Uditi Sen – Rehabilitation’s Residue: Recasting Refugee Women as ‘Permanent Liabilities’

Uditi Sen, University of Cambridge
Rehabilitation’s Residue: Recasting Refugee Women as ‘Permanent Liabilities’

This paper explores the position of refugee women within the regime of refugee rehabilitation in post-colonial India. In order to rehabilitate or restore to normalcy millions of partition refugees, the independent Indian state was forced to articulate its vision of a normative social order. The anxiety caused by the figure of the widowed or single refugee woman, who had no male guardian to protect and provide for her reveals the inherent gender bias in this state led project of social reconstruction. Identified as ‘unattached’ women, they were considered to be ‘unrehabilitable’. The state stepped forward to fill the shoes of the missing patriarch and guarantee perpetual relief to unattached women and their dependants by classifying them as ‘permanent liabilities’. This paper demonstrates how the apparent benevolence of the state towards ‘unattached’ refugee women masked their exclusion from rehabilitation. However, the essentialisation of women as economic dependants did not go unchallenged. It rankled with the prominent women of Nehruvian India; and as ministers, administrators and social workers who enjoyed the patronage of the Congress they advocated training ‘unattached women’ to achieve economic self-sufficiency. Vocational training for refugee women introduced a contradictory ideal of feminine self-sufficiency within a project geared towards replicating patriarchal social mores. But it failed to address the root cause of the marginalisation of refugee women- the stubborn refusal of the Indian nation-state to give unattached women access to the core benefits of rehabilitation – land (or loans to buy land) and the capital to set up trades or businesses. This paper will conclude with suggesting that the inability of independent Indian to imagine refugee women as autonomous entities anticipated its refusal to grant equal citizenship to women in general.

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