Oral History Narratives from Partition 1947-The Dalit Experience

 Akanksha Kumar


Partition of the Indian sub- continent in 1947 resulted in the biggest forced migration in history; never before had so many people exchanged their homes in such a short span of time. Post partition studies of refugee experiences largely include generalized accounts of memory, narrative, experiences of violence, genocide and so on. The present article seeks to examine the validity of oral history as a source for covering the experience of Dalits within this largest migration in history.

Focus on refugee experiences and actions during and after the partition reveal a significant historiographical shift in theorizing the nature of migrations induced by the partition, posing questions on the nature of its homogeneity/ heterogeneity. For instance, the recent emphasis on oral history narratives as a means of recovering the experiences of partition has also revealed the presence of master narratives that may exclude or marginalize narratives of other groups.[i] I used this technique of oral historyas the methodology to extract the history of Dalit migrants from their own accounts.

The purpose here is to draw attention to narratives which have not been adequately dealt with in the historiography of the partition refugees so far. Archival records refer to the Dalit refugees as ‘displaced Harijans’. I use the term Dalit refugees in the present paper in adherence to the contemporary framework of Dalit historiography. Dalit refugees are most certainly not a homogenous category, neither are their experiences; but the fact that they have collectively not been part of the mainstream makes allows them to be discussed together.[ii] Dalits who migrated to West Punjab and Delhi were from many different sub castes, groups with distinct identities and caste professions. For example, many of them were ‘ex- Criminal Tribes’ in West Punjab till the ‘Criminal Tribes Act’ was repealed in 1952. The ‘criminal tribe’ refugees were later added to the list of schedule castes.[iii]

Partition writings have extensively and somewhat exclusively dealt with violence and genocide during and after partition. Urvashi Butalia (1998), Karuna Chanana, (1993)Charu Gupta (2005), Ritu Menon, Kamla Bhasin (1998), and others make additions to this literature. Gyanedra Pandey(2001) moves beyond ‘official history’ of partition and focuses on the dislocated populations and violence; Joya Chaterjee (2009) does a similar exercise for the partition of Bengal. All these authors have used oral history to a large extent to explore and deconstruct the experience of women during partition. Some of these feminist writings were aspirational for my work on Dalit refugees through oral history. Scholars like Alessandro Portelli (1998) and Thompson (1998) have given important insights on how memory is ‘not a passive depository of texts but an active process of creation of meanings’ (Portelli 1998). Although oral history can be challenging as a source and it might be difficult to arrive at generalized conclusions, the expectation here is that they will shed light on the Dalit experience of partition in different ways and mark the difference in their experience in relation to their identities and caste professions and so on.

Baljit Nagar, Delhi

To substantiate the above discussion on the use of oral history as a methodology, I will use two of the interviews I did as part of my doctoral research in March 2010 at Bhil Basti in New Delhi as examples to narrate the Dalit experience of partition. Bhil Basti is a refugee colony of West Delhi. Refugee presence is dominant in the landscape of Delhi, and most of the refugee colonies consist of ‘upper’ caste refugees. Where did then the Dalit refugees settle after migration? My visit to this particular colony was a follow up of archival research. TheSchedule Caste Survey of Delhi 1961 mentions a number of castes that migrated from West Pakistan and the areas where they settled. It mentions that, “ The Bhils in Delhi have all migrated from West Pakistan, though they all originally belong to Rajasthan where their settlements are near Jodhpur and Udaipur” .[iv]Civil Lines Subzimandi has the maximum number of Bhils, followed by Delhi Cantonment area. After this come Karol Bagh and Patel Nagar in terms of number of residents. Timarpur and Kala Pahar in Baljit Nagar (an industrial area, the Schedule Caste Survey of Delhi mentions this area as a main settlement after partition) near West Patel Nagar are among the main settlements in the latter areas. These have been regarded as temporary settlements near the quarry site where the refugees got employed.  My fieldwork revealed that another caste, Sansi from West Pakistan, also lives in these areas.[v]Refugees from the Sansi caste migrated from West Punjab unlike Bhils of Rajasthan who mostly migrated from Sindh in West Pakistan. 

The Bhils are one of the oldest tribes of India, with vast spatial distribution over Rajasthan and parts of Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. The Bhil migrants to Delhi are mostly from Rajasthan originally. They had   migrated to Sindh (Pakistan) before partition due to droughts and migrated back to India post-apartition. They form 33% of the total Bhil population who are scattered all over South of Rajasthan in the districts of Udaipur, Dungarpur, Chittorgarh, and Bhilwara.  

The Bhil refugee migrants at Kala Pahar in Baljit Nagar whom I met were mostly labourers at the Kala Pahar industrial area in Delhi. The narratives of these refugees revealed that they were not allotted houses or even huts from the government unlike the ‘upper’ caste refugees. They mostly lived in jhuggies (slum dwellings of a non-permanent nature) when they came from Pakistan, and worked at the quarry site where they settled down temporarily. This settlement near Karol Bagh area eventually transformed into the colony called Bhil Basti and has pucca constructed houses. One of my interviewees was an 85 year old man, named Pahlash who came from Sindh, Hyderabad during partition riots, he said:-

We came from Nawashahagaon in Hyderabad. I was 25 when I came in 1947. We used to do work on agricultural fields. We came by train, from Hyderabad to Mirpur, then Barmer to Jodhpur by train again to Delhi. We did not have money so we kept doing labour. I used to work here in this paharand we used to live here in jhuggies, I got married here. I got this jhuggie. But not anything else. Then after that I made it into a pucca house. After sometime the stone work finished here at Kalapaharwe lost our labour jobs.My wife also used to do labour with me. My children are doing this job till today!

Bhil Basti, Delhi. Image: Author 2010 

He told me that they used to work as agricultural labourers in Sindh. This was a better job then what they did in Delhi. I asked him what compelled him to come to Delhi from Rajasthan, since he seemed to regret this change and was unhappy with the work he did almost all his life in Kala Pahar

I came here because there was no requirement for labour there and I did not get work so I came to Delhi. The contractors brought us here. We stayed at Pusa Gate for 5 years. We did not get much help from the government. We were supposed to get land in Alwar but that land never got allotted in my name.

Pahlash was a simple labourer without any formal education. Pahlash’s experience of partition violence was different from the upper caste refugees. He did not seem to have horrifying memories related to violence or feelings of fear. He narrated the incidents of violence with less emotion, his larger concern was livelihood. Although Pahlash did not experience violence directly he did narrate an eyewitness account of partition violence.[vi]

My father moved to Pakistan because of drought conditions in Rajasthan. Therefore, I was born in Pakistan; we lived a really happy life there coming here was a real pain for us.I had to do a lot of labour. We had no disputes with the Muslims. Our women were also not picked up or anything during the partition. But we were told that it would be better if we move to Hindustan, because we saw violence. Two miles away from our village a train of Sikhs had been brought down by the Muslims there were three bogies full of Sikhs and they were all murdered. But we were safe.Allthe Hindus in that village left for Hindustan out of fear. We came almost with nothing! I had a little bit of money with me because we sold our cattle;my old mother was with us also. We did not get anything atJaipur, the Sindhis and Baniyas got a lot; we did not get anything as compared to them. We were four brothers who came; two of my brothers are in Jodhpur. This quarter that we are living in was not allotted to us by the government this was owned by a Bania;we used to live on rent here in the jhuggies , for which we paid 1 rupee per month. 

Pahlash’s account reveals that he was not directly affected by the partition violence and women of his community were not targeted in the Hindu- Muslim violence. Even so, they were compelled to leave their homes for fear of being attacked. For Pahlash, migrating to Delhi did not cause a positive change in his life as we see in the case of upper castes. To take an example, V N Dutta (1986) has studied the commercial success of Punjabee refugees who resettled in Delhi post partition.  Unlike the dominant Hindu castes, the Dalit refugees were not in direct conflict with the Muslims. One possible reason for this is their caste status. The dominant Hindus were part of partition violence in many cases. It was also revealed in the interview that the government aids did not reach Pahlash in anyway. Pahlash’s journey was difficult and the displacement shattered his livelihood. While Dalit experience of partition cannot be generalized from this account, the subjectivity and experience of partition and riots of refugees occupying this particular class/caste position offers a fresh narrative strand of partition.

Bhil Basti, at the time of my visit, was small and congested. Electricity was not legally provided and so it functioned on stolen electricity. The colony had many people who had come from Pakistan at the time of partition. I met Heeralal (age 78) in the same colony and he had a slightly different story to tell being younger than Pahlash. Heeralal was also a labourer, he had travelled through a lot of cities with his labour contractor and had finally settled down in Delhi. He told me:-

I was born in Seevikota in Pakistan. We were in Mirpur but our village was called Khan. I came to Hindustan at the age of 17 or 18. We used to do agriculture there, we had 5 bigha land there that was much better than the labourer’s job that I did here.

Heeralal told me he had to leave his village because he saw a lot of violence and he did not want to stay back. Thus out of fear they left their village.

We saw so much violence therefore we did not want to stay back, in front of me I saw four children being killed in Mirpur, we just wanted to run away from there to save our lives. We had seven cattle and two carts but we left it all there itself;we faced a lot of difficulty. Firstly we came walking to the city Mirpur from our village. The first place where I saw violence was in Amritsir. Here we saw dead people in the trains around 2 to 3 bogies of the train was full of slaughtered people. First, we came to Barmer district near Jodhpur there we stayed for three years.   We travelled all around India due to our profession i.e a labourer. I was alone; my parents died earlier, so I was the only one from my family. There were many others with me but we all got separated. We came to Hindustan because we were scared to live there alone. When we were in Mirpur, we saw a lot of dead bodies and violence.Wehad to spend a night there in the jungles without any food or water. One of my Aunts delivered a baby in the jungles. We did not know what to do;a truck had come to take us but we could not go because my Aunt had to deliver;due to this we had to spend another day in the jungles without any food, water, clothes or anything. Then finally we got on to a mal gadi; in that we came till Barmer.  In Barmer we did not know what to do; we had no work, nothing; so, from there I went to my grandfather’s village; it was near Barmer, there a thakur told us that we can do agriculture and earn a living by farming. But the weather conditions are not good there for agriculture, its dry without any rainfall. So, we did not know what to do was no option left for us but to do labour. 

So, we travelled around Rajasthan for work firstly we came to Samdheri there also we did not get much work, we only stayed there for about six months after that we went towards Bhilmal. There got ek paisa for throwing three baskets of stones. We could not even buy ration from this amount, so we used to buy chickpeas which was one rupee kilo, and that one piece of chickpea had around hundred’s of holes.  There was no chakki we had to grind it by hand and my wife used to do this by hand;the poor women had to do this job for two to three days; we had to boil and eat that only.  After that we went to Jhansi, from there we went to Lalitpur which is 25 kms from Jhansi, We travelled a lot;the contractor used to take us by filling us up in trucks. Then we travelled to Panni a village 125 kms away from Lalitpur. Then we went to Peelibhit near Nainital after that eventually we landed up in Kota Rajasthan.We have even eaten grass; those times were so difficult. After all this travelling, I finally got married, my wife was also from my village .Weused to work together and that is how we got married. After marriage we had children, so it became very difficult to work.

Finally, we came to Delhi in Baljit Nagar Bhil Basti. This land was of a Gujjar called Baljit he gave us this land. I did not receive any help or aid from the government in this regard. We used to live in a jhuggi. At that time, it was so difficult for us because the wind used to blow away our jhuggies; my wife and I used to hold the top of the jhuggie so that our children could sleep, I had five children when I came here.

I asked, whether his children received any education.

No, we did not have anything to eat, how could my children study? A notebook cost was ten rupees; I could not afford flour for ten rupees; how could I purchase a notebook for my children to study? We used to get only 16 rupees at that time how could I eat or educate my children at all? But I always voted for the congress since the day I came to Delhi before that I never voted.

I asked Heeralal what was the original work of his caste? He told me that the work of his jati “was bow and arrow and to loot money; our forefathers used to do this work and take money but they took money and only after they made the person bleed!”

The difference in Heeralal’s narrative owes a lot to him being a contract labourer. He had a different life journey. Heeralal did not arrive in Delhi as a refugee immediately after partition; but came after being taken around as a contract labourer. He narrates the violence that surrounded them at the time of Partition.  Being from Sindh, refugees like Heeralal and Pahlash were witness to a lot of the Partition violence. This was the main reason for them leaving their village. Heeralal and Pahlash both left their village out of fear, although they were not directly targeted in the violence or the women kidnapped as we see in the case of ‘upper’ caste refugees.

Heeralal and Pahlash were both dalit labourers. It is important to see here how this greatly affected the way they were resettled after partition. Both the narratives compel us to think why and how do these refugees remember partition in the way they do? Unlike ‘upper’ caste narratives, where violence and fear takes the upper hand, in these cases the Dalit and labour identities of these refugees highly influence the way they chose to remember the past. Their memory of partition reflects their experience of partition as distinct from the ‘upper’ castes and centres on questions of resettlement and survival after their arrival to India. This in turn affects how they remember the past. For instance, they mention that the Banias and Sindhis got much more than what they got. The ‘upper’ caste refugees were settled in refugee colonies and even land/ quarters were allotted to them. Pahlash and Heeralal both have grievances about rehabilitation and resettlement after partition. Another important aspect noted in my interviews was that in the narrations of the past of the Dalit refugees, a sense of empowerment and importance was reflected once they were voiced through the interviews. Even the stories of sorrow and violence were transformed into powerful narratives through the process of interviewing.

These are some of the aspects, which I explored in writing the history of Dalit refugees through oral history. The study demonstrates that methodology has potential to initiate further enquiries while dealing with the history of Dalits during partition. While the use of memory in arriving at historical generalizations continue to be debated in methodological discussion, the study validates the use of oral history and memory in opening up new discussions on the differential experience(s) of Dalits of the 1947 partition.


[i] The term master narrative is used by Ravinder Kaur (2008) to describe the experiences of Punjabi refugees during partition, which is divided in two phases; ‘the last journey’ when they were displaced and migrated and, the resettlement process in Delhi. While the ‘last journey’ is about loss and destruction, the second phase is about recovering this loss through an effective resettlement process where this category of refugees became hugely successful in the business and commercial life of the city. This master narrative, according to Kaur, excluded the ‘untouchable’ account of partition.

[ii] The experiences of Dalit refugees are diverse, since they came from a variety of different backgrounds and professions. For example, the Sikh Baurias or Meghscommunity of Punjab experienced partition differently from the Sansis or Bhil refugees of Delhi. The Meghs were stranded in the midst of partition violence in West Punjab and were evacuated by the army.  The Sikh Bauria community was in direct clash with the Muslims during partition violence See Kumar 2019 for further details.

[iii] This category of Dalit refugees carried many appellations at the time of partition, namely, ‘Criminal Tribes’, ‘Schedule Caste’ and ‘Displaced Harijans’. The present day Bazigars, Banjaras and Sansi castes were the ex – ‘Criminal Tribes’ who migrated to Delhi and Punjab after Partition. For a discussion on their experiences, see Kumar 2016. 

[iv] The Schedule Caste Survey of Delhi 1961, New Delhi:  Government of India 

[v] Sansis from West Punjab were ‘ex- Criminal Tribe’ refugees who resettled in North Delhi. For some of their narratives see Kumar 2013.

[vi] For Dalit experience of violence in Partition, see Kumar 2016



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 About the Author: Dr. Akanksha Kumar is currently Assistant Professor at Department of History, Janki Devi Memorial College,   University   of Delhi. She has completed her PhD from the Center for Historical Studies, JNU. Her research interests include caste,     partition violence and sociological patterns of Partition. In her research and published articles, she has looked at the resettlement     colonies in post partition Delhi with special focus on dalit refugees, caste question in post partition Punjab in the context of Partition.       She may be contacted at jnu.akanksha@gmail.com