On 12 June 1932, my grandfather, late Nityananda Saha, was born in Agla, a small village. It was approximately 30 kms away from Dhaka, in former East Pakistan. At the time, the province of Bengal had already undergone one division in 1905, and a subsequent reunion in 1911. My grandfather spent his early years in Agla, almost oblivious to the fact that he was growing up in the richest province of erstwhile British India. Little did he also know that it was only a matter of time before Bengal would fall prey to the atrocities of divisive politics.
Only 15 years later, in 1947, my grandfather witnessed not just India’s independence from the British, but sadly also the division of undivided India. Independent India was now flanked by Pakistan on either side. West and East Pakistan were carved out of Punjab and Bengal, respectively, and the division was entirely on religious lines.
Agla became a part of East Pakistan. While a mass exodus of people ensued, my great-grandfather, late Radha Raman Saha, decided to continue living in East Pakistan. He didn’t want to leave the soil where he, and his children, were born. This was a decision that–regardless of the majority religion of where they lived–many people chose to make. To them, land, soil and belonging were corelated; these facets were not mutually exclusive.
The years following the partition created further political turmoil. The people of East Pakistan wished to be freed, not only from the Pakistani regime under General Ayub Khan (the then president of Pakistan), but also from communal violence that would ignite every so often.
Calls for autonomy and eventual independence
It was language that perhaps led to the formation of Bangladesh. It all started with a harmless movement to make Bengali, spoken widely by both Bengali Hindus and Muslims, as one of the state languages of Pakistan.
Bengalis were then bearing the brunt of repression and deprivation within the national framework of Pakistan. The desire for a separate identity–coupled with a struggle for autonomy–directly stoked a mass uprising. This movement was perhaps the largest since the creation of Pakistan in 1947.
Spearheaded by the general secretary of the East Pakistan Awami League, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the Six Point Movement called for greater autonomy for East Pakistan. There were six key demands put forward by a coalition of Bengali nationalist political parties in 1966. They sought to end the perceived exploitation of East Pakistan by the West Pakistani government. This movement was considered a milestone in Bangladesh’s independence struggle — one that my family witnessed first-hand.
In 1971, with the Indian army’s help, East Pakistan was liberated from West Pakistan. It then came to be called Bangladesh. Celebrations broke out across the country, but so did communal riots. And this time, my great-grandfather made a crucial decision to migrate to India. He was concerned for his family’s safety.
Relocating to safer havens
Several other Hindu families also relocated to India at the time. Taking the help of friends who’d already migrated to India, the family decided to travel to Siliguri. It was then a small town in the northern part of West Bengal. Siliguri today is well known as the gateway to the hills — both to Darjeeling and Sikkim. Its location is also of geostrategic importance, given its proximity to three international borders.
Once in Siliguri, they were put up in a refugee colony — a basic cluster of tents. Later, they were allotted plots and were able to build homes with government aid. By this time, my grandfather was married and had children. With large responsibilities at hand, he chose to pick up whatever work he could find, even choosing to work as a hawker. Months and years passed by in distress when luck eventually smiled upon my grandfather. He was, at the time, a lottery ticket seller and he’d managed to win a large amount himself!
There has been no looking back since. The family’s former wealth was restored and the years of hardship and struggle had paid off in a rather unexpected way. Without doubt, life’s difficulties had been alleviated. Yet, the desire to return to his motherland still loomed large. Perhaps the pain and agony of leaving behind one’s ancestral home, against ones wishes, is inexpressible. These raw emotions can never be fathomed by me, or others of my generation, whose families also had to migrate.
In the initial years after moving to Siliguri, my grandfather never had enough resources to revisit the land of his birth. He would lovingly call it shonar Bangla or golden Bengal, dreaming of the day he would once again be able to walk on its soil.
Revisiting the land of his birth
Following his stroke of luck with the lottery winnings, he promptly applied for an India-Bangladesh passport in 1989. This was the only passport he would ever hold — a unique one that allowed lateral movement between India and Bangladesh only. The third page is stamped with the words, ‘Emigration Clearance Not Required’. Perhaps this document was the most coveted one for all who migrated from Bangladesh. It extended them the ability of free movement from the land of their birth, to the land of their adopted residence.
This seemingly ordinary document holds an ocean of memories; bitter and sweet ones, and of struggle and identity. Was this single piece of document sufficient to vouch for an individual’s belonging to a certain place? This questions often lingers on my mind.
I also understand that my grandfather knew Bengal as one. He could not bring himself to accept the division of his province. There is so much culture–both tangible and intangible–that is shared, and it pained him each time he recalled the years of separation.
My grandfather received his passport not too long after. Steeped in nostalgia, and armed with the blue booklet, he travelled across the border in 1989 itself. He fondly remembered visiting his birthplace of Agla and Dhaka, now capital of Bangladesh. Sadly, this was to be his first and last visit back to the land he called home.
A few years later, he fell terminally ill and remained bed ridden for the rest of his life. He breathed his last in 2013 at the age of 81, leaving behind a rich legacy. It was the culmination of learnings and experiences all imbibed from his shonar Bangla.
Incidentally, in the same year as his passing, the India-Bangladesh passport was discontinued, 41 years after it was initiated. The travel framework between the two countries has since been revised. Although my grandfather dreamt of revisiting Bangladesh with his children, it remained an unfulfilled dream. His passport is now in my possession and it holds a significant part of my grandfather’s history. I hope to visit the land he was born in, as a way to fulfil the dream that he’d harboured.