Refugee Resettlement in Pakistani Punjab, 1947-62


A review of A Betrayed Promise? The Politics of the Everyday State and the Resettling of Refugees in Pakistani Punjab, 1947—62, by Elisabetta Iob.

This thesis forms part of the now large group of academic studies that focus on Pakistan in the period immediately following independence. Until the last decade or so, scholarship on India and Pakistan during the 1940s took the dawn of independence as an ending point; hardly any works focused on the immediate aftermath of independence and the struggles it brought with it. With her thesis, Elisabetta Iob’s makes good headway in correcting that imbalance, enabling us to understand the dynamics of refugee movement and resettlement in Pakistan in the years following 1947.

Excluding the introduction and conclusion, the thesis is divided into five major chapters, each dealing with a different aspect of the refugee issue. The introduction begins with the captivating story of Asif Ali Zardari once calling Nawaz Sharif a “migrant.” (p. 16). The slur almost immediately led to an uproar, especially since while West Punjab received a large number of refugees from what is now India in 1947, migrants in the Punjab were never generally referred to as ‘refugees.’ It is only in the Sindh province that the refugees (or mohajir) form a distinct group, one that often clashes with the more numerous Sindhi population and even the state.

The introduction clearly shows that Indian and Pakistani official statistics regarding the number of people who crossed the border during the partition cannot be taken at face value: the two governments had neither the mechanisms nor the ability to ascertain the actual numbers. Iob contends that, at times, as many as 80% of the claims concerning land, property or valuables lost during the partition were “either bogus or highly inflated.” (p. 23). She then charts the lengthy process of rehabilitation—involving committees, boards, joint councils, and government officials—that gave a semblance of order and a streamlined process to the chaos.

Drawing on the work of Paul Brass or Ian Talbot, the literature review charts the last days of the Raj, with a focus on the partition. Iob points out that the nature of partition violence remains undefined: was “the Spring to Autumn violence of 1947 a case of genocide? Or ethnic cleansing? Or, even, a new form of violence?” (p. 37). Situating the refugees’ arrival in Pakistan in this context, she rightly points out that the challenges of their rehabilitation have never been adequately researched and assessed. Her thesis aims to address this from two angles: first, questioning the narrative that has “consistently portrayed the resettlement and rehabilitation of refugees as a smooth, successful and biraderi-homogenous process” in the Punjab; and secondly, examining how a revisionist approach to the question might “affect our understanding of the early years of Pakistan’s political history?” (pp. 45-47).

Chapter 1 focuses on the “everyday” dimension of partition, the violence it precipitated, and its effect on people. Using material from Lahore and Multan in an almost novel-like narrative, Iob describes the hardening of communal identities and the constant flux and renegotiation of political ideas in the run-up to partition. She argues that “everyday life in the Punjab was thus gripped by a paralysis that resonated in the socially as well as politically-perceived indeterminateness of the idea of Pakistan” (p. 77).

By the autumn of 1947, the refugee crisis was in full swing. Chapter 2 investigates how the refugee community initially negotiated ideas of belonging, nation, caste and biraderi—in short, how the West Punjabi migrants became “better integrated into their new—local—social, political and institutional milieu” (p. 92). Iob shows how quickly the refugees began to explore their new role as migrants to a new land, and began demanding rights and privileges. Their protests for basic camp amenities and swift resettlement shows how “the progressive shift from the status of a subject to that of an citizen [quickly became] apparent” (p. 98). The arrival of refugees not only overwhelmed the services and government, but also the people and society in places like Lahore. Hence, “a whole social imaginary had to be reshaped and reframed” (p. 102). The chapter also investigates how emotions changed and affected the refugees and others around them. Leaving their ancestral home and coming to a strange place did not mean that their new house would easily become a home. Iob notes how some refugees even returned to their ancestral places—challenging notions of the new “home” they were supposed to now occupy (p. 109). The challenges of allocating land and housing to refugees form the focus of the rest of the chapter. Several committees tried to manage this large-scale process, while the refugees tried to find a sense of belonging and citizenship.

Chapter 3 focuses on how the Pakistani bureaucracy came to terms with the refugee crisis. Iob argues that the “Pakistani bureaucracy was not a monolithic, somehow tyrannical and independent institution” (pp. 134-35). The mayhem of the partition forced it to start a herculean task from scratch: assessing the claims of millions of refugees and adequately resettling them. Section 2 of the chapter investigates “the ‘instrumentality’ of patronage dynamics at a moment when the state and its administrative cadres were failing to establish clear rules and regulations” (p.147). Iob makes use of newspaper records (especially letters to the editor) and Punjab Assembly debates to argue that new patronage networks were created, through which the more resourceful refugees got land and property allocated to them. Hence, during this formative phase the “Pakistani bureaucracy stemmed from and was shaped around personal and ‘informal’ systems of allocation of resources” (p. 150). As a result, “trust, reliability and reputation […]  had all to be reframed and regained after the dislocating fallouts of partition” (p. 150). The chapter ends on the first signs of the assertion of a distinct refugee voice and identity within the larger Pakistani and Punjabi milieu.

Chapter 4 investigates how the refugee identity emerged in Pakistan—especially the Punjab—due to the rehabilitation process. It assesses the period leading up to the 1951 provincial elections and examines the emergence of a peculiarly “stable and workable political system” in the early days of Pakistan (p. 167). Iob finely charts the way in which refugees were re-settled in geographical pockets, constituencies were delimited, and refugee seats were created. In the process, she weaves an intricate and complicated story of how the refugees negotiated their political voice in the nascent country.

The final chapter further contextualises the refugees within the larger framework of Pakistan and Indo-Pakistan relations. The chapter begins with the tussle between the centre and the Punjab (and later all the provinces) over the practicalities for the settlement of refugees. Resignations, back-and-forth files, confusion over responsibility, and the sheer lack of resources, critically shaped the “establishment” in those early years of Pakistan, Iob argues. The chapter also takes us beyond the debates of the central Constituent Assembly to argue that the real work of refugee rehabilitation was done by local officials, who often used a confusing combination of ordinances, the creation of new entities, and personal connections for the purpose. Iob argues that it was “refugees, their resettlement and their rehabilitation on land [that] had set the tone for the way in which the two states [India and Pakistan] would think of themselves and their mutual relations in years to come” (p. 231). She further shows how “any news concerning evacuee property usually cast a chill over both the governments of India and Pakistan. Authorities avoided each other in order not to deal with the topic” (p. 236).

The conclusion argues for a more nuanced understanding of the first few years of Pakistan. A few things come out forcefully. First, the refugee rehabilitation process in the Punjab was not as easy and trouble free as hitherto understood. Second, the process involved much more than merely relocating refugees. Third, local sources of authority were challenged and reshaped during this formative phase, a time when the bureaucracy in Pakistan had “lethal weaknesses” (p. 249). The networks of patronage that developed due to this weakness would set the tone for both Punjab and Pakistan politics in the years to come. Interestingly, Iob argues that these patronage networks, which outsiders might characterise as “corruption”, were in fact “‘sustainable’ as well as suiting the needs of a state in-the-making” (p. 250). Fourth, refugees played an important role in the 1951 Punjab provincial elections, something that had hitherto not been investigated properly. Iob argues here that “…biraderi were not the only ace up candidates’ sleeves. A substantial share of the votes that the future members of the Punjab Assembly scraped together resulted from promises of material benefits to single individuals who were unrelated to the candidates themselves,” (pp. 251-52), i.e. the refugees, in most cases. Thus, in some ways, despite problems, the local branch of the Muslim League was in fact “working”, Iob contends. Finally, the thesis gives us a rare insight into how refugees negotiated their role as citizens in the new Pakistan polity, helping to shape it in the process.

This thesis has great potential and, when revised and published, will certainly improve our understanding of Pakistan and its early years. A lot of work has been done on the partition in the Punjab but very few works have delved into the rehabilitation of the Punjabi refugees, especially on the Pakistan side of the province. Iob’s work also improves our understanding of Pakistan’s “formative phase”, as Khalid bin Sayeed put it (Pakistan: The Formative Phase, 1857—1948. Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1968). This will surely complement my own scholarship on the princely states (Yaqoob Khan Bangash, A Princely Affair: The Accession and Integration of the Princely States of Pakistan, 1947—55. Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2015) as well as the works of Vazira Zamindar (The Long Partition and the Making of Modern South Asia. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), Pallavi Raghavan (“The Finality of Partition: Bilateral Relations between India and Pakistan, 1947- 1957”. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Cambridge, 2012) and Haimanti Roy (Partitioned Lives: Migrants, Refugees and Citizens in India and Pakistan, 1947—65. Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2013).

Yaqoob Khan Bangash
Chairman, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Director, Centre for Governance and Policy
IT University of the Punjab, Lahore, Pakistan

Primary Sources

India Office Library, UK.
National Archives at Kew, UK.
US National Archives, College Park, USA.
Punjab Civil Secretariat Library, Lahore, Pakistan.
Multan District Records, Pakistan.

Dissertation Information

Royal Holloway, University of London. 2013. 277pp. Supervisor: Dr Sarah Ansari.

Image: Wagah border. Photo by Author.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like