‘In Delhi, camps were also set up for displaced Muslims during Partition’
The Partition is among the greatest human tragedies of modern times. Seventy-five years since it happened, the catastrophe continues to be discussed and dissected in academia. Professor Jennifer Leaning, research fellow, Harvard FXB Center for Health and Human Rights and Shubhangi Bhadada, Mittal Institute Fellow, Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute, Harvard University have co-edited, ‘The 1947 Partition of British India: Forced Migration and its Reverberations,’ a new book that investigates and analyses relatively under-researched areas of the calamity such as its impact on public health and medical care. In an email interview, they detail these aspects of the crisis and much more.
Q: The 1947 Partition was a catastrophic human tragedy causing thousands of deaths and the displacement of millions. How did it affect the public health and medical care service of the time?
A: Prior to the Partition, the public health apparatus of British India was overseen by the provincial governors and their chief commissioners in a loosely organised system of clinics and hospitals staffed by independent professionals, military medical staff, government physicians and nurses, and a range of other healthcare personnel. Much of the public health focus was on sanitation and disease eradication. Surveillance for and eradication of endemic contagious and infectious diseases were the main tasks, with a focus on malaria, smallpox, cholera, plague, and measles. This apparatus, although sparse in comparison to the population of the subcontinent, was funded by public expenditures and private charities and moved into high gear during the Partition. Many volunteers connected with civil society organisations helped to fill the gap in staffing needs.
The emergency phase (which began in early 1947 as attacks began and people started to flee hostile neighborhoods) lasted till 1948. Routine mechanisms and supports for healthcare and public health surveillance were quickly overwhelmed. Sources of funding and cadres of trained personnel proved completely inadequate and both new governments were forced to rely on massive state deficit expenditure and aggressive appeals for help sent to charities and foundations throughout the subcontinent and abroad. Major countries, including Great Britain and the United States, sent official aid directly to the new governments of India and Pakistan as well as through their nationally-based international NGOs, such as the Society of Friends and the American and British Red Cross.
The immediate impact of the formal declaration of the Partition was to accelerate this population displacement into a mass flight of people throughout the Punjab and across north India. The emergency movement of what quickly became millions of people inevitably created high levels of illness because people were catapulted out of stable ecosystems: all were forced into uncertainties regarding clean water supplies, sanitation options, food procurement, incessant flight from violence and search for shelter, and disruption of any prior arrangements for receiving health care. During the months preceding the declarations of Independence and then accelerating after mid-August 1947, the emergency medical and public health emphasis focused on surveillance for smallpox, cholera, and plague (in hospitals, clinics, camps and other emergency crowd gatherings); quarantining those affected; and administering smallpox vaccinations to the general population of the Partition refugees.
Within the large camps and settlements on both sides of the borders, medical and hospital personnel were facility-based and saw patients as they arrived en masse in the courtyard of the health complex, some in urgent need being pushed ahead of the line. The numbers were too overwhelming in many of the camps for medical personnel to proceed out into the crowds and find people who were in great need. The overall response was characterised by shortage of trained staff and marked difficulties in establishing robust supply chains to meet the great need.
Death rates were undoubtedly high. Virtually all refugees in these emergency settings were exhausted, dehydrated, malnourished, and/or suffering from disease or from infected wounds and injuries experienced in transit. Children were most at risk of high morbidity and mortality.
Q: Which civil society organisations, religious and welfare groups, played a notable role during the crisis? And how?
A: Millions of people traveled miles across internal boundaries, rivers, etc., endured injuries and collapsed in exhaustion and illness once reaching their safe side of the Punjab border. The major share of the burden of care was borne by government and NGOs (some established, some organised during the emergency period). People in the various initial camps and then the much larger ones established in the weeks and months after mid-August 1947 received shelter, food, water, sanitation, medical aid, and social services from the government agencies set up to do this work — and from the voluntary efforts of local NGOs and women’s groups.
The Indian Red Cross helped with provision of medicines, milk powder, and health volunteers; the Pakistan Red Cross/Crescent was just getting mobilised as an independent agency. Both governments set up a special branch of government reporting to the senior executives of their respective Emergency Committees of the Cabinet. Lady Mountbatten coordinated the non-governmental humanitarian apparatus in India through the founding of the United Council for Relief and Welfare (UCRW) with its first meeting in Delhi on September 8, 1947.
The British Society of Friends in fall of 1947 sent aid (medicines, blankets, camp supplies) and key humanitarian experts to India and Pakistan. But in November of that year their expertise was diverted to respond to the new conflict in Kashmir to assist with needs assessment and provision of emergency aid in that region.
The St. John’s Ambulance service was more present in Pakistan than in India but assisted in transporting seriously ill people to hospitals and aid stations in both countries.
The American Friends Service Committee consistently sent packages of aid to India and Pakistan, consisting of blankets and tents and milk powder and medical supplies. Their aid was appropriate but woefully insufficient to meet the massive population needs. The National Council of Churches in the United States also raised funds and gathered similar goods and supplies to send to both India and Pakistan.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was depleted by its efforts in World War II. In addition to its intense work in post-war Europe (tracing, identifying and sorting refugees and displaced people) in 1946-48, it was actively assisting all sides during the conflicts occasioned by the creation of the Israeli state and the forced exodus of Palestinians. When the enormity of the Partition migrations and deaths became known, the ICRC in fall of 1947 sent an expert to assess the situation—but in November 1947 as the Kashmir conflict erupted the organisation focused in that area on providing aid to combatants and civilians on all sides.
Prominent women (members of the UCRW) organised essential relief and humanitarian efforts. Among them were Mrs. Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, as Minister of Health; Mrs. Sucheta Kripalani, from the Congress Central Relief Committee and Kasturba Workers; and Mrs. Hannah Sen (Delhi Branch of the All-India Women’s Conference). These women, working within their organisations and many other contacts in civil society, played prominent roles in moderating the miseries of the camps in Delhi and elsewhere by raising funds, supplying all forms of goods, and engaging with the social and educational life of refugee families. These women’s organisations also played a crucial role in identifying the issues of abducted and abused women and girls.
Q: Many lived in poverty and squalor in refugee camps. Were these camps egalitarian spaces or did the moneyed among them cornered the privileges?
A: The large transit camps were in general populated by very poor people; those with means who were initially in these camps found ways to leave rapidly. In many cases, the wealthy often did not travel the same routes across the border (instead moving by ship or by air or by fast private car). These people would find lodging with relatives or use their own funds to find other options. They also occupied the vacant houses of the wealthy Muslims who had left to join their co-religionists across the border. Within a few weeks, the government of Pakistan decided to move the vast number of people arriving by foot from Amritsar away from the environs of Lahore into farming areas in the west or regions to the south, including Karachi. Delhi was overwhelmed by Muslims from elsewhere in the country who were seeking safety in the city in large camps before deciding where else to go; and also by Hindus newly arriving from the Pakistan border. Efforts were made to segregate these two populations and move Hindus from Pakistan into larger camps north and west of the city limits.
Q: How did the arrival of the Partition refugees impact the physical expansion and psychological profile of Delhi and Mumbai?
A: Our work dealt with the physical expansion of these two cities and some of the social implications of choices made by the Delhi and Bombay governments. In both cities, the newly formed national government struggled to deal with the post-Partition influx of refugees. Existing urban systems were challenged and modified to accommodate an unusually large number of people. A short and longer-term strategy was invoked: setting up temporary refugee camps and also planning more systematically for creation of new urban areas to accommodate the vast numbers over time.
Delhi: The city already faced a serious housing shortage prior to Partition. In the months immediately after the announcement of the Radcliffe Line, an additional 470,000 Hindus and Sikhs fled into the city as refugees from Pakistan while about 320,000 Muslims departed the city and fled to Pakistan. Temporary measures involved finding shelter for people in military barracks or tents in refugee camps and pavement dwellings while at the same time ensuring the separation of incoming populations from Pakistan (termed displaced people) and outgoing populations from India (termed evacuees) who sought safety first in Delhi before trying to head across to the Pakistan border. These tasks proved daunting.
In the immediate months after the Partition, many arrangements had to be made for the large population of Muslims who had been displaced from surrounding areas and were seeking compensation for their abandoned property and/or the opportunity to leave for Pakistan when travel became less dangerous. Incoming Hindus and Sikhs from Pakistan either traveled directly to Delhi or moved towards the city more slowly as they found towns in East Punjab overwhelmed by earlier floods of refugees. In play for both populations were the thousands of homes in Delhi that wealthy Muslims had abandoned in their flight to Pakistan. Complicating matters were the homes and property that people in Lahore and elsewhere had been forced to abandon as they sought safety in India. In 1947, the complex adjudication of these competing sets of claims took form but the fraught negotiations and hardening of borders over time meant that these issues of property were not resolved for decades.
In Delhi, the population crush prompted the city government to establish Muslim camps in the city for people who were to be moved to safety in Pakistan when it was possible. Major sites were the Purana Qila and Humayun’s Tomb. Incoming Hindus and Sikhs from Pakistan were placed preferentially in homes vacated by wealthy Muslims or in separate camps in the city and its environs. Over time, these displaced populations were settled in housing colonies (called naggars) outside the old city. Longer-term measures involved development of satellite towns.
The housing colonies grew into substantial entities that persist to this day, founded along lines of family relationships on sites that the Delhi government specifically designated. The satellite towns arose from subsequent government efforts to de-compress the areas around the city and open more space for residential and business development.
These seismic population shifts taking place within the expanding environs of Delhi required the city over subsequent years to take many steps in land use and architecture which are still embedded in the names of these many parks, landmark spaces, nagars, and satellite cities.
Bombay: Hindu refugees from Karachi and Sindh province in Pakistan moved into Bombay by sea and by air, in modes of social and geographical connection eased by the fact that during the colonial period Sindh had been part of the Bombay Presidency. Sindhi Hindus found connections in terms of academic and business ties with enterprises in Bombay and long-standing family ties helped ease the transition. Because of Partition, about 290,000 Sindhi Hindus moved to India, including 250,000 in Bombay Province and 100,000 in Bombay city.
The government of Bombay established temporary refugee camps in many parts of the city and outlying areas. As the temporary camps in the cities became full, people were moved into camps in the outlying areas. There the infrastructure was inadequate in terms of transportation and sanitation and people lived in tents and barracks (some remaining from British military encampments). Over the years, thriving entrepreneurial activities such as shops and restaurants sprang up and schools, newspapers, and places of worship were established. Unauthorised construction took place in many of these camps. In 1949, many of these camps were established as permanent colonies with an official administrative apparatus and residents were expected to pay rent.
In a separate but parallel development, the economic expansion of the city with its growing labor force presented a housing crisis for the local and state government. The Planning Commission of Bombay established cooperative housing societies as a strategy whereby the state could provide low-interest loans, mobilize private capital, and facilitate land acquisition and access to building supplies. Because of the shared financial burdens (the society became the owner and members became tenants), the tradition of cooperative housing has taken hold and proved of real benefit to the Partition-displaced Sindhis and Punjabis who came to Bombay after 1947.
Q: The refugee women from East Pakistan endured sufferings and struggled at multiple levels: family, state, society. Can you elaborate on them?
A: The experience of refugee women during Partition, particularly on the Punjab side, has been considerably documented in the last 20 years. However, not as much attention has been paid to the unique experience of refugee women from East Pakistan. Rimple Mehta’s essay in the book, “How Women Negotiated Gendered Relief and Rehabilitation in Post-Partition West Bengal” focuses on this experience and addresses the issues faced by displaced refugee women from East Pakistan in various camps, homes, and squatter colonies in the eastern region of India. They had to navigate between the paternalistic state and various other intersecting social hierarchies. The issues were compounded by a lack of support and resources by the central government to the issues of refugees in the eastern region.
The women also had very differing experiences and support (or lack thereof) from the government based on their categorisation: those who had existing family and support, the unattached women who were considered ‘permanent liability’ by the government, and then those who lived in squatter colonies. At the end, the government’s involvement was very patriarchal in nature (such as offering dowry for the unattached women to get them married of in the PL camps) and focused only on those who were in camps – the women in squatter colonies were left to their own devices and had to rely on each other, building relationships across caste and class to survive. The gap was fulfilled to some extent by the support and encouragement of female social workers that enabled these women to avail themselves of the limited facilities that existed in the eastern region but at the end, the refugee women had to display exemplary grit and determination to hold ground and survive.
Courtesy : TOI
Note: This news piece was originally published in timesofindia.com and used purely for non-profit/non-commercial purposes exclusively for Human Rights .