70 Years Later, They're Still Homeless

By Sanjena Sathian


Because in a country that wants to move into the 21st century, some unfortunate history persists.

Photo essay by Smita Sharma 

As 86-year-old Maharani Pudahar steps out of her terra-cotta brick home to say hello, her neighbor Robi Das laughingly remarks that she looks like Mahatma Gandhi. Wearing cotton cloths wraped loosely across her torso, with just one jaunty yellow tooth remaining in her smile, Pudahar is hunched over a cane-like wooden stick — not unlike Gandhi.

It’s a dark reference, seeing as some might blame Gandhi for Pudahar’s shabby living conditions. Pudahar, along with some 20 other families, is here at the Ranaghat Mahila Camp in West Bengal, existing in the long shadow of an event much of modern India would like to forget and which Gandhi never forgave himself for: the 1947 partition that split the country along Hindu and Muslim lines, displacing an estimated 15 million people and killing more than a million. Pudahar is a Hindu whose childhood home became Muslim turf. 

They were leaving a country where Hindus were thrown into rivers, raped and roasted alive — often in response to Hindus attacking Muslims across the border in India.

On the other side of India, in Punjab, bordering Pakistan, most of the refugees were resettled in the 1960s. But here, nearly 70 years later, a handful of women in Pudahar’s cohort remain in limbo. They continue to live on government-allotted plots for refugees; several say they are still awaiting their government-promised 3 kathas of land (approximately 720 square feet). 

“There’s no water, no food,” says Ashok Chakraborty, who spearheads the government’s United Central Refugee Council in the state. “They have the right to be rehabilitated” — in the form of 10 kathas. But, Chakraborty says, policymakers have been too busy with the state’s spring elections to follow through on promises. Which explains one year of mistakes — not 70. So why the different treatment for refugees in Punjab and Bangladesh? Anasua Basu Ray Chaudhury, a researcher at the Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group, explains that the government was not initially sure Hindu migrants would remain in India. She says some refugees still describe themselves to her as from East Bengal: “Our desh” — country — “is someplace else, someplace we cannot return.”

But what can rehabilitation mean for people whose homeland has been repainted not once but twice? Modern West Bengal, an Indian state, borders Bangladesh; but Bangladesh is the second incarnation of East Pakistan. The women in Ranaghat Mahila Camp and the neighboring Cooper’s Camp — plus a handful of others in the area — are legacies of the first national divorce, says Chaudhury. 

Ozy widows 17

Geeta Das, 65, lives alone in extreme poverty at the camp.

Source Smita Sharma for OZY

They’re mostly from lower-caste and lower-class rungs of society, Chaudhury explains. The wealthy fled East Pakistan first, shortly after Gandhi’s somber day of silence objecting to the impending partition. They had the most to lose: honor and money. When they arrived in India, they quickly found their way out of the transition camps and resettled in cities, making themselves comfortable with new jobs and homes thanks to a cushion of “social capital.”

The less fortunate only found their way to India in the 1950s, Chaudhury says. At first, Hindu-Muslim relations in Bengal were less bellicose than in their western counterpart, until the 1950 Barisal Riots, the culmination of several years of mounting tensions. Then came the trail of poorer people, making their reluctant egress, not to save their pride but their lives; they were leaving a country where Hindus were thrown into rivers, raped and roasted alive — often in response to Hindus attacking Muslims across the border in India.

And here they are today, those who haven’t yet died and their children, some of whom were raised in the camps. A strange immigrant economy persists — 49-year-old Arugula Soma’s parents came from Andhra Pradesh in south India during partition because of the promise of work. They cooked and cleaned, and Soma never left; her son, a member of a slivered third generation in Ranaghat, is studying gloomily for his police academy exams. There’s not much work here, and he doesn’t want to stray far because this is home. 

The women in Ranaghat and Cooper’s Camp don’t have history on their tongues. Sixty-something Geeta Das shows us her present-day home. It’s dank, and snakes have made themselves comfortable on the dirt floor. She unearths the single sari the government gives her every year: It’s made of rough pink cotton, no petticoat included. Other women in the camp are wearing their saris without blouses, their breasts spilling out. Are Das and her friend Lili Roy — who makes extra income selling goats for meat — angry about the partition, Lord Mountbatten’s orchestration of it or Gandhi’s failure? They shrug. They’re familiar with the geopolitics that brought them here. 

“We don’t need sympathy,” Das says. “We need someone to fight for our rights.”