ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Partitioned Urbanity

A Refugee Village Bordering Kolkata

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.

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Updated On : 27th Mar, 2018
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