In search of a new ‘home’

Shahid Gazi looking at his 90-year old brother’s picture and introducing him to his family. One of the author’s of The Bengal Diaspora returned to show him his brother’s picture.

Shamsul Huq’s grandfather, a Pathan from Afghanistan and a cloth dealer, travelled all the way through India to Noakhali and, being enamoured with a Bengali girl, settled there. Huq’s father moved from Noakhali to Assam in search of a better livelihood.

Shamsul Huq claims that he was born in the Kidderpore docks in Kolkata in 1901. A fascination for steamships took this young man from Kolkata to London, stepping into Rangoon, Colombo, Singapore, Jeddah and “Africa” along the way, as a crew in the British merchant marine. During the Second World War, his ship was bombed by the Japanese, leaving him with grave injuries. He left the sea-faring job for good and returned to his birthplace, Kidderpore. But the riots of 1946 and the subsequent partition forced him to flee to Assam, where his father had worked as a railway-man. During the 1960s, when tensions brewed between “settler” Muslims and the local Assamese, Huq and his family were again pushed out. Finally, he settled in Dinajpur under the rehabilitation programme of the then East Pakistan government.

The peripatetic life story of centenarian Mohammed Shamsul Huq depicts the less-discussed history of Muslim migrants—arriving in hope or leaving in despair—during the tumultuous 20th century. The extraordinary research work Bengal Diaspora: Rethinking Muslim Migration is a welcome effort in filling this gap.

The book weaves together threads of experiences of Muslim migrants like Shamsul Huq, who migrated from and settled within the Bengal delta region after 1947. It is a collective effort of three prominent academicians: Claire Alexander, Professor of Sociology at the University of Manchester; Joya Chatterji, Professor of South Asian History at the University of Cambridge; and Annu Jalais, Assistant Professor, South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore. They take a creative interdisciplinary approach, combining their respective fields of historical, sociological and anthropological knowledge, to migration and diaspora research.

Although the migrants and the places of arrival are different, there are some similar patterns of constraints and contingencies in finding a new “home”.

To put the discussion of post-partition migration into historical context, the book begins with a brief history of mobility in the Bengal delta during the period between 1857 and 1947. Their discussion on peasant migration from overpopulated parts of East Bengal to the forested river valleys of Assam and Burma is critically relevant for tracing the roots of the ongoing ethnic tensions in Assam and the Rakhine province. Since the late 19th century, a large number of Bengalis had been employed by local landlords in Assam for clearing land. The introduction of the Assam-Bengal railway gave impetus to this migration flow, and by 1931 there were already almost 600,000 immigrant Bengalis in Assam. Similarly, the British government encouraged migration into Burma for rice cultivation, which attracted a large number of labourers from the Chattogram area. By 1931, there were almost 400,000 Bengali speakers in Burma. The number continued to grow until 1941, when various migration control measures were enforced to set off influx from India. These early histories of human flows across and beyond the Bengal delta prove that there was widespread mobility before partition, which has had huge implications in the shaping and reshaping of the history of the region. It also challenges the nostalgic belief that before 1947 Bengal was a comfortably settled society.

In explaining the patterns of migration and settlement during the post-partition period, the book proposes a theoretical framework of “mobility capital”, which is a bundle of capacities, predispositions, and connections, often rooted in the family and group histories of the migrants. It is observed that migrants with similar types of mobility capital tended to move to similar destinations. Those who lacked adequate mobility capital or were tied by obligations to “home” had to end up in impoverished communities of the internally displaced. The life stories of the migrants inform that actual monetary resources and literacy have not been as critical as one might expect. Lascars (seafarers) from Sylhet, for example, had very little money or education. But a large number of them succeeded in migrating to London and Manchester through their exceptionally rich and extended networks established over decades of travel on the high seas.

Source: Shamsuddoza Sajen,

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