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Who Am I: Victims of Forced Displacement

With India completing 77 years of independence from the British colonial rule, 2023 also marks 77 years since the brutal and horrific partition of India leading to the formation of India and Pakistan. It is said that one’s sense of oneself often depends on how one perceives oneself to be, and this perspective of a person often changes with altering circumstances as it is dependent on many factors, both external and internal that often act as barriers to a stable self. Trauma is one such factor.

After nearly 300 years of British Raj over India, which geographically extended till what is now Pakistan in the North-west and Bangladesh in the east, the year 1947 witnessed two life-changing events in the history of India and Pakistan as the end of the British colonialism in India was accompanied by the partition of India and Pakistan leading to the formation of West Pakistan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). This resulted in one of the biggest migrations with 14 million Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims displaced, leading to a loss of belongingness amongst the communities.

Those displaced lost their identity as perceived by them as it was closely integrated with their homeland. In the refugee camps too, they were left to search for a new identity. The term ‘Identity’ is often understood in terms of caste, religion, and region. Thus, the displaced had their identities revised when they were forced out of their homes, causing them to perceive themselves differently. Such a mass displacement is often characterized by horrific crimes like rapes, children being killed, forced marriages, and mass killings, crimes that mar one for life. These scars became traumas that haunt the entire displaced community of the Indian subcontinent, thus, changing individuals completely in terms of how they think of themselves.

At the time of partition, women were raped, and those who resisted were killed. Men and women, old and young were killed while protecting their families, and children were separated from their families. These horrors are not unusual sites witnessed during forced displacement. Those who survived the partition were forced to live with the horrors they had witnessed. Some of them had been victims themselves. These horrors scarred them mentally, if not physically. When a person bears witness to such horrendous crimes of brutality, it changes how they think of themselves. For instance, rape victims often begin to look at themselves as the culprit and start blaming themselves for the harm inflicted upon them. One of the reasons for this is the stigma attached to the idea of rape. This brutality causes the victim to portray themself in a very dark light, thus reflecting how one's perspective of themselves is shaped by how others see them. Survivors who saw their ancestral homes being burnt, their families being murdered, and their friends getting killed developed feelings of guilt and became victims of terrifying nightmares for the rest of their lives. The traumas of partition were so deeply embedded in them that some survivors slept with a knife under their pillow even decades after 1947 as recalled in one of the experiences mentioned in the book Remnants of a Separation.

These traumas carried by migrants eventually became intergenerational and still continue to haunt the generations to come, who experience the partition despite not having lived through it but through the stories of their family’s life before the partition, of their life in a new foreign land, of the dreadful scenes their family had seen while leaving their homeland and, of why they were forced out of their native land. These tales often cause future generations to carry “the numbness, the prejudice and the bias (which may be unconscious) that seers underneath towards those that we believe caused the harm” as reported in an article by Asian Women Mean Business.

After fleeing their homes following the partition, individuals and families were moved to camps where they were further desperate to reach a much more hospitable location but were also experiencing a sense of relief to have escaped the terrifying communal violence. In many cases of forced displacement, refugees have been forced to live in camps for years, as seen in the case of Syrian refugees, they wait for some country to give them entry, to accept their children. Individuals hence go through an identity crisis which often follows even when they get relocated, as seen in the case of the survivors of the partition. This identity crisis also stems from the difference in the social sphere. Cultural differences make them further question their identity, especially the young. They often get pulled between two distinct cultures, and hence have difficulty placing themselves in a particular social sphere. Thus, their identity becomes a blend of the cultures they have experienced.

In the time of partition, even after being forcefully driven out of their home, some people on both sides of the Wagah-Attari border waited in the hope of going back. Yet, decades went by with no expectation of returning to their real homes. The tension between the two nations, India and Pakistan worsened, and the displaced were forced to accept their fate of maybe never returning to their true home. They reinvented themselves and formed a new identity associated with their new life. Their life before the Partition became history. They, however, continued to lament their lost home, reminiscing about the homeland they were forced to leave. Their identity was now a new one, but when they remembered their past they often felt this new self to be foreign and tried to look for their true self, which was left behind besides all other possessions.

All these turbulent alterations that an individual is forced to undergo, to begin with, are a result of desperation. When the situation becomes hostile, one is driven by despair. People become desperate to seek safety for themselves and their families. This despair makes them cross the Himalayas, cover 3500 miles on foot to escape violence and cross treacherous rivers like the Han River. During the most recent Afghan diaspora, the images of people running after the aircraft, and clinging to the wheels of the plane were widely shared showing the desperation of the people to escape a much more conservative regime. The airport in Kabul barely had any place to stand, people were leaving by cars, on foot, using whatever means at their disposal. This complete state of panic that the world saw take place in Afghanistan was a reflection of their agony. Their identity suddenly became one of desperate beings who are willing to give up their home to live freely. Thus, this desperation to live comes at a cost. A cost that haunts the person till the very end, and goes on to haunt future generations as well. The horrors they witnessed never leave their mind, the memories come back, and hence, though free they become prisoners of these flashbacks. They survive unlike a number of their counterparts but their pain is never ending, hence, even though they emerge as winners, they fail.

Hence, whether that be the partition of India in 1947, the Tibetan diaspora, the mass displacement of Syrian refugees, or the ongoing displacement of Ukrainian residents, all the displaced people have one thing in common and that is that they are innocent victims of politics. The innocent, thus face political persecution. The migrants live in deplorable conditions, striving to provide bread to their families, waiting in hopes that one day the situation will get better and they will go back to their homes. All these feelings get shadowed by their agony. Their cries for help go unheard, and they adopt a new identity, which continues to be theirs but still a foreign one. The individual’s identity, hence, continues to be closely associated with the land they come from, even when away from this homeland it continues to be identified using it, it never forgets it, and it gets reconstituted with time but it continues to carry parts of its homeland as seen through the story of Pirzada Abd-e-Saeed Jullunduri mentioned in the Remnants of a separation who after the Partition, on realizing that his home Jullundur was left in India, added Jullunduri to his name, thus making it a part of his identity. Hence, An individual’s identity undergoes numerous changes depending on various factors, especially in the case of forced migration, which is not only a physical displacement but also a mental uprootedness.

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