Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Other Side of Partition Migration and Rehabilitation: Minority Displacement and Dispossession in Bengal

Subhasri Ghosh
(Subhasri teaches history at Asutosh College, Kolkata, and can be reached at )
        In the annals of 1947 Partition historiography, communal riots occupy a pivotal position. On the Bengal side, the corpus of works essentially focuses on how the mayhem triggered by the 1946 Great Calcutta Killing spurred a whole train of communal frenzy in eastern India, prior to independence and the “riots, which preceded partition gradually petered out after the Proclamation of Independence.”[1] Post-independence, the Barisal riots of February 1950 occupy a pre-eminent position in Partition literature, being the catalyst of the largest mass migration in a single month in the eastern sector. Deviating from this high politics of communal violence, but nonetheless pregnant with far-reaching consequences, this paper attempts to explore a somewhat ‘sporadic localised’ riot in Howrah in March 1950. While the Barisal riots of those days grabbed the headlines, the riot nearer home failed to garner much attention.
Trouble broke out in the third week of March in 1950. The jute belt along the bank of the river Hooghly was the worst affected. The then Additional District Magistrate of Howrah, Asok Mitra recounts, that on 24 March a few Muslims were killed. Situation worsened to reach its peak on 25-26 March when around 16 Muslims were killed, following which military was summoned to control the situation on 28 March. Between the evening of 27 March and the early mornings of 30 March, from the lanes and by-lanes of Ghusuri locality of the town, the mutilated bodies of around 60 Muslims were recovered by the district administration. Situation calmed down from 30 March with no further report of casualties.[2]
This ‘localised’ riot was pregnant with consequences of great depth. The riot, carried out with the covert support of the government was meant to act as a pressure tactic to force the Prime Minister of Pakistan Liaquat Khan to come down to Delhi for peace talks. Moved by the plight of the Muslims at Howrah, Liaquat Khan declared on 29 March that he would reach Delhi on 2 April for peace talks. The very day rioting stopped. Asok Mitra laments, “…it is a tragedy that in order to bring Liaquat Khan to Delhi, it was necessary to instigate riot in Howrah.”[3] The Commission of Enquiry formed to enquire into the 1950 riots, headed by Ms Mridula Sarabhai very eloquently, in the context of the Howrah riots, pointed out, “Personal experience of the Howrah episode confirmed my doubt…the flaring up in the industrial areas was a planned affair abetted by the local authorities. Those who were behind it appeared to be confident of support from the higher quarters. This was substantiated by the Government’s action in not taking steps against those…the manner in which the officers behaved left no doubt that they were involved in it.”[4]
Also, the larger issue at stake was the rehabilitation of the burgeoning stream of Hindu migrants from across the border.[5] The ulterior motive of the government was to rehabilitate the Hindu migrants, by evicting the Muslims and instilling fear psychosis so as to prevent their return for good. As Sarabhai notes, “On the eve of the Inter-Dominion talks…the policy of the Government seemed to have changed overnight…everywhere the District Officers were busy provoking the Muslims…to migrate to Pakistan.”[6]Ironically, while the Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru was crying hoarse in the Parliament on the persecution of the minorities in East Bengal, in West Bengal, too, the minorities suffered from insecurity as is evident from these incidents. Not only Howrah, but minorities in Hooghly, Nadia, too suffered the same fate in active connivance of the administration. The then Relief and Rehabilitation Commissioner, Government of West Bengal, Hiranmoy Bandyopadhyay opines in the context of Nadia, “If the refugees had not occupied these abandoned plots and houses, I shudder to think how the Government would have shouldered the burden of accommodating thousands of refugees in the relief camps.”[7] Thus Hindu rehabilitation at times became co-terminous with minority persecution, eviction and displacement and the minorities became pawns in the political power play.

[1] Prafulla K. Chakrabarti, The Marginal Men: The Refugees and the Left Political Syndrome in West Bengal,”  Kalyani , 1999, p. 6.
[2]Asok Mitra, Tin Kuri Dash, Vol. III, Kolkata, 1997.
[3] ibid, p. 122.
[4] West Bengal State Archives (WBSA), “Statement of Smt Mridula Sarabhai”, No File No., 1950.
[5] Between 13 February 1950 and 23 July 1950, an estimated 15,51,820 Hindu  migrants poured into West Bengal.
[6] “Statement of Smt Mridula Sarabhai”
[7] Hiranmoy Bandyopadhyay, Udbastu, Calcutta, 1970, p. 73.

No comments: