Delhi Reborn
Partition and Nation Building in India's Capital
Rotem Geva



Now, when I recall this scene, my mind travels even further back in time. During the doomsday of 1857 the people of Delhi were also forced to leave. When the temper of the British rulers somewhat cooled down, they permitted the people of Delhi to return. Yet so many did not have the fortune to return to their city. So many spent the rest of their lives missing Delhi and crying for Delhi. Delhi has always, repeatedly, made her children cry. Having been wrenched from her protective lap, they spend the rest of their lives wandering and wailing. Drenched in dust and blood, [Delhi] comes to life again. She changes her dress, embraces the newcomers, and is filled with renewed happiness. When Maulana Hali was telling the story of the late Delhi, a new Delhi was awakening from the earth, and when here [in Pakistan], Shahid Ahmad Dehlvi was crying over the destruction of his forefathers’ Delhi . . . over there, Delhi opened her empty lap for the new, uprooted people.1

THIS PARAGRAPH WAS written by Intizar Husain, the celebrated Urdu writer, who was born and raised in United Provinces and migrated to Pakistan following partition. Husain depicts Delhi as a woman who has been devastated yet comes to life again with renewed vigor and vitality, drawing on a familiar trope—the city’s history as a cycle of massive destruction and regeneration. Delhi’s long and intimate association with political power resulted in an eventful history of conquests and wars, grand power, ruination and death, displacement and loss. As historian Robert Frykenberg notes, Delhi “has been the site for a succession of cities, each of which served as the capital or citadel or centre of a vast domain. This has been so for a thousand years, at the very least. . . . the ruins of almost all previous cities of Delhi are still visible.”2

This eventful history was determined by Delhi’s strategic location between the Punjab and the plains of north India: the “Ridge” to its west, which is the northern extension of the Aravalli Range, together with the Yamuna River, protected Delhi and allowed it to dominate the Gangetic plain. The river also supplied water for drinking, irrigation, and commerce. Yet once a regime had weakened and could no longer deploy the necessary resources, the city’s position of strength could very easily turn into a point of weakness, rendering Delhi vulnerable to attack from both sides. Thus, “Delhi could also quickly become the ‘graveyard of empires,’3 and, as historian Narayani Gupta says, “Delhi has died so many deaths.”4 Furthermore, Delhi’s political importance had a cumulative effect, as the city gradually gained prestige and cast a spell on succeeding rulers who set off to conquer it. It was not merely its strategic location but also, and increasingly over time, its association with power that made it attractive to successive conquerors.

Accordingly, Delhi is often referred to as “the Seven Cities” (and sometimes eight, nine, or ten), referring to different locations in proximity to each other in which different regimes ruled, leaving grand monuments behind—the eleventh-century Qila Rai Pithora; the fourteenth-century Siri, Tughlaqabad, Jahanpanah, and Firozabad; the sixteenth-century Dinpanah (where Purana Qila is located); the seventeenth-century Mughal capital Shahjahanabad (known as Old Delhi); and the imposing colonial New Delhi, inaugurated in 1931, only sixteen years before colonial rule crumbled.5 If we go even further back in time, to the gray area where history and legend are blurred, we will find that Delhi (specifically the Purana Qila site) is also identified with Indraprastha—the magnificent city of the Pandavas of the great epic Mahabharata, with its association with a colossal war.6

In the epigraph above, Husain draws on this familiar repertoire of images and associations, and locates the events of 1947 within the violent cycle of the rise and fall of empires. This latest political shift that Delhi experienced—from the seat of a colonial state to the capital of a nation-state—is at the heart of this book. Decolonization brought about its own share of violence and destruction, for independence was accompanied by partition. In 1947, while Delhi was the stage for the solemn public rituals celebrating the transfer of power, it also experienced mass violence and demographic transformation, with more than half a million Hindu and Sikh refugees arriving from Pakistan and 350,000 Muslims fleeing in the opposite direction. Accordingly, in the epigraph above, Husain alludes to the havoc that partition wrought on Delhi’s Muslims. He portrays Delhi not simply as a woman, but specifically as a mother who welcomes new children with open arms while abandoning her own.

What evoked this powerful metaphor in Husain’s imagination was a gathering of former “Dilliwallas” in Lahore in 1948. As Husain recounts in his memoir, Shahid Ahmad Dehlvi, the eminent writer, editor, and grandson of the first Urdu novelist, Deputy Nazir Ahmad, had gone to Delhi for a short visit to collect papers and books that he had left behind eight months earlier, when the city was engulfed in brutal violence. Dehlvi longed to see Delhi again, because, as he put it, for a Dilliwalla, the separation from Delhi was akin to separating nails from flesh.7 However, once there, he found his beloved city utterly transformed. When he returned to Pakistan, he wrote a painful reportage of the violence, his uprooting from the city, and the grieved and uncanny feeling that possessed him when visiting an intimate yet estranged home.

Dehlvi read this chronicle aloud in the gathering that Husain attended. Several muhajirs from Delhi and the United Provinces met at the house of Hakim Muhammad Nabi Khan, grandson of the famous physician and influential political leader of Delhi Hakim Ajmal Khan, who had joined with Gandhi during the Khilafat movement.8 They listened intently, but Dehlvi broke down crying and could not finish, and the party turned into a gathering of mourning. To express the shock and pain of his violent exile, Dehlvi likens himself in his reportage to a child whose mother has hit him, yet whose affection he still desperately seeks. He sees Delhi as a cruel mother, but his mother nonetheless.


Delhi Reborn revisits one of the most dramatic moments in the modern history of Delhi—the megalopolis capital of India and one of the world’s largest cities—tracing the momentous challenges of the present to the formative period of India’s decolonization. It tells how the twin events of partition and independence remade Delhi.

As a center of Muslim life, Delhi bore the brunt of partition violence and its attendant mass migrations most convulsively. As India’s capital, it was the arena for nation and state formation, with all their attendant struggles. Focusing on the late 1930s to the mid-1950s, this book both delineates the structural shifts of this period and teases out their emotional dimensions and impact on people’s lives.

The book explores the period’s most urgent questions, still central to understanding the city and nation today. How did World War II stimulate the fight for independence, and what impact did it have on the city? Why did the demand for Pakistan take root in Delhi during the war, given that its most ardent supporters would eventually remain outside its borders and be devastated by its formation? How did the relatively limited interreligious riots that the city experienced in the 1920s and 1930s transform into mass violence of an altogether different scale in 1947? How did such ethnic cleansing and its attendant demographic transformation reshape the city? Finally, what does the national government’s response to this crisis in the capital reveal about the architects of independent India and about their visions for a postcolonial regime?

At the heart of the book are two stories. First, it traces how two nation-states—India and Pakistan—became increasingly territorialized in the imagination and practice of Delhi’s residents, how violence and displacement were central to this process, and how tensions over belonging and citizenship lingered in the city and the nation. Second, the book chronicles the post-1947 struggle, between the urge to democratize political life in the new republic and the authoritarian legacy of colonial rule, augmented by the imperative to maintain law and order in the face of the partition crisis. As the political nerve center of the country and the seat of national government, Delhi was where India’s national leaders most directly negotiated these two fundamental tensions—between a secular democracy and a religion-based partition, between civil liberties and authoritarian impulses.

Throughout the analysis, we will see again and again Delhi’s intimate association with the nation and with political power, and hence, with the shift from colonial order to nation-state. We will see that this shift was a twilight time, combining features of the imperial framework and the independent republic, and we will try to capture the lived experience of this liminality. To introduce the book’s main arguments, let us return to Intizar Husain’s epigraph above.


For Intizar Husain, the catastrophe of 1947 was part of a cycle of pivotal events that had destroyed and rebuilt Delhi throughout history. Even more so, it is tied to the catastrophe of 1857—the ghadar (revolt) and its colonial suppression, which brought about the final dissolution of the Mughal Empire. The year 1857 indeed prevails in the memories and political imaginations of the historical actors of our story, and its relationship to 1947 is key to the interpretation of this book. It is worth elucidating this critical reference point.

Delhi had been the political center of Muslim dynasties that ruled over large parts of India since the early days of the Delhi Sultanate, in the thirteenth century. Its association with the rise of Islam in India left behind countless physical monuments, including the Qutab Minar, fortresses and mosques, graves and Sufi shrines. In the seventeenth century, the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan left his mark on the city’s landscape with the construction of Shahjahanabad—a planned city named after him, whose grandeur was meant to project the empire’s strength. Shahjahanabad, as Eckart Ehlers and Thomas Krafft conclude, was planned as a typical Islamic city, which, despite its transformation over time, remained the heart of Delhi’s sociopolitical life during the period that interests us. (See Figure 0.1.)

Shahjahanabad’s eastern side was built along the bank of the Yamuna River and was dominated by the imposing palace complex known today as the Red Fort, which was, in essence, “a city within city.”9 The magnificent and enormous Jama Masjid (Friday Mosque) was built on a hilltop about half a kilometer southwest of the palace. The city was surrounded by a wall, and the two main boulevards that radiated from the palace connected it to the city’s gates. The elegant Chandni Chowk ran east-west from the Lahori Gate of the fort to Fatehpuri Mosque, then north toward the city’s Lahori Gate. The second boulevard, Faiz Bazar, ran north-south from the fort’s Delhi Gate to the city’s Delhi Gate. Along the boulevards were gardens, mosques, bazaars, and the palaces of the nobility. Outside the city’s wall were gardens watered by a sophisticated system of water channels that ran around the city and inside it, with a tree-lined canal flowing right at the center of Chandni Chowk. Over time, lands were allocated to members of the nobility who constructed havelis, or courtyard mansions, and these became the focal points of the city’s main mohallas, or neighborhoods. The mohallas functioned as complex political, residential, and economic units, consisting of bazaars, workshops, and residential quarters for military men, servants, and artisans. The mohallas formed administrative subdivisions of the city’s twelve wards, each under the control of the thanadar.10 In addition to the Jama Masjid, hundreds of mosques were spread around the city, the most important of which were located in the two main boulevards. Thus, Fatehpuri Mosque, the second most important mosque after the Jama Masjid, built of the same red sandstone used for the latter and for the palace, was located at the western end of Chandni Chowk. Like the Jama Masjid, it will be the setting for many events in this book.

With the decline of the Mughal Empire in the eighteenth century, Delhi was ransacked by a series of plunderers—from the Persian Nadir Shah, who carried off the famous peacock throne (1739), to the Afghan Ahmad Shah Abdali (1757) and the Rohilla Ghulam Qadir, who blinded the Mughal emperor Shah Alam II (1788). The weak emperor accepted the Marathas’ protection, and they formed the real power behind his throne until 1803. Finally, the British East India Company took over Delhi in 1803, but historians agree that the disruptive impact of colonial modernity was not felt until the Revolt of 1857, which brought about the true colonial break with the past.

FIGURE 0.1 The City of Delhi before the siege. A detailed engraving of the walled city of Shahjahanabad before the 1857 revolt. The palace (Red Fort) is on the left, on the bank of the Yamuna River. To its southwest is the Jama Masjid. The main road of Chandni Chowk stretches westward from the palace. Toward its end is the Fatehpuri Mosque. Source: Illustrated London News, 1858.

The story is well known. The rebellious Indian troops of the East India Company’s Bengal army arrived in the city and asked the elderly Mughal emperor Bahadaur Shah Zafar to patronize the rebellion. British authority completely collapsed, and the rebels took over the city, bringing about the breakdown of law and order and basic services, destroying, looting, and killing. When the British recaptured Delhi several months later, they wrought havoc on the city. They executed the emperor’s sons at what came to be known as Khooni Darwaza (The Gate of Blood), exiled the emperor himself to Burma, expelled the bulk of the population, and razed vast areas of the city. Hindu residents of the city were not allowed to return before 1858, and Muslim residents much later. The few who were allowed to stay, such as Delhi’s quintessential nineteenth-century poet Mirza Ghalib, were subjected to strict curfews and rarely ventured outside their homes.

The city was utterly transformed through the construction of a railway, large-scale demolitions around the fort, and the conversion of the latter into a military garrison. Property ownership was restructured and social hierarchy upset, as the havelis and mansions of the Muslim aristocracy were transferred to loyalist bankers and merchants, mostly Hindus and Jains. While many members of the old nobility became impoverished, a new moneyed elite arose.11 Concomitantly, the British began to “de-Mughalize” themselves, discrediting the Persianate etiquette, culture, and literature surrounding the Mughal court, notably the Urdu ghazal (love lyric).12 Yet, once they overcame the initial trauma of the revolt, the British cultivated the Muslim well-born as a privileged group, both in Delhi and in other parts of India.13 Hence, until 1947, Delhi’s Muslim elite would be dominant in government employment and the municipal committee, a point to which we shall return later on.14

Administratively, Delhi became a district of the Punjab until 1911. The construction of the railway, which turned Delhi into a commercial center, spurred its expansion westward, outside the city wall, to the settlements of Kishan Ganj, Pahari Dhiraj, and Paharganj, and the new area of Sadar Bazar, which attracted people displaced by the large-scale demolitions and laborers building the railway. Sadar Bazar’s proximity to the new railway on the Grand Trunk Road made it attractive also for merchants of the Punjabi Muslim community, who established their wholesale shops there. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, with the establishment of the Delhi Cloth Mills, flour mills, and other factories, Sadar Bazar and Sabzi Mandi became the centers of mechanized industry, attracting migrant labor to Delhi. These areas developed mostly haphazardly and were home to mostly low-income workers, but with the construction of the new imperial capital and the expansion of the population, they became attractive. Karol Bagh, another lower-class area, also began to draw educational institutions and well-off residents.15

Colonial architecture left its imprint through the construction of wide vehicular roads and a new civic square at the center of Chandni Chowk, whose focal point was the neoclassical Delhi Institute Building, later known as Town Hall (See Figure 0.2.). Town Hall hosted the recently formed Delhi Municipal Committee, as well as a college, a library, a museum, a “Darbar” hall for the British administrators’ public audiences, and halls for social functions. The Mughal Jahanara gardens surrounding it were redesigned and renamed Queen’s Gardens. A statue of Queen Victoria stood at the entrance, and at the center of the square was the tall Victoria Clock Tower (which would stand there until its sudden collapse in 1951). In time, this central square would become the hub of nationalist and other popular protests, subverting the intention of its colonial builders.16 Other new public buildings included the railway station, hospitals, schools, bridges, post offices, clubs, and banks.

Simultaneously, a growing racial segregation was reflected in, and effectuated through, the construction of the Civil Lines, a European quarter to the north of the walled city. Informed by contemporary European notions of a rational, clean, airy environment, it had broad streets, and its spacious bungalows were isolated from the streets and from each other by gardens. In the early twentieth century the Delhi administration, headed by the chief commissioner and deputy commissioner, moved to Civil Lines, and a new cantonment was established for the army in the Ridge. The ultimate colonial imprint on Delhi’s landscape came with the transfer of British India’s capital from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911, and the ensuing construction, south to Shahjahanabad on Raisina Hill, of a new planned capital city, featuring grandiose, monumental architecture, broad avenues and circles, large bungalows for the bureaucratic elite, and the high-end shopping center of Connaught Place.17 (See Figure 0.3.) The completion of New Delhi in 1931 also finalized the transformation of the erstwhile capital of the Mughal Empire into Old Delhi—the irrational, congested, chaotic, and unsanitary city, “an uncivilized ‘slum.’18

FIGURE 0.2 Clock Tower (Ghanta Ghar) and Town Hall, Chandni Chowk, Delhi, c. 1910–1920, unidentified photographer. Source: Image © Sarmaya Arts Foundation. Accession No. 2019.51.4 (b)

All these transformations could be traced to the events of 1857, which became an emblematic catastrophe—almost an obsession—in the memory of Delhi’s Muslim well-born, who returned to it again and again in their writings. In fact, soon after the events there was a surge of texts mourning the destruction of the city and its culture, anchored in the genre of Urdu verse known as shahr-e ashob (city of misfortune), which had developed in the eighteenth century, when Persians and Afghans had ravaged the city. Thus, the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah “Zafar,” who was also a gifted poet, wrote of “ruined habitation” (ujra dayar), echoing a famous verse ascribed to the eighteenth-century poet Mir Taqi Mir. Mirza Ghalib lamented the devastation of Delhi,19 and the poet Khwaja Altaf Husain “Hali” wrote an elegy that opens with the words, “Dear friends, I beseech you, speak not of the Delhi that is no more, I cannot bear to listen to the sad story of this city.”20

The weight of 1857 and the melancholic literature surrounding it came to define the Muslim elite’s perception and experience of Delhi in the first half of the twentieth century. This notion of a declining world is perhaps best captured in the well-known lyrical novel Twilight in Delhi, published by the progressive writer Ahmed Ali in 1940. Set in Shahjahanabad and centered on a Muslim aristocratic family in decline during 1911–19, after the colonial capital shifted to Delhi, the novel seeks to capture the world of Old Delhi as it was fading, and it is suffused with wistful citations of Ghalib and Urdu ghazals.21

FIGURE 0.3 An aerial view of New Delhi, c. 1930. At the center are the Central Secretariat Buildings. Above and to their right is India’s parliament building. Source: Central Press/Getty Images.

In hindsight, the novel becomes even more poignant, because Ali, who was in China when partition took place, was not allowed to return to India and had to move to Pakistan instead. It was, as he reflected years later, “a living repetition of history ninety years after the banishment of my grandparents and the Muslim citizens from the vanquished city by the British. Yet while their exile was temporary, mine was permanent, and the loss not only of my home and whatever I possessed, but also my birthright.”22

Thus, 1857, which had been a formative experience in the collective memory of Delhi’s Muslims, was a frame of reference through which 1947 was later understood. As Ali notes here, 1947 repeated 1857 and even went beyond it, completing the ruination of Muslim Delhi that had begun with 1857. Accordingly, in the epigraph above, Intizar Husain draws an explicit parallel between Khwaja Altaf Husain “Hali,” who recited his marsiya about Delhi in Lahore in 1874, and Shahid Ahmad Dehlvi, who recited his own reportage of Delhi in Lahore in 1948. Dehlvi himself, gesturing toward Mir Taqi Mir and the last Mughal emperor, named one of his memoirs about Delhi Ujra Dayar,23 and he opens his account of partition with the words:

I often heard about the events of the ghadar from the elders, and read all that Khwaja Hasan Nizami wrote about the topic, and I used to think that such destruction had never befallen Delhi, and would never befall it again. But after the devastation of September, the ruin of 1857 seemed negligible. Such great destruction was never seen in world history.24


These personal and emotional ruminations on the connection, and difference, between 1857 and 1947 are worth pondering and developing more analytically. As Ahmed Ali observes, unlike the banishment of his forefathers from the city, his own exile was permanent, and he lost his very birthright to the city. If the upheavals of 1857 took place under the pressures of empire, 1947 was caused by its dissolution. Hence, 1947 went further and consummated the colonial decline of the Delhi Muslim community, but simultaneously manifested an entirely new logic—the logic of the nation-state, carried out through a territorial partition and new citizenship regimes. This is why Ali’s exile was permanent.

Nationalism emerged from within the colonial order itself, several decades after 1857, when an English-educated Indian elite established the Indian National Congress to advance its interests vis-à-vis the colonial regime. This story has been recounted countless times in history books. Suffice it to state that, over time, the modest demand for increased access to government employment and limited political representation developed into a full-fledged nationalist, anticolonial movement that encompassed large sections of Indian society. Indian nationalism gathered momentum with the meteoric rise of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi after World War I, resulting in mass movements in the early 1920s and early 1930s, which accelerated under the pressures of World War II.

Simultaneously, tensions developed between Hindus and Muslims, and these came to be known as the “communal problem” and the “Muslim question.” Broadly speaking, the exposure of nineteenth-century Indians to Orientalist knowledge, Western science, colonial policies, and Christian missionaries sparked an epistemological crisis and a great deal of introspection. In response, religious “revivalist” and “reform” movements—both Hindu and Muslim—emerged, placing religious identities at center stage, thereby sharpening the boundaries between communities.25 Moreover, endeavors to “purify” both religions and facilitate a return to an alleged golden age brought about attacks on popular syncretic religious practices and widened the rift between religious communities. From the middle of the nineteenth century, cities in India experienced periodic outbreaks of “communal riots,” usually during religious festivals and processions.

The establishment of self-representation, even if limited, intensified competition over employment, education, and representation in local bodies. This competition coincided with, and was propelled by, colonial practices of governmentality that systematically mapped and enumerated the Indian population according to religion and caste, rigidifying and politicizing these identities. Educated Muslim elites, as epitomized in Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, felt increasingly anxious about the Congress Party’s push for greater representation of Indians in local bodies on the basis of numerical strength and competitive exams, as this threatened Muslims’ customary dominance disproportionate to their numbers.26 The establishment of the Muslim League in 1906 as a Muslim organization parallel to the Congress and devoted exclusively to advancing the interests of Muslim elites represented a landmark in the politicization of religious identity. The colonial government consented to the Muslim League’s demand and granted separate electorates to Muslims in local bodies. This decision helped forge diverse regional, sectarian, class, and caste identities into “Indian Muslims” as a unified, all-India political and administrative category.

Certainly, partition at this point was not a foregone conclusion. Far from a linear separation, the relationship between Muslims and the nationalist movement in the first half of the twentieth century entailed cooperation and identification as well as alienation, depending on the particular moment in time and the specific historical actor.27 Yet an overall trajectory is discernible. The language of self-determination, popularized by Woodrow Wilson during World War I, permeated Indian politics.28 Once the principle that national groups had a right to territorial self-determination became entrenched, the nation took center stage in people’s political imagination, along with growing efforts to define its contours. Additionally, experience with representative politics converted religious communities into “majority” and “minority” groups, defined in national and ethnic terms.

The working assumption framing the analysis in this book is that this trajectory was largely inevitable, a dynamic intrinsic to the dissolution of multiethnic and multireligious empires into nation-states, as evident in other parts of the globe, notably in the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian empires.29 Historian Eric Weitz describes this process as the long transition from the “Vienna System,” emblematized in the Vienna Congress of 1815, to the “Paris System,” encapsulated in the post–World War I Paris Peace Settlements. The Vienna System

centered on dynastic legitimacy and state sovereignty within clearly defined borders. Paris focused on populations and an ideal of state sovereignty rooted in national homogeneity. The move from one to the other marks the shift from traditional diplomacy to population politics, from mere territorial adjustments to the handling of entire population groups categorized by ethnicity, nationality, or race, or some combination thereof.30

The principle of self-determination brought with it an assumed ideal overlap between nation and territory, and an attendant drive for ethnic or religious homogenization, turning some religious communities into “problematic” minorities that required a solution.31 As Hannah Arendt perceptively observed in her study of the post–World War I Minority Treaties, which sought to protect minorities in the newly established states in central and eastern Europe, “minorities within nation-states must sooner or later be either assimilated or liquidated.”32 For this reason, minorities could very easily become “stateless people,” subject to forcible removal, with a very thin line separating removal through deportation from removal through genocide. Armenians and Jews are paradigmatic; without a national territory to flee to, they suffered the exclusion and most extreme form of violence inherent to the rise of the nation-state and its homogenizing impulse.

In India, as the idea of the nation took hold, the post-1857 decline of Muslim elites gradually metamorphosed into minoritization. Shabnum Tejani pinpoints the intense debates surrounding the structure of political representation in the 1909 constitutional reforms as the key historical juncture at which Muslims transformed from a mere “religious community” to a “communal minority.”33 As Aamir Mufti points out, there are striking similarities between the “Jewish Question” in Europe and the “Muslim Question” in India.34 In both cases, efforts to address minoritization brought about the foundation of twin nation-states, unleashing great violence and mass expulsions. The process of Muslim minoritization in India, which culminated in partition and its aftermath, is a running thread throughout the book.


The Muslim League’s demand for Muslim self-determination in the subcontinent, in its Lahore Resolution of 1940, was an anxious attempt to escape the trap of minority status. It was anchored in the two-nation theory, asserting that Muslims were not a minority but a nation akin to Hindus, hence the Muslim question was not communal but national, requiring an international solution. But, as contemporaries and later historians have noted, the Lahore Resolution and its ensuing clarifications were far from clear. Historian Ayesha Jalal has famously argued that Muhammad Ali Jinnah intentionally kept the concept of Pakistan vague over the course of an elaborate negotiating game he played with the Congress and the colonial government, in reality striving not for territorial partition but for equal political representation, above and beyond Muslims’ numerical strength, in a future unified India.35 Whether or not this is the case, Jinnah did not elucidate Pakistan in territorial terms. As historian David Gilmartin demonstrates, the Muslim League’s definition of Pakistan was vague, uneasily combining a utopian interpretation of Pakistan as an ideal moral community and as a concrete, territorial reality. While Jinnah’s mobilization strategy relied more on the former, it was the latter that most brutally unfolded in 1947.36

Examining what the idea of Pakistan meant for Muslim League supporters in the capital, my analysis builds on and buttresses the thesis about the territorial ambiguity of Pakistan.37 We will see that the notion of Pakistan was so territorially open-ended, and the identification of Delhi with Indian Islam so robust, that many of Pakistan’s supporters in the capital expected, until the very last minute, that Delhi would be part of Pakistan, and never contemplated migration.

This flexibility was not unique to India but anchored in a wider political territorial imagination of the interwar period in the British Empire and Europe. After all, the Paris System was a politics of populations, born in the transition from empire to nation-states, and during the interwar period it displayed the liminality of a transformational moment. The imperial powers tried to harness the principle of self-determination to resolve the tension between ambitious imperial expansion and the challenge of popular aspirations. Arie Dubnov and Laura Robson explain:

The wartime collapse of the old central European and Ottoman empires and the emergence of new notions of the nation-state highlighted an essential paradox: the rise of new anticolonial nationalisms and a formidable discourse of national sovereignty at precisely the same moment that the power, authority, and ambition of the British and French empires were reaching their zenith. Facing this difficulty, the political and diplomatic leadership of the old “Great Powers” began envisioning a new global order comprising self-consciously modern, sovereign, more-or-less ethnically homogenous states under the continued economic authority of the old imperial players. The multiple treaties of the immediate post–World War I era . . . collectively articulated a new “internationalist” vision that bore the imprint of both nationalist discourse and imperial ambition, with the unspoken intention of containing the former and extending the latter. These agreements promoted a new political language of ethnic separatism as a central aspect of national self-determination, while protecting and disguising continuities and even expansions of French and, especially, British imperial power.38

Thus, territorial partitions—alongside population transfers, minority protection treaties, and mandates—were practices that spoke the language of national self-determination while attempting to co-opt it.

This meshing of empire with nationalism led to a wide spectrum of schemes for decolonization, many of which assumed different forms of power sharing, layered sovereignty, and autonomous “free states,” reflecting a federal-imperial horizon of expectations.39 Faisal Devji and Arie Dubnov, who both bring Pakistani nationalism and Zionism into the same analytical field, show striking similarities between the political-territorial formulas these movements floated around during the interwar period—a broad range of schemes for limited national self-determination within an imperial framework, shying away from complete national separation and sovereignty.40 Such a flexible political imagination involved a great deal of ambiguity, and it is no coincidence that both Zionists and Pakistani nationalists liked the vague term “national home.”

Thus, the liminality of the interwar period meant that the politics of self-determination was much more open-ended than we realize today, producing a protean political imagination. It is in this context that we place the vagueness of the Pakistan idea, which easily accommodated visions of Delhi as a semi-autonomous territory, a shared capital of Hindustan and Pakistan, or an integral part of Pakistan. As late as July 1946, the Cabinet Mission plan envisaged a decentralized Indian federation composed of autonomous Muslim and Hindu provinces, whose center would be Delhi.41

Such territorial open-endedness and wishful thinking was compounded by the distinctly utopian qualities of Pakistan, nourished by the memory of Muslims’ past hegemony. Historian Farzana Shaikh makes the suggestive claim that well-born Muslims had a profound belief in their preeminent claim to power: “By the time the Mughal empire came to dominate vast swathes of India in the 1550s, the force of Muslim overlordship had been so firmly projected onto the collective memory that it sustained the myth of power as a Muslim birthright.”42 This notion fueled the early politics of the Muslim League, which sought to maintain the privileged position of the Muslim elites in the face of a growing representative politics through separate electorates and weighing. As the transfer of power neared and the threat of minoritization became acutely tangible, the familiar politics developed into a demand for self-determination.

In Muslim Leaguers’ imagination, Delhi, the historical center of Muslim dynasties, would necessarily be part of Pakistan, whatever form the latter would take. This conviction was strengthened by Muslims’ relative numerical strength in the city (over 30 percent) and their dominance in the city’s police, administration, and Municipal Committee—a consequence of the colonial government’s strategic cultivation of the Muslim elite as a counterweight to Hindu influence. This explosive combination of territorial ambiguity and utopianism shaped the politics of Pakistan in Delhi. Exploring this politics, the book traces how the captivating yet ambiguous idea of Pakistan gained momentum in Delhi during World War II, and how it then transformed from a nebulous, utopian concept to a concrete, territorial reality, ushering in a period of great violence, displacement, and uncertainty about belonging in the city and the nation.


Shifting its gaze to the post-1947 years, the book delves into Muslim dispossession and spatial segregation, the politics of rehabilitating Sikh and Hindu refugees, the rise of the Jana Sangh Party as a political force in the city, and the role of the Urdu public sphere in voicing, interpreting, and shaping these structural changes on the ground. Debates over Indian secularism and citizenship loomed large in these formative days, shaping the contours of Indian democracy and delineating its lingering challenges. A contradiction underlay the 1947 moment—India was formed as a democracy committed to secularism, pluralism, and citizenship by birthplace (jus soli), yet it emerged from a partition along religious lines, which was implicitly undergirded by a notion of citizenship by blood descent (jus sanguinis) and involved horrid sectarian violence. As the analysis shows, this fundamental contradiction gave birth to competing articulations of the nation, minority rights, and citizenship, which clashed on the streets and in the cabinet, and occasionally within Jawaharlal Nehru’s own mind and actions. A fundamental tension remained between individual rights and community rights, between national integration and minority protection, which mirrored the difficulty besetting the League of Nations’ minority protection regime in interwar Europe. Muslims were caught between the contradictory pulls of assimilation and ghettoization.

The other issue that proved central to contemporary debates about democracy and citizenship was the confrontation between civil liberties and the legacy of colonial sovereignty—which was inscribed into the legal, administrative, and policing structures of the postcolonial state. The two imperatives clashed forcefully in Delhi, whose transformation from a viceregal center to a visible theater of national politics gathered momentum during World War II and reached full fruition after independence. Delhi’s status as the nation’s capital made it a pivot for national leaders, opposition parties, and mass movements, while simultaneously bolstering the authoritarian colonial concern with law and order, geared to restrain exactly such mobilizations. Thus, early postcolonial Delhi witnessed surveillance, restrictions on people’s political freedoms, and even a surge of preventive detentions, all of which were holdovers from the colonial regime. Yet these abuses catalyzed a backlash from opposition leaders and activists, who advanced a vibrant discourse of civil liberties as part and parcel of citizens’ rights.

In probing the intersection of partition with nation building and state formation, the analysis pursues recent studies, which have shown that the crisis that India and Pakistan had to address at the very moment of their birth generated state formation and the creation of national subjects, and shaped the political trajectories of the cities, states, and provinces where refugees settled.43 Yet Delhi offers a special vantage point on this intersection because, as the center of national power, it was governed directly by the top echelons and served as the arena where they most squarely faced the period’s upheavals and challenges. We thus see how the architects of independent India negotiated colonial legacies, the partition crisis, and their own clashing visions over the contours of the nation, citizenship, and democracy.

The book reveals state formation as a contest at various levels of power, from the ministries to the street corner. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru advocated a secular, multireligious Indian nation with an inclusive citizenship based on birth in a territory. Another camp, associated with Home Minister Sardar Patel, doubted that Muslims belonged in the nation and the city. The book reveals how this uppermost level of political struggle connected to frictions down the line among bureaucrats, policing forces, and nonstate actors. It reveals that the state itself, far from a unified agent acting on society, was itself in the making. In charting the links between different levels of political struggle and mobilization, the book also integrates high politics with subaltern studies, overcoming the prevalent dichotomy between political elites as generating events and ordinary people as enduring them.

The book’s political angle extends to the neighborhood level, finding that forms of urban citizenship that characterize contemporary India developed amid the crisis of partition. It traces how ideological uncertainties intersected with the more mundane scramble for material resources. It provides thick descriptions of local struggles over Muslim evacuee property and refugee rehabilitation, and of key players—local political leaders, social workers, press editors, and neighborhood “bosses” and “tough men” who emerged as intermediaries between vulnerable residents and state agents, foreshadowing modes of urban citizenship that are associated with the Emergency and the present day.


The current literature on the partition crisis in Delhi mostly takes as its point of departure the year 1947.44 Chapter 1 expands this temporal framework and provides the alleged rupture of 1947 with historical depth, by beginning in the late 1930s and exploring the transformation of Delhi’s political culture under the pressures of World War II, which precipitated a crisis of the colonial state. Becoming a major military supply base for the Allies, Delhi underwent demographic, territorial, and industrial growth during the war, allowing some to get richer while subjecting others to requisitioning, extreme congestion, rising prices, and hoarding. Simultaneously, British defeats and the scare of Japanese invasion made the empire suddenly appear fragile. The result was a millenarian historicity, landing the politics of self-determination in the streets and in the public sphere of the capital with full force. An increasingly assertive and volatile political mobilization precipitated both the outbreak of anticolonial disturbances and the utopian politics of Pakistan, transforming the Muslim League of Delhi from a small and insignificant group to a preeminent political force. The chapter underscores the malleability of the political imagination and orientation during the war years. Pakistan entailed different possible arrangements that did not necessarily mean a clear-cut separation, much less Muslim migration from Delhi. Initially, both anti-colonial and pro-Pakistan politics operated in tandem in defining Muslim mass politics, but from mid-1946 onward, it would congeal ever more firmly around Pakistan.

Chapter 2 is centered on the partition violence that erupted in Delhi in September 1947. It traces how the relatively limited form of “traditional” intercommunal riots in the city transformed into deadly violence whose scale and brutality fit the definition of ethnic cleansing. The chapter tracks this process through a careful reconstruction of events from 1946 onward, showing how the increasing territorialization of Pakistan was central to it, along with subtle but steady changes in the balance of power, both in the realm of high politics and at the lower levels of political mobilization. The chapter bridges a major gap in the historiography of partition violence—between the allegedly rational and calculated decision making of politicians and the emotions and inexplicable violence of society. By integrating the voices of several of the city’s residents—both Muslim and Hindu—the chapter sheds light on how people experienced the intensifying violence.

Chapters 3 and 4 explore how the crisis of secularism and the contradictory pulls of minority protection and assimilation unfolded spatially and in the vernacular public sphere, respectively. Chapter 3 analyzes the conflicts over Muslim property in Delhi, considering them as an index of the great uncertainties over Muslim belonging in the years after partition. The chapter minutely traces the encroachment on, and shrinking of, “Muslim zones,” thereby outlining the spatial expression of Muslim minoritization. It finds that, contrary to the prevalent assumption that Muslim zones were outside the jurisdiction of the Custodian of Evacuee Property, a great deal of the custodian’s intervention took place precisely in these areas. The analysis reveals Delhi to be a deeply political space in which profound ideological divisions and power struggles at the uppermost levels of national government fed, and were fed by, conflicts among bureaucrats, local political leaders, social workers, neighborhood bosses, and policing forces. Putting together fragments of evidence scattered in several archives, the chapter reconstructs a microhistory of one locality, Phatak Habash Khan, showing how the indeterminate position of Delhi’s Muslims turned their houses into semi-legal gray zones. In the shadow of the partition crisis, shady neighborhood bosses and informants emerged who negotiated the rights of the city’s vulnerable residents—a pattern that remains central in contemporary urban India. By foregrounding the role of socioeconomic difference in Muslim dispossession, the chapter also unpacks the categories of Muslims and refugees and investigates the intersection of religious community with class.

Chapter 4 demonstrates how the demographic transformation of Delhi was mirrored and negotiated in its press world. The territorial vagueness of the idea of Pakistan shaped an expectation among Muslim editors, whose papers played a leading role in the Pakistan movement, that they would keep publishing from Delhi. However, most of them hastily left for Karachi after their offices were attacked in late 1947, and their place was taken by numerous publications of Hindu and Sikh refugees from the Punjab. While the minoritization of India’s Muslims is often associated with the marginalization of Urdu, this chapter reveals the decade after independence as a twilight during which Urdu was the main journalistic medium forging the two rival publics in the city—Muslims and refugees–and their competing claims to the city. The extensive and intense editorial exchanges between Muslim and refugee editors, which centered on secularism and minority rights, created an extremely aggressive yet shared vernacular public sphere, traced to a time when Urdu served as a lingua franca, thereby pointing to the gradual and deferred nature of partition. Furthermore, that the editors of the former newspapers of Delhi, now based in Pakistan, frequently reported on and fueled these editorial exchanges shows how communities across the new borders remained bound together.

Chapter 5 centers on the tension between the democratization of political life and the authoritarian legacy left by colonial rule. With Delhi’s politics now nationalized, the city became an emblem of the nation, a hub of national institutions, and a magnet for all organizations and politicians seeking national recognition. Thus, as the anticolonial agitators of yesterday became the postcolonial rulers of today, they faced the mayhem of partition and the challenge of mass protests, both peaceful and violent, by disgruntled refugees, Hindu nationalist organizations, Sikh Akalis, and communist and socialist workers. The chapter demonstrates that the persistent colonial restrictions and structures of surveillance, on the one hand, and an assertive clamor for civil liberties, on the other, acted as twin forces that fashioned a complex set of beliefs and practices around democracy and citizenship, in Delhi and India more broadly.

The epilogue describes the recent protests and violence surrounding the Citizenship Amendment Act and the farm laws, which shook Delhi, demonstrating how it continues to function as a theater of national politics staging the fundamental tensions that have beset India’s democracy since the intertwining of independence and partition. Reflecting on these developments, the epilogue considers the interplay between deep structures and human agency and contingency in the history narrated in this book.


When British India moved its capital to Delhi in 1912, it separated the urban core of Delhi and the surrounding villages from Punjab and turned them into a separate province, centrally controlled by the government of India through a chief commissioner. A portion of the Ghaziabad tehsil across the Yamuna on the east, including Shahdara town and the surrounding villages, was transferred to Delhi from the United Provinces, and in 1941 Delhi Province’s territory stood at nearly 1,500 sq km. The population of Delhi in 1941 was about 917,000, three-quarters of which were concentrated in the urban area (695,686). A quarter of the population (222,253 people) lived in roughly 300 villages surrounding the urban area. (See Map 0.1.) In 1950, the chief commissioners’ province of Delhi was redefined as a Part C State, and in 1956, as a Union Territory.45 All these arrangements maintained strong central control over Delhi.

MAP 0.1 Delhi Province, c. 1940. Its area comprised an urban core surrounded by a rural area of roughly 300 villages. The map shows only those villages mentioned in the book. The boundary of the urban area, marked in gray, is approximate.

MAP 0.2 The urban core of Delhi Province, c. 1940.

This book focuses on the urban core: Shahjahanabad, or the old city; the localities to its west: Sadar Bazar, Paharganj, and Sabzi Mandi and Karol Bagh; the older “European quarter” of Civil Lines, where the Delhi Administration was located, and the adjacent university campus to the north of the old city; and, to the south, New Delhi, the well-planned and spacious capital complex with the surrounding residences of civil servants and the elite. (See Map 0.2.)

The bulk of the population in the period under investigation lived in the old city and the western extensions. These areas turned into geographies of violence in 1947. They also initially bore the brunt of migration. An influx of people during World War II and after independence resulted in a dramatic population increase, from 0.7 million people in 1940 to 1.8 million in 1956.46 Accordingly, in 1961, the census zone of City-Sadar-Paharganj featured a density of 55,256 people per sq km, one of the highest in the world.47 They experienced the sociopolitical pressures of the early postcolonial period most acutely, and they center the analysis of this book.48


1. Husain, Chiraghon Ka Dhuan (1999), 22.

2. Frykenberg, “Study of Delhi” (1992 [1986]), 1.

3. Frykenberg, “Study of Delhi,” (1992 [1986]), 4.

4. Gupta, Delhi between Two Empires (1981), 54.

5. “. . . if one is more accurate, something much closer to fourteen distinct cities, concentrated in three main areas of urban population density, can be identified. Of these, the ‘seven cities’ are in reality only the successive citadels (or ‘cities’) which were built during medieval times.” Frykenberg, “Study of Delhi” (1992 [1986]), 6.

6. Rajagopalan, Building Histories (2017), 119–51.

7. Dehlvi, Dilli Ki Bipta (2010 [1950]), 63.

8. For Hakim Ajmal Khan, see Metcalf, “Nationalist Muslims in British India” (1985).

9. Ehlers and Krafft, “Islamic Cities in India?” (2003 [1993]), 16. For the main architectural principles and features of Shahjahanabad, see also Blake, “Cityscape of an Imperial Capital” (1992); Pernau, Ashraf into Middle Class (2013).

10. Ehlers and Krafft, “Islamic Cities in India?” (2003 [1993]), 19. For the havelis and their transformation under the pressures of colonial rule, see Hosagrahar, “Mansions to Margins” (2003).

11. For the Revolt of 1857 and its aftermath, see Gupta, Delhi between Two Empires (1981); Farooqui, Besieged (2010); Hosagrahar, Indigenous Modernities (2005); Pernau, Ashraf into Middle Class (2013); Dalrymple, The Last Mughal (2007).

12. Pritchett, Nets of Awareness (1994).

13. Gupta, Delhi between Two Empires (1981), 116, 120–21, 214–16.

14. The Municipal Committee was headed by the British commissioner and his deputy, and consisted of ex-officio and nonofficial Europeans and members of the Indian loyalist elite who were nominated. With time, the representation of elected Indians increased. For a historical survey of municipal governance in Delhi, see Oldenburg, Big City Government in India (1976), 269–85. For a recent study of Delhi municipality during 1858–1911, see Kishore, (Un)Governable City (2020).

15. Gupta, Delhi between Two Empires (1981), 61–66; Hosagrahar, Indigenous Modernities (2005), 119–42.

16. For the architecture of Town Hall and new civic buildings, see Hosagrahar, Indigenous Modernities (2005), 53–55; Gupta, Delhi between Two Empires (1981), 84–86.

17. Until the completion of New Delhi, the Civil Lines functioned as the temporary location of the Imperial Government. For New Delhi, see Irving, Indian Summer (1981); Metcalf, Imperial Vision (1989).

18. Hosagrahar, Indigenous Modernities (2005), 149. For the intimate connections between the seemingly distinct spaces under colonial governmental rationalities, see Legg, Spaces of Colonialism (2007).

19. Pritchett, Nets of Awareness (1994), 21.

20. The elegy is quoted as an epigraph in Gupta, Delhi between Two Empires (1981).

21. Ali, Twilight in Delhi (2007 [1940]). For the literary strategies employed in this novel and its relationship with the shahr-e ashob genre, see Sadana, English Heart, Hindi Heartland (2012), 33–40; Joshi, In Another Country (2002), 205–27.

22. Ali, Twilight in Delhi (2007 [1940]), xix–xx. See also Hasan, Legacy of a Divided Nation (1997), 126–27.

23. Dehlvi, Ujra Dayar (1967).

24. Dehlvi, Dilli Ki Bipta (2010 [1950]), 23.

25. Metcalf, Islamic Revival in British India (1982); Jones, Socio-Religious Reform Movements (1989); Dalmia, The Nationalization of Hindu Traditions (1996).

26. For representative studies of colonial governmentality and its impact on identity politics, see Cohn, “Census, Social Structure and Objectification” (1987); Appadurai, “Number in the Colonial Imagination” (1993); Kaviraj, “Imaginary Institution of India” (1992); Pandey, The Construction of Communalism (1990). For an account focused on the emergence of Muslims as a political community in the later part of the nineteenth century, see Hardy, The Muslims of British India (1972), 116–46.

27. The Lucknow Pact of 1916 between the Congress and the Muslim League, which was facilitated by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and the post–World War I Khilafat Movement are considered two milestones of Hindu-Muslim cooperation. For an approach that underscores such cooperation and the role of Muslims in the nationalist Congress movement, see Mushirul Hasan’s studies, e.g., India’s Partition: Process, Strategy, and Mobilization (2013 [1993]) and M. A. Ansari: Gandhi’s Infallible Guide (2010 [1987]).

28. For a study that places the rise of the Gandhian nationalist movement in the global context of World War I and the disillusionment in its aftermath, see Manela, The Wilsonian Moment (2007).

29. Brubaker, “Aftermaths of Empire” (1995); Diner, Cataclysms (2008 [1999]), 153–98. For a volume that places India’s partition within this larger context, see Panayi and Virdee, eds., Refugees and the End of Empire (2011).

30. Weitz, “From the Vienna to the Paris System” (2008), 1314.

31. For a genealogy of the language of minorities and majorities and its transformation by the 1860s into a terminology attached to ethnicities or nationalities, mainly in the Habsburg Empire, see Weitz, “From the Vienna to the Paris System” (2008), 1329–30.

32. Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism (1979 [1951]), 273. See also Mazower, “Minorities and the League of Nations” (1997).

33. Tejani, Indian Secularism (2008), Chapter 3.

34. Mufti, Enlightenment in the Colony (2007).

35. Jalal, The Sole Spokesman (1994 [1985]). Farzana Shaikh analyzes this insistence on a national rather than a minority status through a theological lens, identifying the difference between Islamic and liberal approaches to political representation. Shaikh, “Muslims and Political Representation” (1986).

36. Gilmartin, “Partition, Pakistan, and South Asian History” (1998). For the vagueness of Pakistan, see also Devji, Muslim Zion (2013); Pandey, Remembering Partition (2001); Khan, The Great Partition (2007).

37. More recently, Venkat Dhulipala has sought to refute this thesis in his study of the politics of Pakistan in the United Provinces, claiming that Pakistan was in fact envisioned in great detail and clarity. But the materials that Dhulipala presents reveal, to the contrary, that even though Pakistan was continuously discussed and debated, territorially speaking it remained fuzzy. I will discuss this in greater detail in Chapter 1. Dhulipala, Creating a New Medina (2015).

38. Dubnov and Robson, “Drawing the Line, Writing Beyond It” (2019), 1–2.

39. For the federal alternatives to the nation-state imagined at the twilight of empire, see Collins, “Decolonisation and the ‘Federal Moment’” (2013); Cooper, Citizenship between Empire and Nation (2014). For a critique of this exercise as oblivious to the racial hierarchy inherent in imperial federalism, see Moyn, “Fantasies of Federalism” (2015).

40. Devji, Muslim Zion (2013); Dubnov, “Notes on the Zionist Passage to India” (2016).

41. See Chapter 2.

42. Shaikh, Making Sense of Pakistan (2009), 44.

43. Ansari, Life after Partition (2005); Ansari and Gould, Boundaries of Belonging (2020); Chatterji, The Spoils of Partition (2007); Kaur, Since 1947 (2007); Zamindar, The Long Partition (2007); Khan, The Great Partition (2007); Talbot, Divided Cities (2006); Chattha, Partition and Locality (2011); Roy, Partitioned Lives (2012); Sen, Citizen Refugee (2018); Sherman, Muslim Belonging in Secular India (2015); Purushotham, From Raj to Republic (2021).

44. Kaur, Since 1947 (2007); Pandey, “Folding the National into the Local” (2001); Zamindar, The Long Partition (2007). Exceptions are Mehra, “Planning Delhi Ca. 1936–1959” (2013); Bhardwaj Datta, “Genealogy of a Partition City” (2019); Legg, “A Pre-Partitioned City?” (2019); Nazima Parveen’s Contested Homelands (2021) came out as I was in the final stages of writing, precluding an extended engagement with its findings, though I refer to it here and in several other relevant places below.

45. Chopra, Delhi Gazetteer (1976); Rao and Desai, Greater Delhi (1965), 25–35.

46. Rao and Desai, Greater Delhi (1965), vii.

47. Chopra, Delhi Gazetteer (1976), 127.

48. The migration from Pakistan was overwhelmingly urban, and as refugee colonies were established in the periphery of the city—mainly to its west and south but also north of the university campus—the city expanded at the expense of the surrounding villages. This and subsequent waves of expansion are beyond the scope of this book, which concentrates on the original urban areas.