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Partition of India - refugees displaced by the partition

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The hungry tide Bengali Hindu refugees in the Subcontinent

8 The Study

The hungry tide Bengali Hindu refugees in the Subcontinent

The Newsletter | No.51 | Summer 2009

The history of the Indian novel in English reflects the fact that

Partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947 has been the single

most important determining factor of India’s destiny. From

Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan in 19561 to Shauna Singh

Baldwin’s What the Body Remembers in 1999,2 it seems a new

perspective on the event emerges in each succeeding decade.

Marked by the twin features of massacre and migration,

Partition, however, did not mean the same thing for Punjab

and Bengal. As outlined below, there are three significant

differences which have had a direct bearing on the refugee

movement in these two states:

Firstly, the Punjab Partition was a one-time event that was

marked by a two-way exodus, while the Partition of Bengal

turned out to be a continuing process, with migration

happening predominantly in one direction – i.e. from East to

West Bengal. In other words, there was a more or less equal

exchange of population on the western border in 1947 which

was not the case in West Bengal.

Secondly, compared to the nature of border and boundary in

the West where political, strategic and military considerations

converted the entire Punjab region into two rigid divisions, the

dividing line in the East remained porous and flexible, facilitating

the refugee movement.

The third and most important difference between the Punjab

and Bengal Partition was the attitude of the centre to the

crisis on the two borders at the time it happened. The crisis

in Punjab was seen as a national emergency, to be tackled

almost on a war footing; and as the communal violence in the

West came close to being genocide, the government felt a

moral responsibility to put into immediate effect rehabilitation

measures for the refugees. This sense of urgency was totally

lacking on the Eastern border. The violence there was not of the

same magnitude as the violence in the West. Hindu minorities

in East Bengal were not considered to be in grave danger, and

the flight of refugees westwards was regarded mostly as the

product of imaginary fears and baseless rumours. In fact, well

after it had begun, Nehru continued to believe that the exodus

in the East could be halted, even reversed, provided government

in Dacca could be persuaded to deploy ‘psychological

measures’ to restore confidence among the Hindu minorities.3

This difference in attitude and perception of the Central

government regarding the nature of the crisis facing the two

borders translated itself strikingly into the expenditure on

refugees in the West and the East.4 A difference that would

have permanent, debilitating, economic consequences for the

state of West Bengal,5 and the way it dealt with its refugees.

Amitav Ghosh highlights precisely this aspect in his second

novel, The Shadow Lines (1988).6 He provides vivid glimpses

of what life was like for refugees on both sides of the border,

even at the end of the Nehruvian era. And if we are to go by

the testimony of the narrative of this novel, the Bengali Muslim

refugees who sought shelter in Bangladesh seemed to have

fared much better than the refugees in West Bengal, who were

damned to a life of destitution and starvation in the nation they

had escaped into.

But the problem of Bengali Hindu refugees was not confined

geographically to one state alone. While a substantial percentage

of the refugees who had crossed the Eastern border lived

in West Bengal – mostly in Kolkata and its suburbs – many were

also sent to other states.

The government of West Bengal was of the opinion that the

refugees (who by the 1960s constituted a third of the population

of the state) were a burden to be shared jointly among

the federal government and those of the neighbouring states.

It was in this context that the Dandakaranya project in central

India was conceived as a long-term solution to the problem of

rehabilitation of Bengali refugees.

Its genesis lay in the Rehabilitation Ministers’ Conference of

1956 where it was decided that government relief would be

given only to those refugees who agreed to resettle outside

West Bengal. Subsequently, the Dandakaranya Development

Partition is a recurring theme in Indian Writing in English. Much of the literature

focuses on the experiences of Partition on the Punjab border. Amitav Ghosh

stands out in his choice to write about the aftermath of Partition on the Bengal

border, and his novels demonstrate a continuing engagement with the motif

of migration and refugee resettlement in West Bengal. Rituparna Roy takes

Ghosh’s 2004 novel The Hungry Tide and examines how it traces the trajectory

of Bengali Hindu refugees in the subcontinent.

Rituparna Roy

Fig. 1 (above)


by Margaret


Fig. 2 (left)

Amitav Ghosh.

The Study 9 The Newsletter | No.51 | Summer 2009

Authority (DDA) was established in 1958. DDA was responsible

for developing an area of 78,000 square miles, known as

Dandakaranya, in the Koraput and Kalahandi districts of Orissa,

and the Bastar district of Madhya Pradesh.

In The Hungry Tide (2004),7 Amitav Ghosh chronicles the saga

of just such a group of refugees who were sent by the West

Bengal Government to Dandakaranya in Madhya Pradesh in

1961, but who left the place and returned to West Bengal in

1978, only to be massacred and evicted again.

Recovering lost histories

Ghosh’s writing has never had a strict demarcation between

‘fi ction’ and ‘non-fi ction’. He has always combined several roles

– that of novelist, journalist, scholar and historian, and one of

his fundamental preoccupations as a writer has been to recover

lost histories. The Hungry Tide attests to this, with the novel

intertwining accounts of the Morichjhapi Massacre of 1979 in

the Sunderbans and the history of riverine dolphins (Orcaella

brevirostris) which are an integral part of the island’s history

and ecology. The discussion in this article will be confi ned to

the massacre in the Sunderbans.

Ghosh dramatises the last phase of the refugees struggle in the

Sunderbans. But life had been di- cult long before – ever since

their forced migration to India. They had moved to West Bengal

after partition, hoping for a better life there. That hope proved

utopic as they were later, in the 60s, pushed further inland

from their deltaic origins into central India. Dandakaranya

was conceived as a long-lasting solution to their problem. But

ironically enough, it increasingly turned out to be ‘a land of

banishment rather than the haven of hope it had been made

out to be by rehabilitation administrators.’8

The refugees felt alienated and between 1965 and 1978 more

than 12,000 families deserted the settlement. In mid-1978,

there was a new wave of desertions under the leadership of an

organisation called the Udavastu Unnayansheel Samiti. The press

at the time talked of a ‘migration in reverse gear.’ The West

Bengal government managed to send a lot of these refugees

back, but about 25,000 managed to return to West Bengal and

build a settlement on the island of Marichjhanpi.

The West Bengal government was averse to the idea of old

refugees returning back to the state and deeply unhappy with

this development. It wanted a solution, once and for all, to the

vexed refugee problem that the state had been facing for more

than three decades. It declared the Morichjhapi settlement an

illegal encroachment by ‘deserters’ on forest land in an area

earmarked for the protection of endangered tigers. The refugees

were given an ultimatum to evacuate the island by 31st

March, 1979; when that proved futile, the government started

an ‘economic blockade’ that severely a  ected the refugees; and

the state police fi nally cracked down in mid-May 1979. O- cial

estimates claimed that only 36 refugees were killed in this

action, the actual number, however, ran into several hundreds.

In the Hungry Tide, the Morichjapi Massacre is traced through a

witness, Nirmal, and his diary to his nephew (Kanai). In Chapter

19 of the novel, we come to know the facts of the incident from

Nirmal’s widow. Nilima runs a hospital and a trust in Lushibari

and is known as ‘Mashima’ (or aunt) to all. She tells her nephew

Kanai of the events leading up to the massacre and of her

husband’s involvement in it.

‘…In this place where there had been no inhabitants before

there were now thousands, almost overnight. Within a matter

of weeks they had cleared the mangroves, built badhs and put

up huts. It happened so quickly that in the beginning no one

even knew who these people were. But in time it came to be

learnt that they were refugees, originally from Bangladesh.

Some had come to India after Partition, while others had

trickled over later. In Bangladesh they had been among

the poorest of rural people, oppressed and exploited

both by Muslim communalists and by Hindus of the

upper castes’ (p.118).

Ghosh eloquently summarises the events at Morichjhapi

in 1979 through Nilima’s narrative. His fi ctional representation

of the event keeps very close to what actually

happened, and he has successfully shown the various

ways in which Morichjhapi was markedly di  erent from

other refugee settlements. The refugees there were

trebly displaced people – they had moved from East Pakistan

to West Bengal, from West Bengal to Madhya Pradesh and

then again from Madhya Pradesh to the Sunderbans. Yet in

Morichjhapi they had found a place where they were no longer

at the mercy of the local people or even the government,

initially. They found vast tracts of free land in the Sunderbans

and created a world of their own. However, the refugees

coming to the tide country was premised on a false assumption

– they chose this place because they thought that the new Left

Government in West Bengal would sympathise with their cause.

there were now thousands, almost overnight. Within a matter

of weeks they had cleared the mangroves, built badhs and put

Actually, the government falling short of the expectations of

the refugees – not being able to meet their needs or not being

sympathetic to their problems – was not a new story in West

Bengal. But what happened in 1979, the way they were forcibly

evicted from the island, was a gross betrayal by the Left.

As Prafulla Chakrabarti demonstrates in his classic, The Marginal

Men: The Refugees and the Left Political Syndrome in West Bengal

(1990),9 there was a symbiotic relationship between the

refugee movement and Left Politics in West Bengal in the early

years of Independence. In fact, the political ascendancy of the

left in West Bengal owes a great deal to the refugees and their

struggles for rehabilitation in the 1950s.

Chakrabarti argues that the Communists provided the

refugees with leadership in their struggle for rehabilitation,

and in return, the refugees became the striking arm of the

Communists, providing them with the mass support which

enabled them to entrench themselves in the city of Calcutta,

and later, catapulted them to power. But in 1979, in a most

ironic and tragic turn of events, the Left Front Government in

West Bengal was turning against the very cause which it had

championed for over two decades and which had been key in

bringing it to power.

The refugees at Morichjhapi showed initiative and organisation

in their attempt to build a new life. To borrow a phrase

from Nilanjana Chatterjee’s well-known essay on East Bengali

refugees, theirs was ‘a lesson in survival.’10

And they put to rest, once and for all, the false stereotyping

that had gained currency in o- cial discourse against the socalled

‘non-enterprising, lazy, parochial’ East Bengali refugees

(contrasted with their solid, hard-working, self-respecting West

Punjabi counterparts).

The Hungry Tide’s protagonist Nirmal writes of the refugee

initiatives in his diary:

‘Saltpans had been created, tubewells had been planted, water

had been dammed for the rearing of fish, a bakery had started

up, boat-builders had set up workshops, a pottery had been

founded as well as an ironsmith’s shop; there were people

making boats while others were fashioning nets and crablines;

little marketplaces, where all kinds of goods were being sold,

had sprung up. All this in the space of a few months! It was

an astonishing spectacle – as though an entire civilization had

sprouted suddenly in the mud’ (p.192).

But even while the Morichjhapi refugees gave shape to their

dream, their feet were fi rmly planted on the ground. They

tried, as far as possible, to be self-reliant, but at the same time

they were conscious of the need to garner social and political

support for their work. To this end the refugees held a feast,

and invited dignitaries to the island to see their enterprises

fi rst hand. On the face of it, it proved to be a great success. It

is interesting that the group actively sought the

support of the establishment. But they were

cheated. In the novel, Ghosh shows that the big

shots who came from Calcutta, despite their lofty

speeches, actually already knew that these settlers

would eventually be evicted.

But the settlers at Morichjhapi, trebly displaced as

they were, proved to be a defi ant lot. Till their last

breath, they fought the injustice of the government.

And in the very last phase of their struggle, when they

were being forcibly evicted by a 1500-strong policeforce

(who were specifi cally deployed for the purpose),

their battle-cry became:

‘Amra kara? Bastuhara. Morichjhapi chharbona’

‘Who are we? We are the dispossessed. We’ll not leave

Morichjhapi, do what you may.’

Hearing this, Nirmal remarks in the novel:

‘Standing on the deck of the bhotbhoti, I was struck by the

beauty of this. Where else could you belong, except in the place

you refused to leave’ (p.254).

The refugees’ case was also unique in another respect – in that

it was intimately linked up with an environmental issue. For the

rehabilitation debate, in their case, basically boiled down to

the question: what is more important – conserving forests for

animals or allowing humans to live?11

In The Hungry Tide, Ghosh uses the testimony of a Morichjhapi

settler and victim, Kusum – as told to Nirmal during the fi nal

phase of the islander’s clash with the police – to articulate the

peculiar predicament of the Morichjhapi refugees:

The worst part was… to sit here, helpless, with hunger gnawing

at our bellies and listen to the policemen say…

‘This island has to be saved for its trees, it has to be saved for its

animals… it is a part of a reserve forest, it belongs to a project

to save tigers…’

Who are these people, I wondered, who love animals so much

that they are willing to kill us for them? (pp.262-63)

While I have sought to demonstrate the distinctness of the

Morichjhapi settlers and their experience from that of the other

refugees who sought shelter in West Bengal, their trajectory covers

all the important phases of refugee infl ux into West Bengal

(until 1979) and the accompanied problems of rehabilitation. In

fact, with their experience, they trace the curve of West Bengal

politics (vis-a-vis refugee rehabilitation) from 1947-79.

In his earlier novels, Ghosh dealt with some of the major phases

of refugee infl ux into West Bengal and their immediate and

long-term consequences for the state. In a way, all of them

come together in The Hungry Tide. For, the history of the

Morichjhapi incident can be traced back to all of these phases:

starting with the original refugees from Bangladesh (1947),

who were resettled fi rst in West Bengal (1947-late’50s), then

moved to Dandakaranya (in 1961), from where they escaped

and came to the Sunderbans (1978) only to become the victims

of state-sponsored violence a year later (1979).

The un-preparedness and inadequacy of the state government

to deal with the deluge from the east, their subsequent plans

to rehabilitate the refugees from East Pakistan elsewhere in the

country, the monumental failure of that plan in Dandakaranya,

the fi nal e  ort of the refugees to rehabilitate themselves in

the Sunderbans, and the unexpected reprisal from the new

Left Front Government – all of this can be traced through their


The Morichjhapi massacre is but one aspect of a wonderfully

rich and complex text. But it is very signifi cant in that it

refl ects the wider experiences of Bengali Hindu refugees in

the subcontinent. And through it, following on from what he

started in The Shadow Lines (though in a much more direct

way), Ghosh draws our attention to the aftermath of partition

on the Bengal border.

Rituparna Roy

IIAS Fellow


1. Singh, Khushwant. 1956. (1988) Train to Pakistan.

New Delhi: Ravi Dayal.

2. Baldwin, Shauna Singh. 1999. What the Body Remembers.

Canada: Vintage.

3. See ‘Introduction’ to Bagchi, Jasodhara & Subhoranjan

Dasgupta (eds.) 2003. The Trauma and the Triumph:

Gender and Partition in Eastern India. Kolkata: Stree.

4. There is a detailed discussion of this much-neglected aspect

of the administrative consequences of the Partition of 1947

in Joya Chatterjee’s ‘Right or Charity? The Debate over Relief

and Rehabilitation in West Bengal, 1947-50’ in The Partitions

of Memory: The Afterlife of the Division of India, edited by

Suvir Kaul. (New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2001).

5. Chatterjee explores this theme in great detail in her book,

The Spoils of Partition: Bengal and India, 1947-1967. 2007.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

6. Ghosh, Amitav. 1988. The Shadow Lines. New Delhi:

Ravi Dayal.

7. Ghosh, Amitav. 2004. The Hungry Tide. New Delhi: Ravi Dayal.

8. Kudaisya, Gyanesh. 2000. ‘Divided landscapes, fragmented

identities: East Bengal refugees and their rehabilitation in India,

1947-79’, in Kudaisya, Gyanesh & Tai Yong Tan (eds.),

The Aftermath of Partition in South Asia (Routledge Studies in the

Modern History of Asia), 156. London & New York: Routledge.

9. Chakraborty, Prafulla. 1990. The Marginal Men:

The Refugees and the Left Political Syndrome in West Bengal.

Kalyani: Lumière Books.

10. Chatterjee, Nilanjana. 1992. Midnight’s Unwanted Children:

East Bengali Refugees and the Politics of Rehabilitation. Brown


11. For a discussion of this aspect of the novel, see Mondal,

Anshuman. 2007. Amitav Ghosh, 176-178. Manchester

& New York: Manchester University Press.

‘Who are

these people,

I wondered,

who love

animals so

much that

they are

willing to kill

us for them?’

Fig. 3 (above right)

The Sunderbans.