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Meet the Bengali refugees who now dominate businesses, farms in Chhattisgarh's tribal belt

They control three commercial hubs in and around Pakhanjore, a town in the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh.

, ET Bureau|
Last Updated: Jan 19, 2020, 06.07 PM IST
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One needs to drive through a belt of sal and mahua forests to reach Pakhanjore in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar region. The road goes through hillocks, rivulets and villages of Halba tribals to a forest habitat bordering Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district, a hideout of Maoist rebels.

Upon entering Pakhanjore town, some 125 km south-west of district headquarters Kanker, one spots symbols that seem unusual in Bastar — a giant statue of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, a fishery in almost every home and a row of sweet shops selling rasgulla and cham cham. And if you knew just one language – Bangla — you will easily get by in Pakhanjore, since it is the only Bengali-majority sub-division in central India with 133 of the 295 villages home to Hindu refugees from the erstwhile East Pakistan, now Bangladesh.

The refugees control the three commercial hubs close by — Kapsi, Bande and Pakhanjore, which was designated as a town with a population of 10,201 in the last census.

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A statue of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose in Pakhanjore town.

The Citizenship (Amendment) Act may not directly affect these Hindu immigrants who crossed over to India between 1961 and 1974. Yet, the new law and the agitations it has triggered across the country have put a spotlight on the refugees who were sent off to a forested region in undivided Madhya Pradesh, allotted land and given voting rights, except the right to contest any form of polls in the sub-division since the area is reserved for tribal candidates. Hence, the political clout of the refugees with a population of more than one lakh remains fragile.

But over the years, these settlers have improved their economic fortune by finding newer methods for rice and fish cultivation, and today, they are in total command of local trade and business.“Bengali settlers have established themselves as progressive farmers with their main earnings coming from selling fish. The entire business of the Pakhanjore town is with them,” says Sub-Divisional Magistrate Nisha Netam Madavi, the highest ranking civil administrative officer of the area.

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“PV villages have produced many doctors, engineers and officers,” says Sanjeev Vaishnav, a medical officer of the local civil hospital. Vaishnav’s grandparents also came from East Pakistan. They camped for a few years in Mana (in Raipur) before they were settled at PV 97, one of the 133 villages earmarked for settling the immigrants.

PV is an acronym for Paralkot Village, in reference to the Paralkot reservoir nearby. Later, officials began referring to PV as Project Villages, says Madavi.

Every resettlement village has an official name, but villagers continue to use the PV number to identify their localities. This writer visited two such villages — PV 13 and PV 9 — apart from meeting residents of Pakhanjore and Kapsi. Ask any person here which village she lives in, you will likely get the reply in a number, like “Aami 13 ye thaki (I reside in 13)”. Older residents of these villages have a lot to reminisce — their place of birth, the long journey to the jungles by train, bus and lorry, free meals at temporary camps, sighting of tigers and clearing of forests to embrace a second home nearly 1,500 km away.

In fact, unlike the amended citizenship law that gives Indian citizenship to non-Muslim minorities from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Dandakaranya Project to rehabilitate the refugees from East Pakistan had an in-built provision of doling out land and other essential material along with citizenship. “We were given six acres, a cow, two chickens and some material to build houses.

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In our village, 75 Bengali families received land from the government. Now, the number has grown to 146. There was an instance in the 1990s when five people were jailed because they lacked valid documents. But they were later released,” says Pulin Bihari Sil of PV 31. His family migrated to India from Barisal, a city south of Dhaka.

The residents of Pakhanjore have carefully preserved one piece of document — their migration certificates that include names of family members, their age, addresses, landholdings and year of entry into India.

Naturally, for them, the new citizenship law will not bring any additional benefits. Yet, as Sil says, a number of residents without valid migration documents due to their late entry into India could be the potential beneficiaries now. In PV 9, the writer met at a middle-aged man and his wife, who said they did not receive any migration certificate. Also, there are others like 85-year-old Satya Talukdar who narrate how they ended up migrating to India twice in their lifetimes.

"We migrated to India first in the 1960s. We were given a plot in Betul (Madhya Pradesh). We could not cope up well in that locality due to water shortage. When Joy Bangla (the slogan used during Bangladesh liberation struggle) was born, we returned to Khulna through Bangaon border. But by then, our land had been usurped by our neighbours. We returned to India again in the 1970s."

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Many of the elderly refugees here continue to refer to Bangladesh as "Joy Bangla". During the early years, the refugees also faced hurdles dealing with the natives - most of them from the Halba tribal community, who speak a dialect resembling Marathi, and reside mostly in distant villages.

"As Pakhanjore is close to Gadchiroli, Naxals often use it as a transit corridor. Some issues did crop up recently but we have resolved them. However, we have not noticed any major confrontation between the local tribals and the Bengali population," says Sundarraj Patilingam, inspector general of police of Bastar range that includes Pakhanjore. The confrontations are mostly related to allegations of land grabbing by the settlers.

Though the allotted land to them was on lease, the refugees, over the decades, started transferring these holdings to one another through temporary deeds. The settlers, as is the policy for citizens from any other state, are not allowed to buy land earmarked for tribals.

The other, bigger point of contention is the transfer of tribal land to the settlers by virtue of marriages.

"Yes, it is true that our boys have married local tribal girls, but those marriages took place due to love affairs, and not for acquiring land. These allegations against us are unfortunate," says Jagdish Pal of PV 13. He, however, also said he could not recall any instance when a tribal man married a woman from a refugee household.
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Pal also says that since many of the refugees failed to register themselves as Scheduled Castes, unlike their relatives living in West Bengal, their children have been deprived of jobs in the government.

Several young people echo the same sentiment, saying a government job is virtually out of their reach. And those who have made it into the officialdom are seen as celebrities. No wonder, people of the sub-division know by heart the names and village numbers of the doctors and engineers.

Yet, most youth say the vibrancy of trade and business in Pakhanjore is an outcome of the harsh reality that there are no jobs available. "This is a tribal belt. We don¡¦t have any reservation. Youth with post-graduate degrees are sitting idle. Doing business is a better option," says Subir Biswas, a toy seller who moves from one bazaar to another to boost his sales. His wife, Priti Biswas, partners him in business.

As for political leanings, the settlers are a divided lot. At one time, they were diehard supporters of the Congress because of what they say the largesse of then prime minister Indira Gandhi in giving them both land and dignity.

"When my father died, he asked me and my brother not to let down Indira Gandhi's party. But political allegiances are 50:50 now. Some are with Congress, rest with BJP," says Debranjan Kulu of PV 13.

Maybe, the potential beneficiaries of new citizenship law will also form another vote bank that will last several generations. After all, citizenship is one right that begets many more in the future.

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