This article was written with funding from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
I always knew my family was different, as my parents used the term ‘Bangal’ to refer to us. Bangal are people who came to India as refugees from East Pakistan in 1947, during the Partition of India, when India was divided into three – India, West Pakistan (now the country of Pakistan), and East Pakistan (now present-day Bangladesh).
The Partition of India is considered the world’s largest displacement of people after World War II. According to Pakistani historian Ayesha Jalal, it is “a defining moment that is neither beginning nor end, partition continues to influence how the peoples and states of postcolonial South Asia envisage their past, present and future.”
In the words of my late grandfather, one day he woke up and was told, “Your area is now part of Pakistan”. For my grandparents, that shock never ended. It defined their present and their future and every decision that came with it.
On the night of August 14, 1947, my grandparents and their family were forced to leave their homes amidst mob violence . Overnight, they had to leave home and accept a new country as their own. The British hastily drew borders and divided a united India into three countries – India, East Pakistan and West Pakistan. My grandparents, who were now in East Pakistan, were seen as enemies by their neighbours and friends, as they were Hindus in a Muslim-majority country. They left with all they could carry.
Overnight, millions became Indians. But their hearts always lay somewhere else. As a kid, being Bangal didn’t matter much to me, as my school syllabus just touched upon Partition. It never shed light on the fact that it impacted an entire generation and forced them to become refugees. My parents also didn’t discuss this violent past with me, as their sole focus was making sure the next generation got a better life. My grandparents and their families lived in refugee camps and started over from scratch with nothing. My grandmother, who was a young teenager when Partition happened, could never complete school and my grandfather, who was in his 20s, couldn’t complete his college. Poverty forced my grandfather to start working in a mill and my grandmother to wait till she got married to my grandfather.
But at the back of my mind, I always knew that a difference existed. Even though present-day Bangladesh is another country, it’s a country whose culture, language and food is my own – and yet not my own. Like many Bangladeshis, I love eating spicy food, prepared a certain way. The language I grew up speaking at home is Bengali, the national language of Bangladesh.
But most of all, I wanted to tell my friends that my grandparents were wronged, but I never could because I felt they wouldn’t understand or they would see me stuck in the past.
Forgetting the past
Since Independence, the Indian project of nationalism has been to instil in people allegiance towards the idea of a united India, an enormous country that includes disparate languages, cultures and religions. Nationalistic political leaders rewrote our history to show that it was distinct from that of Pakistan and Bangladesh. Even historical artefacts from archaeological sites were divided, to reduce the scope of conflict over historical relics. For example, beads of necklaces found during excavations at Harappa, a historical site in the Harappan civilisation, were divided between India and Pakistan.
While my life in Mumbai was like that of most Indian children, reality seeped in whenever I spent time with my grandparents.
When my friends talked about the wonderful time they spent with their grandparents during vacations, all I could do was nod, because my experience with my grandparents was different. My grandparents were always bitter and angry. My grandfather shouted at me for speaking in English, a language of our colonisers, and my grandmother got upset when I didn’t follow the norms set by her ancestors. Once, she asked me to eat ilish, a type of river fish, and I refused, as I wanted to eat prawns. Since prawns are typically eaten by Ghotis, the original residents of the western side of Bengal before Partition, my grandmother got upset and didn’t talk to me the entire day. It was like my grandparents lived in a different universe in which the Partition was the central character, and my brother and I were outsiders.
I particularly detested my grandmother, who had belonged to a wealthy household in East Pakistan before Partition. Despite becoming a refugee, my grandmother retained the arrogance of wealth. As a child, I found her incredibly haughty. I felt her arrogance was fuelled by entitlement and lack of access to information. When my grandmother was a young girl, communal tensions had increased in the state of Bengal. I felt that her lack of complete formal education had led her to harbour age-old views about many topics, including women’s health.
In 2011, my grandmother died after refusing a blood transfusion. She didn’t believe in Western medicine and said the vials contained ‘animal blood’. I was angry with my grandmother. She never accepted her reality and her obsession with her past marred my understanding of the present. This made me run away from my identity even more and I spent almost a decade trying to erase my historical connection to Bangladesh by refusing to speak in Bengali and also refusing to identify as a person with roots in Bengal.
But the past has a weird way of creeping up on you.
My wounds were reopened in 2019, when the Indian government announced the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Registry of Citizens (NRC). The CAA proposed to expedite citizenship for persecuted minorities of every religion, except Islam, from India’s neighbouring countries, while the NRC would be a registry of Indian citizens who have the appropriate documentation to prove that they are Indian.
Eight years after my grandmother’s death, I was again at a crossroads, as I could see that long-time residents of India, like my grandmother, were being questioned about their identity, when they had actually been wronged by history. While my grandparents were lucky to have documents like a ration card to prove their ‘citizenship’, they never had a passport of India.
I wondered if I should I talk about my family’s tryst with history and our displacement, or should I keep quiet and move on because this wasn’t really affecting my life? I decided to do the former and spoke up against the CAA and NRC. I attended protests, wrote articles and even interviewed a politician from the ruling party, questioning him about the objective of these laws.
During this process, I finally understood why my grandparents were such bitter people. It’s because they held the fear that the new society would, any day, see them as foreigners.
Opening up about my family’s refugee identity wasn’t easy. Supporters the Bharatiya Janata Party frequently attacked me on social media for speaking up against the CAA and expressing my frustration at excluding minorities of a certain religion. Someone even referred to me as a person with ‘foreign’ blood, who should go back to the country my grandparents came from.
Branded thus, in 2022, I decided to look at newer refugees residing in India.
If longtime residents were being questioned about their identity, what was the status of recently arrived calling India their home? What about those who fell through the cracks of the CAA?
Somehow I thought that talking with recent refugees would help me to understand how my country defines who is an insider and who is an outsider – and with what consequences.
My search for answers led me to the Afghan residential area in Bhogal market of Delhi. While BJP politicians point towards illegal immigration from Bangladesh as an issue affecting the country, it is Afghans who form the biggest refugee community in India.
I spent hours interviewing Afghan subjects, particularly women, in the area. It was heartbreaking to meet the refugees, as they reminded me of my grandparents and their lost hopes in a newly formed India. I recollected several instances when my grandparents expressed frustration at how becoming refugees robbed them of opportunities.
All Afghan refugees were afflicted with a problem that had its echoes in my grandparents’ worries – despite having been in India for years, sometimes decades, there is a cloud over their future. India has not granted them citizenship. India is not a signatory of the 1951 refugee convention or the 1967 refugee protocol. All it has in the name of a “refugee law” is the CAA.
“We are treated worse than mosquitos,” a young schoolgirl told me. “Even when we buy vegetables, the vendor tells us to go back to Afghanistan”, she added.
I was not surprised to hear this, because my grandparents were sometimes referred to coldly as “non-resident Bangladeshis” by some neighbours.
During my visits, I encountered Samira Faizi, a 41-year-old Afghan woman who had moved to India right before the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 2021. Oblivious to the situation in India, she had moved with the hope of a better life for her sons.
In our first meet up, Samira mentioned that she had multiple health issues. She couldn’t name a single one. “All I know is that I am ill,” she said.
Her words took me back to 1998, when I was six years old and sitting in my grandparents’ home in Bengal’s Hooghly district. My grandmother walked up to me with a leg issue, which I now think was probably arthritis. “I find it hard to walk,” she tried to confide in me. “Then visit a doctor,” I instantly replied. “All I know is that I am ill. I don’t need you to tell me what to do,” she said angrily and limped away. I was surprised, hurt and taken aback – unable to figure out what exactly had triggered her.
But this time, I knew what to say. I probed. Samira revealed that her health issues arose from an intense mental health crisis. “I keep looking at photos and videos of Afghanistan every day. I watch the Taliban beating up innocent women. It breaks my heart. Are women not human beings?” she said, breaking down.
I wondered then if my grandmother had ever wanted to have a similar conversation with me – if that issue with her leg was actually connected more to her mind and her constant conflict with her identity. This was not the only manifestation of of her internal struggles. At the age of 25, she had a very early menopause. My father was already born by then, but he had no siblings afterwards.
But Samira, unlike my grandmother, was optimistic about her future and made me wonder if my grandmother came to India with similar optimism. “I want my sons to become doctors or engineers. They have completed their schooling, but couldn’t go to college,” she said. Every time we spoke, Samira mentioned her sons’ education at least once.
One would think that in refugee communities, survival is the only thing on their mind, but Samira and my grandmother were so similar that I was shocked.
My grandmother’s sole goal in life was also my father’s education. My dad got a PhD because my grandmother wanted him to study and get the highest degree possible, because she could never go to school. But unlike my grandmother, Samira is a victim of timing. My grandmother was a product of a historical displacement that offered a route to citizenship. Samira, according to the Indian government, chose the displacement herself, despite knowing that India doesn’t have any law to protect rights of refugees.
According to BJP’s Sudhanshu Mittal, Samira is an illegal immigrant because “we have not legally permitted them to be here.”
“The law is very clear – it doesn’t recognise the rights of an illegal immigrant vis-a-vis the rights of an Indian citizen. Yet, large numbers have stayed back, people have studied here, people have enjoyed the policies of a government which encourages and looks after the underprivileged,” Mittal said.
As I spent more days with Samira, I got to see her spiral into distress. “The UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) hasn’t interviewed my family or given us clarity about our situation. I am scared that the Indian government might just ask us to go back to Afghanistan someday,” she said.
I asked her about her life in Afghanistan, hoping to know more about her motivation to leave. The political situation was the main reason. “I lived a comfortable life in Kabul till 2015. My husband owned a shoe store and had a thriving business. However, in 2015, someone (probably the Taliban) burned down the entire mall and we lost our shoe business overnight. We had a lot of debts, so my husband had to sell vegetables on the street to survive,” she said, tearing up. Samira continued to believe in a better future. She started working at a local handicraft centre to support her family and despite multiple threats from the Taliban, she didn’t want to leave Afghanistan because it was her home.
The things she brought to India from Afghanistan are precious beyond words. I asked her if she got her cushion covers from Afghanistan and she got defensive. “Why is this so important?” she asked, clutching a cushion. She eventually calmed down and told me that the only things she could bring with her, apart from her clothes, were her cushion covers, bedsheets and a photo of her children.
Her life is limited now. Since she doesn’t have proof of her son’s education, she can’t enrol them in a school in India. Her husband can’t speak English or Hindi, so he’s unable to find a job in India. Her sons are now working to sustain the family. Her elder son works at a dry fruit store, while her younger son works at a shoe shop. The sons collectively earn Rs 16,000, half of which is rent. “My elder son worries so much about our future that he now has alopecia (an autoimmune disease that causes baldness),” she added.
After my grandmother died, we discovered that she had sewn a necklace into her pillow to keep it safe – purportedly from all of us. My grandfather, who lived for one and a half years after her death, said that necklace was her heirloom and she wanted it to go with her, but we could only find the necklace after the cremation. I now know why she wanted the necklace to go with her – because we would never understand the physical value of her memories.
No one becomes a refugee by choice. Everyone wants to live in the country they were born in, and lead a good life there. But what happens when your country is taken away from you?
Deep down, Samira felt that her family suffered because of her. “The Taliban particularly has a problem with women. So we had to leave to protect me,” she told me.
My grandmother had a similar story about leaving East Pakistan. My great grandfather was a landlord and he had many Muslim workers on his land. On the night of August 14, the workers mobilised and attacked their family. My grandmother and her family started running from the mob. My grandmother had a younger sister running behind her, who was picked up by the mob. My grandmother jumped into the Padma river to escape the attackers. In the morning, my great grandfather managed to locate her and saved her. My grandmother and her five siblings then crossed into India, on the last train leaving that night.
On arriving in India, my great grandfather declared that he only had six children – erasing that sister from the pages of history, but not from my grandmother’s memory. Maybe my grandmother placed everyone’s needs above her own because of the guilt of losing her sister and the violence she faced in her youth.
Will Samira eventually lead a point where she will be exasperated by the apathy of the law? I did not have the heart to tell her. But I did feel, upon seeing Samira, that I had never been able to understand my grandmother.
I have spent my time then trying very hard to appear ‘Indian’, memorising Bollywood films dialogues by heart, learning Hindi or eating food native to north India. My entire life has been an attempt to fit into a particular mold. While my family never advocated or asked me to ‘fit in’, I subconsciously did, hoping to get validation from my friends and their families for being ‘Indian’ and ultimately upholding our collective ‘culture’.
Today, my sense of self has changed, as I no longer view my family’s tryst with history as problematic. My grandparents couldn’t find their roots in India, but I could, because I was born here and can claim this as my country. However, there are thousands of Afghan refugees who call India their home and their second generations call this place their home too. Their sense of self is lost because of the lack of a legal infrastructure to protect them.
The UNHCR has been allowed to operate in India since 1981. However, their work is restricted and they can only give refugees an asylum card and refugee status. This refugee status doesn’t help refugees land jobs or attend university. The UNHCR is seen as an incompetent organisation by the refugees living in India, because the process of getting even a refugee status is cumbersome, time-consuming and mentally draining. Most refugees say it provides nothing and leads nowhere.
My grandparents’ journey gave me a chance to become Indian, but what about the ones now falling through the cracks?
Ankita Mukhopadhyay is a journalist and news product manager based in the US. She has written articles for several Indian and global publications such as The Wire, Deutsche Welle (DW), The San Francisco Chronicle and India Currents.