Refugee Settlements and the Role of Education in Post-Partition West Bengal

Research Project (to be discussed at the Winter Academy) by Kaustubh Mani Sengupta.

Kaustubh Mani Sengupta joined the Max Weber Stiftung Transnational Research Group “Poverty and Education in Modern India” after finishing his PhD in 2013. In his current project, he is looking at the ways West Bengal refugees negotiated with the post-colonial situation and the role of education in their lives.

The project studies the role of education and school in the lives of the refugees who settled in West Bengal after the partition of British India in 1947. Most of the early refugees from East Bengal belonged to the upper or middle caste groups–the bhadraloks. They tended to gravitate towards the urban centres, more specifically to Calcutta. An acute housing crisis forced a majority of them to forcibly occupy barracks and empty tracts of lands and to build up squatter colonies there. After securing the basic necessity of life, the members of the colony would look to establish a school, as they regarded education as the utmost important element for the children of refugee population to survive in the alien land. This was a common pattern without any exception – either a particular colony had a school for itself or a few colonies collectively would develop a school. The study explores the possible reasons behind the importance that education had among the refugees – was it their bhadralok baggage that made them invest their capital, labour and time in developing neighbourhood schools; or was educating their children necessary to ensure a job in the foreign land? Also, what were the cultural significances of building up a school in a colony, where did the money come from, who taught in these schools and what were their relations with the government sanctioned education board?

The bhadralok colony-dwellers formed only a section of the refugee population. Among the migrants from East Pakistan, there were poor cultivators, artisans, petty traders and others. They lacked the minimum means necessary for setting up squatter colonies. They took refuge in the government camps. These camps had government-run schools and training centres. The camp population was often transitory in nature as the government tried to rehabilitate the inhabitants somewhere permanently. Did the curricula in these schools and centres take into account the possible temporariness of the population? Often the pupils in these schools were first-generation school-goers – how did the primary education mould their life-cycles, what were the drop-out rates and how important was the vocational training among the downtrodden refugees – these are some of the issues that the project will address.

In brief, the project critically interrogates the role of education in the development of a group of people who were trying to carve out a niche for themselves in a new country. The post-partition period was a critical phase in the biography of the new nation as well. The refugees as well as the government, both were trying to work out a way to move ahead, leaving behind the tumultuous last few years. The broad sets of sources for this study include various government reports, school magazines and commemorative volumes, refugee memoirs and oral narratives.

I propose to study the role of education and school in the lives of the refugees who settled in West Bengal after the partition of British India in 1947. The refugees, coming from the eastern part of the erstwhile province of Bengal, spread all over West Bengal and in other parts of India. Many refugee ‘colonies’, which were a novel and distinct spatial arrangement in the urban morphology, came up in the Calcutta region and almost all of these had a primary school. The study of these schools and the general role of education in these settlements will reveal complex socio-economic dynamic of a population trying to carve out a niche on a new terrain. On the other hand, the government, from time to time, came up with various policies to meet the pressing demands that this huge influx of people put on it. Education and training were crucial part of the post-Partition regime of rehabilitation of the refugees. I will study the different programmes—for general education as well as vocational training—that were initiated by the government.

Refugee Colonies:

Most of the early refugees from east Bengal belonged to the upper or middle caste groups, the bhadraloks, as they came to be known as from the colonial period. They tended to gravitate towards the urban centres, more specifically to Calcutta. Almost 60 per cent of the migrants up to 1949 were non-agriculturalists. Acute housing problem forced them to erect squatter settlements on the fringes of the city. After securing the basic necessity of life, the members of the colony would look to establish a school, as they regarded education as the utmost important element for their children, the only way to survive in the new land. Most of the upper caste people coming from eastern part of Bengal had prized education as a mean of earning livelihood for centuries. Education would not only help them establish in the new country and alleviate poverty in economic sense, but also help them consolidate their social and cultural position among the citizens. Some of the issues that I intend to study are the ways the schools came up in the colonies, the land taken for them, and the financial situation. Also, where did the teachers for these schools come? Were they all part of the colony, or some of them came from outside as well? Most of the colony schools started with part-time teachers, often members of the colony. Colony-life was harsh on the inmates. It pushed men as well as women to ‘come out’ and look for a job. Many women started teaching in these newly-established schools. In a sense, this was also an issue of empowerment for them. I want to look into this aspect to understand the gender-dynamic in this trying situation. Education gave the women a way to move out and share a hand in the family’s income. When teachers came from outside the colony, this was a step toward establishing certain contacts with the rest of the city. This was an important matter as the refugee-identity carried pejorative connotation for a long stretch of time.

Government recognition for these schools was crucial. It would not only mean a value of the degree conferred by the school, but also enable them to get grants. To get the recognition, proper school building and qualified teachers were essential. But, for the refugees, these were often insurmountable obstructions. I will look into the ways various colony schools tried to get the recognition, and when did they actually got it, or did not get it at all.

Refugee Camps:

The situation in the government camps was different from that of the rest of the state as well as the refugee colonies. The most vulnerable and downtrodden refugees took shelter in the camp. Government viewed the camp population as transitory who would be rehabilitated in different areas. However, it needed to provide some basic facilities for the inmates to survive. The government did not want to recognise the enormity of the situation and as a result focused on a mode of relief, temporary in nature rather than crafting a well-organized rehabilitation policy from the outset. While this might have been the case in the initial post-partition years, from early years of the 1950s the government had to think seriously about the plight of the refugees, especially those who were forced to take shelter the government camps due to their circumstances. Rehabilitating these people meant the closure of the camps and a solution to the problem. One of the basic features of the rehabilitation programme was to impart education to the children.

Primary schools were opened in all camps. Middle and higher class schools were opened for students in some of the camps where there were enough number of students to justify the opening of such schools. However, where the number was insufficient, arrangements for the education of the children were made in the schools in the neighbourhood. The camp schools, thus, were depended upon the will of the government. The 1960 pamphlet on education published by the state government mentions that, “It is a matter of gratification that a survey conducted by the West Bengal Government reveals that the percentage of literacy among the displaced persons in West Bengal is even higher than the non-displaced persons in the State.” An extensive survey carried out with the early migrants indeed gave that picture. But for the migrants who came later this statistics might not hold true. The camp population were poor and had no means to establish themselves in the new land without any aid from the government. They had huge differences with the upper caste bhadralok migrants who had managed to carve out various colonies in and around Calcutta.

I want to look at the ways these camp-schools operated, the way government policies altered over a period of time, and how that affected the life-stories of the inmates. Government was keen on vocational training in many places, as the belief was that it would enable the refugees to get a job quickly. The nature of knowledge to be imparted was determined by the job market, often altering the traditional vocation of these groups of people. While studying the colonies, it is essential to look closely at the camps as well to understand the various layers within the refugee population, and the tension between these groups and the two sites.

Proposal and Implementation:

The efforts of the government often fell short of what it promised. Various refugee organisations and the political members of the Left parties constantly criticised the Congress-led government for not being able to carry out a rehabilitation policy satisfactorily. Debates about scarcity of land, and hence the policy of dispersal to other states of India were vehemently opposed by them. The return of the migrants from these areas strengthened the voice of the opposition. This general scenario was intricately linked with the way education and vocational training schemes were viewed by the government.

A Review Committee was formed by the Ministry of Labour and Employment of Government of India in late ’60s to look specifically into various aspects refugee rehabilitation in West Bengal. One of the reports focused on the educational and medical aid provided in the government-run camps and homes. In 1955, to manage the population who were residing in various refugee camps, the government had decided to reorganise them to form separate categories and group the migrants accordingly. According to the need of the population there were Permanent Liability [PL] Camps, Homes and Infirmaries. The rationale behind this reorganisation often had an important bearing for the future education and training of the inmates. A Committee was formed to look after the reorganisation of the camps, PL institutions and Homes for the displaced persons, especially the aged, and infirm ‘unattached’ women and their dependents. For the purpose of training as well as for accommodation and maintenance, the Committee did not hesitate to recommend splitting up a family where the members did not share a ‘close’ relationship. Also, the committee proposed that family background was to be taken into account while selecting the subject of training. They recognised the fact that for a person staying in a camp, tradition and family occupation often did not matter or that camp-life had ‘destroyed’ their vocation, “but even then perhaps something of them still remains.”

Keeping in mind the class and caste composition of the refugees who came to West Bengal after 1950, the government put much stress on vocational training. The camp-dwelling refugees who were dependent on government doles were the prime targets of these vocational trainings. In East Bengal, they had depended on agriculture. It was argued that West Bengal was not a land-abundant state, so it was not possible to provide adequate land to them. The government wanted them to become ‘productive bodies’ who would be able to sustain themselves. The rehabilitation reports and various government pamphlets emphasised the point that the refugees were to be a labouring contributor to the society. Also, the huge influx of people from non-agricultural background flocking to urban areas needed to be rehabilitated through proper employment. The vocational training institutes were crucial in this respect. I will focus specifically on the different programmes for rehabilitating women through various training activities and the effort of creating ‘agricultural colonies’ to set-up families coming from agricultural background. Through these case studies I will like to probe into the rationale of rehabilitation of the post-colonial national state and how these were linked with the development of the nation in general.

Rehabilitating the Displaced Women:

One of the chief aims of the committee for the reorganisation of the homes for the displaced persons was “to make them self-sufficient.” The committee specifically looked into the ways women could gain employment through proper training. Women up to 35 years of age were encouraged to have basic education which would help them in their vocational training. For meritorious girls, a condensed course for the school final examination was proposed so that they can pass the examination in 2/3 years and take training to become teachers, nurses, or do village-level work. If they went to higher level schools and colleges, provision was made for learning short-hand or type-writing.

But the members of the committee had their assumptions regarding the class of women who were thought proper for the vocational training schemes. In their view, “The women from middle class families with sons above the age of ten form a class altogether, and their rehabilitation will be a difficult task.” They recommended that these women should be given built houses in government colonies located in industrial areas where they can go to small industries for their job. Their children could go to the local schools for their education and “later get absorbed in the industries sponsored by Government where preference will be given to the boys and girls of the middle class refugee settlers.”

Apart from the government, various non-governmental groups like the Nari Seva Sangha came forward to help these women. They started various courses in manufacturing handicrafts which would later be sold in the markets. I want to look into these processes and the nature of training—the courses taught, the duration, employment opportunity—that were initiated and how far did these help the refugee women.

Setting up ‘Agricultural Colonies’:

Rehabilitation of agricultural families was an important issue that plagued the bureaucrats from the beginning. The idea was to provide a piece of land to these families and the job of rehabilitation would be half-done. This scheme created the stir regarding the scarcity of land in the state which ultimately resulted in the policy of ‘dispersal’. The policy raised a huge hue-and-cry from the left parties and the refugee organizations.  In their recommendations for these families, the Committee for re-organisation of Camps, PL institutions and Homes recommended that families with agricultural background should be given land in the western part of the state. One must note that though land was available there, the topography was very different from the eastern part or east Bengal. For the Committee that did not matter. They opined: “Each family should be given a piece of land for vegetable gardening with separate hutments and a monthly allowance for the family. The idea is to rehabilitate the boys of the families on the adjoining cultivable lands after they have had training for a number of years in agriculture.” They were aware that there was a chance of resistance from the agriculturalist families in following this scheme of things. Crucial policy formulations were spelled out: “The plea, as far as, can be foreseen would be that the boys would be deprived of higher education thereby. Higher education has not taken us anywhere and we are not settling agriculturist families as non-agriculturists on principle. The plea, therefore, would be in most cases groundless.” To induce the families the Committee decided to provide with tractors—the symbol of development and new India. “This may prove attractive as the use of tractors does do away with a certain amount of drudgery.” This rigid classificatory principle was severely criticised by the Left. In the Legislative Assembly, the minister for rehabilitation was constantly pestered by the opposition regarding this principle of rehabilitation. One Gour Chandra Kundu, MLA from Ranaghat in Nadia district, categorically asked if it was not possible to think of ‘changing of categories’: “Do something to generate employment…for this, if you need please make ‘change of categories’. But the hon’ble minister stated that categories cannot be changed. Why not? A farmer’s child in Pakistan need not be a farmer here again. Why can’t he be a weaver, or a labourer in the industries? Why can’t he become a clerk? He can very well start his own business.”

Summing Up:

In this study, I want to critically interrogate the role of education in the development of a group of people who were trying to carve out a niche for themselves in a new country. Post-partition period was a critical phase in the biography of the new nation as well. The refugees as well as the government—both were trying to work out a way to move ahead, leaving behind the tumultuous last few years. This project tries to capture these initial anxieties and negotiations. The project, on one hand, tries to focus on local issues and etch out a dense picture of various processes related to educational institutions and policies, and on the other, wants to open up a crucial but neglected aspect of partition studies. Also, it seeks to look into the way the refugees tried to make a mark on the map of the city, where a tangled web of land-locality-finance/cultural capital operated in creating the educational space.


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