Post Partition, Dalit refugees from Pakistan continue to suffer with little or no aid from the administration

Log aaj bhi chhua-chhut mein vishwas rakhte hain aur isiliye hum aage nahi badh pate (Even today, people believe in untouchability and that is why we are unable to progress),” says 80-year-old Mangat Ram, a Dalit refugee from Pakistan in India. For the Dalits, changing one’s country too is not enough to escape the discrimination they face.

Many stories from the 1947-Partition, forgotten, buried, hidden or ignored by the mainstream are alive in the memories of the migrant survivors. Among millions who migrated or got displaced by Partition, there were a significant number of Dalits. Many Sansis, Bazigars and Banjaras that were considered to be criminal tribes under the British rule, arrived as refugees to East Punjab and Delhi post-Partition and are today considered a part of the Scheduled Castes. Each refugee camp in Punjab at the time had hundreds of these refugees, but their exact number is not known as they were never organised or categorised by the government. In 1948 these communities did not carry one or two identities but multiple -- Refugees, Criminal Tribes (the Criminal Tribes Act 1871 was repealed only in 1952) and SCs.

The Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 was repealed in 1952, after which the number of SCs in Punjab increased substantially, but the stigma attached to the community as criminals continues to this day. Depending on where in the country they chose to settle, the De-notified Tribes became a part of the SCs, Scheduled Tribes or none of the two.

The story of Mangat Ram is one such story. Belonging to the Sansi community in Okara Mandi, Pakistan he travelled to India by foot. “We walked for four or five days, day and night under the supervision of the military and got blisters on our feet! The kafila was so long that the first person was at Ferozpur and the last person was at Okara. Many were killed amongst us also. Young girls were picked up. During the journey helicopters threw rotis for us along the way.” Mangat Ram states that this was a horrific time and one he wishes never to see again.

Once they reached Punjab, his family was allotted some land in lieu of the land they owned in Pakistan. But the holding was substantially less and unable to practise agriculture as they used to back home, they finally moved to Delhi in search of employment. He joined the Railways where he worked as a grade one technician till his retirement in 1984 and continues to live in a semi-pucca refugee colony near Majnu ka Tila.

With no government aid coming their way, “We are still waiting for our claim from the government!” he says.

Ganga Devi, 80, also from Okara Mandi, lives in the same colony as Mangat Ram.

“We came from Pakistan in 1947 and lived in a refugee camp at Red Fort before we got these huts allotted, for which we had to pay Rs 3 a month. We only got a ration card in the beginning and we did not get anything in comparison to other refugees. Women suffered a lot. I remember almost everything. They were murdered and thrown into wells. We did not come by train because we were told that you will be murdered in the trains. So we came walking all the way from Pakistan with the military. It took us around 3 to 4 days to reach Ferozpur (Punjab). But then we moved to the Capital as my husband got a job here.”

Having arrived as teenagers, not much has changed for Ganga Devi and Mangat Ram. Mangat Ram complains that their “voices don’t reach up” and their grievances till today remain the same. He says they were criminal tribes under the British, and in a burst of anger he utters, “You know why we were criminals? Because we did not get education, nor were we allowed to go to temples, neither did we get services.”

The experience of Dalit refugees vastly differs from those of the other refugees such as Punjabis, Sindhi and upper castes. While most of them have been able to rebuild their lives post-Partition, the condition of Dalit refugees remains the same.

As author VN Dutta says, “the Punjabi refugee never looked back” perhaps the Dalit refugee still looks back and asks for compensation because like Mangat Ram, many others hope they could have succeeded at the pace at which the ‘upper’ caste refugees did.

(The writer is a Research Scholar at Center for Historical Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University)