Historians' Watch

Refugees and Citizens in India: Memories of 1947 and 1971 in 2020

In the last few months, Indian law has been amended to allow for a fast-track to citizenship for any refugees belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian communities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan. The introduction of a religious element in laws of belonging is novel. It was resisted in the immediate aftermath of the 1947 Partition, even as the flows of refugee-citizens to and from India and Pakistan obviously corresponded to religion. There have also been recent moves to ‘confirm’ Indian citizenship registers, enacted in only one state, Assam, so far. The use of a date associated with the 1971 refugee crisis as the cut-off to confirm legitimate presence in India brings together the historic category of the refugee with notions of citizenship. It would seem that the refugee is once again being used to determine the Indian citizen with these recent happenings.

Overcrowded train transferring refugees during the partition of India, 1947. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1971, the Indian state accused Pakistan of shifting its ‘internal problem’ onto India. Starting in March 1971 and carrying on throughout the year, 10 million East Pakistani citizens poured into India. The recent Pakistani election had returned the Bengali-led Awami League to power in a nation-state that had been dominated by Punjab in West Pakistan. It was followed by large scale repression of the Bengali-speaking Eastern Wing, where the majority resided and which had largely voted for the Awami League, by the Pakistani military. Indira Gandhi’s government saw the refugee crisis as Pakistani President Yahya Khan’s attempt to alter demographic realities in response to this electoral defeat. Refugees, the Indian state alleged, were really full-fledged Pakistani citizens who had been disenfranchised. While the world community banded together to provide humanitarian relief, India insisted that the solution had to recognise this political reality.

Finally, India went to war with Pakistan after months of appealing for international intervention on behalf of the refugees, and another nation-state was born in December 1971: Bangladesh. The crisis culminated in the return of the lion’s share of these refugees to newly-created Bangladesh, seemingly validating India’s own assessment that this was not an extension of Partition or a Hindu-Muslim conflict. While Partition had been marked by large-scale movements of Hindus and Sikhs to India and Muslims to Pakistan, the Indian state officially saw this as an influx of Pakistani citizens (regardless of faith) persecuted by their state, but with every intention to return. It also served as an affirmation that any state built on the two-nation theory was bound to fail because it did not take into account the other diversities of the subcontinent (despite the Indian state’s own handling of a variety of separatist movements).

The two-nation theory treated Hindus, broadly defined to include most non-Muslims,  and Muslims in British India as two separate nations. This concept underwrote the eventual demand for Pakistan as the homeland for the subcontinent’s Muslims. While Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, is certainly the most famous name associated with the two-nation theory, the idea of the Hindu Rasthra or ‘Hindu nation’ belongs to V. D. Savarkar. The end of the First World War and Wilson’s fourteen-point speech, alongside the creation of the League of Nations, prompted Indians to think of a conception of the nation-state that satisfied these international understandings. Many, like the nationalist Balgangadhar Tilak, became involved in thinking up schemes like linguistic confederations. The assertion of the Hindu Nation was just as much part of this trend. But alongside a notion of the ethno-religiously defined nation, exclusions from this form were also developed. The outsider who could never assimilate was either Muslim or Christian. Meanwhile, groups like Parsis were included within the Hindu nation, according to M. S. Golwalkar, because they ‘give up beef-eating, respect mother-cow as an object of national faith and live here in peace.’ Golwalkar even borrowed the idea of interning potential ‘fifth-columnists’, citing the example of an Indian Civil Service officer of German descent but British citizenship who was sent to an enemy internment camp during the First World War. These ideas of detention or exclusion, and of Muslim quislings marked the works of most ideologues of this vein.

Though such ideas were rampant at Partition, they were deliberately kept out of the constitution In 1947, the figure of the Punjabi refugee-citizen of India and Pakistan dominated the narrative. Communal violence pushed Hindus and Sikhs out of newly-demarcated Pakistani territories, while a similar violence on the Indian side of the border sent Muslims in the opposite direction. By 1951, the Census of India tells us that Muslims in independent India were about 10% of the population. Some who were pushed out of their homes in India never made it to Pakistan because of the dangers along the road, instead trying to return to their homes. Others were forcibly evicted despite having no intention of going to Pakistan. The burden to prove that they had not wanted to leave lay with these Muslims. The return of their property, if at all, was labelled an act of kindness.

As religiously-coloured identification was being enforced on the ground and even by official elements, the Constituent Assembly of India was sanitising this language. It was turned into ‘the choice of another nationality’ rather than as dependent on religious belonging. This was an obvious nod to the desire for secularism by the Nehru-Gandhi faction, who dominated the Congress of the new polity. It was also an attempt to prevent the codification of the two-nation theory. With recent policy announcements, however, refuge and asylum are once again being used to define who the Indian citizen is, but without the secular rhetoric of 1947.

Refugees at a camp in Delhi waiting in line for water; a news photo from 1947. Wikimedia Commons.

India has never had a refugee law. This is intentional rather than accidental: beginning in 1946, with its rejection of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, whose benefits did not really extend to India. It was reinforced by a refusal to be part of the International Refugee Organisation because of a disproportionate financial burden and subsequently the non-recognition of the refugees of Partition by the United Nation’s 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees. India’s treatment of refugees has been entirely in keeping with the state’s interests, allowing the definition to determine who is included as a citizen of India. The first people to have been categorised for exclusion were the Europeans who were evacuees, internees, refugees and so on in India during the Second World War. The oft-mentioned Poles who were generously taken care of by an Indian prince were obviously not going to be granted a part in the promises of advancement brought by the postcolonial, self-governing Indian-led nation-state. The refugees who came right after them, those of Partition, were.

The Indian state has, arguably, entered a moment of reconstitution under the present government, given the recent refugee law that allows religion as a speedy basis to access citizenship. In many ways, it has used the rhetoric of 1971 to alter the secular ideal of the state built in the 1950s after Partition. In 1971, the Indian state was determined to repatriate all refugees after the birth of Bangladesh and most did leave the country. Those who remained were regarded as stragglers who should have returned, turning them from accepted refugees to illegal migrants who had overstayed their welcome. This was a marked turnaround, for in just 1970, the Indian government was talking of all of persons who crossed the Eastern border as part of the ‘Long Partition’ of India. The 1971 crisis was the decisive end of the refugee-citizen of Partition, and the first time that refugees from the successor states of the Raj were treated using international definitions and expectations of return by India.

The current government accepts the past of Indian hospitality to refugees as legitimate, but is simultaneously using the history of the return of refugees on the Eastern border to determine Indian citizenship, harking back to the idea that the project of citizenship was complete in 1971.  There is no standard Indian definition, nor the acceptance of the international one, of the term ‘refugee’ in the state.  Allowing asylum to a ‘refugee’ community instead becomes a gift of kindness or humanitarian tolerance of the Indian people rather than the right to asylum held by the seeker. In this case, the kindness of the state has been abused, and a welcome overstayed. The constitutive and destructive powers of the idea of the refugee seem to have reasserted themselves in subcontinental politics, in particular to define the people from whom the government derives its sovereignty – the first exclusion from this form was the obviously un-Indian European refugee of the Second World War. A new version of the state that can endorse religion as eligibility criteria for protection by India drifts towards changing the mandate – a familiar alteration of a demographic reality. The irony of the 1971 cut-off point is glaring. The institutionalisation of ad-hoc refugee treatment is itself being used to break down pre-existing ideas of the state and citizenship, and therefore rights, to serve a new vision of the Indian state.

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