Partition Prolonging Along the Bengal Borderlands

By Issue 03 January 10, 2021 No Comments

The essay is about the prolonged aftermath of Partition. It will help one to see that far from being an event of the past, Partition is a living process in the present, replete with all its historical baggage. This article engages with the complex relationships of the post-Partition states, the border, and borderlanders. Contrary to the metaphor of surgery, the hasty-border making has become a chronic wound, dispersing venomous pain, and infections. The case of Felani Khatun is probably one of the most telling example of this. It also challenges the researchers’ gaze toward the borderlanders upholding the myth of the ‘subversive.’

The Girl in Limbo between Two States

Felani Campaign

Source: (Felani Campaign) accessed on August 23, 2014, BST 00:48.

Until recently, I had never even thought about the existence of the ladder in the picture! Actually, at first glance, her bright red cardigan and deep blue shalwar catch the eye of the spectator, and immediately the latter can realize that it is a human body; hanging upside down from the barbed wire. Felani Khatun was a teenager, shot on the border fence while she was trying to cross the border ‘illegally.’ In the image, one of her hands is extended toward the ground. Who knows why or how it got into this position. Was she trying to touch the ground, as a futile, last moment attempt to survive? The blood dripping from her body onto the grass soaks into the ground beneath her, making it darker. But it is also, conversely, bright red on the concrete platform upon which the barbed-wire fence, marking the international boundary line, was erected. She was hanging there for at least five to six hours until finally was taken down and carried away by two uniformed personnel. Then, her hands and legs were tied up to bamboo, and again she was hanging. Although this time, she was facing the sky. Felani finally managed to return to her home in Bangladesh, to her parents, only after a ‘befitting’ ritual of a flagged meeting between the two of the state officials, which had taken thirty long hours.

The girl was living in Assam with her parents. In 2011, when she was thirteen-and-a-half (some says, she was fifteen), the family arranged for her to marry one of her maternal cousins in Bangladesh. Accordingly, the father had arranged the crossing of the border. He contacted an Indian broker named Mosharaf, who further talked to Soleman, a Bangladeshi counterpart: it was a typical process to secure the transit, which such brokers would negotiate with the border guards in their respective territories. Finally, the parties reached an agreement on price: three thousand Indian rupees. As per the agreement, on the morning of January 7th, the brokers were supposed to deport the father and the girl through the Anantapur border at Phulbari. On the morning of January 6th, Felani and her father started from Assam and met Mosharaf by that evening. Mosharaf took them to a house near the camp of Chowdhury Haat Khetab’s pillar of West Bengal BSF 181 Battalion. On the other side, there was the Anantapur border of Phulbari, pillar no. 947.

At their arrival at the house, Felani falls asleep. The father remembered that night, ‘I was sitting upright and had no sleep in my eyes, because I was worried about when to enter desh. It was an extremely cold night with heavy fog. At around 4 a.m. Mosharaf came to the house and took me and Felani[…], and headed toward the barbed-wire. Following us was another broker with the ladder. Mosharaf set the ladder on the barbed wire, forced Felani to get on it and insisted that I do as well. At that point I tried to stop them as a member of the BSF personnel, Amiya Ghosh, was sitting there, only yards away. They said it would be no problem. I thought they had managed the BSF. So I also got on the ladder. Felani was on the upper part and I was on the lower one. At that moment, the BSF personnel, Amiya, without saying a thing, shot Felani. Felani stood stiff screaming ‘Abba!!’ Seeing this, I fell down on the Bangladeshi side. While recovering myself from the ground, I saw the brokers were running away. Felani was standing on the ladder. I was not in my senses, and after hearing her calling ‘Abba!!’ I could not hear anything else either. But in the night my screaming had awoken all the people of the surrounding areas. At their arrival, the local inhabitants sent me back to my home. After informing the family of the incident, I ran back to the border again, found Felani was dead and hanging from the barbed-wire, away from the ladder.’[1]

Photo from Unsplash

Photo from Unsplash. (Public Domain)

Baggage from the Past

In comparison to Punjab, both the countries thought during those days after Partition that normalcy could be restored in Bengal more easily. Landed property was an issue there. Both parties agreed that those who had already migrated to the other territory could retain their ownership of land in the previous one, and until their return, the government would undertake responsibility for their property. Eventually, this implies that the border will have to be officially porous. According to Joya Chatterji, such an arrangement was inspired by the genuine belief that if Hindu and Muslim refugees were encouraged to return to their homes, peace would return to Bengal. Nehru considered that healing the wounds of Partition on the Bengal border should be dealt with through a psychological approach.[2] The intention behind the decision might have been good, and it had an evident emotional aspect associated with it. However, many years after Partition, one may question the rationale and logical merit of keeping the border ‘porous.’ With due respect to its emotional intent and humanistic approach, the decision appears to me naïve and impractical. After all the preceding tug-of-war, including long nourished communal strife, culminated in bitterly antagonistic religious-based nationalisms,[3] which were already evident in pre-Partition communal riots that took hold in many places in both the Bengals, the disputed and heated bargaining over the drawing of the frontier line resulting in rival enemy states, how could, one expect, people would find enough confidence to return to their home, they had once had to leave abandoned?

More importantly, it was not something that solely rested on the people and their good intentions. States that had been born through such contestations bear these communal attitudes from the very beginning. This probably explains the overzealous attitude of the local administration during the post-Partition decades. On its flip-side, Schendel points out that the post-Partition nation-states considered themselves responsible not only for the population in their territory but for the minorities of the other.[4] Minorities themselves often thought in this way too or were at least portrayed by the majority in that way. Therefore, I would argue that the decision to keep the border porous, with the hope that people would return home, was destined to fail from the very beginning. Furthermore, when it did fail, it provoked a backlash. The porosity had been used not by the ones who had gained the confidence to return. But by those who lost the last hope of living in their ancestral land. It was not, therefore, primarily a ‘home-coming’ journey but a departure for some unknown one, and that continues over the years.

In his short, crisp discussion of the state-centric narratives of border-crossing,[5] Willem van Schendel has shown that the post-Partition narrative of ‘coming home’ has been replaced in the sociopolitical life of contemporary India with the rise of a second narrative, ‘infiltration.’ It refers to the one-way journey of Bangladeshis to India, where the ‘infiltrators’ are stereotyped as the law-breakers and a threat to national security. When Narendra Modi advised ‘Bangladeshis’ to pack-up, it appears, the discourse has found a safe locus at the heart of Indian national politics[6]. In response to the accusation of ‘infiltration,’ the state of Bangladesh developed a third narrative of border crossing, that of ‘not our citizens.’ Apart from countering the prevailing Indian discourse, this denial, Schendel has observed, is also linked with Bangladesh’s sense of vulnerability against their neighbour. It is a feeling that, once again, is rooted in the effects of Partition.

Map of Bangladesh, Oona Räisänen (Mysid), Wikimedia Commons (CC By 3.0)

One of the least addressed aspects of Partition is how it has affected the poor peasantry of East Bengal. The decision of the Bangalee Hindu bhadralok to ensure a neat Hindu majority province of West Bengal had a devastating effect on the partitioned half. In securing their political future, they had, in effect, abandoned the large section of the poor peasantry in East Bengal who were previously dependent upon those few bhadralok. Finding themselves as a minority and some cases experiencing violence and atrocity in East Bengal, a good number of these jotdars and zamindars left in the post-Partition years. Following that, the promises of the ‘peasant utopia’ by the Muslim League were not realized either. Struggling with this historical backlog of poverty, the poor people sought all sorts of options to make a living, to find a way to survive. Those who could migrate to other parts of the globe did so, but for the marginal of the marginal, often border crossing proved the last resort. Bangladesh ignores their departure and, if they get caught, denies their citizenship. India has its uneven policy of violence and de-humanisation, favouring some transborder movement and settlement at certain times and not for the others at different times.[7] People can see that it is possible to cross the border, but then, in the very next moment, find themselves caught, or worse, dead.

Ahmad argued that Partition was – and is – an expression of Indian political modernity that fashions the figure of the outcasts – Muslims – and attempts to get rid of it.[8] Eventually, that has proven to have failed. I am tempted here to transpose his argument into the context of the Bengal Partition. The Hindu-majority elite bhadrolok of West Bengal attempted to cast out the Muslim-majority the poor peasantry of East Bengal. The prolonged nature of the Bengal partition shows how little success they had in doing so.

The Surreal…

And then one fine morning, the state divined to seal off the sympathetic porosity of the border. From then on, the girl was hanging in limbo! Before and after that, the Felanis, on both sides, were dubbed ‘illegal migrants.’ Paranoia and xenophobia subsequently named them ‘infiltrators.’ Sovereign powers and their agents stripped off their citizenship and then their rights to justice or even the right to live. Further to this, researchers have coined lucrative terms to illustrate their life and livelihood; ‘subversive,’ ‘illicit,’ and so forth. Some are too keen to identify their creativity, agency, or transborder connectedness. Neither I am denying these in the least, nor reducing them to mere passive victims of the state. Instead, I would like to ask, how do people find themselves in these circumstances? Borderlanders often have a different perspective about legality and legitimacy than that of the state. They often consider transborder trade as a trade like any other. They do not want to name it smuggling. They are not happy with the fact that the border, their chance at prosperity, somehow has been barred. And who are these people again? Mostly they are economically marginal. Neither are people happy with the fact that they are not allowed to meet their families on the other side.[9] Nor do they have any reason to be so, when their lands are on the other side, and their mobility is becoming more difficult day by day.[10] Apart from registering these ‘different’ perspectives of people, what else can ‘we’ the researchers hope to have done? Hussain has expressed concern about making distinctions and binaries of statist, legal and political discourses against that of the social and popular ones. He argues, such a dichotomy reproduces the idea that the workings of the state are legitimate and those of the borderlanders illegitimate.[11] As a rational-legal entity, we are bound to disown, if not, distance ourselves, from the (illegitimate) views from the borderland, but again, are these mere views? Are not these feelings and, in a more concrete form, sufferings, experiences of deprival, and destituteness? Was it their choice to find themselves in this limbo, in this in-betweenness, in these divided lives?

It is ‘we’ – the rational-legal agents of our states – who imposed Partition upon them; snatched away the little they had; families, relationships, properties, work, green fields or shops, or the river; and little lives out there. And, after taking away everything from them, now ‘we’ are asking them to play by the rules. Who would volunteer for such vulnerability and violence on the border if they had a better option? And ‘we’ – the rational and legal entities – on the one hand, provided them with fancy names in our research outputs and newspaper columns. Is it not a crime to gloss people’s suffering with charming vocabularies that hide the extremity of their situation? On the other hand, when ‘we’ – the legal and rational entities – categorize people as ‘illegal,’ ‘illicit,’ or ‘subversive,’ have we not instantly stepped into the arena of legality and stripped them down to the bare life, away from rights? This search for the borderlanders’ agency also has legal consequences. Apart from that, are we not dehumanising these marginal lives, over and over again, by such practices? We can see how xenophobic and paranoid the politicians and states are, but how come we fail to see that our use of these legalistic vocabularies feeds this same xenophobia and paranoia? By reproducing the statist legalistic discourses, ‘we’ are becoming part of it. Even though, it is apparent that many of us at a conscious level argue against that politics. What a paradox!

Notes and References
  1. Mahabur Alam Sohag, ‘Prithibir sob cheye kothin drishshoti dekhechhi ami’ (I have experienced the most cruel scene in the world), banglanews24com, June 02, 2014, accessed on June 24, 2014, BST 17:49.
  2. Chatterji, ‘The Fashioning of a F rontier’, pp.233, 142n; also pp.232-3(138n, 139n, 140n, and 141n).
  3. For the Muslim League, one often can easily use the term without the slightest of hesitation. However, for the Indian National Congress, scholars argue, under the cloak of secularism, the politics of Congress was inherently built upon Hindu philosophy. See, M.K. Gandhi, Hind Swaraj, or Indian Home Rule, (Navajivan Publishing House, 2010); N.C. Chaudhri, The Autobiography of the Unknown Indian, (London: Macmillan, 1951); for anti-Muslim elements in Congress politics, see Ahmad, ‘Modernity and Its Outcaste’, p 484.
  4. Van Schendel coined the term ‘proxy citizen’ to refer to these people; see Schendel, ‘Stateless in South Asia’, p.127.
  5. Out of the three narratives, “coming home” lost its relevance in Bangladesh after 1971, because it no more was considered as a home for Muslims in the sense Pakistan was. Conversely, India claimed to be a homeland for all, but in reality, the Muslim migrants were not welcomed and non-Muslim immigration from East Pakistan and Bangladesh have increasingly been resented. Infiltration first appeared in the official discourse in 1962, when the Indian parliament identified immigrants in Tripura and Assam as “infiltrators”. In 1964 the government started an international propaganda campaign on the topic of “infiltration” from East Pakistan. The discourse gained power in the public and political life of north-eastern India, where the demographic aggression of the Bangalees has been considered as a threat to national security. See, Schendel, Bengal Borderland, pp. 191-209, ‘Narratives of Border Crossing’.
  6. In the wake of new historical scholarships uncovering divergent subjectivities, raising unaddressed questions, and controversies, Butalia expresses some crucial concerns. These developments in the resurgent Hindu nationalist India, she understands, open up spaces for the articulation of Hindu victimhood during Partition. Such a claim is often coercively validated by the power of the majority. See, Urvashi Butalia, Looking back on Partition, Contemporary South Asia, 26:3, 2018, pp.263-269.
  7. Sur,‘Through Metal Fences’; for de-humanisation, see, p.83-5 and for policy, p.86.
  8. Ahmad, ‘Modernity and Its Outcaste’, p 494.
  9. Ghosh, ‘Cross-Border Activities’, pp.51-2.
  10. Jones, ‘Agents of Exception’, p 886.
  11. See his reflection on Schendel and Abraham’s, Illicit Flows, Hussain, Boundaries Undermined, pp.63-4.


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Ferdous, Sayeed (2020). “Partition Prolonging Along the Bengal Borderlands.” Partition Studies Quarterly, Issue 03: [Link]

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