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Corruption and Neglect in West Bengal Dooms Bhadrakali Women’s Camp Refugees
A sign hanging over the entrance to the Bhadrakali Women's Camp in West Bengal (WB) states that since 1969, the camp has been affiliated with the United Central Refugee Council, a wing of the ruling Communist Party (CPIM). Yet, far from being treated as protected wards, camp residents are seen increasingly as inconveniences at best, interlopers at worst. Earlier this year, my associate Bikash Halder visited the camp, which sits on land that once served as a World War II military installation but was later re-dedicated as a camp for widows "whose husbands were murdered brutally by the Muslim fundamentalists in what was then East Pakistan," according to Halder. Archana Das, of the camp's "Integrated Child Development Scheme," counts 38 female residents who live there as officially recognized refugees and receive government assistance. Another 238 lifelong camp residents, however, are not accorded the same status-or aid-despite being descendants of the original war widows and having been stuck in the camp their entire lives.
It was not supposed to be that way. According to Anusua Basu Roy Chaudhury and Ishita Dey, many of the East Bengali Hindu refugees were rehabilitated into Indian society. Those who came with an education and professional credentials often chose to skip camp life entirely and, often with the help of relatives, build a new life in Kolkata. The rest were to be integrated into normal society with the government's help. The East Bengal violence "ruptured the lives of these women" who did not possess those skills and "as women faced abduction, molestation or rape." The more difficult effort of their rehabilitating them eventually ended under the CPIM, replaced by an all too common pattern of neglect and abuse. Increasing numbers of East Bengal Hindu refugees, mostly women and children, find that they have no resources or official papers that might enable them to leave the camp squalor. They become permanent wards of the state, subject to every whim of local officials who have life and death power over them. This injustice hurts the India, as well as the refugees who are maintained as local pawns instead of being developed as productive citizens.
Recently, the situation in the Bhadrakali camp has gone from bad to worse. Camp representatives notified Halder that the owners of the land recently sued the West Bengal government for non-payment of rent and received an unusually quick judgment from the Kolkata High Court. Soon thereafter, an official notice signed by Ram Pur, Sub Divisional officer for Hooghly, was posted in the camp ordering the residents to leave. Many residents panicked because they have nowhere else to go. I saw the same thing in 2008, when I arrived at a settlement in Uttar Dinajpur to find the refugees packing their meager belongings, having been told to vacate only moments before because a buyer wanted the land. They were not sure where they would settle but were hoping to find some neglected spot to encamp.
Some Bhadrakali residents decided to fight the order and formed a "movement committee." Its General Secretary, Nirmal Dhali, told Halder that the entire matter seemed contrived since the government had not paid rent since 1987, but no suit was filed until recently. The speed of the judgment in an otherwise glacially slow system also raised suspicions. Moreover, they allege that their investigation found that "under the direct but hidden patronization of ruling CPIM," the entire matter had actually been decided in a 2008 meeting. The meeting took place in the WB office of Binay Krishna Biswas, Minister for "Refugee Rehabilitation." We have obtained a copy of the sign-in sheet for that meeting that names WB officials, and S.K. Bhattacharjee and B. K. RAY, of RDB Enterprises, a large Kolkata-based company. According to camp sources, RDB wants to build a multi-story building on the site. There were no representatives from the camp.
Today, the Evacuation Notice that remains posted in the camp, hangs over the residents like a Sword of Damocles ready to strike at any moment. The government has made no provision to re-locate or otherwise provide for their wards, and almost every resident of the camp fears being forced from their homes at a moment's notice, according to Halder. When that happens, the more than 400 people will be wandering the roads of West Bengal; left to their own devices in a land to which they escaped simply to live out their lives in peace. Justice is still elusive for the residents of the Bhadrakali Women's Camp.