India, an Idea

2014-Grbac-PeterBy Peter Grbac

No guidebook, no first-hand narratives, no newspaper reports, nothing really can prepare you for an experience in India. I say India but having spent the past four months wandering the streets of Kolkata, sipping tea in Darjeeling, seeing the dead float down the Ganges, drifting through temples scattered around the North, and sitting through traffic (lots of traffic), there really is no such thing called India. This so-called nation is as diverse as it is large as it is old. It is the cultures, the languages, the foods, the clothing, the religious beliefs, the superstitions. For me, India is, above all, an idea. This is a country that, in so many ways, really shouldn’t work. Yet it does.

There is, of course, the real risk that the Westerner, in his or her immersion in this land exoticizes, even fetishizes, India. I think that for every visitor to India who has “found” himself or herself, there is a visitor who leaves the country more confused, more unsettled, more restless. As I get set to leave this country, I find myself identifying with the latter. This is a place that has, all at once, proved to be as overwhelming as it is calm, as ugly as it is beautiful, as miserable as it is happy. In the middle of my archival research, I came upon the following editorial in The Statesman written by James Cameron on May 31, 1971. This is what he had to say about Calcutta and India more generally:

When I finally came to India it took about thirty seconds flat to put me in my place, and there I have remained. Every time I return to Calcutta I feel it must be surely impossible that it can continue much longer like this; yet it always does. An interval of a year makes the visual impact more painful, the squalor more squalid, the poverty more militant, the despair more desperate. There is no way of rationalizing Calcutta. It is Indian acceptance, which may be torpor; Indian resilience, which may be opportunism; Indian philosophy, which may be indifference; Indian ingenuity, the instinct for survival. I find Calcutta an intimidating and even infernal city, unredeemed, and probably doomed. In a month or so I shall probably be back, to eat my words, as I always do, and find, as one always finds, a flash of redemption in the company of a friend, and the remembrance, more humbling now than ever, that India has gone on for a very long time.

I have to admit that like Cameron, I too have eaten my words more than once. Calcutta is a city, as I pointed out in my first blog post, of extremes where the drama over justice, equality, and fairness envelops you like the sweltering heat. You can’t avoid it and it usually leaves you feeling powerless, vulnerable, and weak. You sense it when you read about the rape cases, or when you hear firsthand testimony about the unequal power dynamics within the court system, or when you study changes in the law that have re-written the rules to favour developers over the poor farmers. These experiences can leave you on the margins, forced to observe what I described as the “daily festival of human existence with all the good and bad that that existence entails.” But it doesn’t have to be that way. My experience at the CRG – listening, reading, writing, asking questions, debating – has highlighted the place and role of academic research in the framing, structuring, and influencing of this drama. Working at the CRG was certainly more than visiting archives, producing original research, and publishing a paper. It was an experience with and of ideas – ideas that extended far beyond the law and refugee rights. These were ideas encompassing topics as diverse as class and culture, economics and equality, bollywood and hollywood. Instead of describing these ideas, I’d like to invite you to join in the conversation. I conclude my last blog post with a mock syllabus (what some might call a summer reading list) that I’ve organized around some of the key themes that have sustained my thinking this summer. There are no papers, no finals, no quizzes. I look forward to carrying on this summer of ideas back in Montreal.

India 1971: Between the Camp and the City

Week 1: India at the (geopolitical) crossroads
(Book) India After Independence: 1947-2000 (2000) Bipan Chandra
(Book) The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide (2013) Gary J. Bass
(Films) The Apu Trilogy – Pather Panchali, Aparajuto, and Apur Sansar (1955, 1956, 1959) Directed by Satyajit Ray
(Novel) A Golden Age (2012) Tahmima Anam
(Novel) Such a Long Journey (1991) Rohinton Mistry

Week 2: Theorizing borders, boundaries, and spaces of difference
(Article) The Study of Boundaries in the Social Sciences (2002 – The Annual Review of Sociology) M Lamont, V Molnar
(Book) Borders, Histories, Existences: Gender and Beyond (2010) Paula Banerjee
(Book) Cultivating Differences: Symbolic Boundaries and the Making of Inequality (1992) M Lamont, M Fournier
(Book) Postcolonial Theory: Contexts, Practices, Politics (1997) B.J. Moore-Gilbert
(Book) Understanding Postcolonialism (2012) Jane Hiddleston

Week 3: Building the urban spaces of India
(Book) Capital: A Portrait of Twenty-First Century Delhi (2014) Rana Dasgupta
(Book) City of Djinns (1993) William Dalrymple
(Book) Maximum City (2004) Suketu Mehta
(Book) Violence in Urban India: Identity Politics, ‘Mumbai’, and the Postcolonial City (2005) Thomas Blom Hansen
(Film) Slumdog Millionaire (2008) Directed by Danny Boyle
(Press) The Slumdog Millionaire Architect (June 19, 2014) Daniel Brook, New York Times Magazine [Link:]
(Press) Mumbai Land Grab (October 24, 2012) Faiza Ahmed Khan [Link:]

Week 4: Modernity and the Urban
(Book) Calcutta Requiem: Gender and the Politics of Poverty (2007) Ananya Roy
(Book) Cultures of Servitude: Modernity, Domesticity, and Class in India (2009) Raka Ray
(Book) Places on the Margin (1991) Rob Shields
(Book) The Global City (1991) Saskia Sassen
(Book) The Urban Sociology Reader (2012) J Lin, C Mele
(Novel) Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (2012) Katherine Boo
(Film) Mahanagar/The Big City (1963) Directed by Satyajit Ray

Week 5: Violent streets, Violent cities
(Article) Urban Violence and Insecurity: An Introductory Roadmap (October 2004 – Environment and Urbanization Volume 16 Number 2) Caroline Moser
(Book) Calcutta: Two Years in the City (2013) Amit Chaudhuri
(Book) Cities and Citizenship (1999) James Holston
(Book) The Naxalite Movement in India (1995) Prakash Singh
(Book) Urban Outcasts: A Comparative Sociology of Advanced Marginality (2013) Loic Wacquant
(Film) Calcutta Trilogy – Pratidwandi (The Adversary), Seemabaddha (Company Limited), and Jana Aranya (The Middleman) (1970, 1971, 1976) Directed by Satyajit Ray
(Novel) The White Tiger (2008) Aravind Adiga

Week 6: Managing displacement
(Article) Conceptualizing Forced Migration (2003 – Refugee Studies Centre) David Turton
(Book) Managing Displacement: Refugees and the Politics of Humanitarianism (2000) Jennifer Hyndman
(Book) Refugees and the State: Practices of Asylum and Care in India, 1947-2000 (2003) Ranabir Samaddar
(Book) Rights in Exile: Janus-Faced Humanitarianism (2005) Barbara Harrell-Bond
(Book) The UNHCR and World Politics: A Perilous Path (2001) G Loescher, DR Baldwin, H Rothstein

Week 7: (International) law and (international) institutions
(Article) The Geopolitics of Refugee Studies: A View from the South (1998 – Journal of Refugee Studies) BS Chimni
(Article) International Refugee Protection (1986 – Human Rights Quarterly) David Kennedy
(Document) 1948 Declaration of Human Rights [Link:]
(Document) 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees [Link:]
(Book) From Resettlement to Involuntary Repatriation: Towards a Critical History of Durable Solutions to Refugee Problems (1999) BS Chimni
(Book) Governing Refugees: Justice, Order and Legal Pluralism (2014) Kirsten McConnachie
(Book) The Refugee in International Law (1996) GS Goodwin-Gill, J McAdam

Week 8: War as humanitarian intervention?
(Article) A Few Words on Mill, Walzer, and Nonintervention (2010 – Ethics and International Affairs) Michael W. Doyle
(Article) After Bangladesh: The Law of Humanitarian Intervention by Military Force (1973 – American Journal of International Law) Thomas M. Franck and Nigel S. Rodley
(Article) Bad Neighbors, Bad Neighborhoods: An Inquiry Into the Causes of Refugee Flows (1996 – International Security) Myron Weiner
(Article) On Humanitarianism: Is Helping Others Charity, or Duty, or Both? (2011 – Foreign Affairs) Michael Walzer
(Article) The Externalities of Civil Strife: Refugees as a Source of International Conflict (2008 – American Journal of Political Science) Idean Salehyan
(Book) Pakistan: Failure in National Integration (1995) Rounaq Jahan

Week 9: Repatriation, Rehabilitation, and Reconstruction
(Article) Dilemmas of Diaspora: Partition, Refugees, and the Politics of “Home” (2006 – Refuge) Pablo Bose
(Article) Refugees in Diaspora From Durable Solutions to Transnational Relations (2006 – Refuge) N Van Hear
(Article) Refugees, Return and Reconstruction of ‘Post-conflict’ Societies: A Critical Perspective (2002 – International Peacekeeping) BS Chimni
(Book) UNHCR and Voluntary Repatriation of Refugees: A Legal Analysis (1997) Marjoleine Zieck
(Book) The End of the Refugee Cycle? Refugee Repatriation and Reconstruction (1999) Richard Black, Khalid Koser

Week 10: Conclusion – “…the proper use of verbs of movement”
(Novel) The Shadow Lines (1988) Amitav Ghosh

India and its 1971 Refugee “Problem”

“Do they know we are coming?”

In 1971, an estimated 10 million refugees crossed the border from East Pakistan into India (UNHCR 2000 59). The sheer magnitude of this movement of people – the largest single displacement of refugees in the second half of the 20th century (59) – is staggering. Writing from the town of Barasat, a city located in the outskirts of Calcutta, West Bengal, Sydney Schanberg, a journalist with the New York Times, describes the town as a “swarm” with refugees “so thick in the streets that cars can only inch through” (Schanberg 17 June 1971). The refugees seemed to be everywhere – sitting in the streets, crouching in doorsteps, sleeping on porches, occupying empty buildings, and cooking in the fields (Schanberg 17 June 1971). They attempted to build lean-tos only to have the monsoon rains rip them apart (Schanberg 17 June 1971). The refugees, Schanberg writes, appeared “anxious and troubled … look[ing] for someone to answer their questions … ‘Do they know we are coming?’” (Schanberg 17 June 1971).

Refugee Influx (Time Magazine)

Refugee Influx (Time Magazine)

After having “trodden long distances on foot in grim agony and in a desperate effort to escape from the ruthless atrocities of the Pakistan Army” (Luthra 1971 2467), to ask such a question seems out of place, even unnecessary. With its odd mix of apology, affirmation, and imposition, it is the question of a guest who is extended a welcome by the host and yet seems unsure as to the nature and extent of that welcome. Such an interaction reflects what Ranabir Samaddar describes as “the double imperative of how the State governs – a contradictory logic of power and care, and a paradoxical injunction built on the heritage of rule” (Samaddar 2010 113).

Like other mass influxes of populations that sought refuge in India – the Tibetan refugees who arrived in the 1950s and the Chakma refugees who arrived in 1964 (Chimni 1994 378) – the 1971 refugees were indeed welcomed. However, unlike the two previous mass influxes of refugees, the 1971 refugees were extended a limited welcome and were accorded hospitality “only until such time as they were able to go back to their country of permanent residence with dignity” (Mukherji(2) 1974 399). The policy for the 1971 refugees, as articulated by the Indian state, makes no mention of rehabilitation, integration, and absorption (399). Their existence in India was to be temporary and their status was to remain as foreign nationals (399). Their existence would ultimately prove to be temporary when, on December 15, the Pakistan army with 93,000 soldiers surrendered in Dacca (Jahan 1995 202). Following decisive military action led by the Indian army, the independent nation-state of Bangladesh was born (202). Just as the 1971 refugees made history with their arrival, so too did they set a record with their departure. Beginning in December of that year, millions of the refugees returned to a new homeland in what would be and remains the largest repatriation operation of the post-Second World War era (UNHCR 2010 59).

The story of the 1971 refugees – their exodus, reception, and eventual return – forms part of a wider narrative that brings to life the disintegration of one nation – Pakistan – and the birth of another – Bangladesh; the revival of historic grudges between two bitter neighbours – India and Pakistan; the international indifference manifested against a backdrop of Cold War politicking; and the miserable conditions that greeted the 10 million souls who sought refuge in India. The story that serves as the basis of this paper is that of the Indian state, namely the way in which its articulated policies on the 1971 refugees shaped, on the one hand, the state’s understanding of refugeehood and its response towards refugees, and, on the other hand, the refugees’ own understanding of this label and the implications the policies had on their sense of belonging and identity formation. Through an analysis of the decisions taken by the Indian state, the labels administered, and the bureaucratic institutions established, this paper explores the tension between the notion of charity and the notion of rights (Samaddar 2010 114) by asking: On what grounds did the Indian state justify repatriation as the only viable solution to the situation of the 1971 refugees? Since the answer to this question goes beyond the constraints of a blog post (and forms the basis of a paper that is forthcoming from CRG Policies and Practices) I outline one conceptual framework – the legal – to think through the state’s response.

The Legal Approach

Repatriation, along with resettlement and local integration, form the ‘three durable solutions’ to refugee problems as recognized by international law and supported by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) (Bradley 2006 1).[1] To repatriate, in its most basic form, is to send the refugee or asylum seeker from their country of asylum back to their country of origin (1). The key principles underlying repatriation are the right to return (as codified in Article 13(2)[2] of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) and the right not to be forcibly returned to situations of persecution or serious danger i.e. the right of non-refoulement (as codified in the negative terms of refoulement in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (“1951 Convention”))[3]. The solution of repatriation is thus premised on the country of asylum’s right to withdraw refugee status so long as it has determined that protection in the country of origin is viable (Hathaway 1997 551). Once withdrawn, the refugee becomes subject to the regular rules of immigration control and may be required to return to their state of origin (551). The challenge of situating the 1971 refugee influx and state response within the legal conceptual framework is that India is not a party to the 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol (Chimni 1994 379). Furthermore, India only acceded to the two Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1979, several years following the return of the refugees to Bangladesh (379). The value of this conceptual framework therefore does not derive from what it tells us about India not signing these documents but rather the way in which this non-accession defined and configured the state’s responsibility (Samaddar 2010 115).

Indira Gandhi meeting a group of refugees from East Bengal at the Kaliganji camp, Assam, in June 1971 (Source:

Indira Gandhi meeting a group of refugees at the Kaliganji camp, Assam, in June 1971 (Source:

In a meeting with economic editors, Indira Gandhi described the solution to the refugee influx this way: “I am just going to send them back. I am determined to send them back” (Statesman 18 June 1971). This policy of “sending them back” served as a constant reminder that the refugees “belonged to Bangladesh … and were going back as soon as the situation returned to normal” (Rangan 29 December 1971). Had the policy not been this clear and forceful, members of the government feared that they would be giving the wrong impression, namely “that [the refugees] are going to be absorbed in this country” (Statesman 24 May 1971). The policy had two principal implications. First, it was used by the state to justify limiting the refugees’ access to the labour market, relegating the refugees to camps, and discouraging the dispersal of refugees from the Border States to other parts of India (Statesman 21 April 1971). Second, it was employed by the newly created Bangladesh government to encourage and foster feelings of patriotism for the new state. In his tour of the refugee camps, the Bangladesh Minister of Home and Rehabilitation urged the refugees to “not stay here as evacuees but go back and take part in the national reconstruction” (Statesman 31 December 1971). The policy of “sending them back” was realized in a surprisingly successful manner. Funded by the Indian state (Rangan 23 December 1971) and coordinated with international relief agencies and the administration of Bangladesh (Durdins 3 February 1972), over 6.8 million of the 10 million refugees returned within two months of the end of the conflict (Durdins 3 February 1972). Each family was given two weeks’ worth of rations that included rice, wheat-flour, lentils, charcoal, cooking oil, and a small cash allowance (Rangan 2 January 1972).

While the Indian state was not constrained by the international legal regime, refugee rights were recognized in practice, albeit in a limited sense. In an August speech, Indira Gandhi commented that repatriation would only occur if the “conditions for their (refugees) safe return were created” (Statesman 31 August 1971) and again in a September speech, where she articulated her vision of returning the refugees “in safety and dignity” (Rahman Volume 12 80). In the absence of any legal regime according to which the state response can be evaluated, phrases such as “safety and dignity” become highly malleable, even strategic tools to be employed by the state according to its own needs and demands. One editorial roots the responsibility of the state in the notion of humanity (Statesman 22 April 1971). However, to what extent does humanity guide state action? The editorial proposes one understanding of the term by focusing on housing, feeding, and clothing the refugees but arguing against the “dispersal to other States or arrangements for permanent rehabilitation” (Statesman 22 April 1971).

There emerge two principal limitations with this legal conceptual framework. First, the legal framework is unable to account for the situation of those refugees who feared a return to this so-called “home” (Rangan 23 December 1971). For some refugees, particularly the Hindu minority population, this fear stemmed from the threat of religious persecution whereas for others, a desperate economic situation in Bangladesh seemed discouraging (Toffler 5 August 1971). Pervading both the religious and economic concerns is a questioning of this notion of “home.” Toffler discusses repatriation with a group of refugees who respond to him this way: “‘Why should we go back?’ many replied.’ This is our country.’ To the Pakistani Hindu, India has always been Amar Desh – ‘my homeland’” (Toffler 5 august 1971). The state’s use of repatriation as the only solution is premised on the faulty assumption that “everyone wants to return … home,” a premise that the state did not assess since it appeared, “in the absence of other options, to be largely irrelevant” (Zieck 1997 447). Second, the legal framework is unable to evaluate the nature and extent of the voluntary dimension of the repatriation effort. Reports from the press describe the Indian state withholding rations and future transport to encourage the refugees to leave. According to Rangan, “although the refugees were not compelled to return they were not being given much choice either” (Rangan 8 January 1972).


Bradley, Megan. “FMO Research Guide: Return of Forced Migrants.” Forced Migration Online. 2006.

Chimni, B.S. “The Legal Condition of Refugees in India.” Journal of Refugee Studies, 1994.

Durdins, Tillman. “Bengalis in Dacca Coping with Problems.” The New York Times, 3 February 1972.

Hathaway, James C. “The Meaning of Repatriation.” International Journal of Refugee Law, 1997: 551-558.

Jahan, Rounaq. Pakistan: Failure in National Integration. University Press Limited, 1995.

Luthra, P. N. “Problem of Refugees from East Bengal.” Economic and Political Weekly, December 11, 1971: 2467-2472.

Mukherji, Partha N. “The Great Migration of 1971: II: Reception.” Economic and Political Weekly, March 9, 1974: 399-408.

Rahman, Hasan Hafizur, and Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh Ministry of Information. History of Bangladesh War of Independence Volume 12. Dhaka: Bangladesh Government Press, 1982.

Rangan, Kasturi. “Hindu Refugee Returns, Finds Ruins in East Pakistan.” The New York Times, 29 December 1971.

Rangan, Kasturi. “Refugees to be Returned.” The Statesman, 23 December 1971.

Rangan, Kasturi. “India Begins Returning Bengal Refugees.” The New York Times, 2 January 1972.

Rangan, Kasturi. “Return of Bengali Refugees is Gaining Momentume.” The New York Times, 8 January 1972.

Samaddar, Ranabir. “Refugees and Dynamics of Hospitality: The Indian Story.” In Immigration Worldwide Policies, Practices, and Trends, by Uma A Segal, Doreen Elliott and Nazneen S Mayadas. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Schanberg, Sydney. “South Asia: The Approach of Tragedy.” The New York Times, 17 June 1971.

The Statesman. “Evacuees Will Not Be Pushed Back.” The Statesman, 31 August 1971.

The Statesman. “Refugee Dispersal in Big Way From Tomorrow.” The Statesman, 31 December 1971.

The Statesman. “214,000 Refugees Have Come to W. Bengal So Far.” The Statesman, 21 April 1971.

The Statesman. “Mrs. Gandhi Says… I am Determined to Send Them Back.” The Statesman, 18 June 1971.

The Statesman. “Evacuees Not To Be Sent To Other States – Khadilkar.” The Statesman , 24 May 1971.

The Statesman. “Editorial: Yet Another Exodus.” The Statesman , 22 April 1971.

Toffler, Alvin. “The Ravaged People of East Pakistan.” The New York Times, 5 August 1971.

UNHCR. “The State of The World’s Refugees 2000: Fifty Years of Humanitarian Action.” Geneva, 2000.

Zieck, Marjoleine. UNHCR and Voluntary Repatriation of Refugees: A Legal Analysis. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1997.

[1] For a legal analysis of UNHCR and the voluntary repatriation of refugees, consult Zieck (1997). For a critical perspective from the Global South on UNHCR and the voluntary repatriation of refugees, consult Chimni (2004).

[2] Article 13(2): “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country” (United Nations 1948)

[3] Article 33: (Prohibition of Expulsion or Return) 1. No Contracting State shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. 2. The benefit of the present provision may not, however, be claimed by a refugee whom there are reasonable grounds for regarding as a danger to the security of the country in which he is, or who, having been convicted by a final judgment of a particularly serious crime, constitutes a danger to the community of that country” (UNHCR 1951).


2014-Grbac-PeterBy Peter Grbac

I met Indian bureaucracy the other day. She is a large, round woman who was perched on a dark solid wooden chair. Her bright blue sari fluttered gently under the creaky dusty fan swirling above her. Her round silver spectacles complimented her equally silver hair. Her face was smooth, her eyes a dark brown, her mouth slightly curled on one side. Shifting a pile of tattered manuscripts, aged books, weathered notes, and plastic bottles of all shapes and sizes from side to side, the only constant unmoving presence on her desk seemed to be the placard clearly identifying her as The Librarian.

I approached her desk slowly, unsure as to which language I should use to break the silence – English? Hindi? Bengali? I cleared my throat and aligned myself directly in front of the placard. She looked at me. Up and down. Down and up. Her sharp eyes moved slowly. With purpose and conviction. She gracefully raised her hand and lowered it in one motion, directing me to take a seat. I followed her lead, took a seat, and shifted nervously from side to side – like an elementary schoolboy summoned to the Principal’s Office. “Is there a problem?” I asked. “You tell me,” she responded wryly as she handed over the document request form I had dutifully filled out and submitted just moments earlier. [FYI – It took me a good three minutes filling out that form by hand old school style – all of the information for that particular document had to be transcribed word for word, symbol for symbol, number for number from the catalogue card (no, not the electronic catalogue… I’m talking about those vintage wooden shelving units organized by author, subject, and title) to the form.] The sweat that had already stained my shirt was beginning to reform under my neck and around my armpits. The dust caked onto my fingers from the old manuscripts I had been handling all morning began to loosen and form a dark paste.

Unsure as to how to respond to her comment, I shrugged my shoulders and hoped for the best. She slid the form across the table and with her red pen circled a space. “You are missing the word “AND.” With a somber straight face, I slowly spelled out the word in the space she circled. I inserted the A. And the N. And the D. I turned the form around and slid it back to her. “There, that’s better,” she replied. In those few painful minutes, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or scream or cry or jump or shake my head or [insert any emotion that encapsulates frustration, anger, annoyance, humour, and confusion all in one]. I opted for none of these. Instead, I smiled. She smiled. In those brief seconds, order was restored and everything seemed right with the world again.

It’s been two weeks since I wrapped up my work at that particular Archive and it seems so silly that this is the one event from that time that has stuck with me (and now forms the basis for this post). Silly yes but there is something serious about it all (the form, the interaction, the people involved), namely the hows and whys and why nots of carrying out research in a foreign and sometimes unfamiliar environment. First, research(ing) abroad requires both patience and flexibility. Libraries and research centres run on different timelines, resources, and sets of expectations. Second, sometimes good research comes down to luck. Three weeks ago, I hit a significant roadblock when I was told I wouldn’t be able to access the secret police reports and security files from the 1970s. A fellow researcher recommended that I try sifting through the files from the 1960s hoping that a file from the 1970s would be misplaced. He happened to get lucky that way although I wasn’t as fortunate. Third, research stands at the intersection of the intellectual and the practical. This one has taken some time to appreciate but the academic argument is not solely a reflection of intellectual imagination; instead, it is shaped by practical considerations that may or may not be within the researcher’s grasp… a missed taxi, damaged books, deleted files, closing time, opening time, and the speed at which you can copy a paragraph by hand. Finally, (and this applies more generally to travel I think) research(ing) abroad requires a healthy dose of humour A.N.D. humility.

In the next blog post, I’ll take you through some of my research on the 1971 refugees but for now I’ll leave you with these archival images featured in Time Magazine:

Refugees crossing the border from then East Pakistan to India.

Refugees crossing the border from then East Pakistan to India.

Concrete pipes (originally meant for the construction of planned suburbs in Salt Lake) were transformed into temporary housing units.

Concrete pipes (originally meant for the construction of planned suburbs in Salt Lake) were transformed into temporary housing units.


The Power of Place

Street Scene, Kolkata

There are cities that you visit. Shining lights, framed portraits, manicured parks, picture-perfect moments. And then there are cities that you feel. The dust between your toes, the hazy, thick heat that envelops your body, those looks – some of joy, others of despair. To walk the streets of Kolkata is to feel. It is to register the way in which the extremes play out in the daily lives of the strangers that surround you – the begging child and the extended hand, the young student from Presidency College rushing to the library, the corporate Tata executive passing through security barriers, and the tourist, that perpetual outsider, looking in and observing the daily celebration of human existence with all the good and bad that that existence entails.

To walk the streets of Kolkata is to also appreciate the relevance and importance of place – those physical spaces imbued with history, memory, and meaning. To inhabit a place is to move beyond the crushing sea of humans, the honking horns of Park Street, the rickshaw wallahs jostling for space on the road, and those historic buildings wilting in the heat, tragic reminders of how nothing is immune from the rain, the wind, and the ticking hands of the clock. For Somini Sengupta, Kolkata as a place represents both the parochial and the modern. She writes, “India’s first global city, it is littered with the remains of many worlds: the rickshaws that the Chinese brought; an Armenian cemetery; dollops of jazz left by Americans in the war years.” (Note: In 2001, Calcutta was renamed Kolkata to match the Bengali pronunciation of the city name).

In my opinion, one of the best examples of this “littering” is the South Park Street Cemetery. In use from 1757 to 1840, the cemetery is the resting place for hundreds of British men and women who took up the colonial mission of the British Empire (serving in occupations as diverse as jail-keeping to school teaching to coopering). Venture off the central path and push past the jungle cover to discover the grand rotundas, soaring pyramids, and sober plaques. Rub your hands along the cold stone facades and read the names and descriptions of these people of a bygone era. There’s the large white pyramid in the center that belongs to Sir William Jones, founder of the Asiatic Society and one the foremost scholars of ancient India. There’s also Grave 363, containing only the following epitaph – “A Virtuous Mother (died 1825).” These markers offer us a glimpse into the colonial past of Kolkata. They also prompt us to extend our analysis and consider the ways in which individuals stake their claim to a particular space and attempt to make it their “own.”

Through an internship with the Calcutta Research Group, I’ll be taking up elements of this analysis as I explore the content and character of the claims (to housing, to water, to education, to citizenship) made by refugees and the displaced on the spaces of the city. The first part of this exploration will be historical – I hope to carry out an archival study of the lived experiences of refugees who settled in and around Calcutta following the events of the 1971 Bangladesh War of Independence (when East Pakistan seceded to become independent Bangladesh). Throughout the conflict, over 10 million people crossed the border into India, with the majority settling in and around the city of Calcutta (Bandyopadhyay 2000 37). To appreciate the sheer magnitude of this movement, consider that 12 million refugees were uprooted in Europe in the wake of the Second World War (35). While scholars have documented the state’s administrative response to this influx, very little has been written about the lived experiences of the refugees in the camp setting. The second part will be contemporary – I plan on analyzing the current urban design policies governed by the Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority and asking what space (if any) is afforded to the displaced and the refugee.

Even though I haven’t yet formulated my theses or generated working hypotheses, my general hunch is that place matters when we think about the claims made on the city. That hunch might seem quite basic and obvious but I think the exciting and worthwhile intellectual pursuit lies in interrogating what it is about city space that makes it distinct and relevant as we think through if and how the displaced and the refugee claim rights to the space of the city. The ‘distinct’ and ‘relevant’, I believe, emerge from both the content and the approach. In terms of content, there is a renewed focus in the academic literature on cities, particularly the cities of the Global South, and what cities have to say about the larger nation-states in which these cities are located. According to Sassen, “After the long historical phase that saw the ascendance of the national state and the scaling of key economic dynamics at the national level, the city is once again today a scale for strategic economic and political dynamics” (2005 357). Consider one possible application. By situating the lived experiences of the refugee within the urban context of Kolkata, we should be able to better understand the crises of Indian national membership while rethinking the notion of the ultimate claim itself, that claim being citizenship (Holston and Appadurai 1996 202). In terms of approach, there is a push to move beyond the famous midnight hours of 14-15 August 1947 (India’s moment of Independence) and embrace both a postcolonial methodology and an integrated analysis (instead of divorcing India from the regional dynamics, attention needs to be paid to the plurality of voices from the region).

Even though the city represents just one strategic type of place, it is one that I think offers a powerful conceptual framework to work through these questions of recognition and entitlement, culture and identity, inclusion and exclusion. The Calcutta of 1971 and the Kolkata of 2014 thus challenge us to respond to the key question posed by Sassen – “Whose city is it?” (1996 206).

Bandyopadhyay in Bose “Refugees in West Bengal” Calcutta Research Group 2000, 32.
Holston and Appadurai “Cities and Citizenship” Public Culture 1996, 187-204.
Sassen “Whose City Is It?” Public Culture 1996, 205-223.
Sassen “The Future of Urban Sociology” Sociology 2005, 343.
Sengupta “A Walk in Calcutta” New York Times April 29, 2009.

Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.