top of page

The Changing Face of Delhi - 1947 to 1957

- By Ramanjit Singh

Delhi Map 1960

A decade after independence, the face of Delhi changed from a stately capital of British India to a more chaotic and lively city. With the influx of refugees from West Punjab, the city became predominantly Punjabi.

To understand the changing map of Delhi, this article "The Decade that changed Delhi" by Aparna Alluri and Gurman Bhatia, presents a series of maps representing North, Central, South, East and West Delhi to show how the development of these refugee colonies changed the shape and the demographics of the city from 1947 to 1957. The city in 1942 comprised mostly of the famed Connaught Place, Civil lines, Old Delhi (Shahjahanabad), Secretariat (situated at the Raisina Hill), Presidential Palace, Parliament House, the Lutyens Bungalow zone and Karol Bagh. Also pre-partition Delhi consisted of Shahdara district, Shalimar Bagh, Sadar Bazar, Paharganj, Nizamuddin which were parts of Old Delhi.

A decade from independence, Delhi was a different city. Wilderness and agricultural fields began to give way to residential suburbs, commercial markets and industrial zones. The population doubled: a spurt that hasn’t been seen since, according to the Census. But the Muslim share of the population plunged from 33 percent to less than 6 percent.
“The city that was once a Mughal city, then a British city, had by the 1950s emphatically become a Punjabi city,” according to historian V.N. Dutta. The adjectives for Delhi also changed: what was once stately, languid and literary became boisterous, hearty and enterprising. And its map was transformed.

The first major extension to Lutyen's Delhi was Chanakyapuri. The Central Public Works Department (CPWD) developed a large area of land acquired from a Gujjar village that was located there to create this diplomatic enclave in the 1950s. Subsequently, this land was allotted to embassies, chanceries, high commissions and ambassador residences.

The government allotted thousands of acres of land to settle the refugees. In West Delhi, new residential suburbs such as Rajouri Garden, Kirti Nagar, Patel Nagar, Moti Nagar, Punjabi Bagh were developed. These colonies housed businessmen and people who migrated from Pakistan after partition and till today Punjabis constitute a significant part of the population in these neighborhoods. In Central Delhi, Rajender Nagar was primarily Punjabi refugee colony. In South Delhi, the new suburbs such as Greater Kailash, Lajpat Nagar, South Extension and Defence Colony were mostly comprised of rich Punjabi businessmen who had moved from Lahore and other parts of West Punjab.

In North Delhi, the town of Vijay Nagar (west of Civil Lines) and Model Town were one of the first colonies to get developed. Little east of the new colony lies Kingsway Camp which would eventually become Guru Teg Bahadur or GTB Nagar. In 1951, the famed Khan Market opened. The shops on the ground floor, and the flats above, were all owned by refugees from the North West Frontier.

In essence, post-partition Delhi looked and felt like Lahore.

In this article titled "IGNORANCE, FORGETTING, AND FAMILY NOSTALGIA: Partition, the Nation State, and Refugees in Delhi", published in 2000 in the The International Journal of Anthropology, author Dhooleka Sarhadi Raj describes how the memories of Partition were being passed on from the first to second generation and then to the third. In this process of sharing that experience, lot of stories were forgotten or were never told. According to his field research which he conducted in the 1990s, the author describes that the northern part of Rajendra Nagar is inhabited by those who were displaced from the North West Frontier and Peshawar area and even today the first generation speaks different dialects of Punjabi along with Pashto and Urdu. In the southern part of Rajendra Nagar you will find the Sindhi refugees.

I can also attest to the author's findings, when I was growing up in the 1980s in New Delhi, most of my class mates in school were from Rajendra Nagar and almost all of them were either Punjabis or Sindhis.

It is from these new colonies and the nearby industrial estates such as Okhla, people like Janaki Das Kapur, a businessman from Lahore, started Atlas Cycles. HP Nanda and his brother, also from Lahore, founded the Escorts Group. Raunaq Singh from Daska, Sialkot set up Bharat Steel and Apollo Tyres, Rawalpindi’s Bhai Mohan Singh came to manage Ranbaxy, and Sialkot's Dharampal Gulati set up MDH, one of the largest producer and seller of Indian spices.

These are just few examples among many other individuals who went on to create some of the largest business conglomerates in India. This article "Capital gains: How 1947 gave birth to a new identity, a new ambition, a new Delhi" by Shivani Singh describes how the arrival of refugees changed the dynamics of the city. She writes:

The city had a long history of suffering invasions. But this time it wasn’t about fighting foreign raiders. Delhi, now the capital of Independent India, had half a million of its own people at its doorstep. The challenge was to find homes and jobs for the newly arrived and assimilate their culture, language and beliefs.
But the indomitable Punjabi spirit refused to become a burden or even wait for acceptance. In no time, the new residents of Delhi had stamped their cultural and political dominance on the city. They became, as Ranjana Sengupta, the author of Delhi Metropolitan, puts it, “the last conquerors of Delhi.”

The two individuals who were instrumental in the refugee resettlement were Yudhvir Singh and Mehar Chand Khanna. Born in Peshawar, Mehar Chand was a refugee himself, and both worked in the Ministry of Rehabilitation and played a leading role in the planning and development of new residential colonies in Delhi.

Central Rehabilitation Advisor Mehar Chand Khanna showing an under-construction refugee quarter at Lajpat Nagar to British politician Aneurin Bevan on February 13, 1953. (HT Archives)

In this 1975 audio interview, Dr. Yudhvir Singh, the Rehabilitation Minister and Congressman in post-partition Delhi, describes the chaotic situation in Delhi at the time and the efforts made by the government to settle the refugees. Here's a snapshot of the transcript where he is talking about the new developments in central and west Delhi.

Yudhvir Singh, Rehabilitation Minister, refugee settlement in Delhi - post Partition

Delhi in the 1950s

Here's an old video of Delhi in 1938. Note the street signs are in English and Urdu.

One interesting point in the field research done by Dhooleka Sarhadi Raj (link referenced above), was that the first generation of refugees even till the 1980s tried to withdraw funds and property papers from banks that were now in Pakistan. He writes:

The property papers, which showed cash wealth, were useless after partition. Yet, their claims to land in India were based on their land plot size in Pakistan. This made the allocation of land in India doubly difficult. To deal with this dire situation, the Minister conceived of a scheme to allot lands based on what people claimed they had, confirmed independently by people of the same area (often panchayat men or otherwise trusted elder men) who could vouch for their allotment claim.

Eventually Delhi became a Punjabi city. The enterprising and boisterous nature of the Punjabis turned the city into a major economic hub of India. The hard work of the refugees turned the city from despair to one of hope and prosperity.

Here's an interview with late author and historian Sardar Khushwant Singh Ji talking about Delhi after Partition.

In this article by journalist Sarabeth George, the writer describes how the refugee colonies became some of the poshest areas of Delhi. She writes:

"Punjabi refugees from Pakistan not only ended up identifying themselves with Delhi but also made Delhi identify with them. The names of many colonies in the city such as Kohat Enclave, Mianwali Nagar and Gujranwala Town bear Pakistani imprint, the names of their birthplaces the refugees brought with them."

Khan Market is one of the examples, where Punjabi refugees started with small shops like Faqir Chand & Sons bookstore. They were refugees from Peshawar. Nearly hundred families from Peshawar settled in this part of Delhi. The market was named after Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, a freedom fighter from NWFP, also known as the Frontier Gandhi.

Read more at:

Check out the latest blogs on the Partition of Punjab:


Recent Posts
Search By Tags
No tags yet.
bottom of page