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The Myths Refugees Live By: Memory and history in the making of Bengali refugee identity

Within the popular memory of the partition of India, the division of Bengal continues to evoke themes of political rupture, social tragedy, and nostalgia. The refugees or, more broadly speaking, Hindu migrants from East Bengal, are often the central agents of such narratives. This paper explores how the scholarship on East Bengali refugees portrays them either as hapless and passive victims of the regime of rehabilitation, which was designed to integrate refugees into the socio-economic fabric of India, or eulogizes them as heroic protagonists who successfully battled overwhelming adversity to wrest resettlement from a reluctant state. This split image of the Bengali refugee as both victim and victor obscures the complex nature of refugee agency. Through a case-study of the foundation and development of Bijoygarh colony, an illegal settlement of refugee-squatters on the outskirts of Calcutta, this paper will argue that refugee agency in post-partition West Bengal was inevitably moulded by social status and cultural capital. However, the collective memory of the establishment of squatters’ colonies systematically ignores the role of caste and class affiliations in fracturing the refugee experience. Instead, it retells the refugees’ quest for rehabilitation along the mythic trope of heroic and masculine struggle. This paper interrogates refugee reminiscences to illuminate their erasures and silences, delineating the mythic structure common to both popular and academic refugee histories and exploring its significance in constructing a specific cultural identity for Bengali refugees.

Uditi Sen
Cambridge University Press