The unspeakable horrors of Delhi, 1947

In Freedom’s Shade, by Anis Kidwai; translated from Urdu by Ayesha Kidwai; Penguin Books India 2011, Pp 382, price Rs. 450

Anis Kidwai belonged to the illustrious Kidwai family of Barabanki. The family has made more than a signal contribution to the making of India. Not only in politics and governance but also in diverse fields of creative endeavour. This short piece, though, is not about her or about her family but her most remarkable record of the unfolding tragedy in the Capital of India and in its surroundings in the aftermath of independence and partition.

Anis Kidwai, though extremely politically aware with sharp and clear views on what she saw happening, was not a political activist and would have probably continued to lead a well settled, almost sedentary life in Mussoorie, had the unthinkable not happened. Her husband, Shafi Ahmad Kidwai, the administrator of the Municipality, who had almost single handedly tried to keep peace in Mussoorie when everyone else had either given up or joined the rioters, was murdered.

A distraught Anis reached Delhi and in the hope of finding solace went to meet the Mahatma. Everyone seemed to be running to him and he had something for everyone. He listened to her and asked her to  work among those who had lost everything. Working for them, he said, will give you a reason to live.

Anis began working at the Purana Qila Refugee Camp, shifting later to the Humayun’s Tomb Refugee camp and then fanning out in the city with young students from Jamia, trying to prevent people from fleeing, trying to stop riots that threatened to break out every moment. She worked with Sushila Naiyar, Subhadra Joshi and many others in a desperate fight to restore sanity among a people who seemed, suddenly, to have taken leave of all decency and compassion.

Throughout all this she kept a diary of her daily experiences, the madness, the cruelty, the greed, the depravity, the unspeakable horrors that humans inflicted upon other humans. She also saw and recorded instances of great love, great courage shown, great sacrifices made and great risks taken by ordinary unarmed people to help and save others like themselves.

In Freedom’s ShadeAazaadi ki Chhaon Mein, originally written in Urdu is based on those diaries – a recollection of what she saw and also a record of her observations between 1947 and 1949. The book, written in ’49, was eventually published by the Quami Ekta Trust run by D.R.Goyal and Subhadra Joshi in 1974. The National Book Trust published the book in Urdu in 1978 and in Hindi in 1981. The English translation under review is more than the QET publication or the NBT’s Urdu and Hindi versions. Ayesha Kidwai, the translator and granddaughter of Begum Anis Kidwai, has gone back to the original diaries and has included, in the main text, portions that were either left out or had appeared as footnotes, in the earlier publications.

Ayesha has been able to maintain the flow of the Urdu original and that is no mean achievement. I have dabbled in this activity and have some idea of how difficult it is. Except for a few minor problems in translating poetry, this is an excellent effort.

Having read the NBT publication in Urdu, and having heard about the conditions of the two camps from my mother, who had also spent time at both the places with her siblings and old parents, I can only welcome the present publication because this book fills a big gap in our collective memory of what actually happened in Delhi in the aftermath of the partition.

We have many records of the immense sufferings of the Hindu survivors who streamed into the new India from the newly created West Pakistan. This discourse has almost totally overshadowed the descriptions of four other tragedies that coincided with this migration from west Punjab: the migration of the West Bengali, Bihari, and East UP Muslims into East Bengal, the migration of the Bengali Hindu refugee into West Bengal and Bihar, the migration of the Muslim into Pakistan, and finally the plight of the Muslim in India who had chosen to stay. To Prof. Papiya Ghosh, whose life was so cruelly cut short by goons in Patna in December 2006, must go the credit of initiating studies about the migration to and from East Pakistan, one can’t think of too many other contributions in this area and except for the book under review there is precious little, not at least in Hindi and English, that records the tragedy of the Muslims who were in India, those that chose to leave and those who chose to stay.

Anis Kidwai’s personal account, conversational, first person singular, talks to you and reaches out to you. You travel with her and witness first-hand the horrors of those cataclysmic times. You hear of the Muslim refugee seekers at the Purana Qila Camp, who had chosen to go to Pakistan, being left at the mercy of the Pakistan High Commission, of the camp managements cornering beds and blankets for themselves while expectant mothers, infants and dying old people shivered under the open skies, of people trying to carry orphans with them, for they would work as servants in their new homes, of five year olds dreaming of growing up to kill the killers of their parents. Of the government of India virtually washing its hands off the affairs of the camp, of succor being provided by well to do Muslims and by no one else, reminds you of Gujarat 2002, but even this aid came selectively, the Nawab of Rampur sent blankets, but only for refugees from Rampur.

As you read one chilling account after another of perfidy and deceit, of official connivance with the killers, of doctors’ refusal to treat Muslim patients, of government offices telling their Muslim employees, even those who had chosen to stay, to leave and go to Pakistan, of pre-teen girls speared through their vaginas, of infants being chopped to pieces, of pregnant woman being stabbed through their wombs, of women, in their tens of thousands, on both sides of the blood-soaked border, kidnapped, raped and sold off, again and again and again, rioters, policemen, army men all joining in this macabre act of desecration of womanhood, your blood begins to run cold.

And all this in the capital of a nation that had announced to the world that she was home as much to the Muslim as it was to the Hindu, the Sikh, the Parsi and the Christian. Those upon whose shoulders had fallen the responsibility of steering its fate, were people who were either not capable or did not care and some, many of them were almost at the top, were complicit in the violence.

As you read all this, your mind begins to be flooded with images and reports of the recent past, events, pogroms, genocides – Nellie, Bombay, Gujarat begin to flood your mind. The same barbarities, the same callousness, collusion, protectors turning perpetrators, doctors refusing to treat patients, suckling infants being beheaded, neighbours killing neighbours and all this amidst claims of a faith that was inherently tolerant, open, welcoming.

You also think of this frail woman, a woman who has lost her husband to these killers and who still went out every day, trying to save one more life, unite one more family, buy sweets for a girl with half her skull stitched up, supervising rations for the refuge seekers, begging for blankets, setting up schools for children, organizing joint processions of Hindu and Muslim children, getting their parents together, getting into communally charged localities and asking people to stop the dance of death, if not for anything, then at least for the life of the fasting Mahatma, who had vowed not to eat as long as peace did not return to Delhi.

As you read you see this unsure, scared, confused, hurt, lonely woman, grow up in stature and with her rises your hope and your faith in the victory of the Human spirit.

Read this book if you want to understand where we went wrong and to see the fault lines, to see how we need a secular state and not sarv dharm sambhav. Read this book also if you want to understand the falsity of the self image that we have created of ourselves and of our nation, but read it most importantly to understand the fragility of the premise upon which is built the idea of India and the need to protect and nurture this premise and to make it real. Because this premise is India and it is people like Anis Kidwai that made it possible.

(First published in The Book Review, Vol XXXV, Number 8-9 August September 2011.)

20 thoughts on “The unspeakable horrors of Delhi, 1947”

  1. Thank you Sohail, for reminding us not to forget asking that question: why are some memories more privileged than others? What happened in Delhi in 1947 was ethnic cleansing of around 28% of its residents. That that memory is completely absent, so never talked about, is perhaps more painful than what actually happened.


    1. S. Kalidas has mentioned a diary about the rioting during 1947-48 around the Jama masjid in Old Delhi in Urdu by someone from Jamia Millia Islamia. Maybe someone interested in seeking it out could do so.


  2. it must be very heart wrenching read….very difficult for people like me to read it through without weeping……and i have decided not to weep anymore….at times apathy is also blissful…..


  3. one can’t think of too many other contributions in this area and except for the book under review there is precious little, not at least in Hindi and English, that records the tragedy of the Muslims who were in India, those that chose to leave and those who chose to stay.

    I am not an expert but a little web search did locate Partition and Independence in Delhi: 1947-48 by Gyanendra Pandey, Economic and Political Weekly, v. 32, no. 36 (Sept 6-12, 1997), pp. 2261-2272. In addition to Begum Anis Kidwai’s book, Pandey also refers to Shahid Ahmad Dehlavi’s Dilli ki Bipta. I don’t know if that has been translated but the excerpts that Pandey gives are moving and suggest that it should be translated if it has not been done already.

    It sounds incredible but somehow vestiges of humanity survived in the midst of all the mayhem. Shahid Ahmad Dehlavi and his family moved to Pakistan after a harrowing journey recounted in the book. But his mother refused to leave. From Pandey’s article:

    While Shahid and his colleagues fled from this Hindu locality [Khari Baoli] on September 5, his mother refused to leave. Conditions worsened in the following days, however, and she was forcibly taken away by relatives to the near-by Muslim area of Farash Khana. The very next day, Hindu elders of Khari Baoli went to Farash Khana and pleaded with the old lady to return to her home; her departure amounted to a slur upon them and upon the whole mohalla. No one would be allowed to touch a hair of her head as long as they lived, they declared. “Jab tak hamari jaan mein jaan hai, aap par anch nahin aa sakti” (p 147).

    Shahid Ahmad’s mother returned to Khari Baoli and was still living there, along with his younger brothers and sisters, when he wrote his memoir sometime after he and his
    immediate family had moved to Pakistan. “Not a single Muslim was killed in Khari
    Baoli”, writes Shahid, “and my mother is still there.” Indeed, once relative calm had been restored, his mother urged him to come back. “She writes to us saying that all of us fled unnecessarily:’you should come back now’…This is but a trifling example of how Delhi’s Hindus behaved towards Muslims” (pp 146-47, 180).

    Pandey adds: Shahid Ahmad’s major diatribe is reserved for those Hindu and Sikh refugees who had flooded into the city from outside.

    I wonder if the people of Khari Baoli still retain the sense of neighbourhood which impelled them to plead with an old lady to return to home because her leaving cast a slur on the whole mohalla? Do Shahid Ahmad Dehlavi’s younger brothers and sisters (and their descendants) still live there? Do they regret their choice?

    Thanks for the post.


  4. I should also add that even though Shahid Ahmad Dehlavi exonerates Delhi’s Hindus and pins the blame on outsiders, Pandey notes that His own evidence suggests otherwise, however, and because of that Shahid adds a significant rider: “except for those who were carried away by a religious madness.”


  5. It is truly chilling to read how that terrible period turned ordinary people on both sides into religious and murderous zealots.

    The Sikh historian Gurbachan Talib, who held the Chair of Sikh Studies at Banaras Hindu University and received the Padma Bhushan in 1985, wrote of the atrocities committed against Hindus and Sikhs as they attempted to flee Pakistan.

    This rather forceful passage from his book describing the plight of Sikhs and Hindus in Rawalpindi reminds me of the scenes of horror described in your essay:

    “The assailants did not spare even little children. It was naked beastliness performing a devil’s dance. Children would be snatched from the hands of their parents, tossed on spears and swords, and sometimes thrown alive into the fire. Other cruelties equally horrible were perpetrated. Women’s breasts, noses and arms would he lopped off. Sticks and pieces of iron would be thrust into their private parts. Sometimes the bellies of pregnant women were ripped open and the unformed life in the womb thrown out. In some places processions of naked Hindu and Sikh women are also reported to have been taken out by the Muslims mobs.”

    A secular government, completely devoid of religious influence, should be the goal for activists in both India and Pakistan. The influence of religion must be fought against in every sphere of public life so that it cannot be used as a tool to incite violence in times of distress and mass discontent.


  6. Thanks for such a nice book review. “Ajadi ki chhaon main” has been a rich account of partition and the translation, as Sohail suggests, is a welcome addition. I would only like to add the obvious but somehow escaped the attention of Sohail. He rightly points out that the period witnessed tragedies of migration in Punjab ( both sides), Bengal (both sides) and Bihar-U.P and ‘the migration of the Muslim into Pakistan, and finally the plight of the Muslim in India who had chosen to stay’. I would like to add that the tragedy of the partition engulfed much larger geography and communities than suggested by Sohail or existing academic discourse. This discourse has so far not taken into account migration and deaths that took place in Kashmir (not directly due to human killings but loss of deaths due to extremely difficult physical terrain which migrants had to cross), migration of Sindhis (both Hindus as well as Muslims) into western India (Gujarat, Rajasthan{Ajmer is a telling example, a city demographically transformed due to migrant influx} as well as in other towns of Maharashtra), resettlement of migrants in Dandakaranya and the Andaman islands to name a few. I believe this catalog is quite exhaustive and for many too obvious too. Yet, i only ponder why much of it still remains outside the discourse on Partition violence. Scholars like Rita Kothari have written on Sindhi community but we still lack an understanding on how partition changed the landscape, communities and people engulfing the entire South Asia.


  7. Expecting Nehru to be an exception was too much. He was in politics and he had future elections in mind. Though many of us want him to be portrayed and place him in different level, he was one of us like present day Modi. History cant be wrong.


  8. I have read some excerpts from ‘Azaadi Ki Chaon Mein’ in Urvashi Butalia’s ‘The Other Side of Silence’. The book presents some really moving accounts.
    >Read this book if you want to understand where we went wrong and to >see the fault lines, to see how we need a secular state and not sarv >dharm sambhav.

    Where we went wrong? Is there a straight-forward answer to this question? Doesn’t it go to much before 1947? Right upto the days of The Raj and how even the pre-partition socuety of India was deeply fragmented along religious lines.

    An yes, there are hardly any books covering the horrors of Partition on eastern side except for some pro-Hindutva voices. However, there are some good works of fiction in Bengali by some Bangaldeshi authors.


  9. It’s always difficult to read about 1947, or in general about communal violence in India, I feel that sick feeling in my stomach that perhaps occurs because I can personally identify in a way I might not when reading accounts of similar events elsewhere. I had not heard of this book, but definitely want to check it out now (even though I’ll have to force myself to read it!)


  10. I am a Pakistani by birth so placed my reliance on the history books or whatsoever watched my parents and relatives during migration from Amritsar. what my parents told me it was Master Tara Singh’s madness which created such a violent situation in Punjab. The role of Gandhi was passive but Nehru with Sardar Patel and other close collaborators was busy in politics.
    Congress never accepted the independence of Pakistan from the day 1st. Unluckily the Pakistani leadership was corrupt and short visioned but in spite of that Pakistan progressed in different fields in spite of this fact that East and West Pakistan was agrarian society. Hopefully the good days of Pakistan is coming.
    What has happened during 1947 is the saddest chapter of the history of sub-continent, in fact partition was unacceptable for Hindus and Sikhs so they created such a havoc for Muslims at the time of migration. I am not feeling any hesitation to admitting this fact Hindus and Sikhs also faced violent reaction of Muslim In newly created Pakistan but it was of far lesser degree.


  11. I was reading through all the comments and just stumbled upon one from Mr. Aleem. Yes Sir since Pakistan’s creation was on the premise that Hindus and Muslims can’t live together so riots were mere proof of the theorem. But then strangely this premise did not seem to work in 1971. Please read once through the book in your own interest.


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