"Unwanted Citizens in a Saturated State Towards a Governmentality of Rehabilitation from Part I - Framing Policy"

Introduction: Though nearly seven decades have elapsed since the partition of India, the crisis of rehabilitating the refugees born of this political fissure is yet to be relegated to the pages of history. The figure of the partition refugee haunts every decadal memorialisation of India’s independence as the embodiment of the human cost of partition.Contrary to the official claim that India’s refugee problem was largely resolved by 1965 (which paved the way for the dissolution of the central Ministry of Rehabilitation), thousands of Hindu refugees from Pakistan still await rehabilitation and full inclusion as citizens in locations as diverse as Rajasthan and West Bengal. This is particularly true of the eastern region. In Assam and Tripura, the arrival of thousands of Bengali refugees led to fears of being swamped by outsiders and informed the growth of movements championing indigenous or local rights.Many of the Bengali refugees dispersed to rehabilitation sites in Orissa and Bihar were not registered as Indian citizens. For decades, they have been convenient scapegoats of xenophobic politics and periodically threatened with expulsion on account of being foreigners.The unresolved ‘problem’ of rehabilitating refugees from East Pakistan thus continues to inform, to a lesser or greater degree, the regional politics in the receiving states.

The beginning of this ‘problem’ can be traced to particular patterns of displacement and migration from eastern Pakistan into Tripura, Assam and West Bengal, which continued, with breaks and in spurts, for twenty-five long years between 1946 and 1971. Though the stream of migrants has far from dried up, the emergence of Bangladesh radically altered the status of migrants from eastern Bengal. A bilateral understanding between India and Bangladesh redefined all future migrants as illegal infiltrators, thus bringing to an end the era of cross-border migration when a Hindu refugee from eastern Pakistan could claim to belong to India.The period before 1971 was characterised by a broad political consensus regarding the displaced Hindu’s right to full Indian citizenship. The Citizenship Act of 1956 formally acknowledged this right through special provisions which allowed displaced persons from Pakistan to register as Indian citizens. This allowed East Bengali refugees who entered India before 1971 to articulate their need for relief and rehabilitation as a political right, which they felt entitled to as new citizens of a nation. This was particularly true of West Bengal, where the Bengali refugee’s struggle to belong was bolstered by emotive evocations of a shared language and (Hindu) cultural heritage. Yet, the new rulers of West Bengal were far from eager to either admit a large number of displaced Hindus from East Bengal, or to make provisions for their relief and rehabilitation. As a result, the regime of rehabilitation in West Bengal evolved as a deeply contested field of negotiation between the post-colonial state and its citizen-refugees. This chapter analyses the regime of rehabilitation in West Bengal between 1947 and 1971 as an evolving and multi-authored set of practices and policies. It argues that underlying the many shifts and apparent inconsistencies that marked West Bengal’s regime of rehabilitation was the gradual crystallisation of a rationale for the proper governance of partition refugees, or a governmentality of rehabilitation.

Uditi Sen
Cambridge University Press (online)