Brij Krishnan Chandiwala, a noted Congressman, once wrote to Jawaharlal Nehru about the growing Punjabi population in New Delhi after the Partition, and his concern regarding these outsiders outnumbering the natives of the city, mentions architect and urban designer Prerna Chatterjee in a research paper. “The people of Delhi are living a life of helplessness… They have on their own wiped out their exclusive identity forever… The Delhi residents have become strangers in their own house,” Chandiwala wrote.
Nehru wrote back: “Some of the complaints you make are the unfortunate consequences of the Partition…. But Delhi has also become a cosmopolitan city with a large number of foreigners here…” Chandiwalla reacted to this statement, considering the uncertain future these foreign intermixes may call for: “… In this city everyone who resides has come from somewhere else. And over the years they became part of this city. I believe even these people (Punjabi refugees) will one day start identifying their selves as belonging to the city.”
Punjabi refugees from Pakistan not only ended up identifying themselves with Delhi but also made Delhi identify with them. The names of many colonies in Delhi such as Kohat Enclave, Mianwali Nagar and Gujranwala Town bear Pakistani imprint, the names of their birthplaces the refugees brought with them. More than Delhi shaping them, they shaped Delhi, because much of the Delhi you notice today is the result of the sweat and spirit of refugee entrepreneurs.
From ramshackle shanties to high-end real estate
Few would believe today that when Lajpat Nagar came up as a refugee colony, the houses had asbestos sheets for roofs and no separate bathrooms.
As the years rolled by, Delhi’s landscape witnessed the emergence of landmarks that continue to define the city’s identity. Khan Market, an emblem of affluence today, had humble origins as a refuge market. In 1951, a Peshawari refugee opened the now iconic Faqir Chand and Sons bookstore. Nearly hundred refugee families from North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), now known as the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan, had settled in the area. The market had 154 shops and 74 flats for shop owners, all refugees from NWFP in Pakistan. The market was named after Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, a freedom fighter from NWFP, also known as the Frontier Gandhi.
The enterprising refugees
When Khan Market began, no one could imagine it would become one of the poshest markets in Delhi. The credit goes to the entrepreneurial spirit of Punjabi refugees from Pakistan, who built successful businesses from scratch. A large number of these refugees were thriving businessmen in Pakistani cities of Lahore, Multan, Rawalpindi and Sialkot. Most of them left their businesses behind and came to India with nothing except their entrepreneurial spirit and business acumen. And that helped him rebuild their businesses in Delhi. The government provided them loans to set up small-scale industry and businesses, especially in Malviya Nagar and Kalkaji. Faridabad, on the outskirts of Delhi, was transformed from a mere village to a bustling industrial town by refugee industrialists. Chandni Chowk, the heart of Delhi in those times, was the first to witness the Punjabi entreneurship when the refugees expanded it by setting up small businesses there.
The Chaina Ram Sindhi Halwai in Chandni Chowk, which made Karachi Halwa famous in Delhi, is an evidence of the refugee resilience. Originally, Chaina Ram Halwai shop was set up in Lahore in 1901. Chainaram, the proprietor, died before Partition, and it was his son, Neecharam, and grandson who carried the patriarch’s dreams with them across the border after Partition. The shop in Lahore was located at the famous Anarkali Bazar, which was the equivalent of Chandni Chowk. The family brought along a few of the trained help to assist them in setting up the shop and recreated the same success in India.
Delhi’s journey from the aftermath of Partition to its current status as a thriving metropolis is a refugee saga of resilience, adaptation and growth. The integration of the refugees triggered a major urban revival, transforming the city’s physical and economic landscape. These stories, inscribed in history, highlight the migrants’ ability to adapt and thrive, molding not only their own lives but also the city’s unique tapestry.
A lesser-known subplot of Delhi’s Partition story, which is often forgotten, is about the refugees who came to Delhi from East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. Chittaranjan Park in South Delhi was the area where they put down roots. It came up in the early 1960s when it was called the EPDP Colony (East Pakistan Displaced Persons Colony). It used to be a barren and rocky area and in due course this too became a part of posh Delhi. These were the people who turned jhal muri into Delhi’s local snack and Durga Pujo into Delhi’s own festival.