Wednesday, February 1, 2023
HomeiWitnessOut to meet refugees in UP’s ‘mini-Bengal’, I got a scolding &...

Out to meet refugees in UP’s ‘mini-Bengal’, I got a scolding & an invite for fish & rice

iWitness — the story behind the story of ThePrint journalists’ experiences on assignment.

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There’s a ‘mini Bengal’ in Pilibhit, Uttar Pradesh, but the Bengalis there are not from West Bengal, my home state. Most of the 37,000-odd Hindu Bengalis there are refugees from Bangladesh (erstwhile East Pakistan), driven to this distant land in the 1960s and the 1970s by riots at home.

I visited them with my colleague Fatima Khan for a news feature aimed at placing their struggle in the context of the Citizenship Amendment Act, which seeks to ease citizenship for people in the exact same position as them.

While Fatima is a reporter, I am a news photographer. Together, we visited Neoria and Gabiya, two colonies dominated by Bangladeshi Hindus. 

Hundreds among the first wave of refugees grew up there and went on to raise their own families there. They are now growing old there too — all the while trying to hold onto their Bengali identity, their traditions and roots, in the heart of the Hindi heartland.

Ready for citizenship

On our first day in Pilibhit, we went to Neoria, a small colony 19 kilometres from the main city. 

Our first stop there was a shop owned by a Bangladeshi refugee, Sushil Baoli, who came to India in 1971, when erstwhile East Pakistan gained liberation. 

He was a child when he came to India. Nearly five decades later, he is a grandfather to three kids.

In broken Hindi mixed with Bengali, he told us that he had spent his entire life in Neoria. 

The journey from Bangladesh to Kolkata and then Neoria, where they got a home, is a blurred memory, he said. The bond of community remains strong. His sons are married to women from other refugee colonies in Pilibhit. Baoli said his entire family has Aadhaar cards, voter IDs and a ration card too, but they still do not have any citizenship proof. The CAA, he said, was a godsend for them.

Sushil Baoli showing his identification proof, while his grandson and daughter in law stand | Photo: Manisha Mondal | ThePrint
Sushil Baoli at his shop with his grandson and one of his daughters-in-law. | Manisha Mondal | ThePrint

Getting documents ready

Prasad Mandal, who owns a tiny medicine shop in one of the alleys of Neoria, also expressed support for the CAA. 

When Fatima and I reached his shop, the counter was occupied by documents — papers, books and registers — rather than medicines. Mandal said he had been collecting documents for a long time now. 

It showed — two thick files held letters he had written to the President and the Prime Minister’s Office, among other documents, in the pursuit of Indian citizenship. 

Prasad Mandal goes through his pile of documents.
Prasad Mandal goes through his pile of documents. | Manisha Mondal | ThePrint

Eager to photograph him alongside the documents, I pestered him to show me this piece of paper and that until he snapped, “Ei sob kagaj protro onek bochor dhore rekhechi sambhle, jaani na kobe gie eglo kaaje lagbe (I have maintained these documents very carefully, I don’t know when I might need them).”

Prasad and his peers have been in India for several years but most of them are not fluent in Hindi. It was a facet we also encountered in Gabiya, where almost none of the elderly people could speak Hindi. 

Preserving traditions

Walking through Gabiya and Neoria, you could be forgiven for mistaking this pocket of UP for Bengal. Married women wear the customary white-red bangles, and photographs of Anukulchandra Chakravarty aka Anukul Thakur, a Bengali spiritual leader, hang in several houses. 

A married woman with the customary white and red bangles Bengali wives wear
A married woman with the customary white and red bangles Bengali wives wear. | Manisha Mondal | ThePrint

When we visited, intense preparations for Saraswati Puja, then days away (29 January), were underway.  

While Bharat Biswas, a resident of Gabiya in his late seventies, was talking to Fatima in the compound of his home, two boys of the household were busy making an idol of Saraswati. 

Gabiya residents were busy preparing idols of Goddess Saraswati ahead of Saraswati Puja last month
Gabiya residents were busy preparing idols of Goddess Saraswati ahead of Saraswati Puja last month. | Photo: Manisha Mondal | ThePrint

One was mixing the clay while the other was cutting straw and jute to mix them in so the clay would hold shape.

The structure of Saraswati stood ready behind. 

One of the two boys said they celebrated every puja, whether it was in honour of Durga or Laxmi, with a small function at a village school attended by the entire community. 

When they came here

A trend we frequently encountered in this neck of the woods was that the people couldn’t remember the year they came to India. 

“It was raining when we left home,” some would say, while others remembered it by momentous events that occurred around the time they arrived.

Bharat Biswas said he came to India four days before former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru died (27 May 1964). 

Saraswati, another local resident who came to India with her husband and sons, said it was the rainy season when riots broke out, forcing her family to flee.

Far from the main city, Gabiya is located on the road to the Sharda Sagar dam.

There is a small school in the colony. When we visited, students were being served midday meals. My attempts to click a photo drew giggles from some students, while others shied away.

Around the same time, we also spotted a family having lunch in a house that stands opposite to the school. Under the winter sun, the family matriarch sat with her daughters-in-law and grandchildren, eating fish and potato curry with rice, a traditional Bengali delicacy. 

The Gabiya family that invited me for a meal of fish and rice under the winter sun. | Manisha Mondal | ThePrint
The Gabiya family that invited me for a meal of fish and rice under the winter sun. | Manisha Mondal | ThePrint

The matriarch of the family said she’d come to India in the 1960s, although she couldn’t remember the exact time she came to Uttar Pradesh. 

Asked about her decision to leave Bangladesh, she said, “There were problems there.” 

The family offered me food, but I had to say no.

It was a beautiful picture, a family seated together, having lunch under the sun on a January afternoon. 

The invitation was enticing, especially for me, a migrant living hundreds of kilometres away from home for work. But duty called and I had to bid farewell.

Also Read: I am not a refugee — CAA brings much joy, some confusion for Pilibhit’s Bangladeshi Hindus


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