A tale of two broken promises, and the rise of Muslim ghettos in India

How promises of peace and restoration made by Gandhi and Azad during Partition shattered, leaving Muslims neglected and disenfranchised.

Published : Mar 09, 2024 23:45 IST - 15 MINS READ

Mahatma Gandhi (centre) visits Muslim refugees at Purana Qila in New Delhi, as they prepare to depart to Pakistan. Photograph taken on September 22, 1947.

Mahatma Gandhi (centre) visits Muslim refugees at Purana Qila in New Delhi, as they prepare to depart to Pakistan. Photograph taken on September 22, 1947. | Photo Credit: STRINGER/AFP

December 19, 1947, was not a usual day for the residents of Ghasera in the Gurgaon district of Haryana. Thousands descended upon the village despite the biting cold, desperate for a sight of the frail Mahatma (Gandhi), who had been going around the country trying to stop people from killing each other in the name of religion.

Rumour was that the situation in Mewat had kept him up at night, and when local Congressman Chaudhary Yasin Khan, the hero of the 1932 Alwar rebellion, invited him to address thousands of Muslim Meos who had fled their homes in the princely states of Alwar and Bharatpur, he could not refuse. The rulers of these states had been behind perhaps the worst pogroms in the subcontinent during the Partition. With on-ground support from the Hindu Mahasabha, in the first eight months of 1947, 30,000 Muslims were killed, 20,000 forcefully converted to Hinduism, and around one lakh fled to the neighbouring Gurgaon district. N.B. Khare, the Prime Minister of Alwar at the time, and an alleged conspirator in Gandhi’s assassination, would proudly claim a few decades later that no Muslim remained alive in Alwar under his watch.

Around two months earlier, after the jummah prayers on October 23, 1947, Maulana Azad gave a rousing speech to a massive crowd at the steps of the Jama Masjid. The spiral of violence in Delhi began in the spring of 1947 and descended into seven weeks of carnage in the monsoon, which in hindsight was only the beginning of the problem. Refugees from West Punjab, furious and hungry for revenge, soon packed the city. Muslims, whether in “Muslim” or “mixed” mohallas, came under the threat of brutal violence.

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Whether they chose to or not, a majority of them were thrown outside the walls of the city, in transit camps set up in the Purana Qila and the Humayun’s Tomb. In these transit camps in 1947, Muslims who managed to survive waited for trains to take them to the other side of the border. Those who somehow managed to weather the storm and stay back saw large parts of their families moving away.

The audiences of these two speeches were similar: the Muslim Meos and the Muslims of Delhi. The Meos were the victims of violence on a scale they had never seen before. Traditionally inhabiting the area between Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur, Meos have historically defied definition. Historian Shail Mayaram estimates that around 60 per cent of the Muslim population in the Rajputana were Meos. Since they draw their practices from both Hinduism and Islam, the Meos, historically, have been Muslims only in name. That barely seemed to matter to those who perpetrated the violence in 1947. Meos who survived threats to either life, religion, or both, fled to the camps in Nuh, Sohna, and Rewari set up by the Indian government.

Maulana Azad’s speech fell on deaf ears of the Muslims of Delhi, who had fared no better than their neighbours. If we are to consult government sources, Muslims comprised 33.2 per cent of the city’s population in the 1941 Census, and 5.71 per cent 10 years later. Most of this was due to the violence that descended upon Muslim mohallas like Churiwalan, Phatak Habash Khan, Faiz Bazaar, Lal Kuan, Kucha Chelan, and so on, and “mixed” ones like Paharganj, Karol Bagh, and Sabzi Mandi.

Anis Kidwai, a member of Shanti Dal, entrusted with maintaining peace in the city, recalls in her memoir that the moment a refugee stepped foot inside a Muslim neighbourhood in Delhi, there would be a mass exodus from it. This was because a certain paranoia had spread amongst the Muslim residents of the old city, partly due to the actions of the refugees themselves. It was difficult to turn to the state during this time since the administrative apparatus always seemed to prefer the refugee over the Muslim native.

The speeches that Gandhi and Azad made were similar in their content and aims. Both made impassioned appeals to their audiences: stay. Talking about how “Delhi has been nurtured with [their] blood”, Azad implored Muslims to turn a new page and live like the “worthy inheritors” of their forefathers, “and rest assured, that if you do not wish to flee from this scene, nobody can make you flee”. Gandhi, in a similar vein, called the Meos the “backbone” of the country and gave them promises of a dignified life, assuring them that soon the hatred between the Hindus and Muslims would be over and harmony would be restored. Much like Azad, he told his audience that “India belongs to you and you belong to India”.

“Established in both India and Pakistan, the Custodian was responsible for taking over the properties of the people leaving for the other side of the border, and taking care of it until peace was restored and original settlers could return. In practice, this never seemed to be the case.”

To the audiences of both these speeches, it was the eye of the storm. As a result of these speeches, both Meos and the Muslims of Delhi expected the world that the Partition had destroyed would be returned. In Mewat, Muslim Meos decided to start a campaign to stay back and return to their original homes. Those who found themselves lost at the end of a treacherous journey to Pakistan chose to come back. Those in Delhi’s transit camps, where the number of people had swelled to over 20,000, trickled back into Delhi, with only 5,000 odd remaining in November. They were convinced to give India, who had welcomed them with nothing but violence, another chance.

The truth is, that despite the best efforts of the likes of Gandhi and Azad, the returning Muslims became a “problem” for the Indian state. Today, Ghasera lies in a neglected corner of Nuh district, which a NITI Aayog Survey in 2018 called the most underdeveloped of India’s 739 districts, lagging severely behind in every indicator of human or economic development. Coincidentally, it is the only district in Haryana that is Muslim-majority. Muslims in Delhi primarily live on tiny strips of land on either bank of the Yamuna. On the western bank, there is a tiny strip of land that stretches until Jamia Millia Islamia, and on the eastern, an area famously known as jamna-paar—Seelampur, Jaffrabad, Maujpur, Khajoori Khas, and the likes—the site of the Delhi pogrom of 2020. These areas are some of the most densely populated in the city. In some areas, you could walk down the gali, narrow enough so that you can’t make a “T” with your arms, and not know whether the sun was up.

San Sentalis and the creation of Muslim areas

In the wake of violence that erupted in the Mira Road area of Mumbai a few weeks ago, and in Uttarakhand’s Haldwani recently, a section of right-wing commentators have argued that Muslim Areas (or “M areas”, as they call them), should not exist. This argument does not take into account the fact that the state has consciously dispossessed Muslims who had chosen to remain in the country, and aided the creation of Muslim ghettos in various cities and regions, including Delhi and Mewat.

The official reasoning given at that time was that the development of such areas would help the state protect the Muslims from coming into conflict with the Hindu and Sikh refugees flowing in from West Punjab. This is the flimsy logic of protectionism, where a community is marginalised and dispossessed in the name of protecting them while at the same time eroding their rights and cordoning them off into ghettos.

Muslim refugees, evacuated from areas of unrest in New Delhi, take shelter in the corners of the ancient walls of Purana Qila, in New Delhi. File photo dated September 17, 1947.

Muslim refugees, evacuated from areas of unrest in New Delhi, take shelter in the corners of the ancient walls of Purana Qila, in New Delhi. File photo dated September 17, 1947. | Photo Credit: MAX DESFOR/AP/File

This was despite the efforts of leaders such as Gandhi, Nehru, and Azad. The Indian National Congress was split into two during this time: while on the one hand, there were leaders like the former, on the other was a camp that was headed by Vallabhbhai Patel and his aides, headed by V.P. Menon. As Rakesh Ankit summarises it in his essay on the resettlement of the Meos: “To a great many in the Indian state, including Deputy Prime Minister Vallabhbhai Patel, who also headed the crucial Ministry of States (MoS) as well as Home Affairs, Meos were best removed to Pakistan.”

A similar story unfolded in Delhi, with Patel demanding proof of loyalties from Muslims. Mushirul Hasan writes that for Patel, Muslims now had to prove that their loyalty lay with the Indian Union, not with Pakistan, or the “secessionists in Hyderabad and Kashmir”. For this, a simple declaration would not be enough: they would have to give “practical proof”.

Evacuees and houses in Delhi

The main administrative apparatus through which the latter camp operated in Delhi was the office of the Custodian of Evacuee Property. Established in both India and Pakistan, the Custodian was responsible for taking over the properties of the people leaving for the other side of the border, and taking care of it until peace was restored and original settlers could return. In practice, this never seemed to be the case.

The Custodian watched on in silent agreement as the refugees started encroaching upon the houses that had been evacuated by Muslims. This went on until the office of the Custodian, egged on by the communal biases of the local administration and with the tacit approval of the top brass, particularly Vallabhbhai Patel, took matters into its own hands.

At this juncture, the state, albeit reluctantly, chose to side with the refugees, giving them the possession of houses. A solution to this problem was offered in the form of “Muslim” zones. Muslim zones would create areas where Muslims were given exclusive access, marking them free from the process of the rehabilitation of refugees.

Three areas within Shahjahanabad were selected for the purpose—Faiz Bazar, Kotwali, Hauz Qazi, and Sadar Bazaar outside Shahjahanabad. Muslims who had stopped feeling safe in older Muslim mohallas and “mixed” neighbourhoods like Karol Bagh, Sabzi Mandi, and Paharganj were relocated to these areas as well. Despite their reluctance, the Prime Minister, the Muslim organisations, and the secular elements of the administration had to sign on, fearing that not doing so would further tensions in the society.

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Patel and his camp in Delhi, headed by M.S. Randhawa, the District Collector, were constantly questioning the loyalties of the Muslims. On top of this, the ring of fire that was Partition violence only expanded in late 1947 and early 1948. Refugees started attacking the Muslim zones as the office of the Custodian silently supported them.

The transit camps, emptied after much effort, started swelling up again. In historian Rotem Geva’s estimation, another 30,500 left for Pakistan soon after. The responsibility of communication and the implementation of rehabilitation policies fell onto the hands of the local administration. The Patel camp effectively controlled the local administration, ensuring that the gridlock caused by its clash with the Nehru camp remained a fiction.

Two amendments to the powers granted by the East Punjab Evacuee Property Ordinance which extended to Delhi granted the Custodian a new set of powers. The first, in January 1948, broadened the definition of an evacuee to someone who had left their property, even if it was to go to a “Muslim” zone. Therefore, those who had moved out to other areas of the city were now evacuees too. The second, in October 1949, created the category of intending evacuee, leaving it in the hands of the Custodian to decide if someone was likely to leave and confiscate property in advance. This practically gave the Custodian the right to kick any Muslim out of their house at will. This meant that those who had been dispossessed in the first cycle of violence in 1947 and wanted to come back, either from the transit camp, or from Pakistan itself, could not go back.

Rotem Geva, in her work on the rebuilding of Delhi after the Partition, quotes Zahid Hussain, Pakistan’s first High Commissioner to India, as saying: “If a Muslim ventures into these areas, in 9 out of 10 cases he’ll be attacked.” The story of the Muslims who had lived in Shahjahanabad since the foundation of the city ended with suspicion, dispossession, and constant questions about their loyalties. There are reports of Muslims being booked under the suspicion of being jasooses for loitering, playing pranks with Hindu girls, or impersonating Hindus.

Refugees made and unmade in Mewat

A similar story unfolded in Mewat. According to Choudhary Abdul Haye, “The Meo position was very serious—they were caught between the devil and the deep.” On the one hand, the Meos felt that the Indian government was “forcing” them to leave the country as the dogged communalism of Alwar and Bharatpur had been co-opted by Congressmen in the region. Muslim Meos, though in name, had to convert to Hinduism in the two princely states—those who had chosen not to saw themselves kicked out of government service and pushed into the Gurgaon region. On the other hand, a camp had already been set up in the village of Sohna in the Gurgaon tehsil, where representatives of Pakistan awaited, with promises of a good life on the other side of the border.

However, the Muslim Meos had more in common with the Hindu Meos through the bonds of pal brotherhood. Most local leaders of the Meos who had played a role in the freedom struggle, like Chaudhary Yasin Khan, Chaudhary Abdul Haye, Sardar Mohammad Khan, and Syed Mutalabi Faridabadi, were against the idea of Meos migrating to the other side of the border. In Haye’s assessment, “For a Meo, there was nothing to choose between a Pakistani Muslim and an Indian Hindu so far as communalism was concerned. All they had in common at most was their title of Muslim.”

“As time progressed, the refugee population ended up becoming landowners and eventually landlords. This led to an exclusionary regime in Delhi where these landlords, mostly upper-caste and economically mobile, refused to rent their properties out to the Muslims.”

The Punjab government found easy targets in the Meo leaders and set out orders for the arrest of Chaudhary Yasin Khan. With his back against the wall, he found an unexpected ally in the Communist Party of India. Dr P.C. Joshi, the General Secretary of the party, and Dr K.M. Ashraf made arrangements for Khan to plead his case in front of Mahatma Gandhi. When the case was pleaded to the Mahatma, he decided to take matters into his own hands, which led to Ghasera. Gandhi’s address also fell on the ears of the Meos who had migrated to Pakistan: finding themselves lost amongst people whom they did not have anything in common with, they heeded his advice and chose to come back. The Matsya Union government that had succeeded the princely states, much to Patel’s chagrin, preferred, in his words, “devils they didn’t know” to “their countrymen”, and welcomed the Meos back to their villages.

To think that the story of the Meos ends with a happy, Ram-esque return, would be a fool’s folly. They found themselves back in the deep, as the Indian state welcomed them back with apprehension and suspicion. As Ankit writes: “The ‘official’ position was that land had already been allotted in the Matsya Union to nearly ‘fifty thousand West Punjab refugees in exchange for the land in Gurgaon district where the Meos were to be resettled’.”

Local bureaucrats who had served the Alwar and Bharatpur courts were the ones now serving the Indian state. That did not mean that they had a sudden change of heart. As Ankit illustrates, they refused to comply with the permits given by the Matsya Union government: either lands were allotted and taken away, or only some parts of their original, rightful lands were allotted to the Meos, or in some cases, no land was allotted. Therefore, the Meos, who had chosen to stay back or return to India, found themselves stuck right where they were—between the devil and the deep.

A broken tryst with destiny

This was despite the constant complaints registered by those being kicked out of their own homes, and the sympathies of the Prime Minister, who famously reminded the Constituent Assembly of the promises that were made to Mahatma Gandhi days before his death that India would ensure the safety of its Muslim population, no matter what Pakistan did to its minorities, a promise that was broken over time.

The obvious violence of the 1940s soon gave way to institutional violence. This began with the overt exclusion of Muslims from areas that had been encroached upon by the refugees. As time progressed, the refugee population ended up becoming landowners and eventually landlords. This led to an exclusionary regime in Delhi where these landlords, mostly upper-caste and economically mobile, refused to rent their properties out to the Muslims.

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In Mewat, a similar story unfolded: the refugees and local tillers were granted the evacuee agricultural land by the state. The returning Meos, in most cases, ended up becoming tenants in their own lands. Part of it was because the Meos were indispensable to Mewat: only the Meos knew how to till its dry lands.

This process of exclusion continues to this day, aided and abetted by the state. Muslims, in the face of covert and overt violence, started becoming more and more ghettoised. One often hears of biryani stalls on the sides of the highway in Mewat getting seized for selling beef. Muslim shopkeepers throughout the country who have their businesses in cities face a constant threat of violence, as the most recent reports emerging from Haldwani show.

The pattern that was followed in Delhi and Mewat was repeated throughout cities and regions in north India. The term “Mini Pakistan” has now become an all familiar dog-whistle, blown all too often to talk about neighbourhoods within cities such as Mumbra in Mumbai and Seelampur in Delhi, regions like Mewat and western Uttar Pradesh, or universities like the Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia Millia Islamia. What began as a cycle of violence became a routine policy of the state, a policy that continues to haunt the country to this day.

Srajit M. Kumar is a freelance writer, researcher, and educator.

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