After Partition: colony politics and the rise of communism in Bengal

In post-Partition Calcutta, following the tumultuous and traumatic division of the province of Bengal between Pakistan and India, one in four residents was a refugee and many families were split by the new border. Here, Kushanava Choudhury explores how the city’s refugee communities united and organised, transforming unclaimed land into more than a hundred ‘squatter colonies’, and shares the stories of the residents who fought first for survival and then for recognition…


After 1947, unlike in Delhi or Punjab, the millions of Partition refugees in West Bengal were not accommodated through expansive planning by the Indian state. More than four million Hindus crossed from East Pakistan at that time (and many millions more would cross in the coming decades). Indeed, state plans for the influx of refugees from 1947 to 1951 focused on resettling them outside West Bengal or returning them to East Pakistan. Meanwhile, the population of the Calcutta metropolitan area alone grew as much in five years as it was projected to grow in half a century. One in four residents was a refugee. In this milieu, refugees themselves had to make their own arrangements. On the edges of the city and in the surrounding districts, refugees organised politically to take over state-owned or private land by force to form at least 149 squatter ‘colonies’. Unlike in Punjab, the influx of refugees was continuous for many decades, ebbing and flowing with political conditions in East Pakistan and then Bangladesh. By the late 1970s, there were more than a thousand such colonies across the state of West Bengal. The colony areas became crucial constituencies for the communist government that was elected in the state in 1977 and remained in power until 2011.

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