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Capital reclaimed: The many shades and flavours of Delhi

Tremors of Partition were felt across the subcontinent, but the shock jolted Delhi. Rudely shaken out of its slumber, the idyllic capital reinvented itself, for good.

Independence Day 2016 Updated: Aug 15, 2016 21:21 IST
Shivani Singh
Shivani Singh
Hindustan Times
Refugees,Delhi,Lutyens' Delhi
Refugees gather in Delhi after fleeing Punjab riots.(Getty Images)

In the mid-40s, Delhi was divided into three silos - the newly-built colonial capital, Mughal Shahjahanabad, fondly called Shahar by its inhabitants; and Civil Lines, the hub of European life until Edwin Lutyens’ New Delhi came up.

In 1941, Delhi had a population of 9,17,939, of which three-fourths lived in urban areas. “The city had a few hundred cars. We could tell who owned which just by looking at the number plate,” recalls Sultan Singh Backliwal, 85, whose father moved the family business from the Walled City to Connaught Place in 1935.

For 20-year-old Lalitha Ramakrishnan, a Lodhi Colony flat was a cosy, secure home she had set up with her husband, a government official, and her baby daughter, thousands of kilometres from her hometown in Kerala.

Community lunches, outings to Qutab Minar on a bicycle, and movies at Connaught Place made the Ramakrishnans’ life idyllic in this quaint government colony — the last one to be built by the British before they left India.

On August 8, 1947, while returning from a gathering at a relative’s house a few blocks away, Ramakrishnan saw her neighbour’s brother, a college student, carrying a radio. “He told me he had picked it up from a shop that was being looted. He had already got a sewing machine at home. He said he was going back for more.”

“I was not exposed to this kind of madness,” Ramakrishnan says. “The boy with the radio later became secretary in the Government of India.” A few days later, she saw a young man being lynched from her window. “They caught him and beat him to death. The police came a few minutes later and dispersed the crowd with tear gas. My eyes watered. This was my first experience with tear gas,” remembers Ramakrishnan, now 84 and a resident of a high-rise apartment in east Delhi’s IP Extension.


Nearly 5 lakh people poured into the city from Western Punjab, Sindh and Northwest Frontier. Even for an ancient city that has seen several invasions, this influx was mind-boggling. The old city barely had enough infrastructure to support this kind of migration. New Delhi was simply not prepared for this.

The refugees moved into camps, gurudwaras, temples, schools and military barracks. The less fortunate settled on pavements and in parks. “Many government employees sublet their quarters to refugees, one family sharing a room and toilet with three or four others,” says Ramakrishnan.

But the Punjabi spirit was indomitable. They were willing to do whatever work they could find. It helped that most refugees were literate, often better educated than the locals, (a study of refugees by VKRV Rao and PB Desai showed 88% of men and 68% of women in Kingsway Camp were literate). “Yet they did not allow their pre-Partition status to rule out socially less acceptable occupations. Pragmatism, refusal to cast themselves as victims, along with state help, changed their lives and Delhi,” wrote Ranjana Sengupta in Delhi Metropolitan: Making of an Unlikely City.

So those who could take up their old profession did so, while others got into new businesses selling whatever assets they had for the start-up capital. Those who had nothing invented jobs. “Women went door-to-door to collect discarded husk from the wheat flour, made toys out of them and got the men to sell them,” remembers Chaman Singh, 83, whose family lived in old Delhi for several generations.

Backliwal recalls how the dispossessed refugees who squatted outside his shop in CP traded on extremely small profit margins. “They used to buy wares at wholesale prices from Sadar Bazar and sell them at the same price. The only profit they would make was on selling cardboard cartons in raddi (junk).”

Connaught Place that offered no ancillary services till 1947 was breaking new ground. “Now, if you bought a saree from a shop, you could get a petticoat and a blouse right there. To give jobs to refugee women, traders hired them as tailors. In fact, that is how Delhi learnt about readymade garments,” says Backliwal.

Others, such as Dharam Pal of Sialkot and HP Nanda of Lahore, set up virtual empires from scratch (see box). But the refugees couldn’t have found their feet so soon without the help of locals. “We offered them space outside our shops. We called them Pursharthi (men of good virtues) and not Sharnarthi (refugees),” says Backliwal.


The government moved fast to shift refugees from camps and squatters to permanent locations. Thirty-six permanent rehabilitation colonies were set up. These single and double-storey houses built on land cleared from the fields and the wooded Central Ridge were to serve as the model for private developers such as DLF who established Greater Kailash, Gulmohar Park and Vasant Vihar among other neighbourhoods in the later decades.

The enterprising refugees in fact boosted trade in Delhi. The explosion of retail and general merchandise shops opened by refugees gave Delhi the great retail market status it still enjoys.

This was also the time when Delhi industrialised. 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. ‘Ring towns’ such as Sonepat, Ballabgarh, Faridabad and Ghaziabad initiated the idea of the National Capital Region. Okhla Industrial Estate, set up with government initiative to promote refugee enterprise, served as a springboard for business groups such as Ranbaxy and Bharat Steel.


Once settled in their enterprise, the new residents of Delhi stamped their cultural dominance on the city. The influence of Lahore, in particular, came to stay.

Paneer, till then unknown to the Delhi palate, became the city’s staple vegetarian fare. Dhabas selling tandoor (clay-oven) baked roti and daal makhani (buttered daal) mushroomed. Moti Mahal at Darya Ganj came up with tandoori and butter chicken. Restaurants in Connaught Place passed into Punjabi hands and Delhi discovered the concept of eating out.

The Lahoris brought with them fashion trends and the publishing industry. “Delhi’s men followed trends from Bombay and women looked to Lahore,” remembers Backliwal. Lahore’s University of the Punjab was set up in 1882, 40 years before Delhi University came into being.

“Books were published and transported from Lahore in pre-Partition days. Almost all big publishing houses were based there. With Partition, some big publishers like Uttar Chand Kapoor and Sons moved to Delhi and publishing became a thriving business here,” adds Backliwal.

With a large Muslim population gone, Urdu, the only language the city knew, went on a decline and was soon substituted by Hindi and Punjabi. Mushairas (Urdu poetry recitation) became rare, replaced by government-sponsored Kavi Sammelans.

The signboards across the city added Hindi and Punjabi with the existing Urdu and English. The zubaan (language) changed for good. So much so that Delhi even reinvented its customary affirmation: from ji to haan ji.

(This story was first published in 2012. Some of the people mentioned in the story are no more)

First Published: Oct 18, 2011 23:17 IST