Sabitri Roy’s Badwip (The Delta, 1972): Communalization of Post-Partition Urban Space in Calcutta

A personal anecdote: Since the time I came to India from New York City for research-related work in September, 2011, I have been staying with my sister in Tollygunge. Her modest two-BHK apartment was not the most conducive space for engaging in serious study and research. After about a month, I decided to rent a space close to my sister’s place. My sister reluctantly agreed to this arrangement. I got in touch with a few property brokers in south Calcutta. One of them took me on a tour of some of the possible houses that I could check out. Once we boarded a taxi, the broker (whose name I will keep a secret here) kept on reminding me that it won’t be easy for Muslims to find a house in the Hindu areas of the city. As was predicted by the broker, the first landlord (whom we had called up) told me on my cell that he wouldn’t rent out his house to a Muslim man. Another one expressed his annoyance at the broker for not informing him earlier that I was Muslim. I finally managed to find a house but by then I was visibly shaken. Years ago, I had a similar experience in Hyderabad.

I must mention here that the broker had taken me to a locality – Ashok  Nagar – one of the many colonies that sprouted as the refugees stated pouring in from across the border during the partition of India in 1947. The most obvious question that comes to one’s mind: What is the role of partition in determining the spatial imaginary of the city? How identities are spatially conceived? I will come back to these questions in this blog piece which is an effort to understand the communalization of the city-space in moments of communal riots.

In this context, it is important to remember that historiographical literature about the experiences of Partition in Bengal predominantly engages with problems of refugee rehabilitation and their struggle for assimilation in the host country, the consequent demographic impact of migration on the host population, the growth and expansion of the city proper as a result of refugee settlement on the outskirts, and social tension between the Hindu refugee population and the ‘bhadralok’ (genteel middle-class) of West Bengal. Partition scholarship in Bengal, however, still continues to be marked by its silence towards investigating how the urban spatial imaginary progressively becomes communally marked.

How does one narrate the story of space in Post-Partition Calcutta? How do different communities inhabit spaces? What’s the role of communal riots in changing the face of the city-space? How does the modern state regulate the city-space through different kinds of surveillance mechanism? And how ideological practices inform urban spatial imaginaries?

Savitri Roy’s novel, Badwip, which contains autobiographical elements, is set in a refugee colony on the south-eastern fringe of Calcutta. The novel is a typical example of ‘colony fiction’ (in Debjani Sengupta’s words) that recounts the struggle of the newly arrived refugees from East Bengal and their integration into left politics in West Bengal. The high optimism that left politics could be successful in neutralizing communal divide in a newly independent India meets with a severe jolt as a communal riot breaks out in Calcutta in 1964.

Savitri Roy’s Badwip, an important document of the emergence of left politics among the Hindu refugees, is set in the refugee colony of Natundanga, on the south-eastern fringe of Calcutta.  The novel, while depicting the struggles of the newly arrived refugee families from East Bengal, makes it abundantly clear that its main focus is on the left political ideology, which is one of struggle and unity among all the poor refugees.

The refugees regroup under the left-sponsored umbrella organizations to create pressure on the government for regularization of land and for basic civic necessities. The movement gradually encompasses the interests of poor Muslim peasants in the neighboring areas. Roy imagines the possibility of a greater Communist movement which would eventually unify the poor peasants and laborers.

Communal amity is an important part of the liberal humanizing message of the novel as it opens with the protagonist Dhiman’s arrival at the new refugee colony which is located in a Muslim locality: ‘While slowly tugging at his trunk, Dhiman looks across the small pond. He sees an old bearded man. And looks at him again with respect…Behind the old man stands a sun-drenched minaret.’ The minaret and the figure of the fakir across the pond highlight the possibility of co-habitation. The novel succeeds in capturing the ‘process of subjectivization’ (Ranciere) of the refugees while affirming the novelist’s commitment to liberal humanist ideology.

What is problematic in this left liberal imaginary is the novelist’s unshakable faith in ‘state secularism.’ While being confronted by some communal Hindu elements, Dhiman’s son Jishu, whose presence in the novel is almost negligible, declares with pride, ‘Bharatbarsha is not just for the Hindus. This is a nation for all. It’s a secular state…‘All Muslims go back to Pakistan’ is not India’s slogan.’ Other characters in the novel, too, operate within and subscribe to the ‘state-sponsored’ secular ideology. Sagar, Jishu’s friend, listens to the secular discourses on the radio: ‘[Sagar] listens to the voice coming from the radio in the next house. First of all, recitation from The Vedas, ‘Asatoma Sadgamaya, tamasama jyotirgamaya, amrit ma mrityugamay om.’ Next he hears, ‘The kingdom of Heaven is within you.’ Finally, recitation from The Koran. Sagar does not understand even a single word but he respects all the religions and he is determined to destroy non-religions (adharm).’

The ritualistic fervor with which secularism is upheld in the novel makes one blind to the repressed communal feelings. Thus, the communal elements that propagate that ‘Hindustan is only for the Hindus and Muslims should go back to Pakistan’ are relegated to the margin and the reader is almost oblivious of their presence. Roy’s middle-class secular left political conviction makes her a captive of her political ideology.                

Having dwelt on the ideological practices of the middle-class Hindu Bengali – this ideology was ambiguously secular at best and overtly communal at its worst – I would now like to elaborate how such ideological practices lent itself to a certain communal spatial imaginary during the communal riots of 1964.

In his perceptive reading of Vibhuti Narain Rai’s Curfew in the City (1988), Bede Scott notes how as soon as curfew is declared, “a certain part of the city [is] is termed ‘Pakistan,’ and the people living there […] declared ‘Pakistanis.’” The city-space, thus, is a ‘heterotopia’ (Foucault) of time as the curfew denotes that the illusory, unreal city space is the result of a break with traditional time. In search of a more organized sense of space, the city is divided into Hindu and Muslim zones, the Muslim zones are designated as ‘foreign’ and kept under surveillance whereas the people in the Hindu areas are free to move about.

Eminent historian, Gyanendra Pandey, in his study of 1947 Partition notes how ‘Hindus and Sikhs were never restricted in their movements to quite the same extent as Muslims, even during curfews and in the worst affected areas.’ Joya Chatterjee in her study of Muslims from West Bengal in post-Partition India notes how the so-called ‘Muslim Pockets’ in Calcutta were kept under tight surveillance, ‘From 1948 at least until 1957, the police maintained surveillance over what they described as ‘Mohammadan Pockets,’ which were duly listed, with a careful record kept of any changes in their composition, right down to the number of firearms owned by their inhabitants.’

We come across such instances of communalization of the city-space in Savitri’s Roy novel as well. When a communal riot breaks out in 1964, the Muslims living for ages near the colony seek safety in the house of the local Communist refugee leader Dhiman. I quote: ‘Dhiman appears anxious since morning. He could provide shelter to the local Muslims for one night but he now worries: how to send them to the Muslim locality of Park Circus safely?…The main problem is to get them across the Kasba railway crossing. But how do I depend on two policemen for this?’ Muslims are eventually escorted out of Dhiman’s house and sent to the Muslim localities of Calcutta. This particular incident foregrounds the emptiness of left ideology which no less shares the majoritarian spatial imaginary. The search for more ‘homogenous,’ organized spaces incite the majority community to contain the minority community in certain communally marked spaces. 

The post-partition urban space in Calcutta has become progressively communally marked. The communal riots in the city of Calcutta have congealed the heterogenous spaces into homogenized spaces of communal identity. The ‘heterotopia’ of city caught in a riot allows people to imagine themselves in some utopia by exposing the illusoriness of the everyday city-space. This leads to progressive communalization of urban space.

Joya Chatterjee corroborates this idea as she writes, ‘Many Muslim families who had previously lived in relative harmony cheek by jowl with Hindu neighbors gradually moved out of these mixed settlements, now opting instead to live in localities where their co-religionists had the advantage of numbers and were better insulated from their Hindu neighbors. When they left, their property was quickly seized by Hindu refugees.’

[All translations from the Bangla text are mine.]

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This entry was posted in Bangladesh, Bengali Literature, Communalism, Indian Muslim, Literature, Partition of India, Religion, Secularism/Liberalism, Violence and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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