Wednesday, August 3, 2011

No room for Bengali Hindus

THEY were first called "migrants" - an innocuous term - when they left Noakhali in small groups and crossed over in the last three months of 1946. But when Gandhiji's fearless "One-man Army" failed in riot-scarred Noakhali as well as in other districts of East Bengal and Partition struck with full force, "migrant" was found to be too weak and inapposite an expression to label the sufferers. They arrived, ravaged and terror-struck, in waves and were called "refugees" or, in Bengali, udbastu.

The massive exodus began in 1947 and continued right into the 1960s. How many came? Without indulging in statistical jugglery, it may be safely assumed that before the 1970s, five million refugees had left East Bengal for West Bengal. In Punjab it was one mighty slash which saw a comparable exchange of population between East and West in the course of three years (1947-1950). But in Bengal it was a series of gashes which led to the kafilas moving, primarily, from east to west for almost 20 long years.

The comparison with Punjab appears unavoidable. While the Nehru Government left no stone unturned to provide relief and rehabilitation to the refugees of the West with almost clockwork precision, it was - to the say the least - niggardly towards the victims languishing in Tripura, Assam and, above all West Bengal, where most of them had congregated. The then Chief Minister of West Bengal, Bidhanchandra Roy, had to beg, plead and then threaten in order to secure more funds. In fact, Nehru and his ministers were tempted to believe that the Nehru-Liaquat pact of 1950 would prompt the uprooted Hindu refugees to return to their villages in East Bengal. Nothing of that sort happened and the Government had to concede as late as 1954 that the refugees had come to stay. Unwelcome and unwanted, persecuted and humiliated, these lakhs of "Bengals" (a derogatory term used for Bengalis living on the other side of Padma river) soon became the stuff of remarkable novels, plays and films like Ba-dwip (Delta" - a novel by Sabitri Roy), "Natun Yehudi (The New Jew" - a play by Salil Sen), and of course the unforgettable "Meghe Dhaka Tara (Star hidden in Clouds" - a film by Ritwik Ghatak).

But even these creative records could hardly conceal the naked disparity. While the Centre had spent Rs. 9.80 every month on every single refugee on an average who came from West Pakistan, it had allotted a meagre Rs. 1.20 on a single refugee who crossed over from East Pakistan till the cut-off year of 1960. One shudders to think what would have happened if someone less influential and less persistent than Dr. Roy had been at the helm - West Bengal would have surely received less. Dr. Roy tried to make the best of an atrocious situation by appealing to all, especially social service organisations like the All Bengal Women's Union, the Nari Seva Sangha and others to help in every way possible. When one reads eye-witness accounts of dedicated social workers like Ashoka Gupta who made tabular comparisons of assistance received by refugee camps in the west and the east and goes through the annual reports of the All Bengal Women's Union covering the period 1947 to 1954, one is struck by the simple query, "How did the refugees survive?"

The answer is simple - by fighting heroically against stifling odds. Indeed, this determined battle for survival turned the "victim" looking vacantly at Sealdah station into an agent and protagonist. The refugees spread out in refugee camps, then moved out of the camps to build colonies in snake-infested, marshy lands, established small businesses and acquired skills, made the optimum use of the scanty help they received, and within the course of two decades, set up 171 habitable colonies. These new settlements which are now decidedly middle class in character and an integral part of the State's landscape bear witness to the days and nights of relentless struggle. Even their names are revealing - "Bijoygarh" which means "Fortress of Victory", "Saktigarh" or "Fortress of strength", "Pratapgarh" which meaneans "Fortress of Might".

The Left Front in West Bengal, led by the undivided Communist Party of India (Marxist) was the partner of the refugees in this battle. Party workers organised the refugees in their colonies, voiced their demands and encouraged them to take part in rallies and demonstrations. In the process, these thousands turned into the Left's reliable "vote bank" and helped it capture power in 1977. Those were the days of Red activism when party cadres stood hand in hand with refugees to thwart the armed aggression of landowners. Recalling that period, Pranab Sen Sharma of Rabindrapalli Colony of Jadavpur said, "For each and every inch of land we had to fight the police and goondas. Moreover, development, in the true sense, came with the Left Front which built roads and provided water and electricity." Finally, the once-uprooted received land rights in 1986. That acquisition marked the official end of the heroic saga.

"Refugee", the word of sympathy was also used during the Bangladesh War in 1971 when eight million people - Hindus and Muslims - entered West Bengal. They just poured in - 1,700 every hour - in five months. This time, however, Indira Gandhi's Government worked together with the State Government to put up an exemplary show. Dr. S. Komar, Yugoslavia's Ambassador, wondered, "How was it possible (for India) to have taken care of such an unprecedented influx in such a short time?" But the crucial question is - how many preferred to stay back? According to an unofficial estimate, while 9.27 million refugees returned by the end of March 1972, another 1.5 million refugees continued to stay in India. Many of them were Hindus who merged with post-Partition refugees to join the swelling ranks in settlements like the Promodnagore Colony in Dum Dum.

The Bangladesh war formed the watershed because those who came, and are still coming unabated after 1972, are no longer called "refugees". Labelled "infiltrators", these late migrants are streaming in to survive. Poverty-enmeshed Bangladesh has driven them to such desperation that Muslim Bangladeshis do not even mind travelling to Shiv Sena-infested Mumbai to eke out a living. Evidently, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agents, smugglers, Islamic fundamentalists, dreaming of creating an Islamic homeland in the eastern region, and luckless Hindus form a part of this daily movement from east to west. Since 1972, most of these immigrants have settled in North and South 24 Parganas, Nadia, North and South Dinajpur, Siliguri, Murshidabad, Malda and Calcutta, and already 12 million seem to have made West Bengal their home. The annual inflow is three lakhs.

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