By 1951, nearly 3,29,000 Muslims in Delhi had headed off to Karachi. The city’s Muslim population was thus reduced from 33.22 per cent in 1941 to 5.71 per cent a decade later. Most who stayed sought shelter in refugee camps. Thousands were herded within the walls of the Purana Qila with no proper shelter or sanitary arrangements. Nirad C. Chaudhuri, then living in Old Delhi, saw Muslims "waiting for the evacuating lorries with vacant looks in their eyes, disregarding the rain and the storm, as if their only thought were to escape the spectre that was treading at their heels".
Another painful process was at work—the forced migration of nearly 4.75 million refugees from the North West Frontier Province and West Punjab to Delhi. Ravinder Kaur, a post-doctoral fellow at Roskilde University, Denmark, has produced an excellent study of "displacement, loss, resettlement, and restoration". She has introduced fresh vigour into a theme that has been reduced to a tale of woe and suffering. Although her story is also woven with memories of personal and inherited experiences, she offers fresh insights into the narratives, on the social background of the migration, on government policies on resettlement, on the migrants’ claiming a new place as one’s own, and on the making of a Punjabi Hindu identity. Step by step, she questions existing theories and assumptions. Step by step, she opens up her inquiry to uncharted territory.
Most existing works limit themselves to, say, a decade after Partition; this book explores the period between 1947 and 1965, the year the ministry of relief and rehabilitation merged into the ministry of home affairs as a department. So, Kaur covers the twin processes of transformation that turn (1) ordinary people into refugees and (2) refugees into citizens and then into locals. Earlier studies focused on the resettlement process; the eight chapters of her book go a step further and bring alive the hardships of the migrants, their everyday life, and their strategy of coping with a new world. Again, earlier studies based their conclusions on the upper-caste/middle-class narrators and left out the lower-class/untouchable migrants.
Ravinder Kaur reminds us that the process of migration and resettlement was experienced by different sections of society at multiple levels, and that no single narrative can therefore claim to represent the Partition reality. Thus, the experience of those who flew across the turbulent borders was different from that of the foot traveller. And yet "air travel has never been part of the national narrative of Partition, in which the birth of the nation is linked with traumatic territorial dismemberment and loss, followed later by rejuvenation attained through clear political vision..." It is Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan or Krishan Chandra’s Peshawar Express that fits the national narrative on the struggle, sacrifice and the indomitable spirit of the refugees.
Of the many insights in this well-crafted book, here are just three. First, the master narrative of Punjab’s partition is told by the Punjabi elite, though their own experiences often differ from the general experiences they narrate. Second, women and poor refugee men do not author their own history; "they exist only as a mass of refugees" whose individual experiences are condensed as collective stories essential to the larger narration of the Partition drama. Third, why do you think the untouchables are excluded from the narrative on refugees? It is because of the assiduously cultivated myth of upper-caste, middle-class Punjabis emerging as heroic survivors who successfully reconstruct their lives. "The purity of this myth cannot be polluted by opening it to the experiences of untouchables," Kaur concludes, on this chilling note.
Even though there is no commemorative memorial for Partition survivors in free India, the memories of the past continue to live in everyday forms. Over six decades later, Palestinians living in refugee camps and victims of US occupation in Afghanistan and Iraq may have many common tales to tell.