Partition and Dalits in West Bengal

Concept Note

The Partition of India, which had multiple layers of meaning for the people of the subcontinent, represents possibly the most contested discursive terrain of South Asian historiography. The conventional interpretation of the event, despite some differences in emphases, nuances and semantics, has consistently argued that Congress had stood all along until the very end of British rule for a secular united India, while M.A.Jinnah and his Muslim League (ML) - which from 1940 began to advocate the 'two nation theory' - were ultimately responsible for the sad but avoidable vivisection of the subcontinent (Kaura 1977, Page 1982, Singh 1987, Moore 1988, Hasan 1993, Mahajan 2000). These twin ‘myths of Partition’ – the League for Partition and Congress for unity – have been seriously challenged in a revisionist historiography, which has argued that Pakistan demand was only Jinnah’s ‘bargaining counter’; what he really wanted was a loose federation for India with autonomy for the Muslim majority provinces. But Congress, with its preference for a strong centralised unitary state, accepted Partition as a necessary price to pay to get independence on their own terms (Jalal 1985, Roy 1993). As for Bengal, Joya Chatterji (1994) has convincingly shown how the Hindu bhadralok elite, under the auspices of the Congress and Hindu Mahasabha combine, orchestrated a campaign for Partition and creation of a Hindu majority province in West Bengal. Some recent studies on Punjab (Gilmartin 1988, Talbot 1996) and Bengal (Das 1991, Hashmi 1992) also show that Partition movement did not just remain an elite affair; the masses were equally involved, particularly when violence broke out from 1946.

In these narratives of pre-Partition politics the role of the Dalit (ex-untouchable) or Scheduled Caste politicians and their organisation, the Scheduled Caste Federation (SCF), is either completely ignored or mentioned only in passing, as League and Congress are presented as the main players, and the Partition related violence is assumed to be primarily between the Hindus and Sikhs on the one side and the Muslims on the other. Although a few studies have indicated that the Partition precipitated a ‘crisis’ for the Dalit in both Punjab and Bengal, and their leaders were forced to take sides in Partition politics (Ahmed 1999, Bandyopadhyay 2000, 2009b; Usuda 1997), this aspect of Partition history has been barely explored.

In recent years it has been widely acknowledged that the Partition of India was not just an event that happened in August 1947 – it had a long afterlife. The historiography of Partition therefore has shifted from a preoccupation with its causes and the allocation of blames, to an increasing interest in recovering the experiences of its victims, as these had profound consequences for the subsequent nation-building processes and communal relations in the subcontinent. In Gyan Pandey’s words, the ‘”truth” of the partition’ lay in the violence it produced; he has therefore endeavoured to unravel how this violence was ‘conceptualised and remembered by those who lived through partition - as victims, aggressors or onlookers’ (Pandey, 1997: 2037). A series of studies have followed since then, focussing mainly on the refugees in Punjab (e.g., Singh 2000, Butalia 2000, Kaul 2001, Pandey 2001, Kaur 2007, Zamindar 2007) and Bengal (e.g.,Chatterjee 1992, Samaddar 1997,2003, Chakrabarti 1999, Bagchi and Dasgupta 2003, Chatterji 2007, Roy 2007), exploring their experiences, their struggle for citizenship, the politics about their rehabilitation, and the impact of the memories of Partition violence on communal relations in the subcontinent.

In exploring this aftermath of Partition, many voices have been recovered, yet many still remain silent. As Urvasi Butalia has pointed out, ‘In its almost exclusive focus on Hindus and Sikhs and Muslims, Partition history has worked to render many others invisible. One such history is that of the scheduled castes, or untouchables’(Butalia, 2000: 235). Butalia (2000), Kaur (2007) and Rawat (2001, 2003) have sought to make the Dalits visible in the history of Partition in north India. But for eastern India, this relative discursive invisibility of the Dalits still persists. Studies on refugees mentioned above have looked at the experiences of the ‘Hindu’ refugees, problems and politics of their resettlement, the impact of refugee influx on gender and family relations, on urban life and electoral politics. But there is no study yet on the impact of this mass displacement on caste relations in Bengal. While some of these studies (particularly Chatterjee 1992 and Chatterji 2007) mention the migration, predicament and the struggles of Dalit peasant refugees, they do not fully relate these issues to the questions of their caste disability or identity politics.


Objectives of the Project 

The Partition of India triggered the greatest exodus of people in human history. The violence that accompanied the mass migrations was unprecedented: about one million people died, 75,000 women were raped, and more than ten million people were displaced in Punjab in the north and Bengal in the east (Hasan 2000: 243). And this story of violence and displacement continued well into the 1950s. 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, who could sell or arrange exchanges of properties. There were very few peasants who migrated at this stage or could afford to move, because migration required resources, which they lacked. But a second wave of migration started after fresh anti-Hindu riots broke out in East Pakistan, first in Khulna and then in Rajshahi, Dacca, Mymensingh and Barisal districts. The main victims of these riots were not the high caste Hindu bhadralok who 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. By the beginning of 1951, following the disturbances in Khulna, some 1.5 million refugees had arrived in West Bengal (Chatterji 2007: 112) and most of them were Namasudra or Dalit peasants. While all the major existing studies on refugees by Chatterjee (1992), Chakrabarti (1999), Tan and Kudaisya (2000) and Chatterji (2007) have noted their arrival, their distinctive voices and specific political trajectories have still remained largely excluded from these narratives of Partition.

The arrival of the Dalit refugees in 1950-51 however raises several important questions. In colonial Bengal groups like the Namasudras and Rajbansis dominated organised Scheduled Caste politics and had their main geographical anchorage in east and north Bengal districts which, despite their vehement protests, ultimately went to East Pakistan by the award of the Boundary Commission (see Bandyopadhyay 1997 for Namasudra and Basu 2003 for Rajbansi movement).  So the question is, how did these groups view and respond to the religious politics prior to the Partition of Bengal in 1946-47? While it is well known that their all India organization, the SCF, was in alliance with the ML at this stage, but did this alliance actually work in the context of local politics, which was increasingly being communally polarised between the Hindus and Muslims (see Das1991)? What was their attitude to the Muslims and to the Muslims’ demand for a Pakistani state? For those Dalits who survived the violent riots of 1950 and endured the harrowing journey to West Bengal, what were their views on Partition and the SCF-ML political alliance? Did they see themselves as accidental victims of violence or along with other (high caste) Hindus, as deliberate targets? And then, how did their experience of migration compare with those of high caste Hindu or Sikh refugees in north India? Did their shared life in the refugee camps affect caste relations in any way or bring them any closer to the high caste Hindus? How did they resettle in post-Partition India? Finally, did the trauma of displacement in any way impact on their identity politics in postcolonial India? Did they now project a more assimilative Hindu identity or embrace the Indian national identity, although previously they preferred to articulate a distinctive political identity for themselves? Unless we can answer these questions, our understanding of Partition and of Indian nationhood will remain very incomplete.

The major objective of this project is therefore to write Dalit into the history of Partition of Bengal. It will look first of all at the role of the Dalit politicians on the eve of the Partition - during the last phase of colonial rule (1946-47) - when on the one hand the SCF was maintaining its alliance with the ML, but on the other religious polarisation was taking place in the east Bengal countryside, particularly after the outbreak of Calcutta and Noakhali riots in 1946, in which Dalits were also among the victims. It will then look at the riots of 1950 in the context of the Dalit-Muslim relationship in the early days of East Pakistan and its Islamisation policies. It will then look at the experience of the Dalit refugees in the refugee camps of West Bengal, their specific problems of rehabilitation, the role of their leaders in post-Partition politics of rehabilitation and the endeavours of the established political parties and refugee organisations to appropriate this constituency. Through these explorations the project will seek an answer to its central question: did Partition change the nature of caste relations and Dalit identity politics in West Bengal in any way.




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