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Blood on the tracks of history

Published Apr 18, 2012 12:05am

“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.

mahir.dawn@gmail.com