Saturday, Aug 20, 2022

The Forgotten Refugees Of Partition

We have been trained to remember the Partition in a certain way but that memory is not perfect. Uncovering stories from the peripheries of caste and geography helps us understand the plurality of the Partition and the sub-continent.

Refugees on the India Pakistan border.
Refugees on the India Pakistan border. Getty Images

What does it mean to be forgotten? Forgetting is a term of absence. It denotes absence of memory. If we forget something, it also means that we remember something. We cannot talk about the forgotten refugees of the Partition without talking about the remembered refugees of Partition. It is somewhere within this act of remembering that we will have to look for clues for the forgotten. 

There is a famous anecdote about Partition: a young Punjabi refugee was hawking newspapers in an upscale market in Delhi. A person offered him a rupee for the newspaper out of kindness. The hawker got very angry and protested that he wasn’t a beggar, and refused to take the rupee. 

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VKRV Rao, the economist, describes this as, “Here was a gallantry that mocked adversity and would never admit defeat.” The memory of the Partition, especially in Delhi, is littered with anecdotes such as these. Such displays of ‘gallantry’ line the stories of Punjabi upper-caste refugees, mostly from the trading castes who had been comfortable even before the Partition, for whom a few years ago a rupee wouldn’t have mattered. 

The great French historian Pierre Nora once lamented that memory has been relegated to the responsibility of recording, leaving remembering to the archive. Such narratives create sites where memory becomes a thing of the past, the material from which history is written. But if we are to study Partition as a part of a human relationship, we cannot stop the Partition at a point and study it. We need to recognise its fluency. When we do that, we arrive at various sites of forgetting. 

Sites of Forgetting 


Udayon Misra, a leading voice on the Partition of Assam, in the book The Burden of History, writes, “the shadow of Partition is still with us precisely because it turned Assam into a part of the periphery and borderland of India.” Historians have long ignored the Northeast as a theatre of Partition. The creation of East Pakistan constructed the Northeast and especially Assam as a ‘borderland’ and cut it off from mainland India. 

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Moreover, Sylhet, which borders both Assam and Meghalaya, has had a very chequered history, having gone through three political upheavals in the 20th century — the Bengal Partition of 1905, the Partition of 1947, and the 1971 Liberation War, all of which displaced many people. 

Sylhet joined the Assam province in 1874. In the book Remembering Sylhet, historian Anindita Dasgupta writes that this was done because the British “wanted to make the latter province ‘economically viable’ and self-sustaining.” The Mountbatten Plan gave Sylhet the option to either join Pakistan or stay in India. In what is called the Sylhet Referendum, 56.3 per cent decided to leave India, while 43.7 per cent voted to stay, a figure consistent with the Muslim-Hindu composition of the province.

In 1951, according to the Subsidiary Table of the Census, around 8,33,000 migrants came from East Bengal/Pakistan to Assam, most of them Hindus from the region. Even though Hindus from Sylhet had been in favour of separating from Assam since 1874, the creation of Pakistan problematised their stance. However, as another historian Amalendu Guha tells us, the Assamese people welcomed this decision, considering this a step in the creation of a linguistically homogeneous Assam. 

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Another wave of migration happened around the time of the Bangladesh Liberation War, which led to 11 lakh refugees and their descendants in Assam by 1991. Most of these were Muslims from Sylhet and Mymensingh. Without the Liberation War, there is no Assam Movement, and without the Assam Movement, there is no NRC. Nineteen lakh people were excluded from the NRC of 2019 in Assam, out of which reportedly five lakh are Bengali Muslims, and seven lakh Bengali Hindus.

The Garo, Khasi and Jaintia Hills

The Partition becomes more complex when it comes to the Garo, Khasi and Jaintia Hills. The Partition along the lines of India/Pakistan happened in the context of a larger partition between the colonial idea of ‘hill people’ and ‘plainsmen’. Before 1790, the northeastern border of Bengal was open. Tribal communities had a complex relationship with the communities in the plains below. A small skirmish between the Khasia Rajas and the East India Company led to the creation of the first boundary between the Khasi Hills and Sylhet in 1791. 

The Khasis became ‘alien’, ‘hill’ people overnight. They could work in Sylhet but never belonged to it. From this line we can trace the 445 km border between the Hills and Sylhet. The finalisation of this line in 1947 tells various tales of trauma for the upland communities, who had to change their ways of life permanently over an arbitrary border.

Researcher Faith Elwin Kharbuli cites the example of Kalet Lamin, a native of Jaintia Hills who had to abandon all her lands because they fell in Bangladesh after Partition. Similarly, three kids from the Garo Hills had their cows confiscated for grazing them on a bordering village. The Partition along the Khasi and Garo Hills created refugees in not one but two countries, as around 85,000 Khasis still live in Bangladesh, where they face constant threats from the political order.

Jammu and Kashmir 

Lines and maps define the Partition. The boundary commission, the Radcliffe Line, the borders, even cadastral maps of land-holdings. But the case of Kashmir compels us to ask: what happens to those who live in fluctuating lines?

Historian Chitralekha Zutshi writes that Kashmir, “because of a Partition that is not accepted by either India or Pakistan, lies within both states and therefore within neither”. 

Refugee laws in both India and Pakistan failed to cater to people from princely states. Kashmiri women are absent in the registers of abducted women in the Partition because they were invaded by tribesmen in the 1947 War.

A lot of people from the Kashmir Valley are citizens because they are refugees and have claims on land in the Valley. 


A lot of the complexities that make other places geographical sites of forgetting do not exist in Sindh. And yet, it was writer Rita Kothari’s book The Burden of Refuge: The Sindhi Hindus of Gujarat (2007) that explored migration on the Sindh border for the first time.

Suchitra Balasubhramaniam, professor at the Ambedkar University Delhi, explains the peculiarity of this Partition — even though we consider irreconcilable religious differences as the basis of the partition, identities were not that simplistic in Sindh. 

She cites a young Sindhi Hindu woman saying that she wasn’t considered Hindu enough after migrating to Gujarat because she wouldn’t dress in a sari and wear a bindi. Another example she cites is that of a person saying that they had to leave meat eating because that was considered ‘Muslim’ in a strictly vegetarian Jain and Vaishnavite Gujarat. 

There is another angle to the Sindh story. This is of caste. Balasubhramaniam writes that there were two main communities that migrated from Sindh, the Sindhi Hindus, and the Gujarati Dalits. She masterfully shows that caste can be another site of forgetfulness, even when we consider the ‘master narratives’ of Punjab and Bengal. 

Remembering and Forgetting Caste 

Referring to this predicament, acclaimed historian and author Urvashi Butalia, while writing about Partition, reminds us how “in its almost exclusive focus on Hindus and Sikhs and Muslims, Partition history has worked to render many others invisible. One such history is that of the scheduled castes, or untouchables”. 

In the book Caste and partition in Bengal, author Sekhar Bandopadhyay and Anusuya Basu Ray very importantly highlight the politics of archives and the role they play in the erasure or presence of stories of partition in terms of caste. They write that the Dalit testimonials had a “relative invisibility in the Partition archives— records of the colonial state, documents of the mainstream political parties, newspapers, even the rich Partition literature rarely mention the Dalit as a distinctly recognisable group of participants in the events of this period”.


Clock tower square opposite Town Hall, Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi, India
Clock tower square opposite Town Hall, Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi, India Getty Images

Noting that the process of archival collections were largely assumed to be casteless, they note that one of the many reasons why caste remains a largely overshadowed talking point in conversations around Partition is because of the largely absent testimonials of those from the already marginalised caste communities within partition refugee groups. 

This concern is very real and is reflected in the testimonials that are available in India’s very limited archival spaces on partition. On taking a look at the publicly available archival testimonials in India, it becomes evident that most people who have a recorded memory of partition and its effects come from affluent families and trading communities, or from groups with generational access to education or have had some form of social capital which the Dalits or the marginalised communities did not have even in pre-Partition India. 

These testimonies often talk about trauma and pain of Partition through their material memory and their status in their pre-Partition community and neighbourhood. 

What many of these refugee families lament is the loss of their family’s status in the social hierarchy of their village or town and their material wealth which they had to let go of partially, owing to logistical limitations at the time. 

This becomes more evident if one would note the case of historian Aanchal Malhotra’s work on Partition traumas through her books and her digital museum on South Asian heritage and memory which she runs as the ‘Museum of Material Memory’. The museum, while collecting stories of people from South Asia, also collects stories of Partition families and the heirlooms that survived with them.

For instance, a testimonial available on the web page of The 1947 Partition Archive records the story of a family from Abbottabad in what is now in Pakistan. The respondent is noted reminiscing about their family home and their luxurious lifestyle as they recall that “their dining table seated 24 people. They had a large sitting room, four bedrooms, four bathrooms, and that they had the only house with a flush system”.

These are stories that are far from being relatable for many partition survivors from marginalised castes and communities. These were the groups that were travelling through buses and bullock-carts unlike many others who migrated via airways and were tucked into safe corners somewhere in the hill towns in Himachal or Uttarakhand after their arrival in India. 

Moreover, while some Dalit refugees managed to migrate, many were not even permitted to leave by the authorities in Pakistan on the sheer grounds that concerned their occupation as cleaners and sweepers. In Sindh, only 5% of the 2,00,000 Gujarati Dalits were allowed to migrate to India 

Remembering as an Act of Resistance

As Gyanendra Pandey, one of the most powerful voices in the field of Partition, writes, we have a tendency to ‘nationalise’ migrant populations in the Partition. What we forget is that there is no single way to be ‘national’. We live in an age of competing claims to nationality. 

These claims are closely related to the act of being remembered. If a community is remembered, or tries to be remembered more than others, its claim upon nationality increases. In this case, to remember is to resist. To remember is to break apart the binaries that classify refugees as good or bad.