Earlier this week, we celebrated 70th anniversary of Independence — and also commemorated a darker and more sobering chapter of Indian history: Partition. One of the biggest events in South Asia, at least in the 20th century, there is no uniform narrative of this tectonic maelstrom that directly or indirectly affected the lives of almost everyone in the subcontinent, and continues to do so. In popular memory, it is a tale of loss and sectarian violence of a proportion almost beyond imagination. Yet, its representation in Bengali cinema of West Bengal has been woefully insufficient. Besides Ritwik Ghatak’s trilogy (Meghe Dhaka Tara, 1960; Komal Gandhar, 1961; and Subarnarekha, 1965) and Chinnamul (1950), there are few one can recall.
The popularity of Srijit Mukerji’s Rajkahini (2015) — remade this year as the rather insipid Begum Jaan in Hindi — refocused the discussion on Partition and its representation in Bengali cinema. “Refugee camps are non-existent. The rootless have faded away to oblivion. Their poverty, struggle and desperate attempts to stay afloat don’t inspire screenplays... The trauma of displacement is a subject everyone knows about... but no one revisits on screen,” Mukherji told The Times of India (January 12, 2017). It is no better across the border in Bangladesh, where the bloody Mukti Juddho of 1971 seems to concern filmmakers more than 1947. Dhaka-based academic Afsan Chowdhury writes, “In Bangladesh, 1947 is a distant memory, erased by the bloody 1971 liberation war against Pakistan.” (“Haunted by unification: A Bangladeshi view of partition”, Al Jazeera, 16 August 2017).
On the other hand, the Partition of Punjab has been represented widely in Bombay cinema — both popular and niche. Rachel Dwyer has made a useful list for The Wire (“Partition in Hindi Cinema: Violence, Loss and Remembrance”, 10 August 2017), so I shall not repeat it here. The reason she attributes to the persistence of Partition in the imagination is that the Radcliffe Line bifurcated not only Punjab but also the film industry. “Many members of the film industry were themselves from the other side of the border who migrated from Lahore to Bombay, including leading figures such as the Anand brothers, B.R. Chopra and Yash Chopra among many others. The migration in the opposite direction included Noor Jehan and Saadat Hasan Manto. There were also migrations from Calcutta, including Bimal Roy and Hrishikesh Mukherjee, perhaps due to the creation of the eastern border,” she writes.
In Bengali cinema, however, besides Ghatak’s films, there is hardly any representation of the plight of the Partition refugees. And, only one — Subarnarekha — touches on the subject of the Dalits and the fate they suffered because of the cartographic cosmetic surgery. This is strange because, post-Independence Bengali literature is filled with narratives of refugees, millions of whom poured into the state at least till the 1971 war, and into Calcutta (now Kolkata), affecting every aspect of life, from culinary practices to urban infrastructure. One possible reason is that refugees, usually from the upper caste, who monopolised settlements in and around Calcutta, found themselves assimilated into the cultural milieu of the state. Their interest in the plight of their lower-caste brethren — low to begin with — disappeared soon.
But Ghatak was a sympathetic observer of their plight. In his film, it is caste prejudice — coupled with crushing poverty — that sets the stage for the tragedy of all the characters. Ishwar (Abhi Bhattacharya), a refugee from East Pakistan, sensitive to music, idealistic, has no qualms in adopting Abhiram (Satindra Bhattacharya) — the son of a lower-caste bagdi widow — into his home. But when his sister, Sita (Madhabi Mukherjee), falls in love with the boy, he is unable to accept their marriage.
Abhiram’s mother, played by redoubtable Gita Dey, appears in two scenes only, both depicting two significant incidents in the history of Bengali Dalit refugees. In the first one, she is denied entry into refugee camp where Ishwar and Sita have taken shelter — purportedly because she is from Dhaka and this camp is populated mostly by people from Pabna. The real reason, of course, is her caste, as becomes evident immediately afterwards. She is abducted by the goons of the land owner of the camp — many of which were set up on plot forcibly occupied by refugees — and no one comes to her rescue. In the other scene, a little later in the film, she gets off a train and dies at the station platform of the town where Ishwar, Sita and Abhiram live. Abhiram sees her and recognises her, revealing his caste and leading to the later incidents in the film. The train, however, is a significant symbol — it is bound for Dandakaranya.
“Namasudras were faced with the full coercive might of the Nehruvian state to ensure their removal from West Bengal: the imprisonment of prominent leaders, police brutality, sexual violence, the withholding of doles and allowances to induce the willingness to leave, dispersal of protestors beyond city limits to prevent their recombination, forced evacuations on trains beyond the borders of the state,” writes Dwaipayan Sen (“How the Dalits of Bengal Became the ‘Worst Victims’ of Partition”, The Wire, 10 August 2017). The Dandakaranya forest in Chhattisgarh was a popular send-off destination — and there were many others, in Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, and Andaman and Nicobar Island. Manoranjan Byapari, a Bengali Dalit writer, recounts in Memoirs of Chandal Jeevan: An Underdog’s Story, how former West Bengal chief minister and towering communist leader Jyoti Basu visited such a camp in Bhillai on January 25, 1975, and promised the lower-caste refugees that they would be taken back to West Bengal if the Leftists were voted to power.
Yet, those who trusted these hollow promises encountered the police brutalities of 1979 in Marichjhapi — one of the first examples of Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s brutal suppression of any form of dissent or opposition. Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide (2004) features the incident in some detail, but the bhadralok novelist dealt with his pet project of climate change and happily skirted the incident of caste violence. It was supposed to be adapted into a film, starring Abhishek Bachchan, Rahul Bose and Zuleika Robinson, according to a 2006 report by India Today. Nothing seems to have come of it — much like the lost, silent voices of Dalits in Bengali cinema.