Claiming their nation
India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had pledged to welcome East Bengal’s Hindus into the independent nation. But he offered little tangible support when thousands of refugees arrived in Kolkata on trains coming in from the east. The government gave only the most basic relief—rice, molasses, and a small stipend—to these newcomers, whom it funneled into unsanitary camps. This treatment stood in contrast with the government’s efforts to integrate Punjabi refugees who had overwhelmed New Delhi, and whom the authorities swiftly and permanently resettled within the city. Their counterparts in Kolkata were thus alienated from the ruling Indian National Congress, the very party that had ushered the independent nation into existence.
Nonetheless, this vast population of displaced Bengalis would exert an outsized influence on India’s subsequent trajectory. In the early 1950s, enterprising refugees belonging to the middle class and upper castes cleared jungle and squatted on privately-owned fallow land on the city’s southern fringe, giving rise to what became known as the refugee colonies. Residents removed snakes’ nests, dug out ponds for water, and paved over rudimentary roads. Women assumed essential roles: They blew conch shells and banged pots and pans, to warn that the angry landlords’ thugs were on their way to destroy a colony; they formed human chains to stop the police from entering; and they collected money from commuters on the city’s trams, buses, and streets to build schools. Whenever landlords razed these colonies, residents rebuilt them overnight.
Meanwhile, refugees worked tirelessly to win over native Kolkatans through a sense of shared culture. In local newspapers, they wrote essays describing their experiences of displacement and life within a Muslim state, where they could not, they lamented, abide by their Hindu values—worshipping family gods in the home or organizing their annual community festivals. Many in the West Bengal government were sympathetic to the refugees, some of whom had been influential figures in the independence struggle. When West Bengal’s governor visited a colony, the residents showered his car with flowers. Moved by this display, he acquired land to set up the city’s first formal refugee settlement, the Naktala Government Scheme.
Not all found their place in the city, however. In 1958, the Indian government sent lower-caste refugees to work on the Dandakaranya Project, an agricultural development project in central India’s plains. While they farmed arid, alien land and built infrastructure, they were forced to reside in aptly-called Permanent Liability Camps. Out of desperation, some of these refugees walked back in the late 1970s to the mangrove forests south of Kolkata. Staking their own claim to belonging, they erected a settlement on the island of Marichjhanpi, named after a famous Bengali freedom fighter, Netaji Nagar. But they were not heard: In 1979, the police forcibly evicted some 40,000 refugees from the island, killing around one hundred in the process. Those who survived dispersed into Kolkata’s slums and nearby towns.
Even those Bengali refugees who successfully integrated in Kolkata lacked any clear anchor in mainstream Indian politics. As such, they embraced the communist and socialist parties, which in turn organized the displaced population through relief work, rallies, and protests. These parties formed committees to represent the colonies’ interests in the Refugee Relief and Rehabilitation Department of West Bengal. In most cases, party cadres and colony leaders were one and the same. Meanwhile, the refugee masses lent considerable demographic weight to the popular movements of the 1950s and 60s, helping rebrand a pulsating Kolkata as the “city of processions.” The communists’ parades of red flags, protesting anything from refugee rights to food security to rising tram fares, would regularly shut down the city.
Such representation solidly rooted refugees into Kolkata’s political landscape, even as it brought them into conflict with the central government. When the Indian state took an authoritarian turn in the 1970s and outlawed opposition parties, the refugee communists suffered first: Police crackdowns on the colonies prefigured the declaration of the National Emergency of 1975-77, in which Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ruled without parliament. As democracy was restored in 1977, the refugees helped elect the Left Front—a coalition of four communist and socialist parties—to the West Bengal state government, where it would remain for an unbroken thirty-four years. The Left Front formally incorporated the colonies into Kolkata’s municipality; by granting refugees deeds to their land, it also folded a vast electorate into the city. Many top ministers were from East Bengali backgrounds.
Refugees worked tirelessly to win over native Kolkatans
The dominance of communist cadre left little room for alternative political actors and ideologies to emerge in the tightly-knit colonies. One elderly communist recalled how, in the early stages, some fellow refugees had squatted in a mosque and harassed local Muslim families. These “communal-wallahs,” as he derogatively called them, were chased away by communist leaning refugees, who accused them of peddling interreligious hatred. The Left Front went on to cement a secularist culture which had long been part of the Bengali ethos. This secularism—which kept religion apart from politics but remained tolerant of everyday forms of piety—spared Kolkata the worst communal violence that wracked the Subcontinent in recent decades: the 1984 anti-Sikh pogroms in Delhi, the 1992 massacres in Bombay, or the 2002 Gujarat riots.
The refugees’ politics were not about setting themselves apart—as East Bengalis, communists, or secularists, for example—as much as finding their place in the city. They drew upon cultural affinities with the prior residents, such as their appreciation for the same songs and theater or their shared religious and educational values, while reminding West Bengalis of all that they had sacrificed to bring the nation into being. Nowadays, the cultural split between refugee households and West Bengal families often goes no further than slight variance in cooking styles: extra chili in East Bengali kitchens; a pinch of sugar in their dal for the Westerners. Younger generations were especially quick to shed the rural intonations of their parents, forgetting their backstories and blending in. Communists quip about this seamless assimilation: “tumi to koloni, age keno boloni—why didn’t you say you were from the colony!”
If memories of displacement and struggle sustained Kolkata’s distinct political culture, the amnesia that comes with successful integration has also caused its militancy to fade. What is more, communist cadres became gradually more arrogant and overbearing, and thus less tolerable for an increasingly well-established, middle-class population of refugees and their descendants. After decades of uninterrupted rule, the Left Front was finally defeated in the 2011 state election; few residents of Kolkata shed a tear at the passing of a political movement that had gained too strong a hold on their personal lives. As one son of a refugee explained, “there are still pockets of influence, but communism won’t come along again.”