Thursday, February 14, 2008

The resettlement of refugee farmers after Partition: Notes from Ramachandra Guha's India after Gandhi

We all know that the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947 had terrible consequences. Tens of thousands of people died. Millions were displaced: Muslims left India for Pakistan, and Hindus and Sikhs left Pakistan for India. It was the greatest mass migration in history. But what is less understood is the manner in which the vast numbers of refugees were accommodated and settled into the newly divided regions. The greatest mass migration in history inevitably became the largest resettlement operation in the world.

How was this monumental task achieved? That question might take up many books, and perhaps many have already been written. But we get an exquisite glimpse of how it was done in the Indian side of the Punjab (East Punjab) in Refugees and the Republic a chapter in Ramachandra Guha’s sweeping post-independence historical narrative India after Gandhi. Indeed, the book’s great appeal lies in its ability to tell of scores of such forgotten stories, give quick but illuminating glimpses, while still not losing sight of the larger political narrative.

Punjab was one of the partitioned provinces; the eastern part found itself in India while the western in Pakistan. A large number of Muslims had left East Punjab for Pakistan. But there was an even greater influx of Hindus and Sikhs into the east from Pakistan. Most of these refugees were farmers. Together they had abandoned 2.7 million hectares of land in Western Punjab but across the border in India where they now had to make a living only 1.9 million hectares had been left behind by Muslim farmers who had fled the opposite way. Not only that, the new lands were also less fertile than the richer, abundantly irrigated soils they had been cultivating in the west.

The unenviable task of reallocating the reduced acreage of land fell upon the Indian government and its civil service workers. As a first step, they assigned each family of refugee farmers 4 hectares irrespective of its past holding; they also gave loans to buy seed and equipment. As families began to sustain themselves, applications were invited for them to claim more land, depending on what they had owned in West Punjab. Within a month, there were 500,000 claims! These claims were then “verified in open assemblies consisting of other migrants from the same village. As each claim was read out by a government official, the assembly approved, amended or rejected it.”

Refugees tended to exaggerate of course, but were deterred by the open assembly method; if a claim turned out to be false they were punished by a reduction in land. Nearly 7000 officials were needed to support this difficult and complicated process; these officials “came to constitute a kind of refugee city of their own.”

Sardar Tarlok Singh of the Indian civil service and a graduate of the London School of Economics led the rehabilitation operation. He used two interesting rules for allocating land, and this is where the innovation and pragmatism in the whole operation comes most clearly to light. Though claims had been filed, because of the reduced acreage, none of the refugees could be assigned as much land as they'd originally owned. Everybody’s claim had to be reduced by a certain percentage. Plus, there had to be some way of accounting for the differing fertility of land.

Sardar Tarlok Singh came up with two measures, the standard acre and the graded cut, which dealt with these issues, and this is how:
A standard acre was defined as that amount of land which could yield ten to eleven maunds of rice. (A maund is about 40 kilograms.) In the dry, unirrigated districts of the east, four physical acres were equivalent to one standard acre; but in the lush “canal colonies” [where irrigation was strong], one physical acre was about equal to one standard acre. The innovative concept of the standard acre took care of the variations in soil and climate across the province.

The idea of the graded cut, meanwhile, helped overcome the large discrepancy between the land left behind by the refugees and the land now available to them – a gap that was close to million acres. For the first ten acres of any claim, a cut of 25% was implemented – thus one got only 7.5 acres instead of ten. For higher claims the cuts were steeper: 30% between ten and 30 acres, and on upward, so that those having more than 500 acres were taxed at the rate of 95%.
With this rule, there clearly were losers, and the losers, of course, were those who had once owned huge tracts of land. Here’s an ironic example:
The biggest single loser was a woman named Vidyawati who had inherited land (and lost) her husband’s estate of 11,500 acres spread across thirty-five villages of the Gujranwala and Sialkot districts. In compensation she was allotted mere 835 acres in a single village of Karnal.
Standard acre and graded gut are simple rules, but their simplicity helped in solving a complex, very large-scale land allotment problem that involved thousands of people. By November 1949, about a year and a half since the operation began, Tarlok Singh had made 250000 allotments distributed equitably across the districts of East Punjab. Not only that, “neighbors and families were resettled together, although the recreation of entire village communities proved impossible.” The resettlements were so successful that “by 1950, a depopulated countryside was alive once again.”

The sheer scale of the effort is mind-boggling. Imagine the paperwork, the records that had to be kept and retrieved; imagine the disputes, the flared tempers, the jealousies; but imagine most of all the perseverance, the unflagging determination. It is upon such efforts – largely ignored yet involving the sweat and toil of thousands – that nations are built.


Related notes:

1. Guha ends this section in the chapter poignantly. The resettlement, Guha says, may have been successful, but the general sense of loss could not be undone. The migrating Sikhs had left behind a beloved place of worship, Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of the founder of their faith, Guru Nanak. Muslims migrating from East Punjab too had left behind the town of Qadian, the center of the Ahmadiya sect of Islam; the Ahmadiya mosque was visible for miles around. Very few Muslims now lived in Qadian, which was full of Hindu and Sikh refugees. Guha quotes the editor of the Calcutta newspaper Statesman, who wrote that in both Qadian and Nankana Sahib there was “the conspicuous dearth of daily worshippers, the aching emptiness, the sense of waiting, of hope and…of faith fortified by humbling affliction.”

2. The picture shows a boy at a Delhi refugee camp in 1947. Here’s the source. The largest refugee camp, though, was at Kurukshetra, consisting of nearly 300,000 people. For their entertainment, film projectors were brought in and Disney specials featuring Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck were screened at night. It was, as one social worker described it, a “two-hour break from reality”.


ranjit said...

We have also left land in pakistan and in lieu of that we had been alloted 10 kanals 15 marlas in distt Gurdaspur. My father was in possession of this land till 1955 but due to flood prone area he left that place and settle at Village Akhara in District Jalandhar. We again appealed to Settlement Commissioner Jalandhar and he accepted the appeal stating that proof of allotment of land in Gurdas should be made available. We went to Gurdapur Tehsil many a time but could not ascertained any proof. We have not been allotted any land as yet.

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