Significance of the ‘Border’ in Refugee Belonging: A Case Study of Kuldip Nayar’s Partition Crossing
August 1947 witnessed both independence and Partition of the Indian subcontinent, leading to the creation of two nation-states: India and Pakistan. National boundaries were formed based on religion. India was termed the Hindu homeland and Pakistan the Muslim homeland. The question of belonging emerged as a central issue in the days following Partition and equally affected those who migrated to their putative homeland from the place of their birth, as well as minorities who remained on the ‘wrong’ side of the border.
Muslim refugees flee India in 1947
It has been estimated that between 11 and 18 million refugees resulted from Partition.
The physical displacement of millions of people was accompanied by a mental uprooting which necessarily engendered a profound transformation in their relationship with territory. Any reconfiguration of identity either affirmed or dramatically transformed refugees’ sense of belonging. The immense scale of population transfer was not anticipated by the new Indian or Pakistani governments, nor by the departing British administration, thereby creating the distinct context of ambiguity when it came to statist definitions of who actually ‘belonged’ in each nation-state.
The peculiar situation of Partition, however, meant that refugees’ migration was accompanied by official declarations of homeland which may have diverged from their own. That is, the new country to which they were travelling was, in official terms, their homeland. Hindus migrating from Pakistan were considered to be moving to their homeland of India, and vice versa for Muslim refugees. Despite not constituting refugees in the traditional sense, Hindus who remained in Pakistan and Muslims who remained in India were still considered to be occupying a country in which they did not ‘’officially’ belong’.
Kuldip Nayar with Andrew Whitehead in Delhi, October 1996: accessed via Whiteheads website
In an interview conducted for the BBC World Service radio series India: A People Partitioned with broadcaster and historian Andrew Whitehead in 1996, Kuldip Nayar relates his experiences. The columnist and peace activist travelled from Sialkot in Pakistan to the Wagah border by foot in August 1947.
‘Once you’d crossed, you felt as if you had come to your own country, and you felt very safe and secure’.
Nayar readily adopts India as his country and appears to view the crossing in a positive light. This indicates that a position of insecurity in one’s place of birth can lead to the acceptance of another territory as one’s own. However, crossing the border did not equate to the cutting of ties with Pakistan. Nayar conveys his sadness at the way the border has developed in the years following Partition, stating that he had imagined that the border would be soft and hopes that it will be one day in the future.
The inability to preserve solid connections with his homeland or move freely between countries causes Nayar considerable distress. Nayar’s interview was conducted at the Wagah border, where he and Whitehead witnessed the lowering the flag ceremony which takes place each evening. Forty-nine years after Partition, the significance of the border becomes apparent to Nayar. He states:
‘I felt how close I was and how distant, when this door was opened, suddenly I felt there was no border, but when this door clanged behind me, I felt, my God, yes, the border is there, very much there’.
By experiencing the short border-opening during the ceremony, Nayar is reminded of just how close the two countries of India and Pakistan are. But Nayar also acknowledges the real distance that has developed between them. He states
‘I think fifty years have passed by and they are different people altogether, they are not the same Punjabis as we are, I think as days go by… maybe the identities on both sides will take over the neighbourliness and love we have cherished for each other’.
Nayar charts the development of the border from a simple crossing in 1947 to the strict, impermeable border at the time of his interview in 1996. A noticeable shift in identity has taken place; the Punjabi regional identity has undergone significant alterations either side of the border. For Nayar, observing the border first-hand, fifty years after making the crossing, elicits real pain as he recognises the divisions that have emerged between people who would have been neighbours if not for Partition.
Daily flag ceremony at the Indian-Pakistani border
(Aman Sharma / Associated Press )
The way in which a simple split of land can produce rifts between people living within a mile of each other demonstrates the significance of the border in both physical and emotional terms. Nayar’s account is suggestive that, for the people residing in the border provinces of India and Pakistan, a shift in a sense of belonging has occurred. Nayar wishes to travel back to Pakistan, but does not wish to make the move permanent, which suggests that he has a sense of belonging that is connected to both India and Pakistan. Although Nayar has been back to Sialkot a couple of times, he is not allowed to pass into Pakistan with Whitehead when his interview is being conducted.
In this way, Nayar is lamenting the rigidity imposed on people’s freedom of movement, which acts as a barrier to people being able to express their belonging, on whichever side of the border that may be.
 Uditi Sen, Citizen Refugee: Forging the Indian Nation after Partition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), p. 2.
 Oral interview with Kuldip Nayar, Wagah, 5th November 1996, accessed from India: A People Partitioned Oral Archive, SOAS, London
About the Author
Lizzie has volunteered with refugee organisations for the last couple of years including STAR Leeds, Leeds Refugee Forum, and most recently as a Teaching Consultant with Conversation Over Borders. She graduated from the University of Leeds in 2019 with a Masters in Social and Cultural History and is currently teaching English as a foreign language in Thailand.