Refugees are us

Kajal Chatterjee
At the stroke of independence, my father was a Class IV-V school boy in a small coal township located in erstwhile Manbhum district(which later got bifurcated to Purulia district of West Bengal and Dhanbad district of Bihar) of South Bihar. There used to stay many Bengali families -- either indigenous to Manbhum or settlers from Gangetic Bengal and that part of Bengal which has turned into Pakistan territory overnight! In the following few months, a large batch of displaced refugees from erstwhile East Bengal or just created East Pakistan trickled in that coal township. Some came to take refuge in the homes of their relatives already settled here, others arrived independently in search of greener pastures.
My father and uncles used to study in the only nondescript primary school situated there. No question of benches in that school, no idea of school dress as well.  School bags --- a matter of distant dream!  My father and his mates used to carry their books in a sack to school and thereafter they used to sit upon that sack only after taking out the books. In those days of simplicity and non-consumerism, all used to go to school in "dress as you like" mode ie in a non-groomed shabby state!
Now the refugee families obviously arrived with school-going children in tow. One such family took refuge in the home of their relatives. And the children of them got admitted in the local primary school where my father used to study. However their get-up stood in sharp contrast with students of local vintage. Since educational infrastructure of erstwhile East Bengal was much superior to the small coal township of South Bihar, the refugee children used to study in a much modern developed school back home with full-fledged earmarked dresses complete with school bags. So when they took admission here, they used to go to the local school wearing those dresses with books in bags and in a clean groomed state. Also they were good in studies. So our father's generation used to suffer a bit of inferiority complex in contrast to those refugee children!
However after another few months, those bright children who used to invoke envy to the local boys, weren't found in that school any more! Rather those refugee brothers aged 9-10 were started to be seen sitting beside the tracks of the small railway station selling vegetables! And thereafter they simply vanished from the scene!
What can a refugee family do! Without single fault of them, they found themselves uprooted and displaced overnight not only from their own land, but livelihood as well! And in their new adopted land where they have been forced to settle, nobody is sitting there to do charity for them! So obviously that refugee family cannot expect life-time food and shelter in the home of their relatives! What to do in that situation! Who would afford to pay educational costs for the children when food itself is at premium! In such a pathetic perspective, it is quite natural that the children would have to forsake the "luxury" named education and sell vegetables to feed themselves or sustain the family!
When the child in me first heard this true tale from my father, I got enlightened of two hard realities. Firstly what we had achieved in 1947 was independence from British rule, but freedom not. Else millions of families in the subcontinent would not have to come down to streets displaced from their home land and livelihood with all their rights to food shelter education cruelly snatched from these absolute innocents.
Secondly came to realise the play of destiny or accident of birth. My undisplaced father uncles and their local friends went on to lead their safe lives, got educated and found themselves as successful professionals.
In contrast those refugee children who had equal potential to prosper in lives simply faded into oblivion just like their innumerable hapless counterparts! However the fortune ones like my father's group could have taken birth in erstwhile East Bengal while those refugee brothers could have taken birth in that coal town and lead an undisturbed smooth life!
The Hindu Bengali Indian myself who is presently leading a safe life in Kolkata Bengal India could have been born as a Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar! Had this been the reality there lied every chance of me that today I am sailing across rough sea in an overcrowded boat with old parents or adolescent children in tow and being stranded in waters after getting refused entry by the destination country! Or I am experiencing hell in a refugee camp in neighbouring country or lodged in jail for infiltrating a foreign nation just to save my life after getting chased by the killers who dare to identify themselves as followers of Buddha!
Perhaps the least which we can do is to harbour an iota of sympathy or compassion for the vulnerable lot whose only "crime" is to take birth in a "wrong" place in "wrong" time! And if we can make our hearts a bit sympathetic, White Christian European Germany can happen which leads the world in warmly embracing Muslim refugees of Asian or African descent!
And in the absence of such compassion! What else apart from "Throw the Refugees out. Our land is not Dharmashala. Just kick them out"!
Birth is nothing but an accident of destiny. Who will take birth in which land or family is not in anybody's hand.
Today's "nationalists" baying for the blood of Refugees with a "Throw them out" attitude could have found themselves in the exact spot where these Refugees now stand today had destiny desired to play its game differently! This hard reality of destiny is surely acknowledged by the New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern inspiring her to address the families of the victims of Christchurch killings --- "Many of those who will have been directly affected by this shooting may be MIGRANTS to New Zealand, they may even be REFUGEES here. They have chosen to make New Zealand their home, and it is their home. THEY ARE US"!
The writer is based in Kolkata