A. Ghoshal: Refugees, Borders and Identities

Refugees, Borders and Identities. Rights and Habitat in East and Northeast India

Ghoshal, Anindita
London 2020: Routledge
Anzahl Seiten
336 S.
£ 96.00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Shabnam Surita, Abteilung für Südasienstudien, Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn

Anindita Ghoshal’s Refugees, Borders and Identities is a historical account of the journey of post-Partition refugees in India’s east and northeast, focusing on West Bengal, Tripura, and Assam. With this much-needed approach, where the refugee influx is perceived from an interconnected vantage point, Ghoshal looks not only at points of separation between these regions but also at areas of convergence, arguing for a shared history of these refugees. Based on documents and literature from diverse sources, such as administration, political parties, individuals and organisations, the book introduces itself as a grounded telling of a history that is often perceived as fragmented.

In the first chapter, the book focuses on the evolution of the term “refugee” in northeast India, with reference to the Partition of British India in 1947. Here, Ghoshal pays close attention to legal aspects and technicalities that went along with the creation of a new category – “refugee” – in early postcolonial India. Concurrently, she discusses the multiple meanings that the term “refugee” evoked in the Indian subcontinent. The chapter establishes the status of Sylhet as a Bengali-speaking region but misses a clarification briefly explaining the many twists and turns that Bengalis from Sylhet or Sylheti-speaking Bengalis experience with respect to one another (p. 50), which is relevant in historical discussions on Bengalis in northeast India. Aptly, this chapter presents the beginning of paper-based identity in India, particularly in the context of recognising “minorityhood” in the country’s east.

Chapter 2 looks at the trajectory of the strategies adopted by the newly formed Indian government in dealing with the refugees scattered in West Bengal, Assam, Tripura and other regions. Here, the author takes a comparative approach towards understanding what the Punjab, the other main region facing a major refugee crisis in the context of the Partition, did correctly, so to speak. Ghoshal compares the policies adapted in the Punjab to the measures taken by the West Bengal government in tackling the multifaceted issues the refugees faced. The author also analyses the effects of the disparate policies taken by the two federal states’ governments to deal with the refugees coming from West Pakistan and East Pakistan. The fact that the Bengali refugees from East Pakistan were “entitled only (to) repatriation, and not rehabilitation” (p. 84) from the central government, as emphasised here, would later go on to have a meaningful impact on the process of integration of refugees within the larger Indian system. The chapter is well written and well argued. However, the author refrains from explaining to the readers what exactly she means when using the term “nation-state” (p. 81). Such blanket usages have in the past suggested a homogenised understanding of India, which is otherwise absent in Ghoshal’s writing throughout the book.

Chapter 3 portrays the experience of Assam and Tripura in the post-Partition days and looks at how the local population reacted to and were impacted by the policies adopted by the government. Here, the author successfully analyses the key steps taken by the respective state governments in order to peacefully settle and manage the incoming refugees from East Pakistan. Unlike existing literature on Partition-induced migration from East Pakistan to territories within the newly formed Indian state[1], this chapter closely deconstructs the policies adapted in Cachar and Tripura, territories which otherwise tend to be forgotten within scholarly work. Especially in light of the recent resurgence of discussions of land rights, occupancy controversies and the politicised debates on the nature of refugees settled in southern Assam, this chapter holds the potential to open up new avenues for further research and deeper inquiry. Additionally, the chapter successfully demonstrates the demographic shift that Assam and Tripura underwent in the post-1947 years and analyses the multiple rehabilitation and remedial measures adopted by the state in order to support the newly arrived refugees.

Chapter 4 traces how the refugee phenomenon became a significant topic for political parties and explores how the diverse range of refugee sentiments found space within the parties’ political narratives. In doing so, Ghoshal describes the political parties’ strategies as they dealt with several facets of the refugee identity. She also describes in detail how the refugees organised themselves and found a space within the political arena of West Bengal, where parties had begun actively vying for the refugees’ attention. The author succeeds in bringing the refugees’ voices and their first-hand experiences to the book, thereby adding a human touch to an otherwise mundane reading of historical associations. For the benefit of the reader, it would have been helpful to explain terms like jabardakhal (encroachment) (p. 176) and bhotadhikar (voting rights) (p. 175). Ghoshal’s observations in this section on the gradual change of the slogans associated with refugee assertions and their modes of movement indicate possibilities for further exciting research.

Chapter 5 addresses how and why perceptions of the refugees differed between Assam and Tripura. The author shows how post-partition politics revolved around the language factor in Assam and how notions of indigeneity started to grow. The role of institutions, local political groups, and the refugees in the development of politics in Assam later on is captured through use of detailed oral history accounts and locally written literature. The case of Tripura, where the aftereffects of Partition were primarily felt due to the structural changes in administration, is well described in this chapter through an analysis of administrative primary sources. As in Assam, the influx of the refugees had drastically changed the nature of the politics the local population participated in. In Assam, as the author points out, a push for language-based politicking emerged, whereas in Tripura, the change was witnessed through a boom for both leftist and ethnonationalist organisations. This chapter not only highlights the historical developments in Assam and Tripura in the post-Partition era, but also convincingly contributes to the history of Bengalis in northeast India.

In Refugees, Borders and Identities Ghoshal persuasively captures the evolution and continuation of “refugees as political species” in postcolonial northeast India. Throughout, the book maintains its almost strategic stance of bringing out specific historical moments that had a lasting impact in South Asian history and explores the politics surrounding them. The author’s use of local literature regarding Assam and Tripura, which is often overlooked in academia, is particularly laudable. However, the book would have benefitted from a standardised and thorough restructuring regarding transliteration of terminologies from Bengali (and Assamese) into English. For specific words such as amolas (bureaucrats), aporadhpuri (realm of crime), char (bank of a river), lota (creeper) and desh (homeland) to name a few, the spellings used in the book might indicate the wrong sounds to non-native readers. Also, without a standard model of transliteration provided, words such as bhatari (husband, sponsor), as written in the text, could possibly sound very different to different readers, as this rendering does not indicate retroflexion of t or use of short or long vowels, commonly denoted through a and ā. Such confusions could also alter perceptions of intended meanings.

Even though there academic and informal discussion on India’s northeast is surging, some sections of the book seemed to lack certain footnotes catering to readers who might be unacquainted with cultural and linguistic connotations and nomenclatures from the region. For instance, a set of exhaustive footnotes providing brief introductory or explanatory remarks to terms such as char, lota, amola and desh could, in my opinion, add a further layer of nuance to the otherwise detailed presentation of history. Apart from a few slips of proofreading in some places, for example “the women refugees were in such a miserable conditions” (p. 58), some spelling mistakes (for e.g., lineage on p. 118 and a wrong spelling of noted scholar Sukanta Chaudhuri’s name on p. 113), the book reads smoothly in a communicable style without once losing sight of the task at hand. The author’s attention to detail in the analysis of the content is commendable and comes across as adequately researched using original sources and documents, thereby making the work deserve recommendation to readers interested in South Asian history with respect to migration, Partition, Bengal and India’s northeast.

[1] Susanta Krishna Dass, Immigration and Demographic Transformation of Assam, 1891–1981, in: Economic and Political Weekly 15 (1980), 19, pp. 850–859; Mahbubar Rahman / Willem van Schendel, “I Am Not a Refugee”. Rethinking Partition Migration, in: Modern Asian Studies 37 (2003), 3, pp. 551–584.

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