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Borders and Ecotones in the Indian Ocean

 | 
Markus Arnold
, 
Corinne Duboin
, 
Judith Misrahi-Barak

I—Between Land and Water: Motion, Flux and Displacement

Ecotones of Resistance: The Contested Narrative of the ‘Refugee’ in post-Partition Bengal (1947–71)1

Pallavi Chakravarty

Résumé

The Partition of the Indian sub-continent on its western and eastern flanks in 1947 led to the creation of new states, and also new citizens. From the point of view of the State, there lay a problem in identifying the ‘genuine’ refugee as opposed to those coming out of economic factors. So while migration on the western borders occurred at one go, that on the east followed a phase-wise pattern. It is this varied pattern of migration across the two borders which led the Government of India to distinguish between the two sets of refugees those coming from West Pakistan as in need of immediate concern, whereas for those coming from East Pakistan some discretion could be used. ‘Real’ and ‘Psychological’ factors of migration were delineated to distinguish between the two groups, and also further within the group of refugees from East Pakistan. The incoming migrants from both the borders, on the other hand, adopted the motifs of ‘supreme sacrifice, ‘uprooted’, ‘patriot’ with which they claimed for themselves the right to undisputed citizenship of the new nation. They also had to prove that the reasons to migrate were out of ‘real’ factors of violence and not ‘psychological’ or ‘economic’ factors. Thus, this paper looks at the distinct ‘refugee’ identity created by the refugees in opposition to the one being imposed upon them by the State. The focus of this paper is to search for an alternative to the term ‘refugee’ in the specific context of post-partition migration in India as the term, it will be seen, proves to be inadequate to describe the situation here when compared with the European context.

Texte intégral

  • 1 This essay emerges out of my doctoral thesis ‘Post Partition Refugee Rehabilitation in India with (...)

Those who roamed the streets of Dhaka soliciting support for the Partition didn’t even dream that, as a reward for their gesture in agreeing to leave, they would be forever labelled ‘refugees’, a word that does more violence to the idea of a home than any other in any language. (The Statesman, March 2, 1986)

  • 2 The term ‘refugee’ is used in this paper within quotation marks when referring to the Indian conte (...)

1The above statement in the editorial of a reputed daily newspaper of Kolkata aptly summarises the cause for the resentment among the incoming migrants from East Pakistan when described as ‘refugee’ in post-partition India. The year 1947 saw the largest mass migration in the world across the borders of the newly created nation-states of India and Pakistan. It is this migration which created the unique case of what I call the ‘Partition refugee’2.

  • 3 Definition borrowed from the call for papers of the above-mentioned conference Ecotones #4.

2Ecotone, as defined in the framework of the ‘Ecotones’ conference in Kolkata, implies a ‘transitional zone’ where two divergent ecologies meet and at the same time ‘An “ecotone” may also indicate a place where two communities meet, at times creolizing or germinating into a new community.’3In this essay, I use this concept to explain how three divergent meanings of the term refugee converge on the same plane and thereafter lead to the possibility of a new term ‘Partition refugee’ as distinct from the conventionally defined refugee. Thus, the term refugee becomes that ecotone where the many divergent views of this term meet and thereby redefine the concept of being a refugee. There are three divergent meanings explained here: the definition in the global context, and within the Indian context, it is the view of the State and the ‘refugees’ themselves which is dealt with in detail. Thus, the argument presented here uses the concept of ecotone as a metaphor, and not in its original ecological meaning. It is hoped that towards the end it will be realized that the term ‘refugee’ as defined in the global context would not be apt for use in the specific Indian context in the immediate aftermath of Partition. At the same time, the way the Indian State defined the incoming migrants from East Pakistan was also problematic as it adopted an ever-changing position towards the influx during the long migration from East Pakistan to Bengal. From the point of view of the incoming migrants themselves, throughout the many phases of migration, they never saw themselves as ‘refugees’. But a closer look on the ground reveals that they used the term ‘refugee’ to reflect either a state of utter helplessness and highlight their plight, or to refer to the unfinished business of post-Partition rehabilitation work in Bengal. Thus, the various meanings the term ‘refugee’ can take is what this essay seeks to explore using sources from the official and alternate archives pertaining to the specific case of migration from East Pakistan to West Bengal in the aftermath of Partition.

3The Second World War, in its wake of largescale destruction of life and property, created conditions for displacement of population en masse. It can be referred to as a major refugee-generating event in world history. Further in the post-War situation, the division of Germany and the birth of Israel created more such political refugees. But the War was not the only event which led to the whole process of refugee-making, rather the period also witnessed the success of the long struggles for decolonization in the erstwhile colonies which in turn led to another set of displaced persons/refugees. Hence while the world had seen mass population movements even before, the refugee problem became for the first time a global issue, urgently requiring a global organization to address the needs of the refugees. Thus, was signed the United Nations Convention on Refugees in 1951. It was in this Convention that the refugee was first defined in most clear terms:

[A person who owing to a] well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.4

  • 5 In fact, the definition cited above explicitly read that it was applicable to people displaced due (...)

A closer look at the definition reveals that it could have been applied to post-Partition India and Pakistan as well. Correspondingly, both countries could have been signatories of this Convention. However, both chose not to. As a matter of fact, while most of the countries in South Asia are both recipients as well as source of a large number of such refugees (political or economic), yet none are signatories of this Convention or the subsequent Protocol on Refugees (1967). The reasons, though not explicitly stated, are more on account of matters of sovereignty, security, and economy. Another problematic aspect of this definition is that it is seen as primarily Eurocentric, ignorant of conditions outside Europe.5

4It is here then that, I note a significant distinction between the ‘refugee’ born out of the specific context of World War 2 in Europe, and ‘the Partition refugee’, who are a product of almost contemporaneous yet distinct contexts of decolonisation and partition in the South Asian context. The latter, I argue, forms a distinct category in themselves which is vastly different from the refugee as defined in the UN Convention or Protocol.

5This essay discusses the specific case of the migration in the Eastern border of the Indian subcontinent in the aftermath of the Partition of India. The definition of the ‘refugee’ as used by the Indian State will be juxtaposed with the one as interpreted by the ‘refugees’ themselves who refused to be categorized simply as such. The essay brings to light the attitude of the Indian State towards these migrants. It constantly fluctuated from that of acknowledging their sacrifice for the independence of the nation to seeing them as an economic liability upon the finances of the nascent nation-state, and finally, to seeing them as objects of charity/state-benevolence and the first task before the nascent state which had to be done satisfactorily to earn legitimacy in the eyes of its own people and the world around. The ‘refugees’ on the other hand, did not see themselves as the ones who were at the mercy of state benevolence. They believed rehabilitation was their right which the State owed to them on account of the many sacrifices made by them—leaving behind their homes and a way of life in their erstwhile homeland—for the sake of the freedom of their country. Hence, they strongly contested the idea of being referred to as ‘refugees’. They sought for alternate terms to describe their lot. Yet, on the other hand, there were those who used the ‘refugee’ tag to get the bare minimum help from the State out of absolute helplessness. Here the factor of class and caste becomes an important determinant: the middle-class/upper caste (bhadralok) belonged to the former category while the lower class/lower caste (chotolok) belonged to the latter.

  • 6 Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of External Affairs Files on Displaced Persons from East Paki (...)
  • 7 As observed from oral testimonies (published or taken by self) and from the titles of memoirs auth (...)

6Elaborating upon the case of the ‘refugee’ from East Pakistan, this essay seeks to bring to light the attitude of the State towards these migrants who were variously defined as ‘refugees’, ‘infiltrators’, ‘aliens’ and ‘foreigners’ by the State while trying to discourage migration in the East.6 On their part, the refugees preferred the use of ‘udvastu’ (uprooted) or ‘bastuhara’(one who has lost his homeland) as terms to refer to themselves.7 At the outset, the context of migration in the East will be described in some detail which will prove useful for explaining the reason behind the various definitions of the term refugee as used by the State and the ‘refugees’ themselves.

  • 8 For a detailed discussion on the phases of migration, see Pallavi Chakravarty, ‘Post Partition Ref (...)

7Migration in Bengal in the aftermath of Independence and Partition occurred in phases. While some migrants crossed over in 1947, a large number of them made this difficult decision only much later. The peak periods of migration have been statistically identified as 1950 (communal riots in East Pakistan); 1952 (introduction of passports as official documents for travel across the two countries); 1964 (communal riots in West Bengal); and finally, 1971 (Bangladesh Liberation War).8 But nonetheless it is also a fact that people still crossed over the two Bengals even in the intervening periods which have not been identified as high points of migration. What is of immediate consequence is that in the official documentation too, the State recognized only two phases as important phases of migration—1950 and 1964—on account of the incident of violence, at the same time, the period between April 1, 1958 and December 31, 1963, has been identified by the Indian State as a period of ‘illegal migration’ because according to the State there were no grounds of ‘real violence’ and hence ‘real factor’ for migration.

  • 9 India was partitioned on its eastern and western borders to create the State of Pakistan. So India (...)

8Thus, it is seen that while the State viewed some migrations as ‘legal’ due to ‘real’ incidents of violence, it saw others as ‘illegal’ or economically motivated or on account of what the State believed was ‘psychological’ or mere ‘fear’ of violence. On the other hand, the ‘refugees’ always saw this crossing over as legitimate, since they believed they were fleeing a hostile state and society. For them, it also meant losing their all and coming over to an unfamiliar host state and society. Such a differing view on migration laid the grounds for the varied definition of the ‘refugee’ by the Indian State and also in the different treatment meted out to them when compared with their counterparts from West Pakistan.9

9From the very beginning, the primary concern of the State was to prevent the influx in the eastern border. The experience in the western border had shown that rehabilitating the ‘refugees’ was a huge and economically draining task for a nascent nation state. However, influx across western borders could not be prevented due to the unparalleled orgy of violence which made it imperative for the two states (India and Pakistan) to formally agree upon an exchange of population and official evacuation programme for the refugees caught up on the ‘wrong’ side of the border, i.e. Hindus and Sikhs were evacuated from West Pakistan to India just as Muslims were evacuated to Pakistan from the North-western states of India. Such a practice was deemed as unfit by Prime Minister of India Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru as it went against his idea of an India, home to all and not only to a specific community. Bengal, the eastern borders, thus, provided a hope to him where such a policy would not be implemented and people could be asked to stay where they were. This hope was a result of the low-scale violence in the east as compared to the west. Consequently, the official policy of the Indian state on migration in the east was to prevent it as far as possible. The incoming migrant from East Pakistan was therefore defined differently in comparison to his/her counterpart from West Pakistan. The definitions adopted for the migrants from East Pakistan were reliant upon either the experience of violence, or the time of arrival, or the degree of rehabilitation.

10As mentioned above, a different experience of violence in East Pakistan resulted in a slightly different definition of the displaced person from that followed for the rest of India. So, while the displaced person from West Pakistan was defined as

  • 10 The Displaced Persons (Claims) Act (1950), Acts of Parliament, Government of India.

(. . .) any person who, on account of the setting up of the Dominion of India and Pakistan, or on account of civil disturbances, or the fear of such disturbances in any area now forming part of Pakistan, has after the first day of March, 1947, left or been displaced from, his place of residence in such area and who has been subsequently residing in India, and includes any person who is resident in India and who for that reason is unable or has been made unable to manage, supervise or control any immovable property belonging to him in Pakistan.10

The definition of the displaced person in East Pakistan underwent multiple revisions. One of the earliest definitions of the displaced person in the East was as follows:

  • 11 Rehabilitation of the Displaced Persons and Eviction of Persons in Unauthorized Occupation of Land (...)

(. . .) ordinarily resident in East Bengal but on account of communal disturbances occurring after 1st day of October 1946, left East Bengal and arrived in West Bengal on or before the 31st day of December 1950; and,
has no land in West Bengal of which he is the owner; and,
has affirmed in an affidavit filed in the office of the competent authority that he does not intend to return to East Bengal.11

As can be seen, while it included the victims of violence in Noakhali in 1946, yet, despite the persistence of migration even beyond 1950, no provision was made to accommodate those who came after the ‘31st day of December 1950’. Much later, in the face of continuous influx, a more inclusive definition was adopted in 1955:

  • 12 Conference of the Rehabilitation Ministers from the Eastern States held at Darjeeling, 20th-22nd O (...)

(. . .) a person who was ordinarily resident in the territories now comprised in East Pakistan, but who on account of civil disturbances or on account of the partition of India has migrated—in the case of persons migrating from the district of Noakhali or the district of Comilla now forming part of East Pakistan, on or after the 1st October 1946, and in the case of persons migrating from any other area in East Pakistan on or after the 1st June 1947 to the territories now included in the Union of India, with the intention of taking up permanent residence within such territories.12

11However, extending the deadline did not really mean increasing the liability of the Government vis-à-vis the refugees because the eligibility criteria for receiving rehabilitation benefits were suitably crafted to eliminate quite a few of them. To obtain any rehabilitation benefits from the State, the migrant would have to produce either of the following documents as an evidence of migration from East Pakistan—Migration Certificates, Citizenship Certificates, Documents proving the option taken in case of an optee Government servant. If these were unavailable then the following could also be used as a proof of migration—Refugee Registration certificate, Border Slip, Border Ration Slip, Certified Copy of National Census Register. And in case these were also unavailable, then ‘their status as displaced persons would be determined on the basis of circumstantial evidence by an officer not below the rank of a sub-divisional Magistrate’ (Annual Report 1955–56: 88). In any case, the final decision was taken that ‘no person migrating after 15th October 1952 should be recognised as a displaced person unless he produced a migration certificate’ (88).

12There were two other flaws in the revised definition: the addition of property qualifications, and the need to prove one’s intention to stay on. It was made clear in the Conference that only those who ‘had lost use of their house in Pakistan and who had not acquired house in any part of India’ (Annual Report 1955–56: 87) would be eligible for housing benefits in India. No such criteria had been set for defining the displaced person coming from West Pakistan.

13The second qualifying statement mentioned in the definition above was the need to declare before a competent authority the clear intention of not ever going back to East Bengal. Yet again, there was no such requirement for the migrant coming from West Pakistan. So, whereas the earlier definition of the displaced person from East Pakistan mentions this clearly, the revised definition simply hints at it—‘with the intention of taking up permanent residence. . .’ (Annual Report 1955–56: 87). This reflects the perception of the Indian State which believed that migration in the East was a temporary affair, and that when the situation would improve in East Pakistan, the migrants would go back. This false perception of the State was responsible for the ill-conceived rehabilitation policies vis-à-vis the migrants coming from East Pakistan.

14However, defining the ‘refugees’ based on their experience of violence was only one of the many ways by which the State identified who was a ‘refugee’ and who was not. Yet another criterion used was the classification based on the time of arrival. Here the three categories were: ‘old migrants’, ‘illegal migrants’, and ‘new migrants’. The migrants who came during the first phase of migration 1947–1958 were referred to as the ‘old migrants’. They were mostly rehabilitated in West Bengal, but after 1955 many among them were pushed out of Bengal into the states of Bihar, Orissa, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and even as far as Andamans. Many of them returned back as what the State called the ‘deserter refugees’. They were no longer considered eligible for state aid as the Government argued that since they had willingly deserted the camps arranged by the Government for their rehabilitation, they would no longer be entitled to state aid. The duty of the Government vis-à-vis these ‘deserter refugees’, then, was considered as over. These refugees merged with the urban poor and destitute of the city. The more enterprising among them either found some odd jobs, or business for survival, or set up jabardakhal (squatter) colonies in and around Calcutta.

15The migrants who came during the period 1st April 1958-31st December 1963 were considered as ‘illegal migrants’ because the Indian State saw no ‘valid reason’ for migration in this peace time other than purely economic factors. These migrants were denied any kind of state aid and had to sustain themselves on their own sources and abilities.

16In 1964 there was once again a fresh influx of refugees and their migration was seen as justified by the State on account of the real violence experienced by them. However, the policy of rehabilitation only outside West Bengal was now strictly adhered to and these ‘new migrants’ were given just two-three days dole in the camps and sent off to Dandakaranya (Central India) for rehabilitation. Those who refused to go were denied any form of state aid after the distribution of an advance dole of six months. These refugees just did not exist thereafter for the Government. They continued to stay on in the camps which were closed down. They came to be known as ‘ex camp-site refugees’. They, too, like the ‘deserter refugees’, were no longer eligible for State-aid.

  • 13 Problems of Refugee Camps and Homes in West Bengal (The Screening Committee Report, 1989), Governm (...)

17Yet another criterion for defining the refugee from East Pakistan was based upon the degree of rehabilitation aid provided. Thus, there was the Rehabilitable Group (RG) and the Permanent Liability Group (PL). The former included those able-bodied refugees and their families who could be employed in some productive work and thereby given some form of rehabilitation—urban or rural, thereby making them independent of Government aid. Permanent Liability group was defined as those ‘inmates/families who are physically and/or mentally handicapped, who are too old (70 years and above) and infirm, and who will remain on doles in the Homes permanently till death.’13

18A Screening Committee, however, noted that even among those who were grouped PL, there were a few who could be rehabilitated if Government could provide some aid to them in the form of rehabilitation loans, etc. Hence, this Committee categorised the PL group further as follows—‘rehabilitable group’, or the RG group, the ‘permanent liability’, or the PL group, and finally, the ‘border-line cases’ (BLC):

  • 14 Problems of Refugee Camps and Homes in West Bengal (The Screening Committee Report, 1989), Governm (...)

Border-line case families are those who vacillated during screening whether to opt for rehabilitation or for being PL. They could not settle up their minds though many were willing for rehab (sic). They could not dare so because of some family-difficulties were presently existing. Neither the Committed (sic, meaning Committee) could think it wise to determine their status finally and hence declared them BLC.14

Apart from them, the case of ‘deserter refugee’ and ‘ex camp-site refugees’ has already been mentioned above. These were clearly those who were immediately struck off the Government registers on account of their act of disobedience. For the State, of course, it meant, fewer mouths to feed.

19Thus, refugees in the East were defined by the time of migration and the category of rehabilitation, apart from the normal categorisation as the ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ refugee. In comparison to the definition of the refugees from West Pakistan, a notable difference is the lack of any timeline being assigned to the latter. This was a result of the difference in the migration pattern, but it can also be argued that the Hindus and Sikhs from West Pakistan were already seen as the responsibility of the Government of India. It is only in the post-1965 period that finally an undertaking is demanded from any migrant coming into India from West Pakistan that they will not claim any rehabilitation benefits from the Government of India and that they have the necessary support of some family member to look after them in India without being a liability on the Indian Government.

20This section looked at the varied ways in which the Indian State defined the ‘refugees’ coming from East Pakistan. It is observed that the primary concern from the point of view of the State was to prevent the influx in the East and thereby limit its responsibilities to the bare minimum. Likewise, the definitions are reflective of the sloppy rehabilitation programme designed for this group of ‘refugees’. Thus, the term ‘refugee’ is employed in many ways distinct from the original definition used in the UN documents. It could be used as a means to identify the ‘real’ refugee based on the definitions around the event of violence, at the same time, the definitions based on the degree of rehabilitation could be used to include or exclude as the case may be (e.g. rehabilitable group of refugees on the one hand and the Deserter refugees and ex-campsite refugees on the other). The next section looks at how the displaced persons defined themselves.

21The ‘Partition refugees’ wished to be distinguished from the conventional definition of the refugee. They were not ‘fleeing’ from one country and seeking refuge in the other, rather the country had been divided and their homes had fallen on the wrong side of the Radcliffe line. Therefore, they had to migrate to the side where they were assured safety of their lives. The most common view the ‘Partition refugees’ held of themselves was that they were the ones who had made the ultimate, supreme sacrifice for the Independence of the country. It was based upon this inherent pride that they demanded their right to rehabilitation. In all the letters addressed to the Congress President Acharya Kripalani, or the President of India Rajendra Prasad, or the Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru, and all the other political leaders of the time, it is this point which is highlighted over and over again while requesting for some rehabilitation assistance. Pamphlets and propaganda material published by the migrants reflected a similar sentiment:

  • 15 East Bengali Minority Welfare Association, Atiihashik Adhikar (Historic Rights) (Calcutta: Gourang (...)

The partition left us homeless, bereft of everything. We did not fight for independence in order to lead the lives of beggars. Those of us who cannot remain in East Pakistan are not doing anything wrong by seeking shelter in India. Why should the police push us back? Why should we live in hovels next to rail-tracks? Why should we be the object of people’s mercy? Why can we not live like everyone else with the dignity of human beings? . . . it is only right that those who struggled and sacrificed for independence be repaid.15

  • 16 Proceedings of the Constituent Assembly of India (Legislative), v. II, no. 1 (Delhi: Government of (...)

The contribution of the incoming migrants was also acknowledged in the speeches of the political leaders. During a debate on the rehabilitation of refugees in the Constituent Assembly of India in 1947, a member described it as ‘an abominable word’ because it suggested that the migrants were ‘strangers’ whose access to shelter depended on the goodwill of the Indian people. Instead, he argued that they were ‘natives’ of India, ‘born of its soil’ and had ‘title and a right’ to resettlement in the country. He went on to demand that the government avoid using the word ‘refugee’ which hurt the ‘self-respect’ of the displaced and proposed that they be called pravasi which means ‘exile’, because the Partition had exiled people who had originally been a part of the Indian nation.16

  • 17 Chatterji Joya, ‘Right or Charity? The Debate over Relief and Rehabilitation in West Bengal, 1947– (...)

22The trope of sacrifice, thus, was the most important point of emphasis from the perspective of the migrants. While the State often did acknowledge this fact, yet, for the greater part it saw the ‘refugees’ and their rehabilitation as its first task to prove its legitimacy in the eyes of its own people and the world outside. The performance of this task was thus more an act of charity towards, than any possible right of, the migrants. The migrants, on their part, refused to be seen as objects of charity.17

23They felt here a sense of betrayal by the State. They believed that they had been the ones who had made the supreme sacrifice for the Independence of this country, hence, it was now the duty of the State to support them in their time of grave deprivation. It was their right to be rehabilitated, and adequately too. When this was not coming through smoothly, as in the East, they felt betrayed and resorted to the only means available to them—taking matters in their own hands. This explains the forcible occupation of land, the stiff resistance to eviction from such land or rehabilitation camps, and the refusal to move out of West Bengal for rehabilitation in unknown but more importantly, hostile states.

24The refugees thus felt that they were the victims of a political game and the ones who had been betrayed by their leadership. In every personal memoir and interview taken, they all collectively point out to how the promises of the leaders had been belied in practice. For example, Dhirendranath Roy Chowdhury who had been a Congress activist, complained:

  • 18 Interview with Dhirendranath Roy Chowdhury, November 1988 in Chatterjee (1992): 113.

After independence, the government went around building memorials to nationalist heroes. They renamed the Ochterlony monument “ShahidMinar”, but what about the thousands of homeless East Bengalis who gathered at its base every other month petitioning for shelter? They were the ones who had suffered the most and no-one remembered them.18

That promises made at the time of Independence were broken in the immediate aftermath was a point often used by the opposition parties in their scathing attacks against the Congress and its policies vis-à-vis the refugees.

25Apart from emphasising their sacrifice and sense of betrayal, the migrants also pointed out the process of becoming a migrant. The majority among them concurred with the fact that migration was not their first option, rather they were violently uprooted. As noted in the memoirs of these migrants, it was the land of their ancestors—saat-purusher-bhite-mati—which had been left behind and which was very dear to them. It is in Dakhsinaranjan Basu’s Chede Asha Gram, that this sense of being uprooted from home and land is most profoundly spelt out. The book is a collection of memoirs written by incoming migrants from East Pakistan and reflects their strong sense of loss of the homeland.

  • 19 Chakrabarty, Dipesh. ‘Remembered Villages: Representations of Hindu-Bengali Memories in the Afterm (...)

26But as pointed out by Dipesh Chakrabarty, these reminiscences cannot be taken on face value alone. There is a deeper meaning, perhaps keeping in line with the contemporary refugee politics, which can be unearthed by a closer reading of these memoirs. By reminding of the ‘good old days’ and the amicable relations that the Hindus had with their Muslim brethren, the intention was to garner local sympathy and political attention in West Bengal. Just like the metaphor of ‘supreme sacrifice’, the migrants also used the notion of ‘being uprooted from their homes’ to further their cause and stake a greater claim to the nascent nation state.19 It is in memoirs such as these as well as pamphlets published by several refugee organizations where such metaphors of sacrifice, betrayal and uprootedness are used by the refugees to highlight their sense of deprivation and the neglect by the Indian State. Thus, the refugees, refused to consider themselves as ones who were at the mercy of the State. Rather, they wished to propagate the idea that their demands for adequate rehabilitation in West Bengal was their right and not a matter of charity by the State.

27The above discussion shows that, the first area of conflict between the migrant from East Pakistan and the State was with regard to the very definition of the ‘refugee’. This resentment at the term ‘refugee’ was on account of the belief that it meant a state of destitution, helplessness, and was also derogatory to some extent. But they believed that they were victims of a political game and that they had been uprooted from their homeland. Hence, the term they preferred to use for their lot was udvastu, or bastuhara, i.e. ‘uprooted from the home/homeland’ or ‘one who has lost his homeland’. The term has a deeper meaning as well, reflecting the violent uprooting and a strong sense of attachment with the lost homeland. Thus, the popular slogan of the refugee movement in Bengal—‘Amra Kara, Bastuhara’ [Who are we—the homeless]. Using this identity of the one who was forced out of their ancestral homes and their beloved homeland, these migrants made a strong demand for their rights in lieu of their sufferings and sacrifices.

28Nilanjana Chatterjee points to another dimension to this debate over the use of the term ‘refugee’. According to her, the term was eventually retained by the migrants to prove the failure of the State in rehabilitating them:

I have suggested that East Bengali sought to make the negatively loaded social category of refugee their own, to imbue it with heroic qualities and use it to legitimize their demand for resettlement. I would like to add that, once the process of resettlement got underway, their continued self -definition as ‘refugees’ may be seen as a critique of the state’s performance in rehabilitating them. (Chatterjee 1992: 120)

  • 20 Rahman Md Habibur and Willem van Schendel, ‘I am not a Refugee’: Rethinking Partition Migration, M (...)

29In an article which seeks to revisit the migration in the East and identify the various categories of migrants who have so far been overlooked, Md Habibur Rahman and Willem van Schendel further discuss how not everyone coming from East Pakistan could be termed a refugee.20 They classify the entire group of migrants under one of the following groups: cross-border settlers; cross-border labour migrants; border refugees; refugees from the interior (these are the udvastu / bsatuhara mentioned above), and the nationalists. While the first three categories are in a state of indecision as to where they belong, the last two have more or less decided their location. Rahman and Schendel, however, do mention that these categories were not mutually exclusive and that one could belong to all or most of the categories on most occasions. For our purpose here, it is important to note that the archetypal image of the refugee was quite diverse and varied.

30For the Government the mass of displaced persons remained just that—a mass of people coming over out of fear of, or actual, persecution. That they comprised those who were forced to leave their settled lives and their homeland behind was seldom a concern for the Government. Thus, very often Nehru and the others are seen to be at pains to show the decline in influx using statistics which clearly belied the real situation.

31It is for this reason that all legislative Acts pertaining to the issue of rehabilitation of these migrants use the term ‘displaced persons’. Even, the Union Ministry set up for the exclusive purpose of rehabilitating the displaced persons from West and East Pakistan was named the Ministry of Relief and Rehabilitation, which was renamed later as the Ministry of Rehabilitation. But interestingly, the Department of Rehabilitation set up in West Bengal to this day is referred to as the Refugee Relief and Rehabilitation Department, Government of West Bengal. This is worth noting as it is reflective of the fact that the rehabilitation problem in West Bengal is far from being solved to this day.

  • 21 Interview with Rangalal Goldar, February 1989, in Chatterjee (1992): 89.

32Thus, the migrant from East Pakistan was not only pushed out of his home but was also an unwelcome figure in his adopted homeland. And while the term ‘refugee’ was not acceptable to them, it is this identity which has stuck to them all these years. While a large section among them contest the use of this hapless term and prefer the use of the term udvastu, bastuhara or dabidar (claimant to right), a significant number continues to use it either to make a claim for rehabilitation benefits, or, as pointed out by Nilanjana Chatterjee, to show the incompetence of the State in its first and most important task towards its own people and the world outside: ‘At first “refugee” sounded like a swear word (gali) to me because I associated it with bideshi (foreigner). Later I realized that to call myself a refugee was to give a bad name (badnaam) to the government. It was not my fault I was still homeless. It was theirs.’21

  • 22 Chakrabarti, Prafulla. The Marginal Men: The Refugees and the Left Political Syndrome in West Beng (...)
  • 23 Ray, Manas. ‘Growing Up Refugee’. History Workshop Journal, 53 (Spring 2002): 149–179; 155.

33There is another section which continues to use the term ‘refugee’ to identify themselves itis that of the lower-class migrant from East Pakistan, and also the lower-caste migrant. They continue to do so because it is this status of refugee-hood which would entitle them to rehabilitation aid from the State—working their way out of it was impossible and also not practical. They were the camp-refugees, a group distinct from the colony-residents (upper- and middle-class migrants who squatted on government and/or private lands and built residential colonies). That the latter saw itself as distinct from the former is subtly observed in the fact that the former was seldom entitled to a plot of land in the squatter colonies established by the latter. Conversely the colony refugees never participated in the struggles of the camp refugees.22 Here class and caste factors became important. As noted by Prafulla Chakrabarti, the camp residents were mostly Namasudras or the chotolok category and because of which the upper-caste Bengali bhadralok did not involve themselves in their struggle. Likewise, when the tables turned on the colony-refugees, the camp-refugees also turned a blind eye towards them. Thus, a strong class and caste divide can be observed in the refugee movement itself. For our purpose here, however, this divide is being discussed only to highlight a different aspect of the term ‘refugee’: it could hold values of caste and class at the same time. Manas Ray sums up this divide within the migrants in the following words, ‘If Calcutta invested us with its terrors, we did the same to the people we thought were peripheral, infusing them with the terrors we were so familiar with. . . The internal boundaries settled, we felt comfortable with our habitat.’23

  • 24 Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy (Chief Minister, West Bengal) at a Press Conference in Calcutta (Kolkata), T (...)

34In conclusion, it can be said that the term ‘refugee’ as defined by the United Nations cannot be used to define the migrants who crossed over either to India or Pakistan in the immediate aftermath of the Partition of the Indian subcontinent—the context of migration was different as was the pattern. The Indian state, on its part, used the term ‘displaced persons’ more frequently in official documents, legislations and arguments, while at the same time often used the term ‘refugee’ for purposes of expediency as well: ‘[T]he word had a definite meaning in respect of funds provided by the Central Government. Help from that fund could only be given to those displaced from their homes by communal disturbances.’24 The migrants themselves abhorred the term ‘refugee’ as they felt it did not do justice to their actual status which was of the ones who had made the biggest sacrifice for the birth of the two nations. However, even amongst them there were those (lower class/lower caste) who were compelled to use the term in order to get rehabilitation aid from the State; and there were those who used it, as noted by Nilanjana Chatterjee, to critique the State over the incomplete nature of work done for them by the State. Finally, there were those who had found alternate terms udvastu and bastuhara to define their actual status. The migrants from West Pakistan, too, had detested the use of the term sharanarthi (seeking shelter/refuge) and instead favoured the term purusharthi (self-reliant).

35What has been argued here is that the term refugee in its conventional sense cannot be applicable in the post-Partition Indian context. It has, however, been used by the Indian State and the incoming migrants themselves in a moulded fashion to address the specific context of Partition and displacement. In the process of this moulding and remoulding, I suggest the possibility of the use of ‘Partition refugee’ as an alternate term to distinguish the subcontinent experience from its European counterpart, and at the same time it could also be used in the domestic circuit to address the distinction of this category of refugees from the later day refugees who came into India post-Independence with the specific intention of asylum and refuge, e.g. Tibetan refugees, Sri Lankan Tamils, and Afghan refugees. Thus, I have tried to use the concept of ecotone as a metaphor wherein the term itself coalesces multiple meanings to create the possibility of a new term ‘Partition refugee’ to define the particular case of the post-Partition refugees in India.

Bibliographie

The Statesman, National Archives of India, New Delhi.

Government of India Publications: Ministry of Rehabilitation, Annual Reports.

Chakrabarti, Prafulla. The Marginal Men: The Refugees and the Left Political Syndrome in West Bengal. Kalyani, West Bengal: Lumiere Books, 1990.

Chakrabarti, Dipesh, ‘Remembered Villages: Representations of Hindu-Bengali Memories in the Aftermath of the Partition’ in Inventing Boundaries: Gender, Politics, and the Partition of India, Mushirul Hasan, ed. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000; 319–337.

Chakravarti, Pallavi. ‘Post Partition Refugee Rehabilitation in India with special reference to Bengal, 1947–71’, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Delhi, 2011.

chatterjee, Nilanjana. ‘Midnight’s Unwanted Children: East Bengali Refugees and the Politics of Rehabilitation’, unpublished PhD thesis, Brown University,1992.

Chatterji, Joya. ‘Right or Charity? The Debate over Relief and Rehabilitation in West Bengal, 1947–1950’ in The Partitions of Memory: The Afterlife of the Division of India, Suvir Kaul, ed. New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2001; 74–110.

Rahman, Md Habibur and Willem van Schendel. ‘“I am not a Refugee”: Rethinking Partition Migration’, Modern Asian Studies, 37–3 (2003): 551–584.

Ray, Manas. ‘Growing Up Refugee’, History Workshop Journal, 53 (Spring 2002): 149–179.

Notes

1 This essay emerges out of my doctoral thesis ‘Post Partition Refugee Rehabilitation in India with special reference to Bengal, 1947–71’ at the Department of History, University of Delhi (2011, 331 p.). While the thesis compared the numerous legislative Acts and policies as introduced by the Government of India to provide relief and rehabilitation to the refugees coming into India from West and East Pakistan respectively, this essay looks in detail at the very first task in the whole process of providing relief and rehabilitation to the incoming migrants, viz the defining of the category of ‘refugee’. One version of this article has been published as Chakravarty Pallavi, Redefining the “Partition Refugee”’, in Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, 75, Platinum Jubilee (2014): 546–558. The present version attempts to link it more with the theme of the conference ‘Ecotones #4: Partitions and Borders’ held in Kolkata, 12-15th December 2018, and has been accordingly modified. For her constant encouragement at every stage of presenting and publishing this work, I am deeply indebted to Dr Judith Misrahi-Barak.

2 The term ‘refugee’ is used in this paper within quotation marks when referring to the Indian context because neither the incoming migrants from Pakistan into India nor the scholarly community considers this group as a refugee in the conventional sense as defined in the UN Refugee Convention, 1951. This is what the paper also seeks to highlight using official and alternate archives. As an alternate term, I suggest the use of ‘partition refugee’ which, in my opinion, explains the specific context in which this group was created and at the same time also distinguishes them from the many later day refugees who came into India in post-Independence period, e.g. Tibetan, Sri Lankan Tamil, and Afghan refugees.

3 Definition borrowed from the call for papers of the above-mentioned conference Ecotones #4.

4 The 1951 Refugee Convention, p. 14: https://www.unhcr.org/1951-refugee-convention.html (accessed June 14, 2019).

5 In fact, the definition cited above explicitly read that it was applicable to people displaced due to ‘events occurring in Europe before 1st January 1951’. It was the 1967 Protocol which removed the time limits and applied the term to refugees ‘without any geographic limitation’.

6 Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of External Affairs Files on Displaced Persons from East Pakistan, National Archives of India, New Delhi.

7 As observed from oral testimonies (published or taken by self) and from the titles of memoirs authored by the refugees themselves. A popular slogan of the times by the ‘refugees’ was ‘Amra Kara? Bastuhara.’ [‘Who are we? The Homeless.’]

8 For a detailed discussion on the phases of migration, see Pallavi Chakravarty, ‘Post Partition Refugee Rehabilitation in India with special reference to Bengal, 1947–71’ unpublished PhD thesis submitted to the Department of History, University of Delhi (2011): 1–332.

9 India was partitioned on its eastern and western borders to create the State of Pakistan. So India received refugees from both West and East Pakistan. The differential treatment meted out by the Indian State to the refugees coming East Pakistan when compared with their counterparts from West Pakistan is the subject matter of my PhD thesis cited above (Chakravarty 2011).

10 The Displaced Persons (Claims) Act (1950), Acts of Parliament, Government of India.

11 Rehabilitation of the Displaced Persons and Eviction of Persons in Unauthorized Occupation of Land Act, 1951, Acts of Parliament, GOI.

12 Conference of the Rehabilitation Ministers from the Eastern States held at Darjeeling, 20th-22nd October, 1955, Ministry of Rehabilitation, Annual Report (1955–56): 1–120; 86–87.

13 Problems of Refugee Camps and Homes in West Bengal (The Screening Committee Report, 1989), Government of West Bengal: Refugee Relief and Rehabilitation Directorate, 1989; 7.

14 Problems of Refugee Camps and Homes in West Bengal (The Screening Committee Report, 1989), Government of West Bengal: Refugee Relief and Rehabilitation Directorate, 1989; 8.

15 East Bengali Minority Welfare Association, Atiihashik Adhikar (Historic Rights) (Calcutta: Gouranga Press, n.d.; 8–9; quoted in Nilanjana Chatterjee, ‘Midnight’s Unwanted Children: East Bengali Refugees and the Politics of Rehabilitation’, unpublished PhD thesis, Brown University (1992): 83.

16 Proceedings of the Constituent Assembly of India (Legislative), v. II, no. 1 (Delhi: Government of India Publications, 1948): 867; quoted in Chatterjee (1992): 83.

17 Chatterji Joya, ‘Right or Charity? The Debate over Relief and Rehabilitation in West Bengal, 1947–1950’ in The Partitions of Memory: The Afterlife of the Division of India, Suvir Kaul, ed. New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2001; 74–110.

18 Interview with Dhirendranath Roy Chowdhury, November 1988 in Chatterjee (1992): 113.

19 Chakrabarty, Dipesh. ‘Remembered Villages: Representations of Hindu-Bengali Memories in the Aftermath of the Partition’, in Inventing Boundaries: Gender, Politics, and the Partition of India, Mushirul Hasan, ed. New Delhi: Oxford University Press (2000): 319–337.

20 Rahman Md Habibur and Willem van Schendel, ‘I am not a Refugee’: Rethinking Partition Migration, Modern Asian Studies, 37–3 (2003): 551–584.

21 Interview with Rangalal Goldar, February 1989, in Chatterjee (1992): 89.

22 Chakrabarti, Prafulla. The Marginal Men: The Refugees and the Left Political Syndrome in West Bengal. Kalyani, West Bengal: Lumiere Books, 1990; 175.

23 Ray, Manas. ‘Growing Up Refugee’. History Workshop Journal, 53 (Spring 2002): 149–179; 155.

24 Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy (Chief Minister, West Bengal) at a Press Conference in Calcutta (Kolkata), The Statesman, 4th July 1948.

Auteur

Pallavi Chakravarty teaches History at the School of Liberal Studies, Bharat Ratna Dr BR Ambedkar University Delhi. Her area of specialisation is Modern Indian History. She has been awarded a PhD by the Department of History, University of Delhi, and her research topic was the rehabilitation of the ‘partition refugees’ in post-Independent India in the decades of 1947–71. Her perspective was comparative, looking at the rehabilitation of the Punjabi refugees in Delhi and Bengali refugees in Calcutta. It is forthcoming with Primus Publications (New Delhi) as Rehabilitating the Refugee: An East-West Story (1947–1971). She has presented papers on various themes around the partition of India–historiography, new methods of research, gender question, and partition literature–in national and international conferences. Her publications include an NMML sponsored occasional paper titled ‘Post Partition Rehabilitation of the Refugees in India’, apart from articles in edited volumes and book reviews in prestigious journals.

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