The Refugee City: Partition and Kolkata’s postcolonial landscape
Posted by bangalnama on August 31, 2009
In 1966, the writers of the Basic Development Plan for the city described Calcutta as a ‘metropolis in crisis.’ It was a description given in despair probably keeping in mind the city’s chequered history of urbanization. This urbanization was externally imposed by the English to meet the needs of a colonial economy and de-linked from the developments in the rural areas.1 The decade of the forties was characterized by major movements in population that stretched the limits of the city and its civic amenities, particularly the great famine of 1943 which took a toll of 6 million lives and pushed hundreds of people to seek relief into the city and its suburbs. After the Partition, the refugee movement greatly influenced the urbanization of the city because their sheer numbers transformed villages or semi urban areas to towns. In Calcutta, 25% of the metropolis agglomeration were refugees and between 1941 and 1951, Calcutta’s overall population density jumped by 20% while in areas with a large refugee presence like Tollygunj, the density increased by almost 141% within that same period.2
In the city of Kolkata, the journey of the East Bengali refugee, culturally and psychologically, was a one-way journey. They came to the city and never went back. In the years immediately after the Partition, the people coming over to West Bengal were optees, government servants who opted to work for the Indian government and well to do people who had families and kin in Kolkata. From February 1950, after the riots in Bagerhat and Barisal, the refugees entering West Bengal were mainly agriculturists and artisans. Amrita Bazar Patrika reported on March 23, 1950 that large-scale movement of Hindus from villages in districts like Dacca, Chittagong, Rajshahi, Mymensingh, Bogra and Rangpur have started. ‘Cattle, stacked paddy and corn, plough and the land offer no more lure to them to keep to their village homes…village smiths, kavirajs, day-labourers, carpenters, namasudras, santhals – in fact every Hindu in Eastern Pakistan is trying to move out.’ By rail or walking barefoot, a large number of people crossed into West Bengal. One arm of this multitude crossed the rail station at Darshana and entered the state where they were temporarily sheltered at the camp in Banpur. The second arm, coming from the South Western areas of East Pakistan, ended at the camp at Bongaon. The platforms of Sealdah station were often the epicenter from where the refugees were either dispersed to camps or who managed to find their way into the teeming multitudes of the anonymous city. The public space of Sealdah station became their first halt into an uncertain future.
In undivided Bengal, before Partition, Kolkata had offered education and job for the middle classes from East Bengal. The city’s numerous colleges were filled with students from East Bengal while the merchant and trading houses and the government departments had many workers who hailed from across the Padma. Living in cramped mess ‘bari’, or rented rooms, they dreamt of making it big in the city. Calcutta, claustrophobic in its interiors, the mess room, the restaurants, the cinema halls were places of isolation, different from their ‘desher bari.’ After the Partition, the educated middle-class East Bengali naturally flocked to Kolkata because they knew the city and had the best chance to find their feet there. Kolkata had taken in a quarter of a million East Bengali migrants long before the Partition and the city with its businesses, educational institutions and offices offered many opportunities. However, the Government rehabilitation plans, at least, in the years immediately after the Partition, was sketchy and often half-hearted. At first the policy was just offering casual relief, hoping that the refugees would go back. When finally a reluctant State and Central Government woke up to the fact that the refugees were here to stay, the main thrust of rehabilitation policy was to ‘disperse’ them outside West Bengal.3 Naturally, the educated middle class refugees resented this. They were vocal in their hostility and considered it their political right to be gainfully resettled in the city. Rather than waiting passively for government help, they began to self rehabilitate themselves by taking over marshy land in and around Calcutta to build squatter colonies. By 1955, these colonies were mushrooming in and around Calcutta at a tremendous pace. A CMDA report of 1975 suggests that West Bengal had 1104 colonies in all of which an astonishing 510 were in Calcutta Metropolitan District only.4 In the beginning, the Government did not contemplate any policy intervention in the colony areas. However in 1951, with a fresh and larger influx of refugees in West Bengal, the West Bengal Act XV came into being under which the squatter’s were given protection from eviction.5 Government rehabilitation efforts in these colonies however remained partial or almost non-existent. On June 11, 1958 a report in Amrita Bazar Patrika stated that nearly 50% of the 21lakh refugees in the colonies and rural areas of the state were yet to be properly rehabilitated.
The refugees thus extended the city’s limits, filled its slums and occupied its vacant lands. Sociologist Benoy Ghosh writes in 1967 that Kolkata’s ‘New Suburbia has expanded in the last twenty-five or thirty years. The old boundaries of the city suburbs has increased to accommodate wave after wave of population – abandoned lands, fertile lands, rice fields, marshy lands, ponds, lakes, jungles and gardens all took in the rising tidal waves of population.’6 Contemporary literature, films and theatre seemed to grasp these new changes in the city much more sensitively than city planners so that ‘the theme of an overall moral crisis generated by a violent uprooting and the compulsions of survival appeared often in contemporary literature.’ 7
Poetry and Kolkata’s postcolonial landscape
The actual images of a refugee colony are sparse in Bangla poetry of the 50’s and 60’s and this is undoubtedly surprising considering that Kolkata’s landscape was changing so rapidly under the impact of these new habitations. But the impact of refugees and colonies can be felt in indirect ways in the poetry of those times: in the writing of a new kind of urban poetry with the city as subject matter and a new awareness of the city as a living space. Kolkata had always had her share of poets writing on the city, but this new generation of poets, whom I call ‘nagorik’ poets, ruminate on the city with a new and fierce obsession. This trend is certainly the direct fallout of the Partition in West Bengal’s literary life. The teeming city, the pavements groaning under the tin and makeshift walls, the wailing children born on the streets, the refugees in a procession winding through the lanes are all images to be found in this poetry. They are the manifesto of a new group of poets who finds their subject in the quotidian city life and its commonplace, mundane horrors. The Partition’s consequences were not only in the stream of refugees into West Bengal; it was the far-reaching disruption of the economy of the city, food scarcity, staggering unemployment, collapse of municipal services and the ubiquitous destitution of hundreds of people. The degradation of humanity that was visible on the city streets, the thousands of homeless vagrants, became a concern for the poetry of the times. In Buddhadev Bose’s long poem ‘Udvastu’ (The Refugee) the writer-narrator goes for a walk on the Dhakuria lakes and notices a woman dying on the pavement. Her malnourished body partially hides a sleeping child and her wild staring eyes hold no pain, no prayer and no protest. The impotently watching narrator, suffering from a writer’s block, remembers a scene from Dante’s Inferno and realizes there is nothing anybody could do that could keep intact the dignity of the dying woman. ‘Let humans leave her/ And let Nature take over’ he states. The city of Kolkata, with her dying and homeless humanity, becomes a constant presence, a telos, a meaning beyond ‘the play of the merely accidental’8 in the poetry of a whole new generation of poets like Jibanananda Das, Samar Sen, Buddhadev Bose, Naresh Guha, Premendra Mitra, Nirendranath Chakraborty, Sunil Gangopadhyay, Bishnu Dey, Manindra Roy, Arun Mitra and Sankho Ghosh, some of whom were also part of the burgeoning Left movements that articulated the rights of refugees.
Office returning babus look out of tram windows
On the crowded maidan
A meeting takes place;
Women watch, braiding hair, from second floors,
Refugee mothers walking
On the road ….
(Manindra Roy, ‘Ekhoni Ekhane’)
And a poem by Broto Chakraborty, dedicated to Ritwik Ghatak, the ultimate exemplar of the nagorik poet:
Why are you looking so hard at Kolkata?
Your glasses slip down your nose,
You look over them, deeply, at this life.
All around us, do you see
As if on Kolkata’s eyeballs
Someone has emptied a gigantic inkstand.
A vast black torrent keeps growing
Inside the tubewell of tradition.
Ritwik, every time you say, ‘Ah life’
And pump its handle,
Cold, clear water,
Life has surprised you
By sending a black jet,
That inky blackness flowing
Instead of blood
In body after body,
Crowding this city.
In this poem by Arun Mitra, the city is a human presence, whose cries are heard ceaselessly by the poet:
Kolkata has called me
Kolkata has called me
In a long forgotten name
Through the nameless crowd
In one fell sweep
I am back on her stones
Under my footsteps
Bangla’s fertile fields
On the city roads
On her sky
I see a long-lost cluster
Of shadowy trees.
In the late afternoon
Tendrils and wild flowers
Carry some restless odour
A faraway voice
Brings back to Kolkata
A Bangla village.
The crowded cityscape, that is often a trope in Bangla poetry of the 50s and 60’s, is best seen in Nirendranath Chakraborty’s ‘Kolkatar Jishu’. I would like to think that naked child of the poem is one of the hundreds of destitute and homeless refugees crowding Kolkata’s streets, a common enough sight when the poet wrote this.
No red light frowned,
Yet Kolkata, moving like a storm,
Halted taxis and cars,
Double-deckers and tempos.
‘Hold him back’ cried the pedestrians
And came running –
The hawker, the trader and the customer –
Stood like painted figures
On an artist’s easel.
Watching with bated breath –
Crossing the street
On unsteady feet
A stark naked child.
A little while ago
It had rained in Chowrangi.
Now, the sunlight
In long spears pierced
The hearts of clouds.
Shohor Kolkata is flooded in magical light.
From the state-bus window
I look at the sky,
And you again.
A vagrant mother’s son
Who brings to a halt
With one magic gesture,
All the city’s traffic.
Clench their teeth,
Death rears its head
On both sides.
You take no notice at all,
As you walk unsteadily,
Like the primal human,
Taking his first step.
You want to hold the world
In your palm.
And you walk,
With novel steps
From one corner of the world
To the next.
(All translations from Bangla are mine)
1.Biplab Dasgupta, ‘Urbanisation and Rural Change in West Bengal,’ Economic and Political Weekly, 14 February, 1987, 278-279.
2. Omkar Goswami, ‘Calcutta’s Economy: 1918-1970: The Fall from Grace’ in Calcutta: The Living City, Vol II, ed. Sukanta Chaudhuri, Delhi: OUP, 1990, 92.
3. Joya Chatterjee, The Spoils of Partition: Bengal and India, 1947-1967, Cambridge: CUP, 2007, 124. Sporadic plans to disperse refugees were undertaken as early as December 1949 when 187 families were rehabilitated in the Andamans. See Amrita Bazar Patrika, 3 December, 1949. The first statistical data of displaced people with earlier occupations is only made in 1951. The data included one lakh families of cultivators (5 lakh people), 2.5 lakh families of about 10 lakhs whose occupations were in industries or services, about 50,000 families of nearly 2,50,000 persons were in miscellaneous occupations while there were about 50,000 families or near 2,50,000 persons who had no occupation in East Bengal. See Amrita Bazar Patrika, March 16, 1951.
4. Monidip Chatterjee, ‘A broad Outline of Action Programme for the Development of Refugee Colonies in C.M.D.A’, CMDA, August, 1975, 4, Table 2:0.
5. Throughout March, 1951 newspapers reported hostile refugees demonstrating on Calcutta streets against the proposed Refugee Eviction Bill. Left leaders from various parties like Lila Roy, Soumen Tagore as well as Opposition leaders from the state Assembly like Prafulla Ghosh were overtly sympathetic to the cause. The Government was accused of breaking their solemn promise to the refugees. (See Amrita Bazar Patrika, 31 March, 1951). Ultimately the refugee agitation managed to change the bill to stop eviction from unauthorized occupation of land.
6. Benoy Ghosh, ‘Metropolital Mon,’ in Metropolitan Mon O Modhyobityo Bidroho, Orient Longman,1973, 67. Translation by the author.
7. Moinak Biswas, ‘The City and The Real: Chhinnamul and the Left Cultural Movement in the 1940’s’ in City Flicks: Indian Cinema and the Urban Experience, Kolkata: Seagull, 2004,53.
8. Manas Ray, ‘Growing Up Refugee’, History Workshop Journal, issue 5, 2002, 152. Translation by the author.
–By Debjani Sengupta
(The author is an associate professor in the Department of English, Indraprastha College for Women. No portion of the article may be reproduced without acknowledging the writer. )