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  • Writer's pictureINSMS International Network for Students of Migration Studies

Making Sense of the Aftermath of Partition of 1947

by Navya Khanna

Indian independence in 1947 led to the partition of British India into Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-majority India. These two significant events in the history of South Asia evoked absolutely contradictory emotions in the people of the two newly independent nations. In northern India and particularly in Punjab, independence from the British was marked by polarisation, communal violence and displacement on a large scale. One such story is that of my grandparents. My grandmother lived in Lahore while my grandfather was from Sadhgoda. Both are provinces of present day Pakistan's Punjab. To them, India's independence meant fleeing their hometowns and living in government-administered refugee camps. Their unwilling arrival along with many others in the newly formed India, which they now had to call home, led to the coinage of a paradoxical term: "Citizen Refugee". This meant that the people who had been displaced compelled the government of their host countries to provide them the right to rehabilitation and relief. They claimed citizenship of their host countries through a sense of national belonging.

There is a need to distinguish the term “migrants” and “refugees” in the Partition context, as the term “migrants” meant a broad category of people who moved across the border during and after the Partition. On the other hand, refugee was referred to a specific section of people within this large group who lived in refugee camps and later in government constructed housing colonies. It is interesting to note that the leaders of neither India nor Pakistan were ready to accommodate all the minorities from the other side of the border. The Indian government was reluctant to define "partition refugee". The deliberate ambiguity allowed the Indian state to reject Muslim refugees while claiming to commit to its secular principles. This is one of the reasons why questions related to migration and citizenship have continued to shape the politics in India even today.

The state played a huge role in the process of resettlement and the Ministry of Relief and Rehabilitation was set up within three weeks of the announcement of Partition. Majority of the population were provided with accommodation in uninhabited areas of Delhi. These accommodations are popularly known as double storey flats. The arrival of refugees to Delhi changed the social, political and economic profile of the city. Seventy percent of them came to Delhi on trains, including my grandparents, and many got separated from their families on their way. Some were fortunate enough to be reunited with them in government-administered refugee camps, just like my grandfather.

The Indian government took on the role of the welfare state but the biases based on caste, class

and gender came into play with the resettlement process. This led to discriminatory schemes towards widows, people belonging to lower caste and class. For example: the migrants were given accommodation depending upon what they had lost during the process of migration. It created pre-partition divisions. Moreover, the accommodation for people from low caste constituted of mud houses while upper caste migrants were given accommodation in concrete colonies. Even the compensation packages were extremely meagre for the low caste migrants. The government created a special colony for the young widows of Partition violence.

Recent scholars have focused extensively on the assimilation of partition refugees with the local population. Apart from problems of employment and housing facilities, the refugees and migrants struggled to form a close-knit community again. Marriage was seen as a way to re-establish those ties. Ravinder Kaur conducted a survey of 500 families in Delhi and found out that the majority of the refugees married their children and grandchildren within the partition refugees’ families. This explains the reason behind my astonishment as a kid when I was told that not every person in my country has familial ties to Pakistan. Ravinder Kaur in her book, Since 1947, Partition Narratives among Punjabi Migrants of Delhi explains how the events of partition continue to exist as a living theme in the everyday lives of Punjabi migrants and their descendants. Earning one's own livelihood was very important to the refugees and they adopted various selling strategies. This approach had roots in the common sense response of the community which differentiates between capital (mool) and the interest earned on capital (Sood). This is also found in a popular saying that I have heard a lot growing up, "mool nalon sood changa"which translates to "the interest earned is even better than the capital invested." She also rightly points out the feeling of collective guilt that exists in the Partition survivors of being castigated as cowards who made the choice of leaving their homeland.

Legal Mechanism for Refugees in India

India has not signed the United Nations' Convention on the Status of Refugees 1951 and the Protocol of 1967. Some scholars believed that the reason behind not signing the convention was that the country was dealing with its own economic and political struggles like any other newly independent nation. However, international customary law contains the fundamental principle of non-refoulement, and India is a signatory to several international agreements such as the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (1948), Convention on Civil and Political Rights (1966), United Nations Convention against Torture (1984) and Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (1965). This means that Indian law fails to provide complete protection to the refugees. The law has not recognised the distinct category of refugees.


Through conducive policies my grandparents were able to resettle in Delhi. Just like many partition refugees, my grandparents also shared their regions' dialects, recipes, games, stories and folk music with us. Maintaining connections with other refugees helped in their healing and made them feel secure. Some of my closest friends have ancestral ties across the border and I have come to realise that is no coincidence. Our common family history brought us together. Proper resettlement and integration to the society has not been the case for many refugees who flee to India with the hope of living a dignified life today. Through a refugee law, they would not have to be left to the mercy of the state.


This article analysis summarises and reflects on the following research:

Bhattacharjee, S. (2008). India Needs a Refugee Law.Economic and Political Weekly.

Kaur, R. (2007).Since 1947, Partition Narratives among Punjabi Migrants of Delhi. Oxford

University Press.

Sen, U. (2018).Citizen Refugee: Forging the Indian Nation after Partition. Cambridge

University Press.

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