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How the Dalits of Bengal

Became the ‘Worst Victims’ of
Though promised much by the 'Hindu' west after Partition, Dalits
who crossed over from East Bengal got the opposite of a warm

Dwaipayan Sen

Crossing the border during Partition. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Wire’s #PartitionAt70 series brings a number of stories, through text and
multimedia content, that will attempt at drawing a comprehensive picture of
those weeks and months when entire geographies and histories changed

As the citizens of Pakistan and India celebrate 70 years of independence this

year, the commemoration of Partition and its myriad effects on their lives and
those of their ancestors remains a sobering and unhappy work that troubles
any easy valorising of hard-won anti-colonial sovereignties. As one of the
biggest events in the history of the 20th century, what Partition meant and
means for the innumerable many whose lives were drawn willingly or not into
its maelstrom is a theme that has commanded the attention of several
generations of scholars, artists and literati. Arguably one of the central
insights emerging from this vast corpus of reflection is just how multifaceted
was the human experience of this watershed in the South Asian past.
Defying uniformity, Partition was triumph and tragedy; loss, displacement,
unlikely accommodation and recovery; enabling of unexpected agency;
rebirth and reconciliation; terror and horror; trauma and relief, seemingly, all
at once. In collective imagination however, the event remains framed as the
political consequence of communalism; the religious community – whether
Hindu, Muslim or Sikh – as the source of irreconcilable difference. While
there is no denying the self-evidence of this proposition, what the ineluctable
logic of communalism obscures are the stark variations between how
groupings supposedly within the religious community endured the burden of
the event which were indeed significant. Partition, in short, did not deliver the
promised homeland to all.

This is perhaps especially the case with the Namasudras of late-colonial

Bengal. One of the largest (scheduled) castes of the province, the leaders of
this labouring and agricultural community sought to effectively challenge the
caste Hindu domination of public life through their negotiations with the
colonial state over the course of the late 19th and 20th centuries. Like the
Mahars of Bombay presidency, they took the lead in Dalit movements to
secure social justice, respectability and equality, and actively pursued the
opportunities to be gained from articulating critiques of anti-colonial
nationalism coupled with a deep-seated loyalism towards their colonial
interlocutors. Situated predominantly in the eastern districts of Bengal, a
historical accident that would have lasting implications for their postcolonial
existence, Namasudras combined with Muslims to seriously undermine the
kinds of privileges caste Hindus had grown accustomed to enjoying. They
kept aloof from nationalist mobilisations, and over the course of provincial
autonomy responded favourably to B.R. Ambedkar’s call for Dalit self-
determination, a certain radicalisation.

There nonetheless remained powerful segments of the community receptive to

the amalgamating social reformism of Hindu and Indian nationalism, and the
assurance of a seat at the table in the nation-to-come. Indeed, the caste-Hindu
leaders of the movement to partition Bengal certainly had them in mind when
they rose to articulate and muster support for their demand that the province
be divided along religious-majoritarian lines in response to the Muslim
League’s search for Pakistan. The territorial division of the province however,
far from providing them with security as promised, unleashed an onslaught of
consequences that effectively shattered Namasudra political mobilisation,
stripped the community of its most precious natural resources, displaced them
from their ancestral homes and dissipated them throughout the subcontinent
over the course of the first few decades of freedom. In a manner quite unlike
any other, the Namasudras bore the brunt of Partition’s various violences, yet
seem to have gained precious little by way of its promise. Partition’s impact
on the Namasudras suggests that true intended beneficiaries of the divide were
not the unmarked Hindus per se, but the caste Hindus in particular. They
became, in the words of Jogendranath Mandal, their most controversial and
renowned Ambedkarite leader, the “worst victims of the partition of our

The vast majority of the Namasudra

community was not consulted in the
complex negotiations that led to the
decision to divide the province of Bengal
along the axis of religious difference.
The divide made little sense from their
perspective as it would involve
abandoning hearth and home for
uncertain futures in the “Hindu” west.
This is clear from the patterns in
migration from eastern to western
Bengal. While many caste Hindus took
advantage of their connections with
relatives and acquaintances in the west
to migrate well in advance of August
Jogendra Nath Mandal. Credit: 1947, despite the fact that a significant
Wikimedia Commons
majority of Namasudra MLAs ultimately
voted in favour of Partition as well as
their involvement in the riots of 1946, substantial numbers of them did not
leave East Pakistan until several years after the measure had been enacted and
life had become intolerable due to anti-Hindu aggression, itself a response to
the reciprocal violence from Hindus against Muslims. The communal logic of
Partition thus severely strained relations between Namasudras and Muslims,
which while far from uniformly congenial, were nonetheless composed of
solidarities born of living and labouring together in the moffusil world of East
From the late 1940s onwards, Namasudras confronted the dubious prospects
of remaining in their new and hostile homeland and increasingly decided to
take their chances with the neighbouring territory that had come into being
with the explicit purpose of providing a safe haven for Bengali Hindus. Each
major incident of rioting prompted their mass migration, punctuated by a
steady trickle of those who had given up on Pakistan. The idea had always
been that the west would receive their traumatised Hindu brethren with a
warm embrace. Yet, like many hastily and instrumentally extended assurances
of the late-colonial moment, this too was suitably modified under the
drastically-transformed circumstances of post-independence West Bengal to
become all but meaningless. They were not exactly made to feel welcome by
a society reeling from anomie born of famine, riots and a rapidly-escalating
refugee crisis. Indeed, as they soon discovered upon arrival in the land where
they expected salvation, the spoils of Partition were intended for the relatively
rarefied tier of Hindus. The fervent appeals to Hindu brotherhood when
making the case for a West Bengal just a few years prior, quickly transformed
to a beleaguered helplessness at charitable best, or (rather more baldly stated)
callous indifference, hypocrisy and betrayal.

constituted the
bulk of the
refugees that
swelled the camps
the governments
of India and West
constructed to
those seeking
asylum from humiliation and depredations in the east, spiking the population
density of an already fairly saturated geography. Maintaining these camps and
their residents placed exceptional pressure on the cash-strapped state and thus
was born the alibi of “non-availability of land,” marshalled by caste Hindu
Congress politicians to make the case for their rehabilitation beyond the
boundaries of their jurisdiction. Proximate states had extended a helping hand,
but there were limits to such generosity. By the late 1950s, the refugee
movement (mobilised, in no small part, by organisations affiliated with Leftist
opposition parties) confronted a state determined to evict them, amidst
mounting tensions. In a manner that recalled the colonial state’s dealing with
mass anti-colonial protest, and eerily if faintly reminiscent of the rounding up
of the European Jews, Namasudras were faced with the full coercive might of
the Nehruvian state to ensure their removal from West Bengal: the
imprisonment of prominent leaders, police brutality, sexual violence, the
withholding of doles and allowances to induce the willingness to leave,
dispersal of protestors beyond city limits to prevent their recombination,
forced evacuations on trains beyond the borders of the state. The consequence
of such actions was to effectively decimate any chance of contiguity in
Namasudra existence. From being concentrated in four districts in eastern
Bengal, by the early 1960s they found themselves scattered in sites tracing an
arc as far afield as the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Orissa, Madhya
Pradesh, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh, unlikely guests in cultures far
removed to their own.

There were those amongst them who attempted to return to the more familiar
terrain of West Bengal upon discovering surroundings and being assigned a
home inhospitable to a people accustomed to the riches of deltaic land. On
doing so, they were met with further state violence, but this time under the
agency of those they once followed. Most notorious of course, and supremely
ironic and janus-faced, was the manner in which the CPI(M) government dealt
with refugees who had camped in Marichjhanpi in the Sunderbans upon
escaping from their designated habitations in the late 1970s. Having
strategically utilised Namasudra migrants in their bid to topple the Congress,
once in power, the caste Hindu communists unleashed a reign of police terror
on those who refused their plans for them, resulting in the death by some
estimates of nearly 400 individuals, the loss of property and already scarce
resources, and the molestation of women. Marichjhanpi, a name that has
become metonym for caste atrocity in Dalit activist circles, remains a painful
if poignant reminder of the disposability of precarious lives even by those
committed, at least in theory if not in practice, to their well-being.

It has indeed been a “long partition” for the Namasudras of eastern India.
Even today, the shadow of that divide touches the lives of those who are yet to
been granted citizenship under suspicion of being illegal migrants from
Bangladesh, or the deeds to the small parcels of land they acquired through
their own initiative. And they have of course also contended with that other
great partition in their everyday lives – that of casteism, its unrelenting
prejudices and exclusions. That they have endured such insurmountable
circumstances is a tribute to the resilience of the human being. Yet one is not
entirely sure of the value of such comforting pieties. As Lawrence Langer’s
studies of testimonies of holocaust survivors suggest, the assumption that the
coordinates of morality remain intact after the prolonged experience of
unearthly trauma may not be appropriate. Accounts that seek to redeem the
human spirit partake of a moral compass unavailable to those who have
experienced systematic dehumanisation. Despite the modest gains
Namasudras have wrested in the decades since Partition and independence, it
is hard to think of another community that has suffered as much for the wages
of freedom, but are yet to earn its dividends; certainly, neither wholly or in
full measure, nor, for that matter, very substantially. The steep price they paid
for Partition was entirely out of joint with the essentially negligible role they
played in reaching the fateful decision.

Dwaipayan Sen is assistant professor in the departments of History, and Asian

Languages and Civilisations at Amherst College.

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