With the Partition, two countries might have been able to successfully establish their identities, but there were a million identities that were fragmented in the divided landscapes. Refugees. The mass migration of refugees was an unparalleled political situation. While the rich and the foresighted migrated before the Partition, the poor majority came in after 1947.
West Punjab saw a massive influx of refugees. Kurukshetra camp, for instance, was designed for 100,000 but housed over 300,000 refugees. Being temporary arrangements, the focus of the state was to provide permanent homes and work. There were two elemental problems. Firstly, Hindu and Sikh refugees had left behind 2.7 million hectares of land but, Muslims had left behind only 1.9 million hectares. Secondly, areas in West Punjab were better irrigated and more fertile. Sardar Tarlok Singh, director general of rehabilitation, came up with two innovative solutions for these problems- standard acre and graded cut. The former was defined as that amount of land which could yield ten to eleven maunds of rice (1 maund = 40 kg). This ensured the equitable distribution of land. On the other hand, ‘graded cut’ helps in dealing with the big difference of the land left behind in Pakistan and that available in India. The cut on land progressively increased from 25% of the first ten acres of any claim to 95% of those having land in excess of 500 acres. The biggest single loser was perhaps a lady who had inherited 11,500 acres but was allotted a paltry 835 acres! The resettlement, overall, was relatively smooth in Punjab.
The capital by the 1950s had become a Punjabi city due to the influx of over 500,000 refugees. The refugees made homes and shops, wherever they could find space in Delhi. This is exemplified in the grand shopping arcade, Connaught Circus. It was designed by R.T. Russell as an exclusive shopping district for the upper echelons of the society, but was now reduced to a crowded bazaar! Refugees built houses on allotted land and here emerged colonies that even today are dominated by Punjabis- nagars (townships) named after (Sardar) Patel, Rajendra (Prasad) and Lajpat (Rai), popular Hindu Congress leaders.
If Delhi had turned into a Punjabi city, Bombay had transformed into a Sindhi city with over a million refugees. Its housing problem further exacerbated. There were five refugee camps in the city and their conditions were deplorable. For instance, over 10,000 refugees had to survive with only twelve water taps, no doctors, one school, and no electricity in the Kolwada camp.
Bengal, on the other hand, witnessed waves of refugees, with a significant spike in 1950 due to riots when 1.7 million people came in. The resettlement process was very haphazard here. Some refugees deliberately trespassed in abandoned barracks across the state, while others occupied empty lands along railway lines and roads. Some had even cleared shrub jungles. Then, these refugees would refuse to vacate the land and were even willing to pay the government money for these lands. The government was in a quagmire as the migration was only one-way in the state. The situation soon turned violent with processions, demonstrations, and arson becoming commonplace in the city. Political and extremist groups also mobilized these dissatisfied refugees.
The suffering of women was often ignored. Both sides had raped and abducted the women of the opposing side. After normalcy restored gradually, India and Pakistan decided that the abducted women must be exchanged. Women were tracked down case by case and were ‘returned’. Though by May 1948, over 12,000 women were exchanged, it was not without resistance by the women. One woman is known to have said, “You could not save us then, what right have you to compel us now?” Many women were now comfortable in their new families. Some were now pregnant and realized that even if they are accepted by their previous families, their child will not be accepted. Most were unsure if their ‘defiled bodies’ will find acceptance back home in India. It seems that both, the government and the men, had reduced women to tangible property, who could be transferred without taking their consent.
The refugees who came into India far exceeded the populations of countries like Austria and Norway. This colossal task required immense time, wherewithal, dedication, energy, and effort of not only the heroes, but also of those unnumbered others who were unnamed. Any comparison of this effort is very tough to be made.
It is these displaced millions who formed the darkness after the dawn of independence!