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The right to move

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The right to move

The urgent problem for the Government in 1947 quickly changed from Partition to rehabilitation of the refugees, writes BARNEY WHITE-SPUNNER in his book. Excerpt:

The problem that Sandtas Kirpalani and his ministry faced was that the Indian Government had no power to control the movement of refugees once they had arrived from Pakistan. As citizens of the new India, they had ‘an inalienable right to go anywhere’. Anything was preferable to the camps and people with relations or money made up their own minds. Many West Punjabi Sikhs just wanted to stay in East Punjab as did quite a number of West Punjabi Hindus. Others were determined to make for the United Provinces, considered a wealthy province where they might make a living. There was also a rush for Delhi. The camps set up around the capital were very soon overflowing and people spilled out to live on the pavements and in the alleys. Connaught Circus, the ‘erstwhile impeccable and showy shopping centre of New Delhi became home to thousands of pedlars and beggars’. Yet millions had no choice but to stay in the camps that were run by a combination of central and provincial Governments. The main Punjab camp, Kurukshetra, 20 miles south of Ambala, and which had nearly one million people, was run centrally. Providing food and clean water remained a huge challenge, as did warm clothing, once the weather cooled. India responded, as had Pakistan, with a mass quilt-making movement.

Kirpalani was full of praise for Edwina Mountbatten who chaired a Volunteer Workers Council which brought together the energy and resources of the numerous and well-found Indian voluntary sector. Ultimately 28 bodies worked under her auspices, Kirpalani and Neogy being amazed at her ‘enormous organising ability’. Camp discipline was fragile, and the Government was the obvious target for the refugees’ rage and hurt. Predictably the army was soon put in charge. Schools were set up for the children but were swamped by the sheer numbers. The urgent problem quickly became not Partition but rehabilitation.

The task facing the new Indian Government was vast. They could not build millions of new homes quickly and providing new jobs and rehabilitation would inevitably take years. There were several major strands to the programme. The first was simply to give each provincial Government an allocation of refugees and tell them to provide for them. It was a crude measure but it did at least serve to disperse people around India. Bombay, India’s richest city, agreed to take one million, the Central Provinces 500,000, Rajputana 250,000 and so on. There were also centrally organised schemes to provide work. The long-awaited Bhakra Nangal dam project in northern India was expedited; it would become India’s third-largest reservoir and irrigate over 10 million acres. When it was finally opened, Nehru called it, ‘A new temple of resurgent India’. Others worked on the new State capital of the East Punjab at Chandigarh or on the somewhat misnamed Green Belt development of residential areas around Delhi, which would begin the transformation of the small capital of the Moghuls and the Raj into the suburban sprawl of the contemporary mega-city.

But much of this was in the future, and for most people in the camps that December, the months ahead held little promise other than the shelter of a mud hut or a bustee and the struggle to rebuild their lives having lost almost everything. Kirpalani was visiting a camp near Bombay when the director told him that one of the refugees had said that he knew him. It turned out to be his old friend Punwani. They had been at school together. On another visit he was approached by an old man with tears streaming from his eyes and emitting a ‘blood-chilling low moan’. He was a rural postman from the Jhelum district. His daughter had been abducted by a Muslim mob. Kirpalani must, he insisted, provide him with a plane so he could go back and find her. Kirpalani patiently explained that this was impossible but the distraught old man did not hear what he said, just continuing to moan, ‘My daughter! O my daughter’. Later they discovered that the poor girl had committed suicide. Kirpalani’s orderly, Kashi Ram, was so affected he took the old man home to care for him but he died a few days later. Kirpalani could not get this image out of his head either. ‘For many, many nights the spectre of the old man haunted me and I could hear the dirge of his moaning in the small hours.’ One morning, visiting the hospital in Kurukshetra, he saw a young woman, surprisingly fair, of about 30. A week before she had given birth to a stillborn baby; ‘big tears rolled silently from her limpid brown eyes’. The doctor told Kirpalani that she had been crying for a week but refused to speak. Kirpalani begged her to tell him her name. Eventually she offered that it was Shanti and that she came from the North West Frontier Province. Kirpalani urged her to give her husband’s name so that they could try to trace him. ‘Don’t you understand’, she replied, ‘I am a Hindu wife. How can you ask me to voice my husband’s name?’ She would ‘not budge from this stance’ despite her terrible circumstances. Kirpalani reflected that his own well-educated and articulate wife, to whom he had been happily married for 30 years, had never once ‘hailed me by name’. But for him Shanti’s adherence to Hindu tradition at such cost merely added to the pathos of a terrible time.

 The human cost of Partition would be borne by a generation of Indians and Pakistanis. So would the physical cost. It is estimated that Indian refugees leaving West Punjab left behind 6.729 million acres of which 4.3 million were canal-irrigated, so productive and valuable. They also left 500,000 urban houses and 12,000 industrial Partition. India calculated this as being worth about 8 billion US dollars. Muslim refugees from East Punjab left less: About 4.73 million acres of which 1.32 million were irrigated. For both Governments the issue of how to allocate this and how to calculate compensation would take years. An argument developed over the relative values of this abandoned land and assets. Hindus and Sikhs in West Punjab had certainly been richer than Muslims in East Punjab; many were, as we have seen, landowners and businessmen. India reckoned their assets to be worth at least five times those Muslims had left behind in the east. Inevitably Pakistan disagreed. Nehru’s laudable aim of not reallocating the property of families who might still return would slowly, as the borders and attitudes hardened, become impractical. Although Bengal was spared the huge movement of refugees in 1947, and the slaughter of the Punjab, the subsequent steady flow of non-Muslims from east to west would mean that West Bengal continued to have a serious refugee problem up until the 1970s. By 1973, the numbers swelled by the Brahmaputra floods of 1970 and the Pakistani civil war of 1971, 15 per cent of its total population would be refugees from East Bengal. West Bengal never seemed able to deal with this in the way the Punjab had and the issue would remain politically toxic for years. Punjab.

Excerpted from Partition written by Barney White-Spunner and published by Simon and Schuster, Rs 699




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