Capital gains: How 1947 gave birth to a new identity, a new ambition, a new Delhi
Partition preceded Independence on August 15, 1947 and the rapid influx of half a million refugees transformed Delhi like never before. The capital as we know today was moulded in quiet assimilation and raw enterprise
On August 15, 1947, when India awoke to life and freedom, the land’s long-standing capital had already made its tryst with destiny.
The British partitioned India and the tremors of one of the largest migration in human history that displaced 15 million people were felt across the subcontinent. The mass churning also changed Delhi like never before.
Partition was announced on June 3, 1947. One-third of Delhi’s population — 329,000 of 900,000 — left for Pakistan. But another 495,000 Hindus and Sikhs from Western Punjab, Sindh and Northwest Frontier poured in almost simultaneously.
The city had a long history of suffering invasions. But this time it wasn’t about fighting foreign raiders. Delhi, now the capital of Independent India, had half a million of its own people at its doorstep. The challenge was to find homes and jobs for the newly arrived and assimilate their culture, language and beliefs.
But the indomitable Punjabi spirit refused to become a burden or even wait for acceptance. In no time, the new residents of Delhi had stamped their cultural and political dominance on the city. They became, as Ranjana Sengupta, the author of Delhi Metropolitan, puts it, “the last conquerors of Delhi.”
THE LANDSCAPE CHANGED
The bulk of these newcomers — 470,386 of the total 495,391 — were urban refugees from West Pakistan who naturally chose Delhi for better job prospects. But the walled city was already too crowded to accommodate so many. The Imperial New Delhi, then merely ten years old, could barely house the city’s government staff.
“Nowhere to go, we broke the lock of an empty house on Panchkuian Road and moved in temporarily. Later, we shifted to a place in Nizamuddin bought for ₹6000,” said BJP politician Vijay Kumar Malhotra.
The refugees found shelter in camps, gurdwaras, temples, schools, even military barracks. The less fortunate settled for parks and pavements. Many built wooden shacks adjacent to Red Fort. “We called them the Gatta (cardboard) colonies,” recalled 88-year-old philanthropist OP Jain, who as an 18-year-old took charge of supplying food to the refugee camps.
To accommodate the influx, 36 permanent rehabilitation colonies named after freedom fighters — Lajpat Nagar, Rajendra Nagar, Patel Nagar, Tilak Nagar, Malviya Nagar — came up on erstwhile farmland and ridge forests. “An allottee paid ₹12.30 per month for 10 years for a house built on a 60-80 square yard plot,” recalled former DDA commissioner AK Jain.
From 198 sq km in 1951, Delhi’s urban area grew to 323 sq km in 1961. “But Nehru confessed in Parliament that this was an ad-hoc measure and cities had to be planned better. The Delhi Development and Municipal Acts were legislated in 1957 with the idea that the DDA would be the apex planner and developer and the MCD would service the city,” said Jain.
Private property developers such as DLF were brought in to established Model Town, Rajouri Garden, East of Kailash and Greater Kailash.
Shelter secured, the refugees had to find a livelihood. Those who had some capital tried to set up businesses they used to run in Pakistan. But those who didn’t have the money tried whatever menial jobs came their way.
A spice trader from Sialkot, Dharam Pal Gulati (now 94) bought a horse cart from Chandni Chowk for R 650 and ferried passengers. Within a year, he saved R 9,700 and re-launched the family brand — Mahashiya Di Hatti (MDH) — from a kiosk in Karol Bagh.
“The refugees never said no to any opportunity. They sold their goods at virtually no profit but earned from the margin on baardana (cardboard), jute sacks and wooden cartons used in packaging,” said OP Jain.
Bhim Sen Puri, 95, the owner of Central New Agency, recalled how the hallowed arcades of Connaught Place had turned into squatter zones. “They sold anything they could lay their hands on. Even eggs, which were not seen in Delhi shops before,” he said.
Since it was difficult to get into established trades, the refugees would make parts and supply to big industries. Providing ancillary services and goods — from tailoring outside garment shops to machine parts and sub-assemblies — became a Punjabi enterprise.
AN INDUSTRIAL CITY
Before 1947, retailers from neighbouring districts picked up goods from the old city and carried them back in camel carts. From a regional trading centre, Delhi was soon to become an industrialised city. The 1964 Industrial Survey showed that between 1945 and 1951, the number of registered factories grew from 227 to 431. Before 1945, there were three bicycle-manufacturing industries. By 1951, there were seven.
There was an explosion of retail and general merchandise shops. Many enrolled in small scale industry training at government centres. At Arab Ki Sarai, Japanese technicians ran modules in 12 different crafts. It helped that most refugees were literate, often better educated than the locals. A study by VKRV Rao and PB Desai showed 88% of men and 68% of women in Kingsway Camp were literate.
The newly established ‘ring towns’ such as Sonepat, Ballabgarh, Faridabad and Ghaziabad initiated the idea of the National Capital Region. Within the city limits, Okhla and Nariana Industrial Estates were set up with the government initiative to promote refugee enterprise, V N Dutta wrote in his essay ‘Punjabi Refugees and the Urban Development of Greater Delhi’.
It is in these factory towns that Janaki Das Kapur, a businessman from Lahore, started Atlas Cycles. HP Nanda and his brother, also from Lahore, founded the Escorts Group. Raunaq Singh from Daska set up Bharat Steel and Apollo Tyres, and Rawalpindi’s Bhai Mohan Singh came to manage Ranbaxy.
In the decades leading up to Partition, Hindu nationalism had gained ground both in Western Punjab and Delhi, deriving support from the Hindu business communities in both areas. One effect of Partition was to increase the concentration of these business communities in the capital. This, rather than the scars of the Partition, boosted the fortunes of Hindu nationalist parties in Delhi, wrote Christophe Jaffrelot in ‘Delhi: Urban Space and Human Destinies’.
Several leaders of the post-Independence Delhi Jana Sangh (a predecessor of Bharatiya Janata Party) — Balraj Madhok, Vijay Kumar Malhotra, Bhai Mahaveer and Madanlal Khurana among others — were refugees from west Punjab.
Malhotra recalled how the political climate was ripe to create an anti-Congress front. “The RSS had been banned (following Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination)... Dr Shyama Prasad Mukherjee had resigned from Nehru’s cabinet. There was no one to represent the Hindu point of view in Parliament,” he said.
The Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarathi Parishad was formed in 1949 and Jana Sangh in 1951. In the pre-Assembly elections in 1951, BJS won five seats. In Lok Sabha, they got three. “Dr Mukherjee famously remarked that today’s minority is tomorrow’s majority,” recalled Malhotra.
NEW CULTURAL SYMBOLS
The cult of Sheranwali Mata has no clear pre-partition history either in Delhi or Punjab, but it somehow got inextricably linked to the Punjabi Hindu refugees of 1947, wrote Ravinder Kaur in her book — Partition Narratives Among Punjabi Migrants of Delhi.
City politician Jai Prakash Aggarwal, whose family has been associated with Ramlila celebrations in Delhi for over 100 years, said the Bhagwati Jagran and Mata ki Chowki were common even before Partition. “But as the population of Hindus increased after Partition, these celebrations came out of homes into the streets. They became more visible,” he said.
LOST AND GAINED
Many grieve the loss of high culture that once defined Delhi. With a large Muslim population gone, Urdu, the city’s dominant language, went into a decline and was soon substituted by Hindi and Punjabi. Mushairas (Urdu poetry recitation) became rare and were replaced by government-sponsored Kavi Sammelans.
The late Ahmed Ali, the author of ‘Twilight in Delhi’, who left for Karachi during Partition, lamented to writer William Dalrymple how Delhi was dead. “All that made Delhi special has been uprooted and dispersed. Now the language has shrunk. So many words are lost,” Dalrymple quoted him saying in The New Yorker in 2015.
Despite this undercurrent of resentment, what was the most remarkable about the refugee resettlement in Delhi, as Ravinder Kaur wrote, was the absence of any noticeable conflict. While the strifes between the ethnic Sindhis and the Muhajirs (Muslim refugees from India) often turned violent, Delhi as always was more accepting, and willing to evolve .
Since those tumultuous years of Partition, the ever-expanding capital has attracted and in turn got enriched by millions of migrants from all corners of the country. Seven decades on, Delhi’s fascinating journey towards becoming a truly cosmopolitan city continues.