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Life in a Refugee Colony in India

In Bhudiya Colony, scars from the Indian partition still linger.

By Prabhat Singh for
Life in a Refugee Colony in India

In 1948, Nikunj Bhowmick was about 23 when he left his native village of Babuganj in Barisal with his wife and a son. He stayed in Ranigachi refugee camp in the 24 Parganas district in West Bengal for eight years. “Though I got only 16 rupees a month from the government, I worked as a daily-wage laborer for some financial security. There was nothing else for us to do in the camp,” he said. His family fled East Pakistan due to communal violence. He visited his ancestral village twice to see his relatives, and found out that everything had changed beyond recognition. Life has been harsh, but he says he has no regrets.

Credit: Prabhat Singh
Life in a Refugee Colony in India

A charm hangs in Bhudiya Colony.

Credit: Prabhat Singh
Life in a Refugee Colony in India

Residential areas in northern India have traditionally had community ponds and banana trees, but we rarely see them today thanks to urban development and individualism. But refugee settlements still find such ponds relevant and useful. This pond, in Thakurnagar, is the property of a temple, but all are allowed to use it.

Credit: Prabhat Singh
Life in a Refugee Colony in India

Kanika has been living in her father’s home since her separation from her husband. She didn’t want to recall her married life, but spoke about the suffering her father went through for the family’s survival during the migration. The family does have agricultural land, so they work as laborers. She didn’t know much about the land her grandfather had. “Life is such a struggle for us that thinking of any glory of the past is just luxury,” she said.

Credit: Prabhat Singh
Life in a Refugee Colony in India

A palm-sized radio is the only companion of Harlal Baidya, who is the oldest among the three surviving men from the first generation of settlers in this colony. His eyesight has gone weak and he is hard of hearing. He doesn’t want to recall the trauma he suffered, but is happy that his sons and daughters are all now married.

Credit: Prabhat Singh
Life in a Refugee Colony in India

Sanatan Rai had migrated with his parents and siblings. He recalled that boats were the only transport back home and often misses the river, fishing, and coconut and betel nut trees in his village in Faridpur. But he has never thought of revisiting his native place. “What’s the point? We were forced to leave,” he reasons. His two sons run a shop for snacks, and his wife Maina helps them.

Credit: Prabhat Singh
Life in a Refugee Colony in India

Bishakha’s family has no land, and they work as daily-wage laborers, mostly during the season for sugarcane harvesting. They go as far as the southern states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh in search of work. Bishakha was born in another refugee settlement in Dineshpur in the northern state of Uttarakhand and moved to Bareilly after her marriage.

Credit: Prabhat Singh
Life in a Refugee Colony in India

“Stories of villages being attacked and people being killed were commonplace. Everyone was scared for their lives there, so my husband decided to migrate,” recalled Suniti, the head of a laborer family in Sili Colony in Bareilly. “Life is still hard for us, but not as it was after the partition [of India and Pakistan].”

Credit: Prabhat Singh
Life in a Refugee Colony in India

Women work from home to make some extra money. They roll bidis (hand-rolled cigarettes) or cast thread in quilts. The contractors come with all the raw material and a deadline. They get roughly $1.50 for rolling 1,000 bidis or a king-size quilt, but even this meager amount helps them meet the needs of their families.

Credit: Prabhat Singh
Life in a Refugee Colony in India

The family of Roopmati was allotted five acres of agricultural land by the government, but the land is shrinking with the growing size of the family. So she and her daughter-in-law work in their spare time. “Will you please ask the government to provide jobs to the ladies of our colony? Go to the market to see how everything is going so expensive; how will we survive on the earnings from stitching?” she lamented.

Credit: Prabhat Singh
Life in a Refugee Colony in India

Maina takes care of the snacks shop when her son, Sanjay, is away. The shop is at the crossing of the Bhudiya Colony market. Almost all the shops here are owned by the colony’s residents.

Credit: Prabhat Singh
Life in a Refugee Colony in India

This shop in Thaurnagar, a hamlet of Bhudiya Colony, is now being run by Akoli Sarkar and her grandson, Debashish. Her son, Aseem, had left for Andhra Pradesh in search of work, as his brother is already working there.

Credit: Prabhat Singh
Life in a Refugee Colony in India

Rakesh is studying in Class II and Tarak Sarkar in Class III at a nearby private school. “All the children of the colony go to school. I don’t know how it will help but I like my English book and stories also,” said Tarak as his mother offered a chair. His father, a daily wage laborer, keeps telling them to study hard.

Credit: Prabhat Singh
Life in a Refugee Colony in India

Jaidev Mondal, the youngest in a family of four brothers, raises a special variety of pigeons and trains and sells them. “They need special care and training to meet the requirements of the competition. When I’m not at school, I stay with them. It’s good fun being with them,” he said.

Credit: Prabhat Singh
Life in a Refugee Colony in India

Manoranjan Rai, a blacksmith, owns a workshop in the colony’s market. As a young man, his family had to move from a West Bengal refugee camp to the state of Odisha. “I can’t forget the sufferings of being a refugee. Cholera and other water-bound diseases were very common in the Odisha camp. We had to come back to Calcutta after a cousin of mine died of cholera. Though I am not one among those who got settled here under a government scheme for refugees, but as a son-in-law of a settled family I found space for myself and for my family too. I’ve inherited agricultural land from my father-in-law and the skills of mending iron from my father. Life is going smooth now,” he said.

Credit: Prabhat Singh
Life in a Refugee Colony in India

Sukhranjan Bairagi, a former village head, is known as an encyclopedia on refugees. He has collected all the documents related to refugees. “We are demanding for Scheduled Caste status as the majority of us here belong to the Namashudra community, but no one cares. Earlier, our children were issued a certificate for scholarship purposes but even that has been stopped by district government officials. I agree that we were refugees but why are we not being treated like others even after the government gave us citizenship,” he said, spreading some certificates from his file.

Credit: Prabhat Singh
Life in a Refugee Colony in India

Babita, a niece of Jaidev Mondal, was singing a lullaby for her doll and smiled shyly when she was asked about her school.

Credit: Prabhat Singh
Life in a Refugee Colony in India

Shafiq Ahmed hails from Nadeli, a nearby village, and is the only Muslim in the Bhudiya Colony market. A shade in a corner in front of a veterinary clinic is where he puts up his table with an iron to press clothes. His father would come to this corner every day, just as he has been doing for the last 40 years.

Credit: Prabhat Singh

Nikunj Bhowmick, who lives in a refugee settlement near the north Indian city of Bareilly, clings to two of his belongings, which connect him to his past. One is a certificate of registration, dated November 19, 1956, and issued by the superintendent of Ranigachi camp in the state of West Bengal. The other is a two-stringed musical instrument, called dotara, which he made for himself.

The instrument consoles his soul, and the certificate validates his existence in an adopted country. However, the piece of paper is also a constant reminder of scars that the new generation is hardly aware of.

A resident of Bhudiya Colony, around 55 miles from Bareilly city, Bhowmick is one of the millions of Bengali-speaking refugees from East Pakistan who crossed the border due to communal violence around the time of the partition of the erstwhile British India. East Pakistan came to be known as Bangladesh after its liberation from Pakistan in 1971 and is now home to the world’s fourth-largest Muslim population.

With his wife and three-year-old son, Bhowmick landed in West Bengal and stayed in the Ranigachi refugee camp for eight years before being rehabilitated in Bhudiya Colony. A Hindu, he escaped the atrocities that were meted out to numerous non-Muslims at the time, but he witnessed some bloody incidents. Like others, he remains traumatized by the memory.

“On the 16th of June, 1961, 160 families from camps in Calcutta were brought to Bhudiya Colony. They were from villages in Barisal, Faridpur, Mymensingh, Dhaka, and Jessore districts who came to India with a hope to start their lives afresh,” says another resident, Sukhranjan Bairagi.

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Today, around 5,000 refugees from Bangladesh live in Bareilly. While only a few of the first-generation settlers are alive today, stories of arson, killing, rape, abduction, and looting still abound. However, the younger generation clearly does not wish to retain those stories in their memory. They talk more often, and more comfortably, about economic hardships and family disputes their ancestors had.

Here are some pictures from Bhudiya Colony.