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Partitioned Urbanity

A Refugee Village Bordering Kolkata

Himadri Chatterjee (chatterjee86@gmail.com) is at Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Mohali.

 

The partition of British India precipitated a set of instruments of governance that shaped occupations, land-use patterns, and forms of citizenship in urban hinterlands. This process is explored through an ethnographic and archival study of a village in Kolkata’s urban periphery, populated by an oppressed caste community called Namasudras, who had suffered repeated displacements. Namasudra refugee labour was crucial in the making of Kolkata’s suburban infrastructure, prompted by a process of state-led “deagrarianisation” and inter-community politico–economic competition that also displaced the local Muslim peasantry.

An earlier draft of the paper was presented in a conference on “Frontier Urbanism: Tracking Transformation in Agrarian–Urban Hinterlands of South Asia” at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, 24–25 February 2018. Another draft was presented in a conference on “Refugees, Migrants, Violence and the Transformation of Cities” (Sixth Critical Studies Conference) in Kolkata on 23–25 August 2017. This is a revised and modifi ed version, which has greatly benefi ted from the comments by Rajarshi Dasgupta, Shubhra Gururani and Ritajyoti Bandyopadhyay.

Netajipally is a village that stands at the border of the Kolkata conurbation. It was founded by a group of Namasudra refugees in 1986 under the leadership of Chitta Basu, a Lok Sabha member from the All India Forward Bloc party. The village is partially administered by the Paschim Khilkapur gram panchayat and a small portion of it was included within the Barasat municipality in 1995. It is an informal aggregate of three revenue villages. A reading of government documents and an attentive stroll through the area demonstrate its deep material and political relations with the neighbouring urban area. The village has undergone a significant degree of urban transformation in the absence of state-directed land acquisition or infrastructural development. This paper will demonstrate the process of non-spectacular transformation of rural spaces at the urban fringe by identifying the historical forces and instruments that are brought to bear upon this village in the absence of direct state violence.

The village is a site where the spatial limits of the city are intertwined with the limits of citizenship, complicated by periodic violence, dispossession, and international migration. It is a “strategic arena” where the nationalisation of citizenship comes undone (Appadurai and Holston 1996: 188). The presence of the refugee Namasudra community, with its history of legal alienation (Sinharay 2012, 2013) and social exclusion from citizenship (Bandyopadhyay 1997; Bandyopadhyay and Ray Chaudhury 2016: 60–82; Chatterjee 2016: 83–102), and proximity to the Bangladesh border, makes Kolkata’s peripheral extension a spatial text of divisive, exclusionary, and violent realities of post-partition “city making.” This process significantly shadows postcolonial nation building of the first two decades after independence (Sen 2009). The insight that Kolkata should be read as a text of post-partition reconstruction probably best encapsulates the significance of both the phenomenon and the place (Chatterjee 1990: 70). Scholars studying cities that have been transformed by partition have primarily framed their research in terms of the “aftermath of partition” (Tan and Kudaisya 2000: 163–203; Talbot 2007: 151–85). This paper will provide an outline of the instruments of governing populations and managing spaces that are derived from the moment of partition; however, they remain a motive force behind structuring the urban periphery, shaping occupations and community formation, and segregating populations at an everyday level.

This paper uses both archival and ethnographic sources to sketch an outline of the process through which the urban periphery of Kolkata and its inhabitants were produced. The idea of the periphery in this paper is articulated at political, spatial, and economic registers using historical and oral narratives of the contemporary refugee movement, land politics, and occupational transformation of the Namasudra refugees. In this study, these registers are described at the scale of national, urban, and local polity. The following section will sketch the trail that I followed to the village of Netajipally, and a field description of the political and spatial marginality of the village. The next two sections will narrate the process of coaxing this population into the urban fringe and then calibrating their occupations so as to arrest them in the lower niche of urban informality. The fifth and last section of the paper will return to the village to describe the local contestations that frame and direct urban transformation at the grass-roots level.

Netajipally

My fieldwork in the settlements of Namasudra refugees, at the edge of the city of Kolkata, had begun in the late 2011 at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi. A group of 20 Dalit refugee activists and a support team from the Joint Action Committee for Bengali Refugees, led by Sukriti Ranjan Biswas, had arrived there on 28 November 2011 to start an indefinite hunger strike demanding the repeal of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act of 2003. This amendment has made it difficult for post-1971 migrants from Bangladesh (erstwhile East Pakistan) to acquire Indian citizenship by adding a clause on “illegal immigrants” and by disenfranchising family members born on Indian soil after migration (Roy 2010).

Over the following week I witnessed their unsuccessful negotiations with Congress leaders, including V Narayanasamy. Through the first three days, leaders from Communist parties, Bharatiya Janata Party, Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind and Lok Janshakti Party came to visit the protesters periodically. After several insipid promises from various legislators to bring up the issue in Parliament, the activists decided to wrap up the agitation on the fourth day when K C Singh Baba requested them to discontinue the strike. The activists were rather disheartened by their near invisibility at the theater of so many protests. They were distraught over not being able to garner any media attention in a year when mass agitations were sweeping across the country.

I found this invisibility rather telling, given the fact that this population had held very successful campaigns and agitations in the border districts in West Bengal and the urban periphery of Kolkata. They were also a significant element in the social and political coalition that had toppled the Communist Party of India (Marxist)—(CPI(M)-led Left Front government in the 2011 elections in the state (Sinharay 2012). Their precarious position in the national polity, an inevitable outcome of a politics based on the refugee identity, curtailed the possibility of a national conversation.

Activists from different states, committees, and organisations across several districts of West Bengal had joined the agitation. However, the district of North 24 Parganas was significantly over-represented. Three of the 22 hunger strikers hailed from Netajipally, what several activists categorised as a “refugee village.” The campaign for the protest in Delhi had begun in the very same village on 6 November 2011 with a rally, street corner meetings, and speeches in the village market. Several village activists visited the border districts of West Bengal to mobilise support for the protest. The travel back to the periphery from the nation state’s civic square was not a triumphant one. James Holston’s insight into the confrontation between peripheral demands and the norms from the urban centre seemed to have fizzled away on a tide of irrelevance (Holston 2009: 245–46).

I followed the refugee activists back to the border of the Barasat municipality, located in the north-eastern fringe of the Kolkata Metropolitan Area (KMA). This is an area exhibiting rapid land-use transformation with the local population, primarily consisting of refugees from the Namasudra community, employed in the construction sector, small-scale manufacturing, and petty trading. Proximity to National Highway (NH) 34 and State Highway 2 led to significant rise in land prices in the village, especially following the partial inclusion under municipal administration in 1995. Nearby areas have consequently become the destination for real estate development and a site for several large educational and industrial establishments. Families living in the village say that the last vestiges of sharecropping, a widely practised seasonal occupation, disappeared from the area around 2007.

Information about the village has to be pieced together from surveys of the revenue units (mouza), parts of which make up the village. Figure 1 shows the revenue villages, Chak Barbaria, Chaturia, and Chak Chaturia in the upper-left quadrant of the map of block Barasat–I. The village stretches from the northern end of Napara to Khilkapur along the link road, branching away from NH 34. In 1999, there were a significant number of landless families in each revenue village dependent on agricultural labour: Chak Barbaria had 264 landless families and Chaturia had 62.1 The Rural Household Survey, 2005 lists 122 families of “below poverty line” card holders in Chak Barbaria.2 The number of voters from the village was 3,906 in the 2013 voters’ list, with an overwhelming majority of Scheduled Castes (SCs).3 The voters’ list locates the village within the revenue unit of Chaturia mouza.

The technical advisor for planning and development in the panchayat office referred to the settlement as a “colony area” while trying to underline the informal and messy nature of the settlement.4 The residents prefer the term “neighbourhood” (para) or “village” (pally/gram). They point out that it was founded by migrant families from Khulna, who had been displaced from their homes in former East Pakistan by the “Liberation War” of 1971. The urban impact of this period of migration has attracted recent academic attention (Datta 2012). In 1995, Chak Chaturia was partly included within the municipality-administered area and Chak Barbaria became a census town.5

The village stands as an example of the spatial and economic changes considered characteristic of peri-urban areas. Its existence as a village community is contradicted by its flickering administrative legitimacy. It is rare to find agricultural land in the village, without concrete construction, even though there is a moratorium on the conversion of agricultural land in the area. Plots are seamed with low single-brick walls defining boundaries of future residential holdings. It appears to house the population that serves as the workforce in the urban ensemble: erstwhile marginal farmers, commuting daily wage labourers, lower level service workers for middle-class residential complexes, and migrating construction workers whose families are sometimes split between three metropolitan cities (for example, sons work as construction worker in Chennai, daughters work as domestic help in Hyderabad, and remaining members commute to Kolkata as daily wage labourers).6 Physically, it occupies a space at the interstices of big developmental projects, embodying the peculiar transition from the “not-urban” to the “urban.” This village is the staging of the function and habitation of the postcolonial urban refugee. In the following sections the process of accumulation of this population and the structuring of its economic niche will be historically illustrated, specifically with reference to the district under discussion.

Consolidating the Urban Periphery

In the mid-1950s, the refugee population was employed as construction workers in peripheral municipalities of Calcutta and in the 10 refugee colonies that were being built across the 24 Parganas. The population increase caused by refugee influx had created pressure on the suburban municipalities. Using refugees as cheap labour, these municipalities created a function for the refugees while simultaneously transforming the suburban spaces according to rehabilitation plans. In June 1956, the West Bengal government opened a “contractor department” that organised the refugees to build their own colonies. The motive of the department was not to enhance living conditions and wages for the refugees. Departmental reports agree that the refugees were not significantly profited by such employment. Two thousand five hundred refugees had already worked for the department by December 1956 in various works around Calcutta and its suburbs. ₹ 8 lakh was paid over six months as wages for the daily work force of 1,100 to 1,900 refugee labourers. This wage was not the profit that the department was looking for. The primary gain from the department’s activity, the report states, was that the refugees were “learning the dignity of labour” (MoR 1957: 13). This illustrates the historical process of emplacement through which the refugee population was installed at the urban periphery as cheap labour, in order to build new urban extensions while also building their own habitation.

Little less than 50% of the refugee population coming into India gravitated towards Calcutta and the 24 Parganas (State Statistical Bureau 1956a: 2). During a 1955 survey of the economic conditions of refugees living outside the government-run refugee camps, 32,348 listed respondents out of 60,093 went missing within three months of the preliminary rounds of enumeration. The disappearance of over half the sample demonstrates the intense mobility and the near-absolute dispossession of this population at the time (State Statistical Bureau 1956a: 1). Their concentration in the district under discussion gave rise to confrontations and negotiations with the organs of state-directed spatial planning. An important episode of such contestation took place in the early 1950s at the edge of the Kalyani township in North 24 Parganas.

Post 1947 planned extension of the city of Calcutta into its hinterland had started with the Kalyani township in 1950 (renamed Samriddhi in April 2015) at the border of Nadia and North 24 Parganas. The township was planned in 1947 for a “middle-class” population of 60,000 in order to “decongest” Calcutta.7 A project for a “Refugee Rehabilitation Township” in Fulia near Ranaghat was taken up, which was spatially adjacent to the middle-class township. The land for the Kalyani project had been requisitioned for military use under the provisions of the Defence of India Act during World War II.8 More land was added to the township and 12,606 acres were allocated for the urban middle class. The population capacity of the township was assumed to be 2,50,000 in 1951. The parcel of land was bound by a railway line laid by the military for supply cars during World War II. The area immediately beyond the railway line was allocated for brick kilns in order to fulfil the demand for building material in the future township. By the late 1950s, a group of 551 East Pakistani refugee families took over the brick kiln land, developed it autonomously, and began growing paddy, horticultural products, and even a small quantity of jute.9 Soon there were confrontations between the refugee families and the brick kiln contractors. There were reports of minor violence and an accidental landslide caused by large-scale digging by the contractors, which damaged homes built by the refugee families.10 Following this, there were reports of eviction of the refugee families alongside government claims that these families had been rehabilitated elsewhere with one-third acre of agricultural land per family.11

A rigid border was maintained by the state, a border marked by specific forms of infrastructure (Mezzadra and Neilson 2013). It is this maintenance of internal borders and zones that I underline as “partitioned urbanity.” This was a moment of generating and legitimising mechanisms of segregation that will structure the forces transforming the urban periphery. Most importantly, these techniques of governing, managing, directing, and utilising available populations and spaces will become the primary mode of government for the state in this region. The refugee population was actively dispersed to the urban periphery while being kept away from specific areas. They were to be kept out of the planned spaces of suburban development but accumulated in adjacent areas.

Important new laws concerning eviction, acquisition, and protection of property were enacted in this period. Following the example of the Government Premises (Eviction) Act, 1950 applicable to Delhi, the West Bengal government had introduced the Rehabilitation of Displaced Persons and Eviction of Persons in Unauthorised Occupation of Land Act in 1951;12 this was done in order to curb the “squatter colony” movement in Calcutta that would later become one of the primary platforms of communist mobilisation (Chakrabarti 1990). The act allowed the government to evict refugees from “unlawfully” occupied land without the need for rehabilitation. Simultaneously, the government introduced the Evacuee Property Act of 1951 with an eminently short deadline for return and registration, and the absurd clause that a person will be allowed to return and claim lost property if they had crossed the border, thereby denying the claims of those that had hidden themselves elsewhere within the country.13

Planning for the Future

The Kalyani township went on to become one of the primary centres of growth marked in the Basic Development Plan (BDP) published in 1966. This document encapsulated much of the transformation already wrought as a narrative of planned “future.” The future metropolis, described in the Ford Foundation-funded BDP imagined a “Bipolar” city with two counter-urbanising magnets to the north and south of the city of Calcutta dispersing the city’s population and decongesting it (CMPO 1966).

This period of planning was foundational to the transfer of international planning expertise and funds from organisations like the Ford Foundation that financed and supervised the making of the BDP for Calcutta. In 1961, as the urban planning machinery was beginning to take shape and the first installments of the Ford Foundation funds arrived in Calcutta, the then American Ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith toured various refugee-concentrated areas like the Lake district and the Sealdah area.14 A representative of 20th-century American liberalism, his close association with the Kennedy administration meant that his itinerary was to flag issues of interest to the Ford Foundation. This moment of funding and supervision produced the earliest of planning agencies like the Calcutta Metropolitan Planning Organization (CMPO) as Indian counterparts of the Ford Foundation experts’ panel.

International intervention consolidated a hierarchy of issues, a framework of priority for problems to be solved. While issues like sanitation, health, drinking water, and refugee housing were taken note of, the international agency wanted development efforts to be focused primarily on “projected future investment patterns.”15 Expenditure on social amenities took a back seat. All energy was focused on building higher quality road transport, increased power and water supply, and increased production of raw material and finished goods routed through the Calcutta port. The spatial limit for such planning and development was to be the radius of daily communication with the core city of Calcutta, which translated to the reach of the suburban railway lines routed through Howrah and Sealdah stations, as demonstrated by Ananya Roy (2003).

Alongside this frame of priorities, a number of new technologies were transferred to Calcutta through the CMPO. First aerial photograph-based maps of the city16 were created and the first computers meant to be used for urban planning arrived in the city as part of the Ford Foundation planning initiative.17 These institutional and technological transformations enforced new hierarchies of communication. Activities by the city planning agency were first reported to the foreign funding agency and later brought to bear upon activities and negotiations with the state government. This created tensions between authorities and were reflected in rumours spreading across the city. The planning effort started rolling in 1961, but by 1962 there were rumours of a rift between the local and the international agents of planning concerning hefty salaries drawn by American consultants.18 As a result of these issues, and the lack of powers of implementation delegated to the CMPO, the BDP remained largely discredited in the popular domain; but it continued to supply the foundations of planning knowledge among the city’s government agencies. Most importantly, the plan enshrined the idea that the city of Calcutta was excessively congested. The population density of Calcutta slums at the time was found to be 125 persons per acre and, in comparison to other reference points like Birmingham and Chicago that were chosen by the American experts, this was found to be heinous.19 The idea of a congested city drove the urgency for decongestion that led to an acceleration of the dispersal of refugees away from the core city of Calcutta.

The flow of refugee population was directed towards rehabilitation spaces at the urban periphery that were adjacent to, but outside of, the planned urban extensions. Simultaneously, these measures severely marginalised the hold of the minority community on their property holdings (Bose 1968). In the next several decades, Calcutta went through several reconfigurations of the imagination of the urban periphery. Urban planning swiftly moved to a “multinodal strategy” of developing small towns, linked to the metropolis at the centre, providing specialised services (CMDA 1976). Simultaneously, the Refugee Relief and Rehabilitation Department made a major contribution to the planning discourse by identifying and proposing to develop 16 refugee-concentrated townships across West Bengal, 11 of which were within the influence area of the KMA and connected by the suburban railway, the national highway, and the state highways. Two of the largest of these proposed townships, Barrackpore and Barasat, are within the KMA (RRRD 1976).

The municipal area of Barasat was filled to the brim with refugees in 1971. Sydney Schanberg (1971) had written that the crowd of refugees was so thick that cars could no longer ply on the streets. Many family members and village acquaintances had migrated to India and had periodically gone back to Bangladesh between 1950 and 1964,20 trying to flee communal and political violence. It is important, then, to delve into the history of migration and transformation of this population from the 1950s onwards and trace their path to the urban periphery, focusing specifically on urban centres in the district of North 24 Parganas that were developed after 1947.

Occupational Transition of the Refugee Population

According to government records, the refugee population had surpassed its pre-displacement levels of employment by 1955 (State Statistical Bureau 1956a: 5). North 24 Parganas, the district where the village of Netajipally is located, had the second highest concentration of migrants after southern Calcutta. This district had received the largest number of refugees from agrarian caste communities (primarily Namasudras) but only a sixth of that population decided to remain engaged in agriculture (State Statistical Bureau 1956a: 3). There was a simultaneous rise in the number of people taking up livelihoods involving unskilled labour, petty trade, small industry, and services (State Statistical Bureau 1956a: 4).

The situation in the agricultural sector was telling. Of 2,15,200 refugees engaged in agriculture before partition, 47,800 lost their livelihood. There were 36,800 refugees who wanted to try out agriculture, but they neither had prior experience nor the resources for it; finally, there were 32,400 new entrants in the sector. This was the most fluid occupational group among the refugees compared to small trade, small industry, services, and unskilled work (State Statistical Bureau 1956a: 7), all of which registered unprecedented growth in new entrants.

A similar survey in Ghusuri and Cossipore refugee camps enumerated respondents interested in industrial employment across three axes. Initially, they were categorised as “keen” or “not keen” for industrial employment. Individuals exhibiting keenness were divided according to skills, ranging from weaving or bidi (local cigarette) making, to technical or professional skills. Distinction was also made between refugees who wanted to create his or her “own enterprise” and those wanting to take up a job in industries (State Statistical Bureau 1956b: 62). Out of 1,554 families surveyed, 554 were caste Hindus and 1,000 belonged to SCs (State Statistical Bureau 1956b: 9). The rate of employment was dismal but upper castes did significantly better in terms of full employment at 5.9%, compared to 1.9% among the SC inmates (State Statistical Bureau 1956b: 9). The proportion of people desiring employment was similar in all caste groups. The near absence of remittance income of camp inmates was taken to demonstrate unwillingness to migrate. This tendency, compared to high remittances among non-camp refugees, was underscored as the ill effect of camp stay (State Statistical Bureau 1956b: 2).

The “(non-)encamped” (Turner 2015) refugees were going through a large-scale occupational transition along with a sharp increase in participation in the workforce. The agricultural castes were leaving the agrarian sector and entering the informal sector.

While some of this transition was an effect of dispossession, it was significantly shaped by government vocational training and employment policies (COM 1954: 36–39). Since the 1950s, vocational training in workshop-based production, handling machine tools, and basic training in industrial processes became common in refugee camps (MOR 1957). Women were trained on sewing machines and for domestic service. Refugee camps built “production centres” as part of the rehabilitation process and state governments attached the refugee population to infrastructural projects (Estimates Committee 1965). These attempts by the government gave limited employment opportunities to the refuges in the non-agrarian sector. Given the already existing fluidity of occupation, these training programmes, even in their most minimal efficacy, added to the tendency of “de-agrarianisation” (Wallerstein 2015: 79).

Going back to Netajipally, it is important that we take note of its location beside the link road connecting Barasat and Barrackpore municipalities. These two municipalities, taken together, have 146 government-sponsored urban refugee settlements (RRRD 2001), which is significant among the peripheral municipalities of the KMA. The transformations of livelihood, coupled with a significant trend of rural to urban migration of agriculturist refugees, structured the spatial destiny of this population and this space.

We can begin to discern two different kinds of deployment of force by the state in the history presented above. The first concerns the transformation of space through planning and the second concerns the insertion of a population into an occupational profile. These can be seen as the two registers through which state-directed transformation of spaces and populations is actualised. The Singur, Nandigram, and Lalgarh movements significantly affected public discourse (Basu 2007; Bhaduri 2007) and delegitimised state-directed spatial transformation. The second type of deployment of force by the state is central to this paper. In the last section, we will return to Netajipally, the staging ground for the effects of this kind of force.

Quiet Transition

While commenting on the history of the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), Ghertner (2014: 1555) mentions the arrival of the partition refugees as one of the primary moments of “urban enclosure” in the national capital. Delhi Leasing and Finance Company had cornered the real estate market, triggering a response from the state that gave monopoly to DDA over land acquisition. This power was used to produce very limited refugee housing. Ghertner argues that what has been read as “occupancy urbanism” (Benjamin 2008) might be a form of diluted access to cheap housing for the urban poor. Similarly, instead of framing partition migration as a cause of urban enclosure, it might be more productive to think of the refugee as a device of legitimacy. This legitimacy is what maintains the façade of passivity that veils the intensity of everyday violence and the scale of land-use transformation.

What is remarkable, then, is the quietness with which the first stage of enclosure and transformation of land use can take place. The importance of the nature and silence of this process stands out against the enclosure of the Webb Ground in Karachi’s Gulshan-e-Zahoor, where a military cordon erected a wall to enclose common land. Spectacular state violence dominates the imagination of “accumulation by dispossession.” In West Bengal, however, the explosive events surrounding acquisition of agricultural land for the purpose of creating new industries resulted in the “implosion” of the political structure and the legitimacy of the ruling Left Front government (Bhattacharya 2016: 155–212).

The village of Netajipally is not “quiet” in the sense of being peaceful. It represents the quietude of a constant tension. Party and community functionaries produce documents and histories; they create and maintain archives that govern village institutions.21 The “quiet transition”22 is a banal transition wrought each day by deploying the de-agrarianising refugee—a population constantly in the grip of caste hierarchy and legal threat of disenfranchisement—to transform the urban periphery. In the following narrative will demonstrate the effects of employment policies and spatial planning from mid to late 20th century as discussed in earlier sections. The primary focus in this section will be to clarify the role of the Namasudra refugee population, who was directed and inserted into the urban periphery by the rehabilitation apparatus, in changing land use at the contact zone between the urban and the non-urban. As has been mentioned earlier, this population is “insecuritised” (Lazzarato 2009) due to the tenuous legality of their citizenship in India. This has been particularly exacerbated since the late 1990s due to the demonisation of Bangladeshi migrants (Guha 2016).

Transition in Netajipally

I had met Mahananda Biswas23 on my first visit to Netajipally. He was the first card-holding member of the CPI(M) from the village. He had been the archivist and the scribe for village residents. He was a common figure of “rural communism” in West Bengal (Rudd 2003: 75–78). He had been a “deed writer” (legal scribe) in Khulna Judge Court before a property dispute with local strong men forced him to flee Khulna in the early 1980s. For the first 10 years after he migrated to India, he had worked as a construction worker in Orissa. In the late 1990s he started running a stationery store out of his village home. His collection of petitions, forms, deeds, and certificates are considered an authoritative source for village history. He is usually invited for dispute resolution between politicians, clubs, and land developers. What follows is a narrative reconstructed from his collection of documents. It is an illustration of local land-use change and intra-community competition that structures village politics at the border of the city.

In early July 2010, the playground in front of the Netajipally free primary school was being renovated under the supervision and expense of Kamal Mondal and Nittya Halder. The school playground of 23 cottah was originally owned by Hassan Ali, who had moved out of the village in the early 1990s. After his death in 1999, his wife Amina Khatoon inherited the plot. In 1995, a group of refugee land developers bought 5 bighas of land in Chak Barbaria, against 10% of price paid in advance, from Hassan Ali in order to carve out plots and sell the land as homestead to several families of Namasudra refugees. Such agreements are a common feature of the first cycle of land development where the small developers with little capital defer payment till land is plotted and sold. In 1997 when Nimai Adhikari, Jahangir Ali, and Krishna Mondal had started selling the land piecemeal, Netajipally Vidyalaya Committee (NVC), Netajipally Unnayan Committee (NUC), Netajipally Sporting Club (NSC), and the three businessmen informally agreed to donate 2 bighas of land for a school building and a playground. The promise was meant to ease commerce. Initially, 17 cottah was kept for the school building and 23 cottah for the playground. The ownership of the land for the school was registered in 2003, while the playground remained unregistered. The villagers had occupied this land as a “commons” for holding cultural and sporting events without paying the pending price to Hasan Ali or his surviving family. Its nearness to the village market made it a valuable piece of land over time. In August 2010, during winter sporting events, NSC offered to beautify the playground.

Kamal Mondal, who had started out as a migrant construction-sector labourer in Mumbai in the early 1990s had by then made his fortune as a labour contractor and promoter. Krishna Mondal had given his old documents and agreements to his son Kamal, along with his small land development business. Being the president of the NSC, he had decided to invest some of his money to beautify and improve the condition of the playground as gesture of goodwill towards the village residents.

Within a week of commencing work it was rumoured that he had ordered trucks full of iron rods, bricks, and cement from his nearby warehouse, and villagers saw engineers measure the playground. Soon, there were rumours that Amina Khatoon had sold him the playground plot. There were immediate protests from the NVC and the NDC. Since the school was not affiliated, the property had to be held by a trustee, who would guarantee proper use of land as a “commons” in the future. Kamal argued that he would hold the deed on behalf of NSC. Over the next five days his masons enclosed the plot of land in iron and concrete.

Within a week, another local land developer informed the NDC that Kamal was attempting to register the land for himself. Once again, a meeting was convened and the NDC members argued that since Kamal was the president of the NSC, registering the deed and title to the NSC was the same thing as the land being taken over by the promoter himself; he could conveniently transfer it to his company as and when he wanted.

The following night, the gates and windows in the homes of the members of the NDC were smashed. Following this, members of the panchayat and the committee filed police complaints and wrote to the local land revenue office. The violence continued unabated and young men, wearing masks, attacked one of the local members of the panchayat. The village community cobbled together a peace committee, where three of the businessmen who had originally signed the agreement with Hassan Ali were called to speak in favour of the committees. Krishna Mondal attended the meeting and spoke for continued common use of the piece of land.

Till 22 July 2010, when the final police complaint was filed, Amina Khatoon did not come to the meetings. She has not visited her land in two decades. I was never able to interview her and she remained an absent presence throughout the negotiations, with Jahangir Ali as her dubious proxy as one of the businessmen to have signed an agreement with her husband. Till my last visit to the village, the land remained disputed and empty with vestiges of a wall around it. By 2014, the work on the Netajipally primary school building was finished, financed by Round Table India.

The piece of land in the story stands witness to two generations of land developers and their capacity for managing the village population and land resources. It is significant that the first-generation land developers and businessmen agreed to transfer land as a way of getting community support. The transaction was also intimately linked with the desire to build local village institutions like schools and playgrounds that, alongside being a new commons, is also deeply related to education, a primary marker of aspiration. By the time the next generation of land developers took over, the intra-community linkages had narrowed to family networks that attempted to bypass the village community.

The internal competitions and contestations of the Namasudra community is founded upon another quiet violence. The slowly retreating Muslim peasantry here faces a situation where land grab is organised in community terms. Instead of the commons being privatised, as the first step of land-use change, it is forged into new commons for the refugee.

The urban periphery in contemporary urban theory is a fertile arena of theoretical reflection. Scholars constantly veer towards it to find new forms of politics (Chatterjee 2004: 64), new technologies of capital (Roy 2003), and new forms of state—society negotiations and class contestations (Gururani 2013). This paper demonstrates that the periphery is a space built out of specific historical tensions that are framed by long-term issues of state making. It may be argued that what seems like an informalisation of state machinery might actually be effects of state policy that instrumentalises social forces of transformation.

While at the national scale of politics the Namasudra refugees remain marginalised, their political success at the civic squares of the provincial capital, Kolkata, signals a certain degree of local power and organisation. This power seems to stem from their claim over the peri-urban spaces of rapid land-use transformation. While this provincial political ascendancy allows them a mode of appropriation through land politics, two other mechanisms are aimed at undercutting this nascent claim to space and capital. First, the increasing pitch of securitisation through policy instruments like the National Register of Citizens is intensifying their legal precarity. Second, this area and the neighbouring regions of North East India have been in the registers of global capital for several years as a contact zone primed and ready for transport-related mega projects to make their entry (FICCI 2014: 24). Whether the grand dreams of Barasat–Bangkok freight corridors will work out is not the issue at stake. The existence of such imaginations marks the possibilities of the region. Scholars studying Kolkata have pointed to a centring of the periphery as a new space of accumulation and, in fact, dissolution of the old centres (Dey et al 2013: 85). Lefebvre (2000: 118–21), however, in his anxious reconsideration of the town–and–country relation, emphasised that centrality and that the urban fabric is constantly renovated rather than dissolved.

Notes

1 Block: Barasat I, Police Station: Barasat. See Gramin Poribar Somuher Arthonoitik Ebong Peshagato Samikkhalabddho Karyakari Talika, 1 April 1999.

2 Panchayat and Rural Development Department, Rural Household Survey 2005 (After Ist Revision), District North 24 Parganas, Block: Barasat I, Paschim Khilkapur Gram Panchayat, pp 16–20.

3 Voter’s List 2013, State (S 25) West Bengal, Legislative Assembly Constituency: Madhyamgram (General), Parliamentary Constituency: Barasat (General), Rural, Paschim Khilkapur, Parts 40, 41, 42, 47, and 48.

4 Interview with Krishna Saha, Paschim Khilkapur gram panchayat, 14 December 2013, “Colony area” is both a popular and governmental term designating informal refugee settlements.

5 See Census (2011), Barasat I Block, North 24 Parganas, West Bengal, http://www.census2011.co.in/data/subdistrict/2325-barasat--i-north-twenty-four-parganas-west-bengal.html, accessed on 2 January 2018.

6 Interview with Adhir Biswas, Netajipally Village, 20 December 2013.

7 West Bengal Legislative Assembly Proceedings, 1951, Vol 3, No 1, p 3.

8 West Bengal Legislative Assembly Proceedings, 1951, Vol 4, p 393.

9 West Bengal Legislative Assembly Proceedings, 1951, Vol 3, No 2, pp 191–92.

10 West Bengal Legislative Assembly Proceedings, 1951, Vol 3, No 2, p 193.

11 West Bengal Legislative Assembly Proceedings, 1951, Vol 3, No 2, p 192.

12 West Bengal Legislative Assembly Proceedings, 1951, Vol 3, No 3, p 123.

13 West Bengal Legislative Assembly Proceedings, 1951, Vol 3, No 1, pp 257–85.

14 Ministry of Finance, Economic Affairs, N C Sengupta to Edward O’Neill, 27 September 1961, D O No 6301–JS(FA) 161, File No 1/1/61–IA, Vol I and II, National Archives of India (NAI).

15 Ministry of Finance, Economic Affairs, OS(FA)S, Office Diary No 6796, Dated 24 October 1961, File No 1/1/61–IA, Vols I and II, NAI.

16 Douglas Ensminger to Dr B C Roy, 5 December 1961, No 1282 SA/62, File No 1/1/61–IA Vol I&II, NAI.

17 E C Sohal for chief controller of imports and exports to Secretary CMPO, 606.65.V/63.64/L.VII, 2 March 1964, File No 1/1/61–IA Vols I and II, NAI.

18 Swadhinata, 12 June 1962 and Jugantar, 12 June 1962, File no. 1/1/61-IA Vol I and II, NAI.

19 Ministry of Finance, Economic Affairs, OS(FA)S, Office Diary No 6796, Dated 24 October 1961, File No 1/1/61–IA, Vol I and II, NAI.

20 These were the years of the infamous Barisal and Hazrat Bal riots in Eastern India and East Pakistan.

21 In West Bengal, studies of the urban periphery are entangled with studies of social and political apparatus of “primitive accumulation” (Bhattacharya 2001, 2009). For a detailed study of the “party machinery,” see Dasgupta (2009). The discussions on primitive accumulation and its reversal through governmentality are to be found in Chatterjee (2011) and Sanyal (2014).

22 This is a reversal of Solomon Benjamin’s (2008) lens of “Quiet Politics” in order to characterise state policy-driven transitions that are immensely successful while being nearly invisible.

23 All names in the narrative have been changed, but the caste names have been retained.

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Updated On : 27th Mar, 2018

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