These ‘refugee’ colonies, U-shaped with a park in the middle, became the template for subsequent neighbourhoods, partly because they were built by the same urban planners who shaped Delhi through the 50s and 60s.
When the two nations, India and Pakistan, were born on the midnight of 14th/15th August, 1947 their independence celebrations were overshadowed by one of the most dramatic and largest mass migrations in the history of the world — the India Pakistan Partition.
What happens when you are rendered penniless and homeless overnight? People were already traumatised due to the war atrocities that they had witnessed or been subject to. Moreover, they had to rebuild their lives from scratch and fight their way to establish themselves in an unfamiliar land. The Government of India (GoI), as a first step, put up tents, provided food and created ‘refugee’ colonies to ensure shelter to all which was the need of the hour.
Haveliram lived in Bicchowali Gali, Lahore, in 1947 before India’s partition. Once he was forced to migrate during the partition, he got a house in Lajpat Nagar as a claim for the property he had left behind in Pakistan. The serial Buniyaad, which was based on the backdrop of the partition of India and its aftermath and people who were displaced, found resonance of their feelings. The theme of partition did strike a chord with the audience, and the show registered over 93 per cent viewership in North India, when it was aired first in 1986, and later was rerun six times on Indian television.
Partition changed people’s lives overnight. Lalita Sahani, born in the district of Hazara (now in Pakistan), still reminisces her mother’s voice, “We left hurriedly while the milk was still boiling in the kitchen.” Or Sudershana Kumari, who was eight years old at the time of partition, says, “One night we were having dinner and suddenly there was fire all around. We had to run to save our lives, and leave everything behind.” She saw her uncle and his family being killed by men with spears in the street and her town had been reduced to ash and rubble. For days, she and her mother hid from rioters who were looking for Hindus to kill and loot. Eventually, they made their way to India, where they became refugees — penniless, homeless strangers in a strange land.
The late artist Satish Gujral, who was in Lahore at the time of partition, also witnessed the ravages of riots first-hand, and later on made a poignant series called the Partition Paintings. He even said, “I didn’t paint partition; I painted my own suffering.”
The mass displacement of people across the subcontinent resulted in millions of refugees settling in provinces and cities to which they had no prior connections — not of family, culture or language — and restarting their lives from scratch. Displaced people arriving in Delhi took shelter in evacuee houses. These were homes of Muslims who had locked their houses, and went off to the other side with whatever few things they could carry. Asha Nayar Basu, Partner at S Jalan & Co, says that she dealt with one such case. “I was consulted for a sale and a resale of a property in Lajpat Nagar. This was interesting as this was originally owned by a Muslim family who left for Pakistan in 1946, and they had sold this to their relatives. There was a chain that went back to 1936. There was a sale deed by the Ministry of Refugee Rehabilitation.”
Take the case of Uma Jagmohan, a partition survivor, who migrated from Lahore and settled in Noor Manzil, Daryaganj. Noor Manzil was taken on rent by Uma Jagmohan’s father from a lady who later on migrated to Pakistan, on an agreement of monthly rent. The place came as a ray of hope for those who had run out of money and resources.
Those who could not find accommodation in vacant homes, were put up in tents. According to a spokesperson from the Partition Museum, Amritsar, “In order to provide temporary shelter for displaced people, it was decided to use the old unoccupied military barracks on the north and east of Kingsway Road. These barracks, which were constructed during the war, could not meet the increasing demand for accommodation and tents had to be put in the open spaces. Kingsway Camp, at one time, accommodated 50,000 people. During partition, Humayun’s Tomb, along with Purana Qila and Safdarjung’s Tomb, became major ‘refugee’ sites in Delhi. It first housed Muslims who were migrating to Pakistan, and later provided refuge to Hindus and Sikhs coming in from Pakistan.”
Urban planner Dr PSN Rao, who is currently Director, School of Planning & Architecture (SPA), shares his insights, “When the country became independent, partition happened and there was a huge exodus of Hindus into this side and another kind of exodus of Muslims from this side to that side. On the way, a lot of evil had happened and people were killing each other, stealing, raping, and murdering. The refugees who came to this side didn’t know where to go, and what to do. So, the GoI arranged with the help of the Indian Army, a series of tents near Lal Quila, which was a sort of temporary housing. People had to stay there for almost a year and some even more than that. They were in these tents and food was being cooked and supplied and people had to start from scratch all over. But then, one can’t live in tents forever and the next thing was shelter. This is when GoI and the Ministry of Refugee Rehabilitation looked at these locked houses of the Muslims. But before they could do that, people had already broken the locks and brought their families inside. At that time, Delhi was all about just Lal Quila, Purani Dilli, some government quarters in Lodhi Colony and the rest was all jungle.”
It was then that they made ‘refugee’ rehabilitation colonies and these were around 14 in number. Some people went to Mumbai and other cities but the majority stayed in the capital as they thought the government would do something for them. Says Dr Rao, “These were all constructed overnight and plots were given or small houses built with asbestos sheets and then allotment was done. Refugees had to pay a nominal ground rent — something like Rs 10-15 annually and many did not even pay that. It was on leasehold basis and everything was based on identity and details you gave.”
The homes allotted were of different sizes. According to Neelam Malhotra, a resident of Patel Nagar, “My grandparents were given a 200-square-yard single-storey kothi in Patel Nagar. After the death of my Dadaji in 1965, they sold that house for Rs 18,000. Even my in-laws were from Pakistan, a place called Pindi. My mother-in-law told me that they were given a 210-sq-yd plot after partition in 1951 for Rs 5,000 and I still have the receipt with me.”
Initially, GoI made big plots but later due to shortage of land, they created smaller plots. According to Dr Rao, colonies that were created earlier such as Patel Nagar, had bigger plots, while those created at the end like Kalkaji and Malviya Nagar, had smaller plots of size 150 sq yard.
Says Santhosh Kumar, Vice Chairman – ANAROCK Group, “Post-Independence, colonies like Lajpat Nagar, Nizamuddin, Malviya Nagar, Kalkaji and Jangpura were created to accommodate refugees. Later on, after a few years, the well-to-do families also settled in areas like Greater Kailash, Vasant Vihar, New Friends Colony, and even Defence Colony. Soon, flats were also constructed to accommodate government employees in areas like Sarojini Nagar, Sadiq Nagar, Laxmi Bai Nagar, Aliganj and Kidwai Nagar. Named after the rehabilitation minister, Meher Chand Market, Khanna Market — the new high streets of south Delhi — and Khan Market were built, and shops allocated to displaced people from Pakistan.”
Kumar shares that over the years the residential capital value of ‘refugee’ colonies skyrocketed and today Nizamuddin is Rs 26,000-35,000/sq ft, Jangpura Rs 16,000-25,000/sq ft, Lajpat Nagar Rs 13,000-18,000/sq ft, while Malviya Nagar, Rajinder Nagar and Kalkaji are being transacted at Rs 11,000-15,000/sq ft and Patel Nagar at Rs 9,000-13,000/sq ft.
These ‘refugee’ colonies, U-shaped with a park in the middle, became the template for subsequent neighbourhoods, partly because they were built by the same urban planners who shaped Delhi through the 50s and 60s. This was the beginning of Rajinder Nagar, West Patel Nagar, Moti Nagar, and Rajouri Garden. By the middle of the 1950s, refugees moved into empty flats in Lodhi Colony and built homes around the villages in Nizamuddin and Jangpura: all of it on what was once the deserted south side of Lodhi Road. Nizamuddin was the first colony to be developed in the Capital, Nizamuddin East and West became home to Karachi’s elites. Lajpat Nagar was developed as a ‘refugee’ colony and most of its early residents were Punjabis and Sindhis from Karachi and parts of Balochistan, Multan and Sindh. Lajpat Nagar had 50 houses in the 1950s built on plots of around 100 square yard. They had asbestos roofs and no separate bathrooms. In later years, well-off families settled in Greater Kailash, New Friends Colony, Vasant Vihar or Defence Colony. Soon flats in Sarojini Nagar, Laxmi Bai Nagar, Sadiq Nagar, Aliganj and Kidwai Nagar were constructed by the government to accommodate government employees. Dr Rao says that given the circumstances and sheer volumes of people, the GoI did a great job. These were quite well-planned colonies with neatly laid out roads, plots, parks, and provision for most amenities.
Nawal Kant Sethi talks about the resettling of his family from Gujranwala (now in Pakistan) to Punjabi Bagh, which was earlier known as Refugees Co-operative Housing Society Limited. The society was registered on June 14, 1950, primarily with the objective of setting up a residential colony for the rehabilitation of displaced persons who had migrated from West Pakistan. During the inauguration ceremony of the society in 1959, the then Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, declared that the society should no longer be called a Refugee Housing Society, instead, it should be renamed ‘Punjabi Bagh’. He has receipts and letters in his father’s name (SR Sethi) against the land allotted to him.
Over the years the adjectives used to describe Delhi also changed: what was once stately, languid and literary became boisterous, hearty and enterprising. And its map was transformed. A lot of Punjabis were settling down in these ‘refugee’ colonies. To the extent historians like VN Dutta started calling Delhi a Punjabi city. “The city that was once a Mughal city, then a British city, had by the 1950s emphatically become a Punjabi city,” he said.
In the 1950s, DLF became the company which created some 22 colonies, such as GK1, 2, and Hauz Khas before the 1957 DDA Act (the Act of 1957 barred all private real estate developers from acquiring land in the city). They were targeting affluent sections among the migrants who could pay for rebuilding the lifestyle they had left behind in west Punjab and building these aspirational colonies. Says Dr Rao, “They had no love for refugees or anybody. It was pure capitalism and whoever had the money paid and bought this. I remember somebody telling me that at Hauz Khas, DLF sold plots at Rs 50 per sq yard.”
Between 1955 and 1965, flats were given on lease to families who arrived in Delhi after partition. Now these flats are being converted to freehold by the Land and Development Office. So far there were redevelopment issues, but in 2014, civic bodies allowed new buildings of up to five floors (four floors plus stilt parking) to come up on these plots. The Capital’s municipal corporations can now clear plans for construction in these ‘refugee’ colonies.
One of the main problems in Shahjahanabad today is that some people don’t have property documents, and titles. This is especially true of those who had occupied evacuee homes and gate-crashed. Says Dr Rao, “The majority have no records. But in Indian law, the continuous unhindered physical possession of a property beyond 13 years gives you rights to stay there. The problem arises if you have to sell that property. What happens when the registrar asks for documents? Often, people are advised to take an affidavit, put an ad in the newspaper saying that I am the owner of this property, if anybody has any claims within 30 days, please come forward. If nobody comes forward to make a claim, you can go ahead with the sale. But it’s a little tedious job and a long drawn out process to sell a house in such areas.”