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Blood on the tracks of history


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“PEOPLE from both sides behaved like beasts,” says Sarjit Singh Chowdhary, a retired brigadier, offering an indisputable overview of the events in Punjab during the year that India was partitioned.

His testimony is among the innumerable first-person accounts that comprise the core of Ishtiaq Ahmed’s meticulously researched thesis on the direst events of 1947, The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed (Oxford University Press). Essentially an invaluable oral history of events in the Punjab during that decisive year, it serves as an overarching cautionary tale.

A number of themes emerge from its pages as the circumstances of 65 years ago are graphically resurrected in the words of those who experienced them firsthand. Among the crucial incidents that preceded the bloodbath was Master Tara Singh’s provocative waving of the kirpan outside the Punjab Assembly in Lahore following the resignation of the Unionist-led Khizr ministry, in the wake of a Muslim League agitation.

Here, one of the numerous counterfactuals of that period rears its head. The League, hitherto not particularly influential in provincial affairs, won the largest number of seats in the 1946 elections but fell short of a majority. A coalition with the Congress was within the realm of possibility, but the largest nationalist party’s hierarchy decided against it. On the one hand, its demurral is perfectly understandable. On the other, it is hard not to wonder whether such an arrangement might not have saved lives.

Some of the initial instances of communal strife involved attacks by Muslim mobs on Sikhs in villages near Rawalpindi in March 1947, as well as clashes in the garrison town itself. There was turmoil in Lahore during the same period. It was still unclear at that point whether a Muslim-majority state called Pakistan would emerge — and the question of the shape it might take was even murkier.

Many Sikhs and Hindus believed, for instance, that if a divide occurred, Lahore would be a part of India; after all, much of the city’s property belonged to non-Muslims, and it hosted crucial Sikh shrines. At the same time, quite a few Muslims in Amritsar and Jalandhar expected those cities to be assigned to a putative Pakistan, notwithstanding their non-Muslim majorities. These seemingly unrealistic notions were prodded in some cases by political leaders.

It’s useful to remember, though, that in those days reality was a rapidly morphing construct. As Ishtiaq Ahmed points out time and again, the Radcliffe boundaries — delineated by an Englishman who had arrived in India for the first time just a few weeks earlier — were officially announced a couple of days after partition. The mid-August cut-off point wasn’t public knowledge until Lord Mountbatten’s June 3 announcement.

The haste with which the British colonial power withdrew from the subcontinent has often been cited as a leading cause of the gory disarray that followed. After all, the initial deadline for the transfer of power was June 1948. Whether the Punjab situation would have been ameliorated to some extent by a longer deadline and an earlier demarcation of the new international boundary is a moot point, although it’s certainly possible that a more orderly transition would have facilitated a less rancorous divide. It might have helped, too, had Mountbatten been able to fulfil his ambition of serving as governor-general of both countries in the immediate aftermath of independence.

Another question that the book raises is whether a division of Punjab was an inevitable consequence of the subcontinent’s partition along communal lines. The Muslim League was keen to claim the province as a whole, and entered into comprehensive negotiations with the Sikh leadership as a means of facilitating this outcome. The Sikhs were understandably wary of Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s assurances of virtual autonomy, given the focus on Islam as a determining factor for the forthcoming divide.

The vast majority of witnesses, including many of those who lost most of their families in the Punjabi holocaust, testify to a broad communal harmony in the run-up to 1947. Some Muslims resented the deplorable Hindu tradition of excluding them from kitchens, but many others accepted the prohibitions on breaking bread together as a cultural norm. The extent to which class resentment might have contributed to the conflict is insufficiently explored in the testimonies, possibly because it was largely a subliminal factor.

It is universally accepted that innocents were subjected to the vilest atrocities, but it’s vital to remember that they were perpetrated by Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus alike — with reports or experiences of incredible cruelty elsewhere commonly cited as a provocation. It is perhaps even more important to note the innumerable instances of folks from all backgrounds keeping their heads when all about them were losing theirs, and not letting the vitriol that was seeping through the land of the five rivers poison their hearts. An incredible number of survivors acknowledge that they owe their lives to awe-inspiring acts of kindness by friends, neighbours and sometimes even strangers belonging to supposedly rival communities.

In some cases, political affiliations clearly played a role: for instance, nationalist Muslims resistant to the clarion call for a separate homeland and communists on both sides of the deepening divide often did what they could to ameliorate the consequences of the communal frenzy that climaxed in the weeks following freedom at midnight. The appearances of the resolutely secular Jawaharlal Nehru are often cited as a crucial factor in quelling or pre-empting outbreaks of violence. By the same token, the instigative acts and rhetoric of the Muslim League National Guard, the RSS and the Akalis frequently figure as retrograde influences.

Could anything short of a renunciation of the partition project have prevented the bloodbath? Eventually, well-armed military escorts protected many a refugee convoy. It should, of course, never have come to that. Although the tragedy lies 65 years in the past, it has vitiated relations between India and Pakistan ever since and continues to undermine the powerful logic of harmonious coexistence. Ishtiaq Ahmed’s probingly piteous account of how the Punjab suddenly went pear-shaped in 1947 ought to serve as prescribed reading particularly for those who continue to pursue the pathetic notion that the carnage was either inevitable or necessary.

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The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (15) Closed

Avtar Apr 18, 2012 08:21pm
The political leadership in both India and Pakistan should set up an Amnesty Commission, similar to the one in South Africa to confess and put it behind in the past. Neither country should wait for who acts first. Some of the bitterness due the "holocast" in the Punjab still piosions the relations between the two peoples.
gopal Apr 18, 2012 03:46pm
Many people used inflammatory words. It is easy to assign equal blame, but wrong. Muslim League had a clear interest in ethnic cleansing. Their call for Direct Action Day was the start of the killing of Sikhs and Hindus. It started in Rawalpindi area and then engulfed the entire area. Even today there are few villages in Indian Punjab where Muslims were protected.
RY Deshpande Apr 18, 2012 05:50pm
“Could anything short of a renunciation of the partition project have prevented the bloodbath?” Neither by hindsight nor foresight could this be justified, the partition of a country with its common history and background, with a unique assimilated cultural identity despite religious differences. And aren’t there intra-religious variations? and don't they coexist? But they will not if everything is politicised. The question is: can it be repaired if the answer to the question “should it be repaired?” is “yes”. If liberal thought can be the guiding light there is a hope, though it will have to struggle against every kind of extremism, even of the bloodiest kind.
Gorakh Thakur Apr 18, 2012 04:49pm
Live and let live should be guiding mantra.
BRR Apr 18, 2012 07:15pm
First the notion of "separateness" is sown by the Muslim League, then it is used as a "tool" for partition - call it a power grab, then all of a sudden, the Muslim League does all it can to root out the Hindus and Sikhs, then they look aside when killings start in Rawalpindi. When the dust settles, they declare Pakistan is for all people of all religions. Has there been a greater bunch of hypocrites ever? Jinnah included!
gaurav Apr 18, 2012 06:48pm
I as an Indian believe that howesover painful ultimately we have emerged better for it . Those who felt strongly about being separate are now separate. If we had been together , Pakistanis would have poisoned our lives and I am sure we would poisoned theirs. My request to fellow Indians :- please dont play the baneful tune of " wish we were together , we would have been world beater, we would have been great"......and such non sense. Pakistan is a great emerging power and we are simply struggling impoverished nation.They dont want anything to do with us. Pakistanis I have meet in any case view indian camaradrie as some kind of plot to undo partition. In our effort to be friendly we end up looking like beggars . In any case in 65 years I dont think we have much in common .
Sri Nivas Apr 18, 2012 07:57pm
Most historians have ignored the role of Churchill and the British establishment in ensuring the partition of India. Churchill saw the rise of the Soviet Union and wanted a client state in the subcontinent to serve western interests. He disliked Gandhi and distrusted Nehru and was in constant touch with Jinnah encouraging him to insist on Partition.
Farrah Apr 18, 2012 09:48am
I'd love to know some more about the whole event. My Dad was a 10 year old boy when the Partition happened. Had it not been for the riots and communal violence in Ludihana, he wouldn have stayed in India, rather than run with his family, to Samumdari in Pakistan. I'm Pakistani, but I have always been tempted to call myself Punjabi whenever anybody asks 'what I am'...
Farhan Apr 18, 2012 03:55pm
I agree. Lets hope that we have a better future.
Ishtiaq Ahmed Apr 18, 2012 03:23pm
As author of the book, perhaps I should not be expressing an opinion and I am not. I am only taking the liberty to inform Farrah that I went to Ludhiana and spent many days there and the book has many witness accounts of what happened in that city and district. So, a great deal of material just on Ludhiana is to be found in the book including pictures from a village outside Ludhiana, Gujjarwal. Ishtiaq Ahmed author, The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed: Unravelling the 1947 Tragedy through Secret British Reports and First-Person Accounts (Karachi: Oxford University Press, March 2012).
Shankar Apr 18, 2012 12:15pm
Even if partition was inevitable given the distrust that Muslims had for Hindius, it shoiuld have been more organized. The seeds of hatred that were sown during partition have taken root and still haunt the two countries. The partition of Bangaldesh was not any less bloody. Most partitions around the world have been bloody!
ahmed41 Apr 18, 2012 01:29pm
Mahir sahib, The * partition * of British India was the saddet event in the history of the sub-continent, EVER !! Just look at the loss of live ; the subsequent hardening of visceral hatred . For such a serious , which citizen was consulted ? Was there any referendum ? Why not ? We talk about referundums in other current regions of South Asia. What happened about a real national concensus in 1947 ? Why were not, for instance, my parent consulted about their vote, for or against this bloody division ? ahmed41
hari Apr 18, 2012 08:38pm
the seeds of partition was sowed in 1905 by Lord Curzon when he separated Bengal accoridng to Religion. Normal ordinary people later become monsters in killing families and all atrocities in 1947.
Ishtiaq Ahmed Apr 22, 2012 04:59pm
Once again, as author of the book, I am only presenting some information. In the Punjab book the emphasis is on just the Punjab, BUT the British role in just before their withdrawal deciding that Pakistan could serve their interests better is properly documented and presented. About Jinnah-Churchill links only in one case I provide evidence of Jinnah himself mentioning such a connection but the main focus of the book remains the events in Punjab. Ishtiaq Ahmed, author, The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed.
Cyrus Howell May 23, 2012 05:14am
Let us not forget that nearly over 400,000 men from Punjab had just come back from war. These Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus had all seen killing before. They had experience at killing. + "You are afraid because you still have hope. Once you realize you are already dead you will be able to kill without mercy, without compassion, without remorse. All war depends upon it." (Band of Brothers)