Unequal dislocations


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LET me begin my story from Jammu city, in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. I had since 2005, been researching the experience of Kashmiri Hindus, better known as Kashmiri Pandits, who had been displaced from their homes in the valley following the outbreak of conflict in the state in 1990. Many Pandits found shelter in Jammu, with a significant minority accommodated in camp colonies in the city. Until they were dismantled in 2011, the camps had transformed from tented areas into a lively localities, concentrating the poorest sections of Pandit society in exile into a specific location.

During my fieldwork at one of the camps, I met Rohan Bhatt, a young Pandit whose family had lived in the camp since 1994. In one of my last visits to his camp before I left the field in 2007, we walked down the central road that ran through the area while a warm wind raised trails of dust as summer loomed ahead. Rohan had completed his studies at the local university and yet worked part-time at a computer training institute. His family worried that he ‘dreamed’ too much and that he should simply get any job in the state sector, enjoying the security of a sarkari mulazim. I remember his brother, who worked in a low level, but permanent, government position advising Rohan that he ought to join the police in any available capacity and forget about other aspirations.

As we walked, Rohan told me that my thesis would be important and that I should write it well when I returned to ‘England’. Without much thought, I asked him what he would like to do in life. He replied that he wanted to do a ‘MBA’ as it suited his status as an educated Hindu Brahmin and as someone who had enjoyed a higher quality of life before the conflict. I often try to think about this conversation which I did not treat seriously then, in terms of its setting in a low income colony inhabited by a marginal people, all of whom spoke of losing home, property and land due to displacement. People who, in the words of another Pandit I had interviewed, became ‘declassed’.


This is just a fragment of one case among many of peoples affected by displacement and dispossession in contexts ranging from conflict to development and commercial projects. While the experience of displacement and consequent dispossession has long been a part of the social and political scene in post-independence India, this article attempts to understand the experiences of the displaced and dispossessed through the prism of inequality.

The displaced and dispossessed cover a wide variety of people – from Kashmiri Pandits like Rohan, to Adivasis displaced by dam construction along the Narmada River and, increasingly, individuals who were coerced to sell their land for commercial real estate projects. I shall first attempt to discuss different kinds of population displacement in India such as partition refugees of 1947 to situations where displacements of populations coincided with changes in policies of the modern Indian state. I pay special attention to the phenomenon of caste and class which have refracted experiences of displacement and dispossession in critical ways and, finally, I return to Rohan’s story to see how some of these dynamics play out in his life and others like him.

David Turton argues that it is difficult to think of the forced migrant as a singular figure given the diversity marking populations such as refugees and Internally Displaced Persons.1 What connects different populations of displaced persons has been the presence of the nation state. Groups like refugees have been critical to the imagination of the modern nation state and to this, the Indian nation state has not been an exception.2 This can be traced to the partition of India in 1947 which gave rise to the first modern refugee flows and regimes in the region, and was critical to an understanding of citizenship and national belonging in both India and Pakistan.3


However post partition, the displacement of populations within India continued to take place in other forms. There have been situations where refugees have sought sanctuary in India, such as the Tibetan refugees and refugees from the 1971 Bangladesh war. Different events of communal violence have occasionally resulted in displacement of communities within India. Finally, the Indian nation state has also experienced internal displacement of populations due to programmes of economic and industrial development such as the construction of dams and other projects of ‘nation building’. While there are differences between refugees and the internally displaced, there are some similarities as well which are far more interesting, such as the rhetoric of sacrifice. Partition refugees moving between India and Pakistan have observed sacrifice as an ethic, whereby by leaving their homes they made a sacrifice to become Indian or Pakistani ‘nationals’.4 Similarly sacrifice has served as a ‘leitmotif’ in nation building projects such as steel plants, especially where the sacrifice involved the possibility of losing land and displacing human beings.5


Yet, sacrifice leads to a larger discussion connected to dispossession. All displaced peoples are characterized as being dispossessed, facing losses of all kinds – land, property, possessions and relationships. But how does one think of dispossession and loss? In the classic ethnography of Greek Cypriot refugees, Loizos observed that the refugees constantly mourned the loss of place, ‘things’, objects and structures, seemingly at the expense of the social.6 The loss of a tangible landscape was also seen to persist with refugee populations in intangible ways such as memory.7 In contrast, scholarship from India and elsewhere has also explored how displacement from development projects disrupt social relations and cultural practices.8

While partition refugees are paradigmatic of displaced peoples in India, other displacements due to ethnic, political and state violence too have occurred, as seen in the North East, central India and Jammu and Kashmir. For example, the Dandakaranya project designed for relocating refugees of the 1971 war, disturbingly reflects the violence the Indian state is capable of inflicting on those who do not easily fit in.9 More recently, since the advent of economic reforms in the 1990s, there has been a shift from state-led projects to the state as a facilitator of capital, leading to dispossession of people who inhabit the socio-economic margins.


If we return to a discussion of mass displacement such as the partition, we are faced with a story of violence, trauma, loss and the gradual and painful remaking of social, economic and political lives. However, the experiences of the victims of partition vary immensely. As Ghosh shows in his study, the flight of upper caste and upper and middle class East Bengali Hindus was largely motivated not only by a fear of violence, but because they feared the loss of status as bhadraloks or as upper middle class and castes if they remained in Pakistan.10 According to Rehman and Van Schendel, this has resulted in the persistence of a partial history that privileges one group’s experiences at the expense of other groups, who are often lower castes and tribes.11 The differential treatment of groups such as refugees on the basis of caste is not limited only to the partition but has persisted with other categories of refugees, such as lower caste Namasudras from East Pakistan and Bangladesh in 1971. Even as these refugees were resettled in India, authors like Sinharay discern a correlation between their lower caste status and the lack of recognition they received in the public imagination.12


When it comes to displacements induced by development and commercial projects, the dispossessed invariably tend to be poor, low caste and often Adivasis, as seen in Orissa where mining activities have come to threaten the homes and livelihoods of communities living in close proximity to project sites.13 As Levien observes, the Indian nation state has been marked by ‘regimes of dispossession’ that involve a state which ‘is willing to coercively expropriate resources from one class for another for a set of purposes that it seeks to legitimize through claims to serving the public good.’14

While Nehruvian regimes had worked with policies of resettlement, contemporary regimes of dispossession have seen the state become a ‘mere land broker for capital’15 Consequently, the Indian state uses instrumentalities such as the law enforcement agencies to put down resistance to activities that lead to dispossession.16 Yet resistance to contemporary projects of dispossession is also articulated in interesting ways. Resistance to mining, for instance, has been articulated by affected communities as a threat to things like jal (water), jamin (land) and jungle (forest).17 Such claims tie to a politics of indigeneity in which the Adivasi is seemingly constructed as prior to and distinct from the modern state and economy.18 Hence, what emerges here is the importance of refracting the experience of dispossession through categories of socio-economic and political inequalities.


While there have been shifts in how we understand displaced peoples and their experiences, and discernible ‘regime changes’ that both produce displaced peoples and how they have been treated, we cannot foreground one approach. Rather what marks experiences of displacement and dispossession in contemporary India is the simultaneous presence of perspectives from different periods and contexts, which may be connected by caste and class. Let us now return to Rohan and other Kashmiri Pandits with whom I began this article.

The Kashmiri Pandits occupy a curious location. Their exodus from Kashmir took place in 1990, when within a span of a few months most of them were forced to flee. The Pandit exodus was largely a product of the breakdown of law and order and a deepening climate of fear following the outbreak of conflict in the Kashmir valley. However, the explanations for the exodus vary. Some cast the blame on Kashmiri separatists and militant groups who allegedly targeted the Pandits for their faith affiliation, and seeming support for the Indian state. Others argue that the exodus was facilitated by the Indian state to discredit Kashmiri nationalist aspirations.19


The Pandits not only constituted the Hindu minority of Kashmir, they belonged to a community of a single caste of Saraswat Brahmins which accords them a high status in the Hindu caste hierarchy. Historically, they were associated with white-collar professions, especially the bureaucracy in pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial India and, until the advent of redistributive land reforms in 1953, were amongst the most important landowners in Kashmir. Hence, they were regarded as ‘elites’ in Kashmir. As I was often told by different people, from Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims, to even an elderly British anthropologist, my research dealt with ‘Nehru’s People’.

As mentioned earlier, much of my work was in a camp colony in Jammu city which was set up by the Indian state to provide shelter to nearly a thousand families from 1990-2011. The camp colonies and their populations constituted the lowest socio-economic strata of displaced Pandits. Each family was allocated a ‘one room tenement’, or ORT, a 9x14 feet room, built with either brick or prefabricated materials with tin roofs. While the camps became part of the city’s urbanscape as vital lived spaces and thriving neighbourhoods until their closure, they were a far cry from being places inhabited by a community of elites.


Yet if we look at Rohan and his family, some interesting ideas may emerge. Rohan’s household consisted of his parents, his brother and his elderly grandfather. By the time I began my fieldwork in 2005, Rohan’s brother had joined the state police and was posted in another city. In 2008, Rohan’s grandfather passed away but their household welcomed new members when Rohan’s brother married, and his wife gave birth to a son a year later. Rohan’s father worked in a government office in Kashmir as a clerk. In recent years, Rohan’s father began to take short trips to Kashmir to rebuild the house they had abandoned in 1990 with the help of his former neighbours. Alongside, he continued to mourn for the life that had existed before the conflict. Unlike many other Pandits in the camp I had met during fieldwork who were approaching middle age, he was not unemployed and worked as a clerk in a local business in Jammu. However, he would invariably speak of his life in the displaced present as being the life of a mazdoor (labourer).

Rohan aspires to a better life – away from the camp and Jammu city. His desire to study further and get a degree in a subject like business administration is far from remarkable and relates to what other writers who have engaged with aspirations of the youth and the middle classes in India have discussed as well.20 However, Rohan’s chances are limited as his family lacks the financial resources and social capital to fund his education beyond his first degree. Consequently, his aspirations have now changed to securing employment in the Jammu and Kashmir state apparatus, which offers special employment packages in clerical work for young Kashmiri Pandits who were displaced in 1990.


What often struck me about Rohan and many other young Pandit men who inhabited a similar location was how important being Brahmin was for them. Rohan claimed certain qualities which he associated with being Brahmin such as being educated and well mannered, and thus people who should be engaged in dimag wala kaam or brain work. I often encountered this phrase from other Pandits as a euphemism for not seeking manual work. On the other hand I also realized that his aspirations were trapped in a nostalgia for the past and dreams for the future.

Rohan, like his parents, would constantly refer to Kashmir. He would speak of the fond memories he had of their house with its many rooms and compare it to the ORT his family lived in the camp. Sometimes nostalgia for the house drifted into the larger homeland when he would tell me that Kashmir was the land of ‘rishis’ and then recount the Nilamat Purana, the Sanskritic legend of the Kashmir valley. This would mutate into comments on the superiority of life in Kashmir over Jammu in other terms such as the better quality of schooling and education that existed in the valley, superior medical facilities and the better behaviour and etiquette of all Kashmiris. His aspirations for the future were thus an attempt to recoup losses suffered and to escape present lives.

As residents in a camp, Rohan and his family remain at the mercy of the Indian state, which is demonstrated by the closure of the camp and the transfer of all camp families who lived in camps, including Rohan’s, to a new township outside the city. However, the ideas of class and caste that Rohan draws upon are reminiscent of the experiences of East Bengali Hindu refugees, where loss of status due to displacement and dispossession mattered a great deal. However, contemporary issues also come into play. Rohan’s aspirations for the future reflect the ideologies of the middle class in contemporary India. They also imply that the Pandits are affected by uncertainties of the contemporary Indian political economy as well. While Rohan is currently employed, his work history includes insecure contractual work, which is endemic to neo-liberal economies. Other young men I met in the camp shared stories of moving to other cities for work and returning to Jammu when they became redundant, the prospect of which affects all categories of labour regardless of whether one is displaced or not. Markers of class and caste are, therefore, drawn upon by Rohan and others to claim status and self-worth amidst loss.


While I argue that the displaced Pandits failed to conform to the stereotype of the Kashmiri elites, they did enjoy some political recognition and have been beneficiaries of a state programme of relief. Recently the BJP-led administration in New Delhi publicized plans for resettling the Pandits in special townships in Kashmir. However, there are other people, especially from villages along the border and line of control between India and Pakistan, who are displaced due to the artillery shelling by the Indian and Pakistani armies. These groups have received considerably less attention and state support, which is attributed in turn to the greater political power of the Pandits, which sustains their image of a people associated with power.21

The Pandit families I interacted with also led lives that were clearly better than other groups such as labour migrants that have come to Jammu from Chattisgarh, who often carried out construction and repair work on ORTs in the camp. During fieldwork, I came to know some of these Chattisgarhi labour migrants who were dispossessed of their lands by landlords and increasingly corporations. It was interesting to see how one set of dispossessed people served another. Hence, categories of inequality refract the experiences of the Pandits in complicated ways which not only relate to different experiences of displacement but are also connected to processes shaped by the contemporary political economy in unexpected ways.


Displacement and dispossession have been an integral part of our biography as an independent nation state. Here, I have tried to show how markers of inequality refract experiences of displacement and dispossession across diverse populations of displaced peoples and how they are understood by the displaced and others observing them. By focusing on displaced Kashmiri Pandits, I give an example of the articulation of the experience of displacement through caste and class. The Pandit case simultaneously draws upon older perspectives on displacement emerging during the partitionas also recent shifts in the Indian political economy. Furthermore, their peculiar status as upper castes and former elites, complicates the discussion on dispossession and inequality, unlike for groups unambiguously located at the margins. Hence, a framework that draws on a nuanced reading of inequality can provide a critical approach to displacement and dispossession in contemporary India, even as we wait to see who is dispossessed next.



1. David Turton, Conceptualising Forced Migration. Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford Working Paper 12, 2003, p. 8. http://www.rsc.ox.ac.uk/PDFs/working paper12. pdf

2. Liisa Malkki, ‘National Geographic: The Rooting of Peoples and the Territorialization of National Identity Among Scholars and Refugees’, Cultural Anthropology 7(1), 1992, pp. 22-24.

3. Gyanendra Pandey, Remembering Partition: Violence, Nationalism and History in India. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2001.

4. Vazira Zamindar, The Long Partition and the Making of Modern South Asia: Refugees, Boundaries, Histories. Columbia University Press, New York, 2007.

5. Jonathan Parry, ‘The Sacrifices of Modernity in a Soviet-built Steel Town in India’, in Frances Pine and Joao de Pina-Cabral (eds.), On the Margins of Religion. Berghahn Books, New York, 2008, pp. 233-262.

6. Peter Loizos, The Heart Grown Bitter: A Chronicle of Cypriot War Refugees. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1981, p. 201.

7. Dipesh Chakraborty, ‘Remembered Villages: Representations of Hindu-Bengali Memories in the Aftermath of the Partition’, in Mushirul Hasan (ed.), Inventing Boundaries: Gender, Politics and the Partition of India. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2000, pp. 318-337.

8. Elizabeth Colson, The Social Consequences of Resettlement: the Impact of the Kariba Resettlement Upon the Gwembe Tonga. Manchester University Press (for the University of Zambia Institute for African Studies), Manchester, 1971; Amita Baviskar, ‘Displacement and the Bhilala Tribals in the Narmada Valley’, in Jean Dreze, Meera Samson and Satyajit Singh (eds.), The Dam and the Nation: Displacement and Resettlementin the Narmada Valley. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1997, pp. 103-135.

9. Ross Malick, ‘Refugee Resettlement in Forest Reserves: West Bengal Policy Reversal and the Marichjhappi Massacre’, Journal of Asian Studies 58(1), 1999, pp. 104-125.

10. Gautam Ghosh, ‘The (un)braiding of Time in the 1947 Partition of British India’, in Marc Rodriguez and Anthony Grafton (eds.), Migration in History: Human Migration in Comparative Perspective. University of Rochester Press, Rochester , NY, 2007, p. 55.

11. Mohammed Mahbub Rehman and Willem Van Schendel, ‘I Am Not a Refugee: Rethinking Partition Migration’, Modern Asian Studies 37(3), 2003, p. 556.

12. Praskanva Sinharay, ‘Caste, Migration and Identity’, Seminar 645, 2013, http://www. india-seminar.com/2013/645/645_ praskanva_ siharay.htm accessed 25 May 2015.

13. Vidhya Das, ‘Mining Bauxite, Maiming People’, Economic and Political Weekly 36(28), 2001, pp. 2612-2614.

14 Michael Levien, ‘Regimes of Dispossession: From Steel Towns to Special Economic Zones’, Development and Change 44(2), 2013, p. 402.

15. Ibid., p. 384.

16. Ajay Dandekar and Kaveri Gill, ‘Democracy and its Inconvenient Question’, Economic and Political Weekly 50(19), 2014, pp. 14-15.

17. Banikanta Mishra and Sagarika Mishra, ‘Mining and Industrialisation: Dangerous Portents’, Economic and Political Weekly 50(14), 2014, p. 57.

18. Kaushik Ghosh, ‘Between Global Flows and Local Dams: Indigeousness, Locality and the Transnational Sphere in Jharkhand’, Cultural Anthropology 21(4), 2006, pp. 505-507.

19. Alexander Evans, ‘A Departure from History: Kashmiri Pandits 1990-2001’, Contemporary South Asia 11(1), 2002, pp. 19-37.

20. Sara Dickey, ‘The Pleasures and Anxieties of Being in the Middle: Emerging Middle Class Identities in Urban South India’, Modern Asian Studies 46(3), 2012, pp. 559-599.

21. Anuradha Bhasin-Jamwal, ‘Homeless and Divided in Jammu and Kashmir’, Refugee Watch 23, 2004, pp. 6-9. www.mcrg.ac.in/rw%20files/rw23.doc