Embracing 'Refugee-istan': A Look at Delhi's Refugee History and Why It Must Continue

This article draws on the critical role of partition refugees in Delhi's cultural and economic history to assert that assimilating refugees contributes to state-building economically and culturally. It begins by reviewing the Relief and Rehabilitation Policy of 1948 in the capital, its push to make refugees "self-sufficient," and the enterprising refugees' economic contributions to the city. The commentary touches on the material and social "refugee resources" and "state-building" argument as postulated by Jacobsen and her contemporaries to conclude that if there is anything to be learnt from Delhi's history and scholarship, it is that investing in refugees flourishes the cities they reside in.


Delhi, as we know it today, was built by refugees. Modern Delhi has blossomed from the buds of refugee camps that lined its peripheries following the partition. Be it north Delhi’s largest refugee settlement, Kingsway Camp (today GTB Nagar), central Delhi’s Khan Market, south Delhi’s Malviya Nagar, Nizamuddin, Lajpat Nagar, Kalkaji, Jangpura, and Defence Colony, or west Delhi’s Rajinder Nagar, West Patel Nagar, Moti Nagar, and Rajouri Garden (Alluri and Bhatia n d)—all these self-contained colonies are refugee patronages to the national capital.

            In August 1947, Delhi opened itself to nearly half a million refugees overnight (Raj and Sehgal 1961). With around 30%[1] of the city’s population being displaced persons (Pandey 1997), not just the allocated areas but the whole town could be said to have begun resembling a refugee camp. Every inch of the national capital increasingly looked like “refugee-istan,” opined Ibadat Barelvi after returning to the city in 1948 (Pandey 1997: 2270). Descriptions of the city evidence this in reporting people throned in camps, schools, colleges, temples, military barracks, gardens, railway platforms, streets, pavements, and every other conceivable space (Datta 1997).
            A look at refugee assimilation in Delhi post 1947 is therefore both unique and critical since it was the most overwhelming time for the state to home the displaced and also the only instance of the government adopting a formal refugee policy and administrative framework to do so. A luxury other refugees who arrived later did not have. As research shows, for refugees to positively contribute to the state, a humane and integrated policy needs to be in place to assimilate the refugees and make them self-sufficient. To highlight this, the paper outlines the national capital's experience under the government's Relief and Rehabilitation Policy of 1948 and its impacts. It reviews the literature that demonstrates how similar policies are beneficial in the long run for both the refugees and the state.



            While the partition was a crucible for modern India, it is safe to say that this was especially true for its sprawling capital. In the Delhi census figures, between 1941–51, Delhi’s population shot up by a staggering 90%, while the rest of the country saw a 13% increase (Raj and Sehgal 1961). How India’s leaders would manage refugees following 1947 would shape the city’s fabric moving forward. Opportunely, they treated the task of accommodating refugees with the gravity of a “national emergency” (Prime Minister’s Office 1948: 12), a sincerity reflected in the government’s Relief and Rehabilitation Policy of 1948. Datta (1993) lauded this sentiment by stating that it was because of the leaders at the time that the ministry of rehabilitation was pressed to pursue a “humane, enlightened, and realistic policy.”

            Although the policy avowed to accommodate refugees in many ways, the priority was this—make refugees self-sufficient. Happening against the backdrop of the exodus following the partition, the government understood that the sudden and glaring gaps in the economy had to be filled through housing, educating, and uplifting the refugees. The rehabilitation policy progressed accordingly.

            The Indian government’s best bid to make refugees independent was properly rehabilitating them. Therefore, the focus was on settling the displaced in evacuated housing, newly constructed houses in independent townships, or distributing plots in areas such as the New Delhi extension, Shadipur, Malka Ganj, Nizamuddin, Jangpura, Regharpura, and GTB Nagar (Prime Minister’s Office 1948: 28). Mohan Lal Saksena, the then union minister of rehabilitation, addressed that “Urban refugees are nearly two million. Housing is their biggest problem. [...] wherever a campsite is available, efforts will be made to develop it into an urban settlement” (Prime Minister’s Office 1948: 40). By the end of 1950, the government had allotted nearly 2,958 acres and housed three lakh refugees,[2] 1,90,000 in evacuated houses and 1,00,000 in newly constructed houses (Datta 1993: 290).

            Aside from the Herculean task of resettling millions, the government also set up a Rehabilitation Finance Administration to oversee monetary aid to refugees who needed it. Delhi’s province specifically received 21 lakh rupees, today 23.7 crore rupees, for small shopkeepers, relief schemes, grants, loans to students, and those who wanted to start businesses (Prime Minister’s Office 1948: 24). This aid was in tandem with the state delegating houses, shops, educational centres, and industrial enterprises.

            This is not to say that the policy implementation was faultless, especially in the refugee camps. Zakir Husain, then politician and later the third president of India, remarked on the conditions in the Purana Qila camp that housed nearly one lakh people: “Those who had made it to the camp had escaped from ‘sudden death’ […] to be ‘buried in a living grave’” (Azad 1959 as cited in Pandey 1997). Despite an acute shortage of daily essentials like water, food, housing, sewage, sanitation, and transport, the refugees persisted. Some more than others. Records show that not all refugee camps were equal. In the already unsatisfactory conditions of camps, Muslim-dominated settlements fared worse. Drawing from Anis Qidwai’s extensive work in camps, Pandey (1997: 2265) discerns that sometimes Muslim refugees did not even receive the same quality of state aid as their Hindu and Sikh counterparts. In one instance, the official Relief Committee of Delhi was told to only tend to Pakistan’s Hindu and Sikh refugees.[3]

            Inequalities also erected along class lines. The government’s self-rehabilitation policy towards refugees functioned to uphold refugees who were affluent enough not to need state support to resettle while leaving the less fortunate by the wayside. As Kaur (2009) describes, at the beginning of the resettling process in Delhi’s refugee registration office, people were sifted into categories of resource-rich and poor. The former was given concrete-built old military barracks to live in, while the latter was sent to camps with World War II’s tents for housing. Such glaring loopholes perpetuated not only the communal divide between the displaced but also class[4] divides.



            It is perhaps then that the translation of refugees’ perseverance into entrepreneurship is acclaimed across literature (Datta 1993; Jacobsen 2002; Kaur 2009; Pandey 1997; Roy 2018; TNN 2010). Mohanlal Saksena expressed his premonition that the energy, courage, enterprise, and self-reliance he witnessed in refugees would possibly pioneer “the new social order” (Saksena n d as cited in Kaur 2009). In truth, with everyone lost to them, those displaced had no option but to make a living.

            Let us take Old Delhi’s 17th century established Chandni Chowk. The market today is as much an embodiment of Delhi as it is one of the refugee enterprises. Shahid Ahmad Dehlvi commented on the refugee dominion in the chowk following partition, stating that every bazaar had several bazaars because refugees put up stalls everywhere selling all kinds of goods. Dehlvi noted that Chandni Chowk suddenly had seven markets, two of the old “asal” residents and five by refugees (Pandey 1997: 2269). On the flipside, central Delhi’s Khan Market, a relatively younger and more affluent face of the city, is also a refugee benefaction. One of its most iconic shops famous for its social capital, Faqir Chand and Sons, was set up by a Peshawari refugee who came to Delhi in 1948. He built a bookstore after the rehabilitation ministry granted him the space in the then-upcoming refugee colony, today’s Khan Market (Lakhani 2019). The bookshop is today run by his granddaughter.

            Shanta Chopra, a refugee herself from Rawalpindi, recounts the story of her acquaintance as follows: “‘There was this zemindar from Pakistan we knew who had come to Delhi after losing everything. He would sell soaps at cost price on the pavement and then in the evening sell the soap cases for a rupee each, making Rs 20-30 by the end of the day.’ The old traders of Delhi not used to a life of struggle could not always keep up and it was mainly the industrious refugees who gave a fillip to trade in Delhi — the Multan hardware stores and Karachi halwa stands are witnesses to ‘refugee’ enterprise till this day.” (TNN 2010).

            As the Nehru government had hoped, refugees gradually filled the gaps in the market, boosting the city economically. Datta (1993) extensively records how Delhi’s newcomers worked as hawkers, vendors, mechanics, carpenters, blacksmiths, and tinsmiths and began improving their standard of living and, by extension, the city’s too. While 70% of displaced persons undertook trade, transport, and services, 20% worked in manufacturing, and the rest were absorbed in construction and public utilities. This tenacity for creating a new life for oneself from scratch is reflected in Delhi’s census figures as the residents in refugee camps began declining almost a year after the partition, shining a light on how fast refugees become self-sufficient when rehabilitated adequately by the state. Their capability is also reflected in the increased proportion of Delhi’s earning dependents than before the partition (Datta 1993). The capital gradually watched its displaced person colonies turn into bustling hubs of cultural and economic enterprise that rapidly urbanised the city and its nascent satellite towns, making the city what it is today.




            This brings us to the present day. UNHCR’s (nd a) Indian branch has registered 46,000 refugees and asylum-seekers, many of whom reside in Delhi. However, unlike their 1947 predecessors, refugees today arrive to a patchwork of international commitments (such as the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the 1966 International Convention on Civil and Political Rights), ticky legislation, and underfunded civil society organisations and not a proper refugee policy. Moreover, with India firmly against signing the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol, refugees are at the mercy of a state increasingly merciless to their plight. Delhi specially, at a distance from its refugee roots for 75 years now, is agnostic to accommodating refugees. The host community’s primary concern is that displaced people would tap into the already limited pool of resources such as land, jobs, resources, and culture. All while many from the host community suffer poverty themselves.

            However, Delhi’s current residents must shift their perspective from one of fear of scarcity to hope for abundance. Jacobsen (2002) finds that, when adequately included, refugees improve the host community’s standard of living. They do it in two main ways. First, they bring a wealth of human capital that contributes to the economy through their labour, skills, entrepreneurship, and remittances. This, in turn, expands the receiving area’s economic capacity and productivity. The second boost to the economy, unique to the refugees, comes through the international humanitarian assistance displaced persons bring. Between 2014 and 2021, UNHCR alone has spent $57.2 million , or 438 crores rupees, on India (UNHCR nd b). This figure does not consider any funding that India might have received bilaterally or in the form of other charitable donations. These international funds inevitably trickle down into the host community (Jacobsen 2002; Khoudour and Andersson 2017; Taylor et al 2016).

            Refugees also bring “refugee resources” that are material, social, and political in nature (Jacobsen 2002). These contribute to state-building for the host state and its citizens. In general, all refugees make material contributions to the economy. At a macro level, they produce a demand for consumption, even if for the daily essentials, which facilitates a supply response from the host community, fitting into the local GDP chain (Khoudour and Andersson 2017). From a supply lens, even the most excluded refugees, such as Rohingya, work as ragpickers, cleaners, and rickshaw drivers, among other jobs that contribute to the daily wage market. Taylor et al's (2016) micro-survey in Rwanda found that within a 10-kilometre radius, a refugee increases total real income by $253 annually. This is equal to 96% of the average host country's per capita income around the camps.

Such examples of refugee-driven local growth highlight the importance of state intervention and initiatives towards building the capacity of refugees. Positive trends in local growth allow for further targeted policymaking, as has been shown in other countries. Khoudour and Andersson (2017) illustrate through multiple case studies that countries which properly accommodate refugees inevitably see growth. The case of Uganda, which grants refugees freedom of movement, working permits, public education, healthcare, and small plots of land for refugees to farm, saw "increased land productivity and consumption of goods and services within the local economies." Conversely, countries such as Lebanon that deny refugees even basic residence in camps saw a "negative impact on the labour market." Therefore, how states house refugees determine the economic and social success they will receive in turn (ibid, Jacobsen 2002; Taylor et al 2016).
            Furthermore, as seen in the case of partition refugees, displaced people not only contribute to the economy but also help urbanise the locales they settle in. The area surrounding the refugee settlements organically develops since refugees offer so much human capital to their host nation. The Delhi census recounts how “large scale constructional activities, authorised and unauthorised” began to accommodate the influx of population in the national capital. In a short span of 20 years, between 1951 and 1971, 88 villages were urbanised (Gandotra 1977: 20). As aforementioned, the international assistance by itself ends up “benefiting the local community through improvements in infrastructure in the areas of water, health, roads, etc” (UNHCR 1999 as cited in Jacobsen 2002).

            While political resources are outside the ambit of this paper, a simple and yet striking example of refugees’ social capital is Delhi’s famous food heritage. Roy’s (2018) case study outlines how Delhi’s localities are often identified with the residing communities and their cuisine. While the descendants of the Mughal dynasty continue the famous Mughlai kebabs, biryani, and nihari in Old Delhi, the Bengali refugee families from Bangladesh have stimulated a love for sweets and fish fry in Chittaranjan Park, the Afghan families have introduced rote, phirni, and falafel burger to Lajpat Nagar, Somali refugees have brought in their expertise to Khirki (ibid), and Tibetian refugees have garnered a love for thukpa, tingmo, and laphing.



            If there is anything to be learnt from Delhi’s history and the literature’s emphasis on policy, it is that investing in refugees empowers the state. The often-negative discourse around refugees and its focus on how much they rely on "dole-outs" from the government and taxpayers’ money for survival needs a thorough revaluation. The focus must shift from how much refugees take to how much they give in return.

Delhi’s leaders need to embody the same vision and ideas that their predecessors adopted to make the city what it is today. A critical note for policymakers here is to not resort to communal and xenophobic rancour and instead formulate humanitarian and empowering refugee policies. The year 1947 was perhaps the only instance of India pursuing a formal and holistic refugee policy that sought to empower the refugees. Today, while India remains a non-signatory of refugee conventions, state governments can still consider accommodating refugees in their individual capacity. An example of this is the Tamil Nadu government which constructed 7,469 houses, provides free education to children of such refugee families, and even gives cash doles to Sri Lankan refugees (Ministry of Home Affairs 2021).

At the centre of any resultant refugee policy, formal or informal, has to be the intention to make refugees self-sufficient. To facilitate such an independence, refugees must be assimilated amongsl the host community and not in isolated camps cut off from the city (Jacobsen 2002), as is the current scenario in Delhi. They must have access to the formal and informal labour market alongside access to education. Only then can they offer their "refugee resources" and enterprise to the town, all while flourishing as a diaspora themselves.

Today, the city is better placed to accommodate refugees than it was at the dawn of the nation’s birth. It has fewer people to home, better infrastructure, and more resources at its disposal. To accommodate refugees in Delhi today is to keep its traditions of embracing everyone alive. To evict and deport those looking to make a better life is to divorce the city from its character.




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