the camp-refugee he/she had not lived in some sort of forced isolation. Therefore, his/her hope for survival depended on his/her interactions with the people around. It hardly needs to be mentioned that such interactions were not necessarily friendly interactions. Almost every step outside the colony involved bargaining (on many occasions unpleasant or even bitter) with the world outside. In most cases, the refugee markets that grew up around the colonies did not develop haphazardly with time. They were, rather, settled overnight. The pattern of settlement was similar to that of the colonies themselves. Hurry underlined refugee lives in colonies, unlike life in camps which remained seeped in forced idleness.


       In December, 1949, about 20 families were settled in a vacant plot off B.T. Road under the leadership of the Bangali Bastutyagi Samiti.[1]This became the Netaji Colony. The colony soon took the shape of other refugee colonies, with roads running around the community ponds, and thus sprang up a school, a temple and the market. It must be noted that this pattern of settlement which was followed in almost all the colonies was not accidental. It was a set pattern tried and tested in most colonies which became the smaller versions of the villages left behind. Before the establishment of the colony market, the refugee settlers had to go to the Baranagar Bazar nearby to meet their daily requirements. In December, 1950, exactly a year after the colony was established, a colony market was established in one corner of a vacant plot of land adjacent to the colony by the central committee of the colony. A separate fish market was opened when Lakshman Das, Chandrashekhar Bhattacharya and Satish Samaddar brought fish from the wholesale fish market at Patipukur and opened stalls. It must be noted here that the meat business, traditionally dominated by Muslim butchers, did not change its nature even in the colony market. Along with Lakshman Singh was Hedayatullah who opened the meat shop. The threads of continuity defined life in the colony as much as transformations and change. The bazaar became a gated space meant to cater to the needs of the colony on the one hand and to provide employment for the inhabitants of the colony on the other. The colonies presented the picture of plans and organised settlement patterns. If life had meant loss of life and home and an unending journey across borders for a very long time, life in the colony became one of relocation and re-creation of old patterns. Such relocation needed planning and organisation. Life was guided by committees and associations. As the colony had a central committee, so did the bazaar. With time shops changed hands, the hogla leaf ceilings were replaced by tin shades. The market was also extended.  In the decade of the 70’s, another market came to settle itself on the main road outside this colony market. This had its separate committee to look after its affairs. When the road was widened, this market had to resettle itself inside the colony market. A pond was covered up to create the extra space needed and the market became bigger.

      The market became a means of interaction with the world outside the colony. As the market space came to be legitimised and its conspicuous presence became a habit for not only the colony settlers but other local inhabitants, it also came to legitimise the colony settlement in the eyes of these local inhabitants. As the threads were re woven to create an old world, albeit a truncated and incomplete one, the noise of the bazaar had a very important role to play in creating links with a world that was already abuzz and with a life that was already being lived. The colony settlers became a part of the flow. As squatters’ colonies were later recognised by the government as legitimate living quarters through charters usually called the Arpan Patra, the market was also recognised by the municipal authorities. There was a plan to transform this market into a super market but factional squabble quashed the plan. Motish Roy, the local MLA, had been in charge of the committee for long. Later, when Shivapada Bhattacharya became the MLA and the plans to create a supermarket were afloat, there was word that the committee under Motish Roy opposed the plan. The market committee was a politicised unit that created local links. It was through these links that the refugees created their space within the nation that they claimed as their own historically. Even the fights and squabbles helped in making the refugees belong to the space that they had occupied forcefully.   

      Refugee life in colonies was different from the ghettoised existence in camps, which was defined by government surveillance. However, colony life was all about living in a community. It was this that gave one the strength to squat on lands belonging to the government or to private individuals. It was therefore important to ritualise the process of foundation of the efforts. The foundation day of the market was celebrated with programmes of songs and drama (Kabigaan, Yatra, Baul) for a long time. As the establishment of the colony was a political process, the domestic space itself was a political space. The settlement was a story of success in the face of eviction operations by the government as also the landlords’ men. Every story of success had to be celebrated and ritualised to make the colony a legitimate space of living. To create a home, the colony market was needed as was needed the colony school or the colony temple. The buzz of the bazaar provided the sanction for the colony homes.

[1] Sajal Chowdhury, “Netaji Colony Theke Bolchi”, published in 4 installments, in, Dishari, April-July, 2009.  

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