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I'm Sahaj Sankaran, winner of Yale’s South Asian Studies Prize and Diane Kaplan Memorial Prize for my historical research, and this is Today in Indian History. Four days a week, I'll dig into the context and consequences of an event in India's history that happened on that date. I'll walk you through what happened, what the world around looked like at the time, and how it shaped the India we live in today.

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July 19, 2020

India Closes its Borders to Migrants from West Pakistan

On 19 July, 1948, the government of the new nation of India ceased allowing the free transit of migrants from the new nation of Pakistan. By ordinance, a permit system was instituted, and prospective migrants were scrutinized and filtered, ending the mass movement of migrants from then-West Pakistan to India and bringing one chapter of the bloody Partition of India to a close. The implications of that arbitrary deadline would reverberate for decades, finding new purchase in developments in Indian citizenship law in the present day.

In hindsight, the governments of India, Pakistan, and Britain are generally understood to have been entirely unprepared for the Partition. The sheer scale of population transfer - well over 10 million, when the dust had settled - defied imagination, but the governments involved did not appear to have anticipated the massive convulsions all over India and Pakistan, the frantic movement of migrants, and the mass slaughters and atrocities that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. Any treatment of the Partition here would not do it justice. Suffice it to say that migration, both during and after it was over, became a large concern for the governments of India and Pakistan.

India, in particular, had noticed a pattern in migration. There had been two waves of migration from West Pakistan to India. The first was composed, as expected, of Hindus and Sikhs. The second, however, comprised largely Muslims who had left their homes in the initial months of the Partition - or, often, fled in fear of their lives - to travel to West Pakistan, but found the new nation less than ideal. The government of Pakistan was hard-pressed to deal with the vast number of migrants flooding in; by 1951 over 10% of the Pakistani population consisted of displaced persons from India. A number of the initial Muslim migrants to West Pakistan travelled back across the border to India once the worst of the Partition violence was over. There was concern about these migrants among the highest ranks of India’s leadership. As a consequence, the government announced - with little warning - on 19 July, 1948, that any incoming migrants from West Pakistan would, from that day onward, require a permit to cross the border. The permits were further divided into three types, only one of which conferred the right of settlement on its possessor.

It has since become clear that the permit system served a blatantly discriminatory purpose. At the time, the Constituent Assembly of India was in the midst of debating the new nation’s Constitution, including its citizenship laws. A number of Indian leaders, including [Jawaharlal Nehru)(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jawaharlal_Nehru) and B.R. Ambedkar, argued for 19 July, 1948, to become the cutoff date for citizenship; any migrants who had entered India after that date did not automatically qualify for citizenship of India. Nehru remarked to the Constituent Assembly that most of the migrants in that first year, before July 1948, had been non-Muslims, while Ambedkar implied that the permit system was not meant to raise a barrier to citizenship for Hindus and Sikhs. It is telling that the permit system was not instituted at the same time for then-East Pakistan, since it would have prevented the easy movement of the millions of Hindus still in East Pakistan. The discrepancy, and the discriminatory object of the proposed clause, was noted by the members of the Assembly. Bhopinder Singh Man, of East Punjab, argued vehemently that the arbitrary cutoff date was unfair to migrants fleeing riots and civil disturbances in Pakistan, and suggested the eventual date of promulgation of the Constitution as a more reasonable cutoff date, but his arguments were defeated. The clause would go on to become Article 6 of the Constitution of India, and 19 July, 1948, has remained the historic cutoff date for citizenship.

The implications of the Constituent Assembly’s decision were immense. India’s leaders had confirmed and enshrined the principle that Indian citizenship was meant to be immensely difficult to obtain; the onus of proving one’s Indian descent, heritage, and right to abode was placed entirely on the shoulders of migrants. The property of those who were unable to return to India before the cutoff date was labelled ‘evacuee property’ and subsumed into the office of the Custodian of Evacuee Property, an institution that continues to control and administer such land and property at the direction of the Indian government.

The same patterns have recently repeated in Indian history. The Citizenship (Amendment) Act of 2019 (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC) have built on the logic of India’s founders and framers to strip migrants of their rights through the use of arbitrary deadlines, cutoff dates, and burdens of proof, administered by opaque tribunals and politically-appointed bureaucrats. The events around 19 July, 1948, have been used to justify the imposition of further restrictions on Indian citizenship today.

Sahaj Sankaran

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