‘Two or three years after the 1947 Partition, it occurred to the governments of India and Pakistan to exchange their lunatics in the same manner as they had exchanged their criminals. The Muslim lunatics in India were to be sent over to Pakistan and the Hindu and Sikh lunatics in Pakistan asylums were to be handed over to India. It was difficult to say whether the proposal made any sense or not.’
— Opening lines of ‘Toba Tek Singh’, a short story by Saadat Hasan Manto (1955)
Madness. In hindsight, this word best sums up the decision to hurriedly partition the Indian subcontinent based on religious lines in 1947. Amidst horrific bloodshed, over 17 million people were pushed out, making the Partition ‘one of the largest and most rapid migrations in human history’. The Partition, which led to the creation of India and Pakistan as two independent countries, was a landmark event of the 20th century but it was only one among many partitions linked with the decolonization of the British Empire after World War II. Indians were affected not only within the country but also in Burma, Sri Lanka, East Africa and the other parts of the world that they had migrated to. It was with great dismay that Indians found out that they were perceived as foreigners, just like the colonial rulers, and were not welcome to stay on after Independence.
The Partition of Pakistan in 1971 and the creation of Bangladesh were associated with another refugee crisis in eastern India, involving a staggering 10 million people at its peak. Mass migrations due to the partitions are etched in public memory in India’s border-states as their ramifications persist even now. On a smaller scale, Tibet and Kashmir also witnessed intimidation, persecution and exodus. Yet, these events and other partitions are dwarfed by the fact that more than 40 million people have been displaced within India due to development-related projects since Independence. Collectively, all these events shaped the contours of involuntary migration with words like ‘refugee’, ‘relief’, ‘rehabilitation’, and ‘DPs’ or ‘Displaced Persons’ entering the common vocabulary.
The Partition of 1937: Burma
The first major partition of British India took place in 1937, when Burma was constitutionally separated amidst strong native voices calling for political representation and restrictions on the flow of Indian migrants. Ever since its integration with British India in 1886, people of the Indian subcontinent had full access to the Burmese labour market across multiple sectors and occupations, riding on the Great Indian Migration Wave. By the 1930s, there were around 1 million people of Indian origin in Burma, constituting 7 per cent of the total population and over half the population of Rangoon city. During the Great Depression, the Burmese economy sank as rice exports shrunk, jobs dried up and allegations of Indian usurpation sprang forth. In addition to the interests of Chettiar capital, even labour migrants were targeted by locals. In 1930, racial riots broke out near the Rangoon docks between Indian and Burmese labourers, killing dozens and injuring hundreds. What began as a quarrel over jobs and wages spiralled into a rallying cry for restrictive immigration policies by nationalists. Anti-migrant sentiment and a weak economy dampened migration flows from the Indian subcontinent to Burma over the next decade.
On 23 December 1941, Rangoon was bombed by Japan amidst World War II hostilities. The attack was sudden and caught the British off guard. As the British army retreated, civilians of non-Burmese origin, mostly from India, began to flee by sailing to Madras, Calcutta or Chittagong from the port of Rangoon. However, the port’s closure in February 1942 and subsequent closure of different sea routes prompted most evacuees to trek almost 1,000 km north towards the Indian border. One route via the Arakan led to Chittagong, another via the Chindwin valley led to Manipur and a third route via the northern passes led to Ledo in north Assam. The journey was undertaken by people across social strata, along congested roads plied by laden ox carts and lorries moving slowly in one direction at difficult altitudes. Estimates suggest that this hurried and unplanned process of evacuation cost anywhere between 10,000 and 50,000 lives due to starvation, exhaustion, diseases, war-related injuries and other reasons. By May 1942, the Japanese military campaign was over and exit routes were sealed even though refugees continued to trickle into India for another two months. A refugee camp survey by the Indians Overseas Department of the Government of India counted close to 4,00,000 people, even though the actual number was likely to be upward of half a million as many evacuees had left the camps for their homes in India. Essentially, India already had a full-blown refugee crisis at hand a good five years before the Partition of 1947.
The refugee crisis occurred a few months before the Quit India Movement was launched by Indian freedom fighters in August 1942. Jawaharlal Nehru latched on to the issue while touring Assam in April 1942, pointing out serious shortcomings in arrangements for the evacuation, including racial discrimination against the Indians. Europeans often had access to safer exit routes and were covered by insurance policies that were not available to the Indians. The lack of adequate resources and frequent mistakes in the evacuation process prompted even British officials to call it ‘a horrid mess’ and a ‘first-class disaster’. Problems were complicated further because of harassment, at times, at the hands of the native Burmese nurturing anti-Indian sentiments. Nevertheless, the government built refugee camps with medical facilities along with non-official charitable bodies and organized transport and civil supplies that gradually brought the situation under control. Many evacuees departed for their ancestral homes in India, while many awaited a return to Burma as they had left all aspects of their lives back there.
Between 1942 and 1945, policies and legislative debates over the resettlement of the Burma refugees took place even though major Indian political leaders were behind bars for their activities during the Quit India Movement. Refugees had also arrived in India from other parts of South East Asia that Japan had attacked, but Burma was clearly the special case as was reflected in the formation of a dedicated Burmese Refugee Association. Provincial governments opened employment bureaus for those who had returned from Burma, subsistence allowance was provided for and university fees were waived for students. In early 1945, Burma was re-occupied by the British and the refugees could return following an agreement between the governments of India and Burma later that year. However, only a fourth of the evacuees went back. Shamshad Begum’s Mere Piya Gaye Rangoon was sung against the backdrop of this upheaval.
(Excerpted from India Moving: A History of Migration by Chinmay Tumbe (2018), with permission from Penguin Random House India. Chinmay Tumbe is passionate about migration, cities and history, and is currently a faculty member at IIM Ahmedabad.)