Citizen Refugee. Forging the Indian Nation after Partition

Sen, Uditi
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Pallavi Raghavan

Uditi Sen’s “citizen refugee” is a complicated figure: determined, enterprising, battered, tired, rich, poor, and, most importantly for our purposes, understudied. Filling in a surprising gap in the proliferating field of the studies of partition, its aftermath, and the space for administrative innovations that its execution offered to policy makers in South Asia – which, on occasion, has been wearily referred to as the “Partition Industry” – Sen provides a richly layered story of the experience of refugees from East Pakistan, and the ways in which their story is central to the making of the Indian nation state.

But in carrying out this exercise, Sen successfully fractures two misleading claims that have been allowed to develop in the historiography. The story goes, that a critical basis for building the strength and resilience of the Indian nation state came about because of the partnership between the Indian state, and its mammoth efforts to rehabilitate and provide for the millions of dispossessed refugees who streamed into its boundary lines after the partition, as well as a spirit of determination and enterprise of the refugees themselves, who forged forward with their new lives in a different setting, even though they had come with nothing and had no resources. In short, this was an example of how individuals could triumph over adverse circumstances if they worked hard enough regardless of the place that they were in. India’s partition refugees thus were often located within a narrative arc that slanted towards prosperity and success because of a spirit of thrift, hardiness, and determination of the refugees. Secondly, it emphasized, it was the Indian state’s assistance and compassion for the dispossessed and bereft that enabled an auspicious start in the journey of state making.

In questioning this perspective Sen moves us further away from a Delhi centric Punjabi story of the partition experience. In many ways, she points out, looking at the experience of the citizen refugee from Eastern Bengal in closer detail can contradict both these assumptions, which, while also intimately connected with the history of the nation state, is representative of an image that undercuts both these arguments. In fact, Sen argues “The Hindu refugee’s quest to belong to India was a complex process riddled by contradictions that are yet to be fully explored. In order to understand this process, it is necessary to look eastwards, beyond the spectacular violence of divided Punjab.” (p. 13)

Sen’s argument is that the Indian government’s policies towards rehabilitation – the making of its governmentality – was never very easily characterized by a simple technocratic approach, as impersonal as it was universally applicable. For one thing, rehabilitation and integration were rights that were much harder fought and reluctantly afforded to many Bengali refugees, conditioned quite startlingly transparently on the basis of class, income, religion, gender and caste. Secondly, the handouts themselves were often of much more meager sums that those granted to Punjabi refugees, making it harder to justify a success story of rags to riches – unlike in the case of Punjabi refugees, for Bengalis, the riches often simply did not arrive. In fact, Sen notes, “Far from being two radically different policy regimes, the different response of the post-colonial state to the refugee crisis in the west and the east were actually the positive and negative manifestations of a singular governmentality of rehabilitation that pitted the refugee needs against nationalist aspirations of rapid economic development.” (p. 32)

In the first part of the monograph, Sen outlines how the question of refugee rehabilitation in West Bengal was transformed from a provincial into a national project. The question of funding the rehabilitation and exactly where it should take place was passed back and forth between the central government and provincial government of Bengal, both of whom differed on the terms of the liability and jurisdiction they would exercise over the “refugee” question in Bengal. For India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, “State aided evacuation of Hindu minorities from East Bengal [was] either unnecessary, given the political eventuality (of cessation of East Pakistan from Pakistan), or unadvisable, as it might jeopardize friendly relations with Western Pakistan” (p. 30). In the face of this recalcitrance, the government of West Bengal’s approach to refugee rehabilitation was often improvised in the form of a series of halfhearted measures which, while acknowledging the “problem”, were also primarily aimed at displacing responsibility for their rehabilitation elsewhere. The scheme for rehabilitating refugees outside Bengal was hatched in a context as the political rhetoric of “over-saturation” and indifference from the central government heightened.

The second part of the book takes us through the experience of East Bengali refugees being resettled in the Andaman Islands – which, in the optimistic words of West Bengal’s first Chief minister B.C. Roy, would be the first Bengali colony in the Andamans. Sen highlights how refugees settled in, adapted to, and took ownership of their lives in the Andaman Islands, whose settlement was driven by the need for timber by the Indian state. But this was also a way, Sen notes, of linking the project of refugee rehabilitation to national development. The supply of additional labor from Bengali refugees was welcomed in the Andaman Islands because this would enable the state to move further towards its developmental requirements: it was this consideration, more than any other, that was in the driver’s seat in the making of policy regarding rehabilitation.

Selection for settlement in the colonies therefore favored able bodied men who were accustomed to manual labor, and for the ministry of Home Affairs, the idea was that the newly arrived cultivators would be able to contribute to the “Grow More Food” campaign. This was mounted in the face of a looming threat to India’s economy, partly caused by the Devaluation Crisis of 1949. India’s and Pakistan’s currency had been pegged to the value of the UK’s pound sterling, and the decision of the British government to devalue the sterling – owing to its exhaustion from the war effort – had mixed results for South Asia. In India, one consequence of the “Devaluation crisis” was that it became more expensive for it to procure supplies of raw jute – a commodity that was critical to the survival of thousands of factories and processing plants. In the face of this debilitating challenge to its economy, the government of India encouraged its citizens to develop a more “self-sufficient” economy. The ability of refugees to be accommodated within the nation-state, thus, rested very critically, in terms of their ability to contribute to these requirements of the state. The production of timber, thus, in the Andaman Islands was often a more critical consideration than the well-being of the refugees themselves.

Yet, even in this enterprise, Sen points out, in the wilds of remote and almost uninhabited islands, the small matter of religion and class stayed just as central as it would have done anywhere else in India. The social and cultural gulf that separated the bhadraloks (a Bengali term that denotes genteelness and “respectability” in the social hierarchy) from the Namasudras (this term refers to a caste group, which constituted the bulk of the Hindu refugee movement from East Bengal, and was usually indicative of a low position in the social, as well as economic hierarchy) was no less visible in these islands, and the small population of Bengali government servants posted at Port Blair mostly maintained a contemptuous distance from the peasants of rural Andamans. Managing the demographic profile of settlers on the islands, moreover, was also shaped by concerns this not become “overpopulated” with Muslim Mappila settlers. Indeed, Sen shows, this prospect filled a “string of civil servants with alarm” (p. 98), most of whom – although with varying degrees of explicitness – agreed in writing that the Muslim community could represent a disloyal, fifth columnist, and trouble making threat, which, it was argued on the basis of very little evidence, enable the transfer of the control over these islands to Pakistan.

In Calcutta, meanwhile, the urban refugee population of West Bengal – the squatters – have long been associated with the fall of the Indian National Congress’ domination over the province. Their belligerence, enterprise and determination is the stuff of legend, and, as Joya Chatterji showed in the Spoils of Partition, formed the backbone of the left’s subsequent victories in the subsequent elections.[1] Yet, as Sen points out in her chapter on Calcutta’s squatters, these communities did not necessarily adhere to the image of scrappy underdogs who started out with nothing and snatched a path to future prosperity from the jaws of adversity. Indeed, Sen shows, this particular group was relatively privileged – of all the communities who had crossed the boundaries from East Pakistan, it was they who were the most likely to have a political voice in the city. Armed with relatively higher amounts of inherited cultural capital, and education, they were not averse to using these attributes to push their interests at the expense of their less well favored co-travellers. The reasons that they were able to track a path to power in the city, were not to do with their lack of any means or resources – but precisely because of them. And what marked out this future constituency of the left was a fastidious adherence to the social demarcators of hierarchy that set them apart from others.

A great deal of north Indian mythologizing about the partition saga – upon which much of the foundational myth of the Indian nation in fact rests – argued that the Hindu and Sikh refugees from Western Punjab, fleeing persecution from their Muslim neighbors, reached Indian soil through sheer courage and ingenuity; and, in testimonies to the triumph of the individual will against adversity, managed to claw their way into prosperity and stability having started out with nothing. But what comes across from this account is how even in the midst of the most harrowing and horrifying circumstances, people did not let go of a sense of what constituted their “identity”. Their relative positions in the social hierarchy were determined, as tightly in refugee camps, as in well-heeled offices, or anywhere else, by class, caste, gender, and religion. Sen’s account, then, is one of a mixed set of requirements as to what constitutes resilience and survival. Markers of identity, Sen reminds us, simply do not go away in South Asia. Yet the ways in which they play out, are determined by situation and circumstance, and Bengal’s uneasy relationship with its refugee populations added up to a more interesting, varied and mixed set of stories, than those of Punjab.

[1] Joya Chatterji, The Spoils of Partition: Bengal and India, 1947–1967, Cambridge 2007.

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