Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Fort of Freedom: A study of ‘Refugeehood’ through the formation of ‘Azadgarh Colony’

Sucharita Sengupta
(Sucharita is a researcher at Calcutta Research Group. She is working with Paula Banerjee on refugee politics in West Bengal as a part of CRG-RLS project on Popular Movements in West Bengal and Bihar. This article is a part of this research. Sucharita can be reached at

  In this essay I reflect upon the history charted by persons who were turned into ‘refugees’ or Bastuhara (the homeless) overnight after the independence of India. These colonies were illegal in nature. By not reducing the refugees from East Bengal into victims, this paper will examine the role of refugees in settling themselves in a new society through forming localities of their own by force (Jabardakhal Colony), emerging in the process as an economically productive subject. Azadgarh Colony in this paper is studied closely. It provides a glimpse of the individual negotiations that refugee leaders made in building colonies, their politics in asserting their sphere of influence over a certain area and the political tussle between the left and right wing political parties. We shall rely mostly on the memoir of Indu Baran Ganguly, a firebrand refugee leader who played a decisive role in establishing the Azadgarh Colony. Ganguly was an active member of the undivided Communist Party of India (CPI). He left the party in 1942. But he rejoined the party in 1948, the year when he came to Calcutta with his family as a refugee[1]. The CPI then was trying to build up a strong opposition against the government and the refugee issue provided them with much needed instrument to articulate and mobilize their protests through forming groups and organizations, for instance, the ‘United Central Refugee Council’ in 1950. Ganguly mentions in his memoir that their rebellion against the Congress government in West Bengal embodied a glory that was larger than the pain they bore for the partition. Expressing apprehension on how historians will read partition history and interpret their memories, Ganguly in his memoir states that for him the history of refugee movement in the 50s was not solely of losses. It was instead a history of emancipation and stupendous success of winning over all odds to emerge powerful citizens of a new state.

      Ganguly’s memoir is interesting because it brings out the nuances of clashes among refugees over their political affiliations, the structure of power blocks they formed and using emotions to legitimize forceful occupations of lands. On one hand it reflects negotiations with the locals (in this case Muslims), on the other hand it also tells us about the tensions between neighbouring colonies, different political parties and ideologies. Each colony had an individual committee associated with a political party. For instance, Ganguly mentions that after being part of forming the second squatter colony in Calcutta, the Deshabandhu Nagar Colony in 1949, he was residing in the deserted house of the then prominent Muslim leader and zamindar Ghulam Ali Minar near Tollygaunge in exchange of a rent of Rs.50. The entire neighbourhood belonged to Ghulam Ali and poor Muslims, most of whom shared cordial relations with Ganguly. By this time Ganguly had re joined the CPI and he was being aided by the party to pay the rent. Incidentally CPI was declared illegal in March 1948. The party could not continue to pay the rent for long resulting into a scuffle between Ghulam Ali and Ganguly. Taking advantage of this situation, one group approached him to make false papers to confiscate the entire plot. They tried to evoke anger in him by saying refugees were forced to leave their land in East Bengal for the Muslims and hence ‘snatching’ their land was their right. Ganguly, in his own words, was a man of high morals and could not accept this proposal. It is clear from this narrative that for refugees like him, forming colonies through force in deserted lands was certainly not illegal but making false papers to confiscate the same was. Here Ganguly portrayed his conflict with Ali as an absolutely non-communal one, related solely to the payment of rent. Another day, Santosh Dutta, a fervent supporter of the refugee cause and main architect of the first squatter colony in Calcutta – Bijaygarh- along with Dhirendranath Roy Chaudhury, famously known as Kalabhai came to visit the area Ganguly was residing in. Both were famous freedom fighters and were supporters of the Congress. Apparently, they told Ganguly that they wanted to make the area an extension of the Bijaygarh Colony. On the same evening, he was approached by a rival group of Santosh Dutta, belonging to the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), to build an independent colony there, which will have a new committee with Ganguly as the new President. Ganguly apprehended that giving the plot to Bijaygarh Colony would make Santosh Dutta more powerful and resourceful. Hence Ganguly took up the proposal of forming an independent colony and this is how the ‘Azadgarh Colony’ was formed[2]. These plots of lands were then divided among refugee families on a first come-first served basis in exchange of a rent of Rs. 10. This is the history of the formation of the ‘Azadgarh Colony’[3]. Members of the Azadgarh colony did not compel the Muslims living in the neighbourhood to evacuate the land but members of Bijaygarh colony, as says Ganguly, attacked them and they were forced to flee the entire area. Later, few residents of the Bijaygarh Colony came and helped Ganguly in building the colony and complained about concentration of power and corruption among few leaders within the colony[4]. There were repeated clashes between the Azadgarh and Bijaygarh Colonies and Ganguly himself was attacked by some residents of Bijaygarh mainly because he was a communist and since he formed an independent colony there instead of giving the plot to Bijaygarh[5].
      Although Bijaygarh Colony is in paper the first squatter colony established by refugees, Ganguly rejects this claim owing to the nature of its establishment. He echoes what Prafulla Chakraborty writes in The Marginal men, about the formation of Bijaygarh Colony. Chakraborty says that the Colony was made possible due to the help it received from the government and that Santosh Dutta had taken verbal permission from both Jawaharlal Nehru and Bidhan Chandra Roy before establishing it with the help of Jadavpur Engineering students and Jadavpur Refugee Association. So it cannot be called a ‘jabardakhal colony’ or illegal squatter of the refugees. It was neither illegal nor legal as the tacit support of both Nehru and Roy cannot be denied in establishing Bijaygarh, writes Chakraborty[6]. Uditi Sen writes “the dispute over Bijaygarh’s status” provides insights on the nature of refugee negotiations. It was the passive mode of protests that distinguished the Bijaygarh Colony from the rest. Santosh Dutta was very close to the Bengal Congress and also to a section of the elite Calcutta Society. The fact that Ganguly talked of a ‘secret pact’ between Santosh Dutta and Bidhan Chandra Roy reflected their differences in political outlooks and modes of protests. While colonies like Azadgarh adopted radical modes of protest, Bijaygarh refrained from violent opposition due to its allegiance to the congress and hence the clash between Indu Baran Ganguly, as mentioned in his memoir with leaders of the Bijaygarh Colony was only inevitable[7].

[1] Indu Baran Ganguly, Colonysmriti : Udbastu Colony Pratisthar Gorar Kotha (1948-1954), Kolkata, 1997, pp. 4, 42-43.
[2] Ibid, pp 54-56.
[3] Joya Chatterji, “ ‘Dispersal’ and the Failure of Rehabilitation: Refugee Camp-Dwellers and Squatters in West Bengal”, Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 41, No.5, 2007, pp.995-1032, p.996.
[4] Ganguly, Colonismriti, p.57.
[5] Ibid, p.112.
[6] Prafulla Chakraborty, Prantik Manab: Pashimbange Udbastu Jiboner Kotha (Bengali translation of his Marginal Men), Kolkata, 2013, p.39.
[7]Uditi Sen, ‘Building Bijaygarh: A Microhistory of Refugee Squatting in Calcutta’, in Tanika Sarkar and Sekhar Bandyopadhyay (ed.) Calcutta :The Stormy Decades, New Delhi, 2015, 416-418, pp.410, 411.

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