Locating state in ‘non-state’ spaces


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IN the past decade, Indian and Pakistani state level relations have taken dramatic turns – nuclear testing in 1998, the Kargil war in 1999, cricket bonhomie in early 2000s and so on. By now it has become a familiar story of ebbs and flows with an occasional sense of betrayal by one or both sides. This fast changing tide between the two states leaves observers, analysts, and even ordinary people residing in the two countries on a less than sure footing. Against this background, the Punjabi migrants who were forcibly displaced from their homelands in 1947 – Hindus and Sikhs from West Punjab and Muslims from East Punjab – constitute a particular community whose collective past is tied up with places located across the often hostile borders.

The obvious question then is – Do Punjabi migrants in both the counties relate to their former homelands exclusive of the state level Indo-Pak politics? The answers depend on the way the questions are framed to the respondents, that is, focusing on Pakistan may elicit a different response than when asked about Punjab. This essay argues that often the role of states in creating popular discourses is underestimated. The creation of a dominating discourse around high-pitched nationalism, patriotism and territorial integrity may sideline counter-discourses.

After the forced movement in 1947, the migrants were faced with two challenges. One, to successfully compete for space in Delhi was a mode of claiming locality; the other, and equally important, was to conclude the relationship with their former homeland. This conclusion does not necessarily involve bringing the relationship to an end; rather, it suggests a coming to terms with the past. An important aspect emerging during my fieldwork interviews was about the significant influence that the government’s stance had on personal views. It was not just personal aspirations that framed the responses; the very aspirations were framed vis-à-vis the given situation of Indo-Pakistan relations.


My fieldwork in refugee resettlement colonies located in East, West and South Delhi – Rajinder Nagar, Ramesh Nagar, Lajpat Nagar Old Double Storey and Gandhi Nagar – took place between two important junctures of Indo-Pak relations. The first set of interviews was conducted after the 1999 Kargil conflict, when Pakistan allegedly initiated the fourth ‘war’ between India and Pakistan while the peace talks were still going on. The immediate background of the interviews was framed by the 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament building in New Delhi.

The follow-up interviews took place in the shadow of thawing Indo-Pak relations in 2004-5, when the cricket teams from both countries visited each other on goodwill tours, bus services through the Wagah border were resumed, and several entry points on the line of actual control (LOC) in Kashmir were opened up in a historic breakthrough following the earthquake affecting both sides. The responses differed in these contrasting political scenarios, particularly with respect to how freely the respondents could express themselves without conjoining the issues of patriotism and nationalism with their remembrance of homeland.

A question I repeatedly posed was, ‘Would you like to visit Pakistan?’ My purpose was to find out if there were any emotional nostalgic ties that bound the refugees with their former homelands. It was a double-edged question that expressed a historical reality: that the former homelands were no longer situated in an accessible territory but were sovereign parts of an enemy country.

I often asked the same question in another way: ‘Would you like to visit your ancestral village/town?’ This would invariably lead to a deeply felt affirmative and a sense of nostalgia when a number of happy anecdotes from childhood or youth would be recounted. But presenting these places as Pakistan changed the response considerably. At once those places stopped being the ‘home’ that the narrators fondly remembered. The word ‘Pakistan’ encompassed the entire chain of events – of violence, loss and forced movement – that had brought them to Delhi in the first place. It also evoked a popular discourse about Hindu-Muslim polarity and the unbridgeable gaps that led to a Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India.

Right-wing Hindu politics is based on an imagery of Muslims as violent, untrustworthy and domineering males, who have for centuries tried to suppress and alter the Hindu way of life. The territorial break-up of British India and the emergence of Pakistan are seen as an assault on the sacred body of Mother India, the imagined female goddess representing the Indian nation.


These encapsulated beliefs were invoked when Pakistan was mentioned rather than specific names of ancestral places. In the survey format, this question was posed in two parts, neither of which mentioned the name of any place. The place was substituted by the word ‘home’, indicating a habitual space delinked from any specific territory.

The first question simply asked if the respondents had visited their homes since they had left during Partition. Over 80% responded that they had not. The second question asked if they would like to visit their home in the near future. The answer was mixed, with 60% saying that they did not want to go, while the rest expressed a hesitant affirmation. Though the possibility of answers in the survey questionnaire was limited to two choices – yes or no – the answer was arrived at with plenty of debate not just about one’s personal wish but about Hindu-Muslim relations in general, the political situation between India and Pakistan, the injustices and crimes committed during Partition, perceived betrayal by their Muslim neighbours or friends, and so on. The answer, therefore, was never an either/or, and most people took a long time to arrive at either of these conclusions.


Many questioned whether it was ‘correct’ to visit Pakistan as it was an enemy country now. And for many others it was a question of economics and accessibility, which is why they had not even considered the possibility. This leads us to dual levels of analysis. One is about the collective memories of Partition where the Muslims had ‘betrayed’ the Hindus and carved out a territory for themselves. The other is about the differences in the social class of the refugees that influenced their decision to travel or not. The master narrative of Partition resulting from the collective mind became a source of conflict, since the refugees had to choose between conforming to the widespread belief – that Pakistan was an enemy and therefore a visit there would be taboo – or saying aloud what they personally wished. They risked disapproval with the second choice. This inner conflict became clear when people thought aloud about the right or wrong of visiting their former homes. The open-ended interviews brought out this conflict more openly, as in the following example.

‘The place has been defiled by the Muslims. We cannot have a good relationship with them until they change their ways of living. They are dirty and untrustworthy. They are just opposite to everything Hindus stand for. We worship the sun rising in the East, but they worship Mecca in the West. We wash down from head to toe, but they wash their feet first. We eat individually with ritual purification, but they eat together from a common platter. There is nothing for us to go back to. It is not the same anymore. Everything has changed. No Hindus live there anymore. We have brought the tree and the statue from the local temple in Dera Ismail Khan to create our place of worship here’ (personal interview with members of Dera Ismail Khan Seva Samiti, New Delhi, February 2000).


Evidently, the question is not just about belonging to a place that was once their homeland – it is also about the defilement of that place. While the place remains where it was, it no longer represents the pure space that the Hindus had once inhabited. It is now occupied by the Muslims who are impure and untrustworthy. The spatial purity and, therefore, a natural sense of belonging no longer exist. Mary Douglas (2002: 9) suggests that ‘…sacred things and places are to be protected from defilement’ and such a distinction can be made visible on the grounds of hygiene and cleanliness. Thus, a clear diametrical opposition between Hindus and Muslims exists which can be demonstrated in the everyday practices related to food, personal hygiene and rituals of worship.

The Hindu exodus from that place somehow emptied it of the purified space which they had constructed and maintained through their continued presence. Such practices were no longer a part of that abandoned physical geography. But there were sacred objects, like the tree in the temple and the statue, which were an integral part of their lifestyle and could not, therefore, be left behind. The tree was uprooted and the idol dismantled to be taken along for the long journey. This was not done till it became certain that the movement was permanent and there was no possibility of return. A new scared space was constructed in Delhi where the tree was replanted and the idol ritually reinstalled. In this way, the sacred was partially protected through movement, though the sacredness of the place could not be similarly ensured.

Following Douglas, a correlation between sacredness and belonging can be constructed: that is, identifiable objects that could be protected from defilement remained symbols of belonging within the community. On the other hand, the place could not be protected from defilement at the hands of the Muslim occupants, and was thus considered unfit for any further association. There was a sense of pride at having saved the tree and the idol from Muslim touch, which also allowed them to be the symbols of collective belonging, whereas this pride was completely absent because of the failure to protect their right for continued existence in their ancestral land.


This failure had, in a way, made the association with the place difficult, of which a Muslim-dominated DI Khan remained as living proof. This ambivalent relationship with the former homeland does not hold for the second-generation Punjabis in Delhi. There is often a sense of curiosity to see the place where their parents once lived. This feeling abounds even in the face of tragedy as recounted by a 40-year-old man. A part of the curiosity was the fact that Pakistan was never discussed in their home and their father rarely talked about his own family or life in Pakistan.

‘My father lived in Sargodha district of Pakistan and was the only son in the family. He had seven sisters before him and was much pampered by his parents. My grandfather was a trader and a stockist of sugar and blankets. At the time of the Partition, my father was 13 years old and four of his older sisters had been married off. When the violence started in their locality, my grandmother ran away with him as she wanted to save her only son. My grandfather was killed while trying to save his three unmarried daughters. He did not succeed. They were raped and then murdered. My grandmother and my father joined a refugee caravan and reached Delhi. She had managed to bring half a kilo of gold along. She rented a room in Paharganj and we lived off the gold for a while. She was very afraid. She never went to any government agency for compensation or help. She was uneducated and terrified of the events that had taken place. She just wanted to live a low-profile life. My father began going to a school and started working part-time after Class 10. He was married off to my mother, who also came from a refugee family.

‘My father would never talk about his past life. He had some fears and would not allow us to go too far off. Fate has been good to him. We are seven brothers and one sister, but my father would never tell anyone how many of us there are. He fears "evil spirits". I came to know all this from my mother and grandmother. She never met her four married daughters. Nobody knows what happened to them. My father has an emotional attachment to his place. He says if he is taken there, he will recognise everything. I want to go to Pakistan to see how it is; perhaps even to my father’s old home. When I applied for a visa I was denied, so I could not go’ (personal interview with Rajesh Babbar, 2002, New Delhi).

This narrative contains some typical characteristics that may define the response of the refugees upon movement. Life in Pakistan was comfortable since his grandfather was a successful trader. The grandmother took grave risks to save her son as he was the one who would continue the family in future. She had some assets to bring along – half a kilogram of gold – which saw them through hard times. As an uneducated widow, and thus a powerless person, she was afraid to approach any strangers, including government officials. There was a clear breach of trust that made her wary of unknown people. Her sole focus was on her son, his education and later his marriage, which was solemnised with a girl also from a refugee family. Some of these features appear in most of the personal stories in a variety of ways.


The narrative also contains some untypical characteristics like open admission of rape of young daughters that took place during the violence. Such episodes are often hidden and rarely spoken of in public: even more so when the grandfather, the chief male figure, fails to protect his daughters from such humiliation. There is no heroism attached to this male figure and, therefore, no fond anecdotes attached to his persona. He is remembered as the one who fought but was killed in the process. The focus turns to the grandmother, who took grave risks to secure her son’s life and his future. She rarely encountered government officials as she did not make any claim for compensation. Most of the people I came across during my fieldwork had staked their claim for compensation in one way or the other. This woman though had not even registered herself as a refugee and, therefore, never figured in the refugee-related statistics. This shows that there may be many more individuals and families who never followed the route of refugee registration and the long arduous wait for compensation.


Another unusual aspect in this narrative is that the events related to violence and migration are rarely told in the family. The father, who as a young child was rescued instead of his sisters by the mother, remains quiet and stoic about this side of his personal history. The silence is broken only when he inexplicably stops his children from going far away from the house. His past experiences become visible in his protective behaviour when he zealously shields his children from any possible danger. He refrains from counting their number in public for he fears that his personal and is family’s happiness would be endangered. This is an unusual account because most narratives aim at establishing the heroic aspects of one’s personal experiences. Such publicly acknowledged fears reveal a fragile human being who is vulnerable and not always in control of the situation. This is far from how most of the Punjabi men like to depict themselves and their forefathers.

What makes this narrative most interesting is the explicit lack of hostility to Pakistan, especially since the narrator belongs to an upper caste, middle class Hindu background. This average profile would ordinarily be associated with supporters of the right-wing Hindu political groups that profess hatred towards Pakistan. The narrator does not disclaim his Hindu origins and is far from agnostic. The journey he wants to make to Pakistan is a religious one, even though it is a Sikh shrine that he intends to visit. There remains a profound level of curiosity to see the place his father came from. It is only the inaccessibility – through denial of a visa – that stops him from pursuing this goal.

There are some for whom travel documents and resources are not a problem. Such practical hurdles are of no consequence for the rich or the upper middle classes among the migrants. Their responses also vary considerably. Kuldip Nayar, born in 1924, is a migrant from Sialkot in Pakistan. He is an acclaimed author and journalist, having edited one of India’s biggest newspapers, The Indian Express. He has maintained his links with Pakistan through continued relationships and routine visits. He has actively been pursuing the peace dialogue between India and Pakistan and routinely organises visits to Pakistan by Indians and vice versa.

Nayar aims to end hostilities between the two countries through ‘people to people contact’ or what is popularly called the track II diplomacy, wherein the ordinary people communicate instead of the government officials of the two sides. As he says, ‘We are one people. We eat the same food, wear same clothes and have similar culture. The Partition was political and did not have people’s support. The people still have links with each other and visit when possible’ (personal interview, 2001, New Delhi).


This view is poles apart from that expressed by the members of the DI Khan Society, where Muslims are seen as an impure opposite of their pure ritualised selves. It is remarkable that the Hindu-Muslim relationship is viewed in such opposing ways, where, on one side the Muslims appear as the irreconcilable Other to the Hindus, while on the other Hindus and Muslims are seen as a single being with more commonalities than differences. What differentiates these two beliefs is the class background that plays a significant role in enabling continuity of contact with the former homelands. While for one class, technical difficulties like obtaining visas and financial support for travel pose no problem, for the other this often emerges as the chief hurdle.

These differing stances – on visiting the homeland in Pakistan – found a common ground when in 2004-5 the two inimical states decided to allow greater access to the ordinary people to visit the other country. The governmental sanction to visit the erstwhile enemy changed the popular discourse considerably, even though people in Delhi still expressed mistrust of the Pakistani government on security issues. Those respondents who were reluctant to claim their lost linkages with Pakistan, like the members of the DI Khan Society, were now less guarded in the changed political circumstances. The government-sponsored peace initiative had overnight elevated Indo-Pak peace from fringe dream to actual reality. This impacted the relationship of Punjabi migrants with their former homeland in two ways: one, easier accessibility to Pakistani visa enabled many, for the first time, to seriously probe possibilities of visiting Pakistan, and two, there was little political risk attached to visiting or even publicly discussing the wish to visit Pakistan once the Indian government was seen as supportive.

The prospect of travelling across the Indo-Pak border was now open to a larger section of society rather than being limited to the well-placed, elite social segment. The only deterrence now was the travel cost that, needless to add, few among the lower middle class could actually afford. The dramatically changed discourse on Pakistan, most importantly, points to the power of state or state-like authorities in determining the nature of such discourses.


* The author’s recent works include, Since 1947: Narratives of Punjabi Migrants in Delhi (OUP, 2007, forthcoming) and Religion, Violence and Political Mobilisation in South Asia (Sage, 2005).