Build the Refugee, Build the State: Development & Rehabilitation in Post-Partition India

Build the Refugee, Build the State: Development & Rehabilitation in Post-Partition India

2017 marks the seventieth year of the partition of British India into the two new states of India and Pakistan. Independence came with a mass migration of people that surprised leaders on both sides of the new borders. Pictures of long columns of persons displaced by communal violence are the most common visual memory of partition. Beyond immediate displacement and relief measures, however, rehabilitation of the refugees would closely be aligned with state-building activities. Longer-term rehabilitation and resettlement were built into the state’s development, particularly with regard to the refugees from the Western border. To build the state was to build the refugee and vice versa.

The displacements of partition are often remembered in isolation from other issues. In reality, the new Indian government saw the problems of refugees, India’s economy, Kashmir, and Hyderabad as interlinked: both the new state and refugees were suffering from the loss of Pakistan.  While refugees had lost their homes and very likely their means of livelihood, in the bigger picture, the idea of India as the successor to the Raj had been dented by the territorial loss of Pakistan. The fallout of borders and fear of further displacements pushed the new state towards a use of force. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru declared:  ‘Had there been peace in Hyderabad, there would have been hundreds of ways of bringing it round gradually to the idea of accession without resorting to any kind of force or pressure. But the picture changes if there is no peace and a storm rages there which brings millions of people to ruin and forces them to run away.’

Nehru and Gandhi with those displaced by communal violence in Punjab just before the partition

Nehru and Gandhi with those displaced by communal violence in Punjab just before the partition

Nehru understood the newly created state’s struggle as a passing phase, just as he understood the refugees’ suffering to be transient.  His focus was on the future, which meant incorporating refugees into planning.  Rehabilitation of the refugees became a means of legitimising the new India. For example, the government recognised that there was a need to establish new towns and cities, both for refugee resettlement and because there would be an eventual limit to the expansion of existing big cities. This strategy fitted into a larger scheme for all-round development. Another idea was to settle refugees in the resource rich Central Provinces, where they would fill the void for skilled personnel in areas with a ‘mixed’ population. Though they differ in understanding self-help or the state hand as the primary cause, both the collective memory of the refugees and state narrative see the culmination of this story as the Punjabis Refugees establishing themselves as productive, self-reliant members of the new state.

The refugees were also courted as a political constituency. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Hindu Mahasabha became involved in refugee camps. While this was part of a longer Indian tradition of non-official organisations involved in relief, the Congress became concerned that local humanitarian and rehabilitation machineries were ignoring its involvement entirely. Refugees became disenchanted with the Congress government, whose rhetoric and actions were perceived as unsympathetic. This led the refugees to look for support in quarters where they were more likely to receive help. To contemporary Congress leaders, it seemed as though refugees headed towards self-reliance as early as 1950 had been whipped into disappointment and wanted more compensation. This was seen as damaging to secular ideology as the elements that encouraged this disaffection tied the treatment of refugees within India directly to geopolitical relations with Pakistan. Rehabilitation had become incorporated into what would become the long battle of secular versus Hindu majoritarian visions of Indian democracy.

Nehru with refugee children in the Kurukshetra refugee camp.

Nehru with refugee children in the Kurukshetra refugee camp.

The refugees of the partition of India, and in this case specifically the Hindus and Sikhs, were assumed to be citizens of the new Indian nation-state. But rather than fitting neatly into the nation-state-territory-citizen formulation, these groups actually had to re-determine their relationship to territory.  Belonging to Indian territory was almost involuntary, premised upon realisation of non-belonging to and flight from Pakistan. Loss and victimhood were therefore essential factors in identifying with the new state in territorial terms.

But the new nation state was also attempting post-facto nation-building exercises, and had in mind a different role for its citizenry, even though they would not be determined as such by law until 1955. The Foreigners Act of 1946 did not recognise refugees, but merely aliens. Those who were to be recognised as refugees in its immediate aftermath were those with some claim to belonging in the Indian subcontinent. The refugee, particularly from the Western front, served as a microcosm of various visions of India and how it would build itself in the face of the losses created by Radcliffe’s borders.  

Since partition, India has housed other refugee groups like the Tibetans, the Bangladeshis, Sri Lankan Tamils, Afghans, and recently the Rohingya muslims. The Tibetans were the first distinctly non-Indian group to be granted refuge, and their own rehabilitation was also conducted with an emphasis on self-sustainability and education. The real break seems to have come with the Bangladeshis of 1971, for the Indian state’s assertion that they were refugees who had to return to where they came from put an end to migrants and refugees as belonging to the state as a consequence of partition. From then onwards, those who would cross India’s borders would do so illegally despite a shared imperial past. In recent years, several attempts at laws relating to refugees have been introduced. The most prominent was Shashi Tharoor’s 2015 Asylum bill, which did not make it through parliament. The Indian state still lacks a uniform law for refugees similar to that of the International Refugee Regime as embodied by the United Nations. The 2016 Citizenship Bill, however, seems to indicate that visions of what the Indian state should be still govern its treatment of those displaced across international borders. It discriminates amongst ‘illegal immigrants’ from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh in that it would entitle Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis, Jains and Buddhists the right to Indian citizenship. This bill was introduced despite continued non-recognition of refugee status for groups like the Rohingya Muslims. The refugee remains a figure envisioned against a particular Indian government’s vision for the state’s future, in this case re-opening the issue of who belongs in the Indian state.

Protestimony

Protestimony

Dina Nayeri's Refuge

Dina Nayeri's Refuge