The state of Uttarakhand hosts over 2 lakh Bengalis who migrated from Bangladesh to escape the atrocities of the Pakistani army. The ones who arrived before 1971 were given legal refuge and financial assistance to settle in India by the then Indian Government led by Indira Gandhi. Today, most of them reel under poverty and earn less than $1 a day. This article is based on a field visit by the author to a place called Rudrapur in Udham Singh Nagar district, which has about 20,000 Bengalis. I analyse their issues, fears, and concerns in this article.
The origins of the bengali community of Uttarakhand
To understand the settlement of Bangladeshis in Uttarakhand, it is imperative to first understand what happened in united Pakistan in the 1960s. On 27th December 1964, a strand of hair (which many believed to be that of Prophet Muhammad) went missing from the Hazratbal Shrine in Srinagar. There was widespread anger and negative sentiment against non-Muslims and there were demonstrations across Pakistan against the religious minorities. The turning point was the protest in a place called Khulna, where slogans were raised to “eliminate” Hindus. A bandh was called in Khulna, and a prominent leader called Abdus Khan gave a rousing anti-Hindu speech. Subsequently, mobs of young men set off to nearby Hindu dominated areas and started setting their establishments on fire. Widespread arson, loot and rape continued for the next few weeks in Khulna. It did not stop here, it spread to other areas in east-Pakistan like Dhaka, Narayanganj and Mymensingh. The government of east-Pakistan adopted repressive measures and passed an ordinance which prohibited the sale of immovable assets of non-Muslims. I was told that the only choice left before the minorities was to flee to India after all this.
The Indian Government headed by Indira Gandhi gave east-Pakistan refugees citizenship and financial assistance in terms of land use rights. Since the state of West Bengal was overburdened due to limited resources, east-Pakistan refugees were resettled in different parts of the country like Uttar Pradesh (Uttarakhand as a state was created only in the year 2000) and Maharashtra. Every settler was given land usage rights amounting to six acres.
Full citizens but half the Rights and Benefits
The refugees who were granted citizenship in West Bengal assimilated into the local system due to the similarity in language and culture. The ones who were rehabilitated elsewhere in the country like Uttarakhand faced a problem: They could not enjoy the benefits their Hindi speaking neighbors did. I met a couple and their family hailing from the Namashudro caste. In broken Hindi, their son told me “Agar hum Poschim Bangal me rahta toh humko reservation mil jata aur idhar humko kuch nahi” meaning that they would be entitled to reservation if they stayed in West Bengal and while they don’t in Uttarakhand. A majority of the Bengali citizens in the Udham Singh Nagar district come from Backward Castes. However, they are not entitled to reservations because the local government does not recognize their castes. For example, the Matuas are categorized as Scheduled Caste (SC) in West Bengal, but they are not given the same status in Uttarakhand.
Fear of losing linguistic identity
“Hum Bangla likh bhi leta hai aur pad bhi leta hai, par hamara bacha log nahi pad pata” said an elderly first generation refugee who came to Uttarakhand in 1967. Its literal translation is “I can read and write Bengali, but my kids cannot.” As simple as it may seem, this is a common sentiment and concern which is found across the area where they live. The children of these refugees who were born and brought up completely in India have no resources to learn to read and write in their language. A majority of them speak a mixture of Bengali and Hindi owing to the influence of the school in which they study. Local educational institutions do not offer Bengali language as a subject to students despite the numerical superiority they possess in that area.
Zameen Patta. The buzz word
After rehabilitating the east-Pakistan refugees in Uttar Pradesh, the government gave each one of them six acres of agricultural land for earning their livelihood. However, after a large influx of immigrants in the late 1960s and early 1970s due to the liberation war, the population density of the area increased manifold. This effectively led to building settlements on agricultural land. There is a peculiar situation here: while the residents own the concrete structures they have built, the land belongs to the government, they tell me. This leaves all residential and commercial establishments at the mercy of the administration. Not surprisingly, Bengalis overwhelmingly support the demand for the transfer of land ownership. They demand that they be given Patta as it is called in their local language.
There is another side to the story which has to be factored in. A majority of Hindi speaking natives of this area still consider them to be outsiders several years after their settlement. Hindi speaking local slum dwellers, a few kilometers away in a different area have a problem with Bengalis getting land ownership. The e-rickshaw driver, with whom I travelled, was one of them. While showing me through the narrow lanes of the bengali colony, he said “ Mere dada padada sab yaheen ke rahne wale the. Iss basti ke thode hi door hamari basti hai jahaan hum rahte hain. Agar hame sarkar zameen nahi deti hai toh in bahar waalon ko bhi nahi dena chahiye” meaning that if we (the original inhabitants and citizens of this land) do not get land ownership of the slum we live in, then the Bengalis also should not get land ownership. Naturally, there is a general thought which prevails that India did them a great favour by letting them in and that alone is sufficient.
However, to say that the responsibility of the state ended in the 1960s when they were given citizenship and financial assistance would be incorrect. After being citizens of India for over half a century, this community still stands where it stood when they came as refugees — at the intersection of poverty and fear. Reservations based on linguistic lines in the state of Uttarakhand may be the first step towards ensuring that this community benefits from the overall socio-economic development of the state. It is time for India to act like a mature democracy and treat naturalized citizens the same way normal citizens are treated.
Sushameendra Balaji is a second year student of Economics at the Jindal School of Government and Public Policy.