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The Bengal Experience

Vazira Zamindar

By Haimanti Roy
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2012, pp. 254, Rs. 695.00


Since the path-breaking work in the 1990s on women abducted during the Partition violence in divided Punjab, at least two generations of much needed scholarship have built upon and extended the literary archive of the years of trauma and displacement that followed the Partition of 1947. Drawing upon oral histories, memoirs, official records and newspapers of the time, historians have now shown us the extent to which 1947 was not the end, but rather the beginning of a long, contested and drawn-out process of nation-state formation in which the figure of the refugee was central, not marginal, to the making of India and Pakistan. Haimanti Roy’s Partitioned Lives joins other recent provincially focused studies like Neeti Nair’s Changing Homelands: Hindu Politics and the Partition of India(Harvard University Press, 2011) and Ilyas Chattha’s Partition and Locality: Violence, Migration, and Development in Gujranwala and Sialkot 1947-1961(Oxford University Press, 2011) to provide a close-up regional understanding of this process of partitioning and national formation. With its focus on Bengal, rather than Punjab, it adds to the important work of Joya Chatterjee and Willem van Schendel1, to help us think through the specificity of the Bengal experience,as a line on a map divided a complex ecology and its multi-religious communities.   Partitioned Lives opens with an examination of the Bengali debates that preceded the drawing of the Radcliffe line, and counters Joya Chatterjee’s essay ‘Fashioning of a Frontier’2 by arguing that not just needs of ‘communal unity’, (p.43) but an array of cultural, economic and strategic concerns drove the arguments of Muslim and Hindu groups petitioning the Boundary Commission. She also delineates the particular geographic challenges of dividing the Bengal delta as monsoon fed rivers, chars and enclaves resulted in continuous boundary disputes in the years that followed; as rivers, cattle and people challenged and shaped emerging border regimes, the eastern Indo-Pak border in many ways has a distinct history from the western one.   However, despite this distinctiveness, the processes that Roy tracks in her account for the making of the eastern Indo-Pak border is surprisingly parallel to that of the western Indo-Pak border that I tracked some years ago in The Long Partition. Roy examines the two states’ attempts to control the movement of people across the Bengal border, the emergence of passports, debates on citizenship that they engendered and ‘evacuee property’ dispensations that in effect pushed out religious minorities from ...

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