Did India deal differently with Muslim refugees after Partition?

One way to get answers to these questions is to leaf through the communications shared between key actors discussing the issue of rehabilitation of refugees.


AS the imbroglio over Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) continues, claims and counter-claims made in support and opposition to the Act have caused a great amount of confusion and polarisation in Indian society. The episode has raised some fundamental questions about the nature of Indian state, its commitment to secularism and its relationship with religious identity.

Notwithstanding the extent of confusion caused by CAA debate, the crisis of the present moment cannot be greater than the one faced by the Indian government and people in the immediate aftermath of partition that cleaved a country into two on the basis of religion.

In that period of unprecedented chaos and communal ebb, the nascent government was faced with the responsibility of rehabilitating Hindus and Sikhs who came to India from Pakistan; and a large section of Muslims who decided to stay back in India but were pushed out of their houses due to violence.

Although India had decided to build a secular polity under the leadership of its founding fathers, could it observe that principle in practice as it was taking baby steps as an independent nation born amid the mayhem of partition? Could it look at its Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims with the same eye and address their issues with same urgency? Was the treatment of Muslim minority in India contingent on how Hindus and Sikhs were being treated in Pakistan?

One way to get answers to these questions is to leaf through the communications shared between key actors discussing the issue of rehabilitation of refugees.

Let’s start with a letter written by then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to then Chief Minister of Assam Gopinath Bardoloi that Prime Minister Narendra Modi cited earlier this month (February 6) while justifying his government’s decision to enact the CAA. According to Modi, in this letter (written one year prior to Nehru-Liaquat Pact) Nehru clearly asked Bardoloi to differentiate between a ‘refugee’ and a ‘Muslim immigrant’ while dealing with them.

“This is for those who say we are doing Hindu-Muslim and dividing the country,” said Modi while ‘quoting’ the letter. “Remember what Nehru had said – aapko sharanarthiyon aur Muslim immigrants, inke beech farq karna hi hoga and desh ko in sharnarthiyon ki jimmedari leni hi padegi. (…You will have to make a distinction between refugees and Muslim immigrants and the country will have to take the responsibility of rehabilitating the refugees),” Modi said in his speech.

Modi speaking in Lok Sabha. (Source: LSTV)

What did Nehru’s letter say?

The letter was written by Nehru to Bardoloi on 4 June 1948 after the Assam government expressed its unwillingness to accommodate refugees pouring in from East Pakistan. Although Nehru did not use the exact phrasing used by Modi while quoting him, it appears from the following two paragraphs that the government adopted different approaches towards the two groups – Muslims who were trying to return to their homes in India and Hindus from East Pakistan coming to Assam.

“I’m surprised to learn that you feel yourself helpless in dealing with the influx of Muslims into Assam. As you know, we have a permit system as between Western Pakistan and India. I do not think there is a permit system in regard to Eastern Bengal and Western Bengal and possibly no such system exists in regard to Assam either. I think you should discuss this matter with Mr Gopalswami Ayyangar…”

“About the influx of Hindus from East Bengal, this is a different matter entirely. I am told that your government or some of your ministers have openly stated that they prefer Muslims of East Bengal to Hindus from East Bengal. While I, for one, always like any indication of a lack of communal feeling in dealing with public matters, I must confess that this strong objection to Hindu refugees coming from East Bengal is a little difficult for me to understand. I am afraid Assam is getting a bad name for its narrow-minded policy.”

This is not the only such communication that hints at or overtly displays a differential attitude towards these two groups of refugees. There are scores of letters shared between ministries which shows that while there was no official policy to favour rehabilitation of Hindu, Sikh refugees over ‘displaced’ Muslims, the contingencies created by large inflow of refugees from Pakistan and communal upheaval caused by partition manifested itself in a situation where taking active interest in rehabilitation of displaced Muslim families became unpalatable to many within and outside the government – especially after Mahatma Gandhi’s death barely five months after the independence.

Shortage of houses and properties to allot to incoming Hindu and Sikh refugees from West Punjab was one major topical reason for the eruption of violence against Muslims in various areas in north India as refugees from Pakistan getting accommodation became contingent on Muslims vacating their houses and migrating to Pakistan. Similarly ‘stories of violence’ brought in by refugees and resulting ‘reaction’ against local Muslims made it impossible for them to continue to live peacefully in their houses or to return to their homes if they had shifted to camps. This, in-turn, pushed the government to unofficially adopt a policy to discourage Muslims who wished to return to their homes in India – especially if they had migrated to Pakistan during the violent months.

Learning lessons from the past Partition Shortage of houses and properties to allot to incoming Hindu and Sikh refugees from West Punjab was one major topical reason for the eruption of violence against Muslims in various areas in north India.

‘The Housing Problem’

How the government’s inability to provide roofs over the heads of the refugees became a cause for violence against local Muslims can be elucidated with the example of the situation in Delhi.

As per numbers cited in various contemporary reports, within a week of the Independence an estimated 130,000 refugees had arrived in Delhi from West Pakistan. (The total Hindu, Sikh refugees which came to Delhi after partition has been estimated at 5 lakh).

In his fortnightly report (submitted in September 1947), the then Delhi Commissioner Sahibzada Khurshid pointed out that the rains of Hindus and Sikh refugees which came to Delhi brought with them “harrowing tales of loot, rape and arson”, “gained the sympathy of co-religionists in Delhi” and started “retaliatory” attacks against Delhi’s Muslims. The report has been quoted in The Long Partition and the Making of Modern South Asia by author Vazira Zamindar.

It was estimated that about 20,000 Muslims were killed in the violence in August-September 1947 in Delhi. This caused panic among the Muslims who shifted out of the houses and started gathering in places such as Purana Qila, Nizamuddin, Humayun’s Tomb and Jama Masjid to find safety among fellow Muslims. These camps, which by all accounts held refugees in abject conditions, were guarded by ‘special police’ squads made out of Muslim civilians. From here, a big chunk left to Pakistan – some with the intention to settle there and others hoping to return after the situation became calm enough to come back to their houses in Delhi.

Empty houses left behind by the departing Muslims – those who went to Pakistan as well as those who shifted to camps within the city – became a point of contention. The Hindu and Sikh refugees felt that the houses should be allotted to them as they had left behind all they owned in Pakistan and in many cases tried to occupy the homes with force. In some cases where security personnel provided protection to the houses, the communications sent by local authorities show, the mobs would come in hundreds and tried to encroach the houses. This continued for several months after the arrival of refugees had thinned down. Details of how these attacks would happen and how it was becoming difficult for security agencies to guard the vacant houses can be gauged from a report sent to Sardar Patel by Superintendent of Police, Delhi City about once such incident that happened on January 4, 1948 when a group of about ‘100 women supported by thousands of refugee men backing them” tried to occupy vacant houses near Phatak Habash Khan. The police had to use tear gas and lathi-charge to disperse the men and women.

“This lawlessness will never abate unless necessary arrangements are made for the allotment of the vacant houses. If this lawlessness prevails, there’s every possibility of a general flare-up in the city. Refugee men and women are very desperate and are bent upon occupying the vacant houses at any cost,” reads the report by Superintendent of Police, Delhi city.

To deal with this issue, the government extended the evacuee property legislation, which was originally formulated to deal with population exchange in Punjab. According to this legislation, the ‘property’ remained in ownership of ‘evacuee’ – say, Muslims who left the houses during violence – but a custodian was appointed to look after them who had powers to temporarily allot the houses to refugees to provide immediate housing. Later on, the government adopted a policy that no ‘non-Muslim’ occupier would be evicted from the temporary accommodation until an alternate house is provided to them.

“In effect, Muslims who had taken shelter in camps could not return to their house if they had been occupied, even after the riots and murders had stopped,” write Vazira Zamindar in The Long Partition and the Making of Modern South Asia.

In such a situation, the government functionaries thought that it was best to discourage Muslims who had travelled to Pakistan during the violence and wished to return to India, from making the journey for fear of inviting the ire of the refugees and general Hindu, Sikh population. This worry was clearly articulated by Sardar Patel in a letter that he wrote to PM Nehru on May 2, 1948 while discussing the recrudescence of activities of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

“The return of these Muslims, while we are not yet able to rehabilitate Hindus and Sikhs from Pakistan and are unable to return any of them back to Pakistan, would create considerable discontent and dissatisfaction not only amongst the refugees, but also amongst the general public, and it would be this discontent which would again be the breeding ground of communal poison, on which activities of organisations like the RSS thrive,” wrote Patel in this letter. To regulate the movement of Muslims wanting to return to India, the Indian Government had started a stringent permit system in July 1948.

jawaharlal nehru Jawaharlal Nehru (Photo: Indian Express Archives)

‘Relief system not conditioned to look after Muslims’
The communication between PM Nehru and officials with the Relief and Rehabilitation Ministry also points to the difference of opinion among national leaders on the issue of rehabilitation of Muslim refugees and if the matter deserved any special attention of the Indian government.

This is apparent from the following letter that Nehru wrote to Mohanlal Saxena, who was the Minister for Relief and Rehabilitation at the time, on May 19, 1948 requesting him to appoint a special officer to look after rehabilitation of Muslim refugees.

“Who is responsible for the Muslim refugees in Delhi, Ajmer, Bhopal etc, that’s to say, the Muslims who went away temporarily and came back, often finding that their houses had been occupied by others or allotted to others?… Somebody should be responsible for all this as well as for actually helping such Muslim refugees as require help. We cannot confine our help to non-Muslims only. Obviously, it is the business of the Relief and Rehabilitation Ministry. I am told that there is no financial provision for this. I think there should be some provision, whatever it might be. I think also that a special officer of your Ministry should be in charge of this Muslim refugee problem,” wrote Nehru.

In another letter to Saxena on May 31, 1948, Nehru said that each case of a Muslim refugee “is kind of a test case for us about our bona fide” although, conceding that there may not be too much sympathy for these Muslims among government officials.

“The fact is that our whole organisation has been built up with the view to helping the vast mass of Hindu and Sikh refugees from Pakistan. It’s not conditioned to look after Muslims whose cases stand on a somewhat different footing. It may even be that there is not too much sympathy for these Muslims among government departments or outside. We, as a government, however, have to pay some special attention to such cases because each one is a kind of a test case for us about our bona fide,” wrote Nehru.

These attempts by Nehru to give special attention to Muslim refugees were opposed by the Relief and Rehabilitation Ministry. Saxena responded by saying that this would amount to “short-circuiting” the judicious process which may expose the government to “severe criticism from the displaced persons”. Mehr Chand Khanna who was an advisor to the Ministry (and himself a refugee from Peshawar) also objected to the proposal saying India was dealing with Muslim refugees and their properties “too leniently” and that appointing a special officer for them would be “circumventing the law”.

‘The Tightrope’

Although India has avowedly decided to walk on a secular path, the contingencies created by partition and the resultant migration complicated the situation. Uditi Sen writes in Citizen Refugee: Forging the Indian Nation after Partition that the Indian leadership had to walk a tightrope between various contradictory notions of national belonging. According to her, underneath the ‘secular polity’ announced publicly, the primacy of Hindu belonging took roots aided by lack of clearly defined citizenship legislation in the initial years.

“When public policy is read in conjunction with private correspondence, it becomes clear that the refusal to clearly define the contours of the partition refugee allowed the government of India to rest or to various bureaucratic means to prevent Muslim migrants from entering ranks of the refugees. … This allowed a pragmatic validation of the primacy of Hindu belonging in India to flourish beneath public assertions of a secular polity that did not discriminate between Hindu and Muslim citizens.”

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