Annual Orientation Course on Forced Migration, 2012

Short Term Writing Fellowship


Himadri Chatterjee: An M.Phil student in the Centre for Political Studies, JNU, New Delhi. He is presently in the process of finishing his dissertation on ‘Refugee Rehabilitation in West Bengal: A Study of The Camp and The Colony’.

His Visiting Report (14.11.2012 to 20.11.2012) 

Tentative title: - ‘From refugees to immigrants: the career of a population at the borders between necessity and potentiality’

Scholarly studies of the status on refugees and the state of refugee rehabilitation in West Bengal have argued that the rehabilitation policy discourse and the growth of semi-formal networks of spaces and institutions that came to take shape in the state provided for a constantly evolving ‘emplacement’[1] of the refugee population within the nation-state. In recent scholarship there has been an attempt towards arriving at an understanding of the places of this ‘emplacement’. Various enclaves of refugee rehabilitation, such as relief camps, work-site camps, government sponsored colonies and squatter’s colonies that came to take shape in West Bengal are now being studied in order to explain their permanence and the relative differences of their residents from the mainstream citizenry[2]. The proposed research work shares the concerns of the above mentioned set of academic studies. The extended research effort is aimed at consolidating a larger canvass of oral narratives from certain villages in the Barasat Sub-division of North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal to map the effects of the shifts in policy discourse in the narratives of families that were the targeted by the rehabilitation apparatus in the late 1950s[3]. The paper will attempt a retelling of the experiences of multiple splitting and displacements that these families went through in their passage through the rehabilitation apparatus. The aim of this paper is to connect the early moment of structuring of the rehabilitation apparatus with a population that was produced through its interventions and came to inhabit a precarious socio-political and legal space in contemporary West Bengal.

The villages that are to be visited have been selected due to their recent involvement in the lower caste refugee movement that has been active in the above mentioned district since 2004. Early interaction with a series of participants in different protest demonstrations led towards dispersed interactions with localised but interconnected networks of activists belonging from the “namashudra refugee community”. In the proposed study the ethnographic focus will be shifted from the movement to the underlying social formations. The study wikll focus on the dynamics of the local community, the internal channels of communication, community congregations and local organizational activities. In order to substantiate the notion of a local community network the material existence of the community has to be grasped in its various facets. The field visits will therefore concentrate equally on individual and group interviews to differentiate the collective political markers from the individual or family level communications. This differentiation may prove helpful in writing a thick description of the community not simply as an aggregation of common interest but a collective or an assemblage of various family histories. Embedded in this narrative, we may hypothetically posit from earlier studies and interviews, is the narrative of the complex procedure of production of this community. The question of production of the community is not to be thought of as a determination or functionalisation of this community’s existence. It is rather the drawing together or the structural reduction of the multilayered relation that exists between the various families and groups of refugees, their movements and socio-economic placement and the discourse of state policy and state institutions.

One new component that is to be examined in the proposed extension of the research is the relation between the local market, the ‘Guruchand Bajar’ and the refugee conglomeration. This ‘Bajar’ is central to the communities commercial and social activities. The ‘Bajar committee’ has always occupied a central role in organising refugee communities and their collective economic as well as political lives. The Bajar committees have been centrally important in developing a ‘governmental’ regime that maintains the structure and internal integrity of the community. It is important therefore to study this Bajar which was founded in late 1997 in order to map: (a) the contestations over land in the area, (b) the political-economy of survival structured by this group’s interactions with other villages and legalised refugee colonies and (c) the community building activities that are integral to yet distinguishable from economic activities that are performed by this ‘collective market’.

This study seeks to develop one in a series of localised ethno-histories of economic and social activities that might possibly contribute towards the larger project of re-structuring of the question of agency in relation to refugee hood, specifically in the context of the refugee population’s relation to state apparatus and economic activities.


[1] Samir Kumar Das, ‘State Response To The Refugee Crisis: Relief And Rehabilitation In The East’, in Ranabir Samaddar (ed.), Refugees And The State: Practices Of Asylum And Care In India, 1947-2000, Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2003, p 147

[2] See Anusua Basu Roy Chaudhury and Ishita Dey, Citizens, Non-Citizens and in the Camps Lives, Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group, Kolkata, 2009, and Anasua Basu Raychaudhury, ‘Nostalgia of ‘Desh’, Memories of Partition’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 39, No. 52, Dec. 25-31, 2004, pp. 5653-5660.

[3] In this section the study takes as its starting point an already existing set of sophisticated scholarly studies of this region in terms of its importance in the history of partition and later population movements. See for instance Ranabir Samaddar, The Marginal Nation: Transborder Migration from Bangladesh to West Bengal, Sage, New Delhi, 1999 and Willem Van Schendel, The Bengal Borderland: Beyond State and Nation in South Asia, Anthem Press, 2005