The social movements that began to emphasise Dalit identities in Bengal started in the1870s. These movements had two very clearly identifiable geographical locations with two communities at the forefront.
One was the Rajbansi community which lived mainly in the north Bengal districts of Rangpur, Dinajpur, Jalpaiguri and the Princely State of Cooch Behar. The other community, the Namasudras of east Bengal, lived mainly in the districts of Bakarganj, Faridpur, Jessore and Khulna, but were also scattered in other eastern and central Bengal districts.
when the Scheduled Caste political movement started in Bengal in the early
twentieth century, the Namasudras and Rajbansis provided the majority of its
leaders and supplied its main support base.
The following extracts from a highly explanatory paper “In Search of Space The Scheduled Caste Movement in West Bengal after Partition” by Sekhar Bandyopadhyay and Anasua Basu Ray Chaudhury, elucidates the aforementioned phenomenon. The paper also explains the fate of Dalit-Muslim alliance in Bengal during the aftermath of the ‘Partition.’
Partition, Displacement and Dalit Migration
For the Dalit peasants, the Partition did not solve their problems, as, despite their vehement protestations, all the districts which the Namasudras lived in went to East Pakistan. The position of the Rajbansis was even more complicated, as their ethnic territory was divided by the new international political boundary. But most of them did not – or could not – migrate immediately. In Bengal, the migration of refugees took place in waves – not as a cataclysmic movement of large bodies of population as in Punjab. The first wave of refugees mainly consisted of the more wealthy classes, mostly upper caste Hindu gentry and the educated middle classes with jobs, including many of the Namasudra middle classes as well, who could sell or arrange exchanges of properties.
Very few Namasudra peasants migrated at this stage or could afford to move, because migration required resources which they lacked. Also leaders like Mandal and the Federation advised them to stay put, because they were assured by Jinnah that they would get a fair deal in Pakistan, where ‘every man would be equal.’ In a celebratory message on Jinnah’s birthday in December 1947, Prime Minister Khwaja Nazimuddin repeated that solemn pledge: ‘Pakistan is not the state of Muslims alone, it belongs to all peoples and communities who live in it and who are loyal to it.’ Many Scheduled Caste peasants who stayed back in East Pakistan believed him.
But as the situation gradually unfolded itself, those Namasudras soon found that the growing power of Islamic nationalism of the Pakistani state unmistakably ascribed to them a ‘Hindu’ minority identity. Jogendra Nath Mandal chose to remain in Pakistan and joined the Liaquat Ali Khan ministry as its Labour and Law Minister. He remained in this position until 1950, and all this time, he alternated between representing the larger Hindu minority interests on the one hand and championing the specific Scheduled Caste identity on the other.
As for the Namasudra peasants, they were subjected to a process of ‘Othering’ initiated by the Pakistani state as it moved towards greater Islamization of the polity. The projected ‘Other’ of the Pakistani nation was the ‘Hindu’ – a category that tended to collapse the differences between all non-Muslims and incorporated the Dalit. And, therefore, even when the Namasudra peasants fought for social justice under communist leadership in 1948, the state in Pakistan represented the Namasudra peasant rebels as ‘Hindu’ miscreants.This process of ‘Othering,’ not only tended to exclude them from the Pakistani nationhood by imposing on them a ‘Hindu’ identity, but also helped the corresponding Hindu nationalism in India in trying to appropriate them as oppressed Hindu minority.
Yet, there were still significant differences between the Scheduled Caste peasants and the caste Hindu minorities left in East Pakistan. As Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated in January 1948, the vulnerability of the Muslim minorities in India became explicit. This had repercussions in Pakistan, particularly at a time when Jinnah became incapacitated by illness. His influence on politics began to wane, and that old guarantee of protection for the minorities no longer worked. Under the growing pressure of Islamic nationalism, thousands of caste Hindus began to migrate. According to one report, 1,870,535 Hindu refugees had migrated from East to West Bengal by February 1949. But, even at this stage, the Scheduled Caste peasants did not migrate, although they felt quite vulnerable. This situation changed in January-February, 1950, when, at last, the Namasudra peasants in large numbers decided to leave Pakistan.
This second wave of refugee influx was occasioned by a particular incident in the Bagerhat subdivision of Khulna district in East Pakistan in December 1949. Here a police party came to a Namasudra village called Kalshira in search of a few communists and were resisted by the villagers, resulting in the death of one police constable. Two days later a large police force assisted by Ansars and other elements attacked not only this one village but also 22 other neighbouring villages inhabited by ‘Hindu Namasudras.’ The Calcutta press immediately picked it up. The fact that the victims of this incident were communists and Namasudras was lost; they all became ‘Hindus.’ And this media frenzy resulted in the outbreak of a fierce riot in Calcutta and Howrah – for the first time after independence – and the Muslims from West Bengal began to flee. This led to retaliatory violence in East Pakistan, where the rioting spread from Khulna to Rajshahi and Dacca, and then, to Mymensingh and Barisal districts. The main victims of these riots were not the high caste Hindu bhadrolok, as many of them had already left, but the Dalit and tribal peasants like the Namasudras and the Santhals, who were now forced to leave their homes and migrate to India.
This was the final breakdown of the Dalit-Muslim alliance in East Pakistan as the Dalit peasants were deliberately targeted in this post-Partition upsurge of violence. At the Bongaon railway station, the first batch of Namasudra refugees of about 500 families arrived in the first week of January 1950, and since then, thousands of them began to arrive every day. Either they came through Bongaon and then moved on to the Sealdah station in Calcutta, from where they were despatched to various refugee camps, or they arrived at the border districts of Nadia or 24-Parganas, where they began to settle down as the local Muslims began to flee across the border. As one report suggests, in the early months of 1950, about 10,000 refugees were arriving everyday through Bongaon and settling down in Gaighata, Baduria, Habra and other places.
By the beginning of 1951, following the disturbances in Khulna, about 1.5 million refugees had arrived in West Bengal. Majority of them were Scheduled Caste peasants. But this was not the end, as migration of Namasudra peasants continued incessantly through the following years. There was a steady trickle – about 25 to 30 a day – until the beginning of 1952. Most of them were coming by rail through either Bongaon or Banpur, and a few arrived by road. In May 1952 the number of such arrivals increased to 70 to 80 per day. This number began to rise dramatically from July: in July, August and September, on an average more than 6500 refugees were arriving every month, rising to more than 10 thousand in October and continuing thereafter at that pace.
According to official statistics, nearly 2.1 million refugees had arrived in West Bengal between 1950 and 1956. There was a lull for a few years after this, and then following the Hazratbal riot in 1964, 419,000 people migrated from East Pakistan to West Bengal.24 And these official figures are not often reliable, as they account for only those who registered themselves and were eventually despatched to various refugee camps. Anecdotal evidence suggests that there were probably many more who just crossed the border and settled down in various places in the border districts of Murshidabad, Nadia and 24-Parganas. No one knew their exact number.
By the middle of 1948 about two hundred thousand refugees had settled in the district of Nadia – half of them in the urban areas, the other half in various border regions. This exodus and changes in the communal demographics of the district continued throughout the next decade. In October 1951, in the Basirhat subdivision of the neighbouring district of 24-Parganas, according to one report, about 200 people were entering daily from across the border on foot or by boat. The Rajbansis who crossed the border in north Bengal settled down in the districts of Malda, Dinajpur and Cooch Behar and, in their case, it is even difficult to get any exact number.
In West Bengal, in the 1950s, the dominant popular discourse represented all these refugees as ‘minority Hindus’ fleeing from Islamic Pakistan, and the predicament of the ‘Hindu’ refugees overshadowed all other public discourses of victimhood.29 But the Congress government refused to accept this migration to be permanent or legitimate and wanted the migrants to go back at an appropriate time. Nehru therefore signed the Delhi Pact with the Pakistani Premier Liaquat Ali Khan on 8 April, 1950, to ensure their safe return. But the Hindu Mahasabha launched a campaign to demand military action against Pakistan. Shyama Prasad Mukherji demanded an exchange of population as the only solution to this ‘Hindu minority’ problem and vowed not to allow the refugees to be sent back. In West Bengal’s public space, the rhetoric of the victimhood of the ‘Hindu refugees’ seemed to have silenced all other discourses of identity at this juncture. To put it in another way, what we witness here is a dual process of ascription: an Islamic nationalism in Pakistan sought to collapse all internal boundaries within its non-Muslim Other, while the dominant Hindu discourse in West Bengal tried to appropriate everyone into a corporate Hindu identity.
But were they all ‘Hindu’
refugees fleeing from the atrocities of ‘Islamic’ nationalism? And how
important was the caste factor in this story of continuous exodus? ‘About 95
per cent of the refugees are Namasudras’, reported a police intelligence report
in June 1952. They were mostly cultivators or day-labourers, or belonged to
various professions, like washermen, fishermen, weavers, petty businessmen and
small jotdars and talukdars. They came from all parts of East Pakistan, but mostly
from Barisal, Faridpur, Jessore and Khulna, where the Namasudra peasants had
been living side by side with their Muslim neighbours for a long historical
period. So why did this relationship break down?
Overwhelmed by the number of incoming refugees, the Police Intelligence Officers started questioning those who arrived at Sealdah or at Bongaon and Banpur railway stations. The stories they narrated were interesting and varied, and do not allow us to reconstruct a simple narrative of communal or caste conflict in rural East Pakistan. But they also make it clear that this was no ordinary ‘economic migration’, as the Government of India thought it to be.
Without going into the details, we can summarise here the main reasons behind this mass Dalit peasant migration in Bengal as stated by the migrants themselves. What they all mentioned first of all was of course an economic reason: they were leaving East Pakistan because of an ‘acute economic crisis,’ particularly in the district of Khulna where, according to one report, ‘a near famine condition’ prevailed. The Namasudra refugees complained of falling prices of jute, non-availability of essential commodities like cloth, the breakdown of the rationing system and so on. The Namasudra day labourers found it difficult to get employment, as their previous employers – the caste Hindu landlords – had all left. And, in a labour surplus market, the Muslim landlords preferred their coreligionists. But the Namasudra peasants did not migrate just because of these economic reasons.
They decided to leave their home
and land because, at this crucial point, the serious resource crunch destroyed
whatever goodwill there was between the two communities of peasants. The low
level ‘routine violence’ which Haimanti Roy has observed in East Bengal since
1948-49, was escalated manifold after 1950. The Namasudra small peasants, who
owned some land, increasingly felt the aggressive assertion of their Muslim
employees and more powerful Muslim landed neighbours, who all wanted their
land. And the provocations to leave were numerous, ranging from unlawful occupation
of land to public humiliation of women and direct instruction to leave the
country if they wanted to save their lives and honour. Complaints about atrocities
against women were almost universal. However, if we go into the details, it
seems to have been more verbal abuse than actual physical rape, although rape
cases were reported as well.
Almost everyone mentioned the rising numbers of armed robberies – or ‘dacoities’ as they called them – in their houses. In some cases the robbers parted with as little as Rupees 60 in cash and earthen utensils, but almost in all cases they harassed the women and asked them to leave the country. And then, when the local Namasudras did not feel safe in their own homes anymore, came the scare of passport. Pakistan government proposed to introduce passports from October 1952 and many Hindus thought that this would close all opportunities of moving to India in future. This panic was also systematically fanned by interested groups with an eye on the properties, and led to an avalanche of migration.
Thus competition for scarce resources was possibly a potent factor behind this breakdown of Dalit-Muslim relationship in East Bengal. And, to complement it, there were rumours circulating that the Government of India was waiting to offer them a lucrative rehabilitation package, with offers of land, if they once managed to cross the border. But their decision to leave their land and home was not because of this economic lure; it was due to a pervasive sense of insecurity. And then, the migration itself turned out to be a traumatic experience, which for many of them probably also brought a permanent rupture with their past. Those who migrated to West Bengal immediately after the riots of 1950 came with memories of horrific violence, which many of them had experienced personally.
And those who came after 1951 had to undergo
the upsetting experience of train journeys, where the trains were stopped at
the border checkpoints and the refugees were stripped of all their possessions.
They were only allowed to take 50 rupees per head and all their belongings were
taken away. So people tried to hide things, particularly valuable possessions
and ornaments, and consequently were subjected to further indignities by the
custom officials and border guards, with stories of physical searches of women
in trains with lights switched off starting to circulate.
There are also stories of people being robbed of all their life’s savings in broad daylight while waiting in railway stations for trains. Those who tried to cross the border on foot or by boat were also stopped at various points, searched and stripped of their belongings. Where they tried to escape, they were fired upon. The very experience of migration was thus qualitatively so very different from anything they faced before that it created for them a permanent rupture with their past, in the sense, that most of them never wanted to go back to their homeland again, and ended up with a new identity of ‘refugee.’
To read the complete paper, head here.
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