Standing by the wooden doorframe with an om and a swastika carved into it is Amena Bibi, a matronly Muslim woman in her late fifties. With two recently married sons and two teenage daughters, Amena-khala manages a full household with a firm hand in the Bangladeshi border village of Bibiganj. Most of the family was out on this day that I was visiting, and Amena-khala told me we had a couple of quiet hours to talk. As I finished my first cup of tea I asked if I could photograph the house. Amena-khala agreed, but stiffened ever so slightly as she followed my gaze when I stepped out from the dark room to the sunlit porch. I smiled at the bottle of shaving cream occupying the niche in the wall designed to hold idols, a common feature of Marwari mansions designed to display Hindu religiosity. That seemed to put Amena-khala at ease again, though neither of us mentioned it. As we walked through and around the house, there were visible incongruities between the built structure and its present occupants: the oms etched into every carved door, the niches in the wall meant for Hindu idols, the private well at the back for drinking water unshared with Muslim neighbours, and the remnants of a marble-tiled pedestal for a tulsi plant in the courtyard.

Amena Bibi’s husband was a tobacco trader, and so was her father-in-law. When I gently asked about the migration history and resettlement of her husband’s family from the Indian border town of Dinhata to Bibiganj, concerned that this might be a difficult topic to discuss with a new acquaintance, Amena-khala readily provided a brief account devoid of descriptive detail. She said that in 1962 her father-in-law had exchanged his property, including warehouses and their family house, which was just outside Dinhata, India, with a Marwari family of Bibiganj with whom they were already acquainted through the tobacco trade of the region.

Though new to the area, the family was wealthy and sought a marital alliance with Amena Bibi’s family after the 1965 War, as her father was a respected imam at the local mosque. Amena declared rather matter-of-factly that her father-in-law died of a broken heart soon after her marriage and the sangram, the 1971 war.

Indian manush chhilen [He was an Indian person]. The business did not pick up like it had oi deshe [in that country], and he was never comfortable in this house. Ekhane mon bosheni kono din [his heart never settled here]. Then we were in India during Joy Bangla [the Liberation War of 1971], we left behind everything in this house, and went to stay with their old acquaintances in a place called Dinhata. But it was not the same there – my father-in-law mela koshto paisen [suffered a lot] through those times. Sheshe, moner dukkhye mara gesen [at last, he died of a broken heart].

My attention to the visibly Hindu past of the house, which despite the exposed brick patches and peeling layers of paint still bears the marks of its Marwari builder, seemed like a diversion to her narrative rather than its key. Amena-khala spoke quite unsentimentally about the nearly yearlong refuge they took across the Indian borderland during the Bangladeshi Liberation War of 1971, like almost all families in the then-East Pakistani border villages. However, her account of how her husband’s family came to live in this house centred dislocation, not settlement. This house, that house: belonging and identity were deeply felt through property, material structures, and conditions. The description of these compounded dislocations connected place-belonging with personhood, resettlement with suffering, and migration with an irreparably broken heart. Occupying “this house,” a large brick-and-mortar structure that was a rarity and a luxury in rural northern Bengal of the 1960s, “his heart never settled.” For Amena’s father-in-law, home and dwelling, identity and citizenship had never aligned.

Her father-in-law had gone from being an Indian citizen to a Pakistani citizen, with the exchange of properties and transnational migration, but he had remained “an Indian person,” in Amena’s words. In her narration she used the language of blood to make kinship with a deep cultural identity, naturalising and decoupling it from a bureaucratic identity of nationality.

This would seem like a perfect example of what scholars of transnational migration and diasporas have studied extensively “cultural identity” as distinct from bureaucratic nationality or citizenship. However, while these assume differences in terms of physical and cultural distance, postcolonial refugees do not figure in these discussions. Not only did they migrate short distances to neighbouring countries an overlooked feature of contemporary refugee movements in post-Partition South Asia the migration of religious minorities to become majoritarian citizens was premised on the assumptions of cultural belonging, not difference. The material and affective dissonance of this premise rippled through countless borderland families like Amena Bibi’s, taking on enormous political significance over generations.

Bureaucratically speaking, this was a “voluntary migration” at a historical juncture where, as a Muslim resident of India, Amena’s father-in-law chose Pakistani nationality. Joining thousands of Muslims who were migrating for a variety of reasons, they were deemed to be muhajirs (refugees) and embraced as bona fide citizens in East Pakistan. By the end of the 1960s, two decades after Partition, even conservative estimates suggested that 1.5 million Muslims had migrated from West Bengal to East Pakistan; about 5 million Hindus were officially estimated to have left East Pakistan for India (including West Bengal, Assam, and Tripura) in that same period. Unlike in the case of the western India-Pakistan border, these migrations and displacements were not spatially and temporally concentrated but occurred “sometimes in trickles and sometimes in big waves.” For example, in 1951 the Pakistani census counted 700,000 Muslim muhajirs in East Bengal, of whom two-thirds were thought to be from West Bengal. Prior to the 1965 War, the government of India estimated that in eight days of January 1964 alone, 70,000 Muslims fled across the border to East Pakistan.

Yet, Amena Bibi’s father-in-law’s experiences of migration, (re)occupying home, and belonging are not legible in terms of the official statist or analytical categories we have to understand the lived experiences of either being a displaced refugee or a postcolonial citizen. I was deeply moved by the statement that he was “an Indian person,” not least because it was not unique: numerous others in the Bangladeshi borderlands used these kinds of references to describe themselves or others to me.

“An Indian person” was a reference ostensibly to a particular migration history, but something much harder to grasp exceeded the itinerary of this journey from one nation-state to another. Was this a reference to previous citizenship? An attachment to a place? A stubborn ethnonational sense of self, refusing to be replaced by current national identity? Taking seriously this story of an enduring and profoundly unsettled experience of dwelling as a Muslim citizen first in East Pakistan, then in Bangladesh, a series of questions followed. Even in Amena-khala’s brief account, the picture that emerges is of a succession of wars and political decisions that entailed numerous partitions and migrations, not a singular even if lengthy process. Over these three decades from the early 1950s to the late 1970s Muslims and Hindus migrated and settled across the border in relation to one another. What role did the states play in managing or recognizing these migrations? How do these migrations and resettlements in short distances across the border that is, within the borderlands trouble our understandings of home and the relationship between displacement and (re)settlement in citizenship and refugee regimes in the postcolonial world?

Excerpted with permission from A Thousand Tiny Cuts: Mobility and Security across the Bangladesh-India Borderlands, Sahana Ghosh, Yoda Press.