Tucked away in my father’s files were some old papers and documents that provided clues about his journey from East Pakistan to India in the early decades of India’s independence. These clues tell a story of displacement, nation-building, and of the shifting meanings of home, identity, and memory. His path, which began in 1936 and spanned more than eight decades, resonates to this day, in what it says about the post-colonial experience and the unresolved traumas of forced displacement.
Sometime between 1947 and 1960, my father, a citizen of India, became a refugee, or, in official parlance, a “bonafide displaced person”. I am unsure about the exact year because we rarely talked about that time. What we did talk about were his memories of his original home, in what is now Bangladesh. As he got older, these memories grew stronger and yet more vague. It was only last year, after his demise, that I gained a better understanding of his journey. In his desk, I found some files with tattered documents, the ones he thumbed through again and again, which allowed me to piece together his story.
My father, whom I will refer to as Mr Biswas, was born in 1936 in the district of Barisal, located in present-day Bangladesh. But then, Barisal was in British India, and my father was a British subject. That changed in August 1947 after India gained independence. India’s hard-won freedom from British rule was, of course, a time for celebration.
But, what was Mr Biswas’s national identity at that point? This was unclear in the chaos and violence of Partition that displaced an estimated 15 million people and left one to two million dead.. In Interpreter of Maladies, Indian-American author Jhumpa Lahiri sums up the confusion of that time : “One moment we were free and then we were sliced up…like a pie”.
The newly carved nation of Pakistan was a geographic oddity. Its two parts, East and West Pakistan, were split by almost 1,500 km of Indian territory. Even though my father’s family was Hindu, they stayed in Barisal, which was now in Muslim-majority East Pakistan. The reasons for their decision to stay were not clear. When I would ask my father why they did not immediately move to India, he would say, “Bangladesh was our home, we had a little bit of land there, we are Bengalis, you know.”
So, in 1947, amid the joys and the tragedies of Independence and Partition, my father, like many other Bengali Hindus, found himself living in East Pakistan. In 1950, at the age of 14, he completed his secondary schooling in Dacca (now Dhaka), the capital of East Pakistan.
During this time, amid rising tensions between East and West Pakistan, things were becoming difficult for Bengalis. Shortly after completing his school education, my father moved to India. His port of entry was West Bengal. There, in 1961 at the age of 25, my father was registered as a citizen of India. He was born at home and apart from the school certificate from East Pakistan, this was his first “official paper”.
When I found this document, I looked at it for a long time: this is the only photograph I have seen of my father as a young man. Photography was expensive, certainly too expensive for someone who was living on scraps in a new city.
That same year, Mr Biswas went to another office to obtain a different certificate. This one confirmed his status as a person belonging to a Scheduled Caste or Dalit community. By then, the government of India, in recognition of the historical oppression and marginalisation that Dalits have experienced, had announced a series of remedial provisions in education, employment, and housing. This document was the proof he needed to access these programmes.
When I look at these papers, I visualise my father. I see him, arriving in Calcutta (now Kolkata), a large metropolitan city teeming with long-term residents, migrants looking for jobs, and millions of refugees from East Pakistan. Calcutta, and the state of West Bengal, were still reeling from the violence and mass migration that had accompanied Partition.
As author Siddharth Mukherjee writes in Gene, this was a time when the city itself “was losing sanity – its nerves fraying, its love depleted, its patience spent”. (Mukherjee writes extensively of the emotional and mental toll that Partition inflicted on his family, also originally from East Bengal). India was still trying to find its ground as an independent, post-colonial country with few resources at its disposal.
Mr Biswas had no assets to his name and little money. He was the oldest son of a family that had lost its land in East Pakistan, leaving him the principal breadwinner. While India was always my father’s country, this part of India, the new India, was also a foreign country, different from his home in rural East Bengal. I imagine him going to an office in Barasat, trying to register himself as an Indian citizen. I see him standing in line, jostling with the many others who were doing the same.
As anyone who has been to an immigration office anywhere in the world, this process, the one that leads to the all-important legal paper, is laborious and stressful. By its very nature, it strips you of your confidence and sense of self. Much depends on the mood of the officer handling one’s “case”. It also requires money – to get documents notarised, to get a photo taken, to make copies, and, in some instances, to offer bribes.
After getting his citizenship paper in Barasat, which surely took hours, if not days, Mr Biswas must then go to Alipore to get his caste certificate. Alipore is 45 km from Barasat. At a minimum, he would have had to take two buses, or perhaps a train and bus, to get to his destination. This too, takes money and time.
In this office, as well, he must once again make copies, stand in line, provide his details, and hope that his case officer provides the crucial signature. Time, money, luck – all of these are needed and all of these are in short supply.
But there are yet more documents to obtain, more lines to stand in, more evidence to provide, to prove what has already been proven. These are two documents from 1962 and 1963, one attesting that he is a citizen of India and one certifying that he is a “bonafide displaced person”.
Note that the office of Refugee Relief and Rehabilitation states that my father, despite his displacement, is not entitled to rehabilitation benefits. This is a reminder of the book Spoils of Partition, in which author Joya Chatterji provides an exhaustive account of the variable ways in which refugee benefits were distributed and withheld in West Bengal.
Chatterji writes that “between 1947 and 1967, at least 6 million Hindu refugees from East Bengal crossed into West Bengal” and she documents the ways in which these refugees sought to “find shelter, jobs and security”. My father was just one of these six million. Yet, his story was repeated, year after year, for those millions.
At the same time, my father was also trying to get a college degree, obtaining a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Calcutta, eleven years after having completed his secondary education.
My father had a reputation of having been an excellent student. Yet, he did not do well at the University of Calcutta, barely passing his exams. I know this because it has often been mentioned within the family – that he used to be “good at studies”, but that he was “not good in college”. When I would ask him why that was the case, my father would mumble, “there was a lot going on those days, this and that happened”. He never said anything more than that.
Looking at these papers, I now see what the “this and that” was. It was getting papers after papers certified, it was finding ways to make some money, it was about finding his place in a country that had always been his country – but also one that had, literally, moved under his feet.
Eventually, Mr Biswas got a job with the government and India and built a comfortable life for himself and his family. Yet, the need for papers continued. In 1979, for example, at the age of 43, he obtained yet another certificate to attest that he was a displaced person.
By this time, East Pakistan had ceased to exist, having become Bangladesh. The creation of Bangladesh had been preceded by another massive exodus. Brutal actions by the Pakistan military led 10 million Bengalis to escape to India over a span of nine months, most of them streaming into West Bengal.
I wrote about the Indian government’s response to this crisis, and what it tells us about the country’s role hosting refugees, in my an article in Refugee Survey Quarterly. My father often expressed great sympathy for these refugees. I wonder if he had seen something of himself in them.
Mr Biswas’s successful quest for legal papers shows, through an individual case, the relationship between identity, documents, citizenship, and state-building. In her book Citizenship and Its Discontents, Niraja Gopal Jayal points out that identity documents help construct and support essential components of citizenship, such as legality and rights. However, the legality of citizenship intersects with the emotional dimensions of identity in ways that cannot be easily predicted or understood.
As most migrants and refugees know all too well, moving across borders – or having the border itself move – can leave one in a state of confusion. In his later years, and particularly after having retired from his job, my father became more and more nostalgic about his childhood in East Bengal. He came to live almost entirely within his memories, with romanticised notions of the scenery, the food, the water, all the riches that the Bangladesh of his mind offered.
He became less and less interested in Kolkata, where he had lived much of his life, and more immersed in the ways that he remembered his “home over there”.
Kolkata is a mere 250 km from Barisal. Today, several daily buses connect West Bengal and Bangladesh. I think of all the things that those 250 km have witnessed over the span of just a few decades. I think of the untold millions whose experiences of displacement are just footnotes in the grand narratives about the end of British imperialism and the birth of new nations.
Yet, through all the violence, the poverty, the unrelenting chaos, Kolkata became a home for so many uprooted people. In Epic City, Kushanava Choudhury described Kolkata as a “miracle”, a city whose people “remade a new city”; one that, against all odds, “let people live together again”. I think of his words as I watch Bangladesh-bound passengers board buses from a busy terminal in South Kolkata, telling their loved ones that they will call when they reach the “other side”.
I think, as well, of these two gold bangles that my grandmother had given me.
She had told me to guard these bangles with care, to never sell them or exchange them for other jewelry. Last year, I discovered that these were the only things of value, hidden in a pot of rice, that she had brought with her as she walked those 250 km, from her “home over there” to her “house over here”.
Bidisha Biswas is Professor of Political Science, Western Washington University. Her Twitter handle is @Bee_the_Wonk.