An undivided history of Punjab’s Partition: Ajay Bharadwaj

This is a book review by AJAY BHARADWAJ of an authoritative new book on the Punjab’s Partition by Prof Ishtiaq Ahmed. If you have any questions about the book or about the Partition in general, please leave them in the comments section and we will soon put them to Prof Ahmed.

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The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed
By Ishtiaq Ahmed
Rupa Publishers, Delhi; 2011, 754 pp., Rs 995

Ishtiaq Ahmed claims that his work is “the first holistic and comprehensive case study of the partition of Punjab” (p.xlv); he has lived up to it admirably.  A study of rigorous scholarship, with painstaking fieldwork on both sides of the divide, The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed’ offers unbiased insights into a minefield called the Partition of Punjab. As the title itself suggests, the book delves deep into the most difficult aspect of Partition history which has come to define it — the scale and magnitude of the killings at that juncture.

The primary sources that Ahmed has accessed in his endeavour are equally interesting for a number of reasons. While the historian draws extensively from the classified fortnightly reports (FRs) of the Punjab governors and chief secretaries to the viceroys, he simultaneously pays heed to oral history or the personal narratives of individuals — “witness to or victim of traumatic events” — that he has recorded over a decade and a half. The coming together of the two strands creates an intricate web of high politics and everyday life, which contributes to a layered, richly detailed and immensely moving account of the partition of Punjab — leaving a permanent imprint on the mind of the reader.

In contextualising the contours of the conflict that was yet to shape up with full force, Ahmed does well to refresh our memory by making a brief reference to the controversy centred around the publication of the book Rangeela Rasul (The Pleasure Loving Messenger of God) in 1927 and the Masjid/ Gurdwara Shahid Ganj dispute. Both events took place in Lahore, the provincial capital of Punjab. Earlier, in 1924, Hindus and Sikhs of Kohat in NWFP were forced to take refuge in Rawalpindi after being violently attacked.

However, these incidents were more in the nature of aberrations. In real terms Ahmed’s narrative takes off in the second half of 1945 during the provincial election campaign in Punjab, when the Muslim League vociferously propagated its demand for a separate Pakistan. The span of the book ends at December 1947 by when religious cleansing was more or less complete in the two Punjabs. His premise: “The investigation is organised in a chronological order, on the assumption that actions and reactions over it amongst the contestants become a chain of intended and unintended consequences.” (p.li)

The area in which this cleansing took place was large. Pre-partition Punjab was spread over 29 districts coming under the five divisions of Rawalpindi, Multan, Lahore, Jullundur and Ambala, apart from its many princely states. The 1941 census put Punjab’s population at 33,922,373. Violence broke out on March 3-4, 1947 in Lahore soon after the resignation of Punjab Unionist Party led-government of Sir Khizr Hayat Khan Tiwana. Gradually, as the scenario unfolded, the entire region exploded into brutal violence against its minorities – Hindus and Sikhs in western Punjab and Muslims in eastern Punjab.

The most remarkable aspect of the book is the manner in which Ahmed has managed to contextualise, investigate and document almost each major episode of Partition violence. For, these were the decisive strikes which triggered the flight of minorities to safe havens on other side:  The contest at Mahan Singh gate and Chowk Farid, train attack in Sharifpura, and massacre at Chowk Pragdas  in Amritsar;  the murder of Seth Kalyan Das, killings at Boar Gate and Basti Nau in Multan; fire at Shahalmi in Lahore; Rawalpindi, Patiala, Ludhiana among others. The list is exhaustive.

Here is a book in which the Punjabis of Delhi, for instance, could easily trace an attack on Hindus and Sikhs in West Punjab, that, in one way or the other, was responsible for her/his family’s flight to the other side. The same would hold true for many Punjabi Muslims in Pakistan who had roots in East Punjab. It would, therefore, not be an exaggeration to refer to this book as an encyclopedia of Partition violence in Punjab, with its look at day to day encounters of the violence spreading rapidly from village to village, district to district and division to division.

Even after 60 years the testimonies are extremely vivid, be it those of victims, their oppressors or just eyewitness and by-standers.  Wherever possible, Ahmed has taken pains to use multiple sources to cross-check the details of an incident. The accounts can’t but put the reader in an introspective mode.

Punjabis are connected to Partition through millions of memories that are being continuously processed and reprocessed within families. By transforming them into text this book brings memories back into the realm of history in the world of academia. It lends voice to the otherwise forgotten tragedies of those voiceless Punjabis who paid the price by not only giving up all material possessions but ultimately giving up their lives at the altar of independence/Partition.

No wonder in popular Punjabi parlance Independence is always referred to by another name which reflects the experience of Punjab-Takseem, Wand or division.

However, the Takseem/Wand/Partition narrative until recently has largely been cast in a victim mould, where refugee Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs all fell prey to brutalities committed by the ‘other’ side. This myth has suited the nationalist discourse of nation states formed on both sides of the divide.  The perpetrator was always the other- – the other community and, by implication, the other nation: Muslims and Pakistan for Hindus/Sikhs in India; and, Hindus/Sikhs and India for Muslims in Pakistan. No wonder, the churning of hatred has been on auto-mode for 60 years.

By writing an undivided history of Punjab’s partition, Ahmed has made a strong case for breaking out of the binaries in which it has been cast. He leaves no scope for a blame game. Instead, he proves that Punjabis — Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus — were both victims as well as perpetrators of the crimes committed against each other. In a way it is a small beginning to retrieve Punjabiyat from the clutches of mazhab, millat, quam and mulk.

This brings us to the issue of high politics- the dreams and schemes of colonialists, nationalists, and communalists.

As early as 1944, the Punjab Governer, Sir Bertrand Glancy, in a FR dated October 26, had warned of the disastrous consequences of extending the idea of Pakistan into Punjab. : “ I can think of no more alarming menace to peace, so far as Punjab is concerned, than the pursuit of Pakistan doctrine.  Any serious attempt to carry out into effect this idea in the Punjab with its bare Muslim majority and its highly virile elements of non-Muslims means that we shall be heading directly towards communal disturbances of the first magnitude (p. 82).  Ahmed has meticulously followed this thread by repeatedly quoting from the FRs in the book.  But as the destiny of Punjab became increasingly entangled with that of India, the worst fears of communal disturbances of the first magnitude came true.

Meanwhile, the real actors were getting ready to pay any price to protect their irreconcilable interests.  Full scale preparations were on for a bloody conflict along religious lines. “In the 29 June (1946) FR, the governor wrote, ‘The Sikhs are busy raising their new private army, recruits to which are required to sign the standard pledge in their own blood’ (p.117).

The FRs take note of other developments as well. “Chief Secretary Bhanot noted in his FR dated 31 July that one of the most ominous characteristics of the current situation was the marked increase in the activities of the RSS and of the Muslim League National Guards. The membership of RSS had doubled since November and was estimated to be 28,000. The strength of Muslim League National Guards had increased from 3000 at the end of 1945 to over 10,000.  The League announced its intention to increase the number of Guards to half a million in the remaining months of the year “(p.117).

What is most ironic, in fact tragic is the fact that ordinary Punjabis- Muslim, Hindu and Sikh- had absolutely no idea of how rapidly  their  lives were going to be altered for all times to come. Ahmed notes, “At that time, roughly only 11 per cent of Punjabi population was enfranchised. Perhaps more important to note is that the possibility that the Punjab could be partitioned was never submitted to vote. It therefore did not figure in the election manifesto of any of the political parties. Therefore, no public ventilation of opinion and discussion took place on the most critical aspect of the partition of India -that the Punjab too, could be divided”. (p. 103).  Such was the magnitude of disconnect between high politics and the people at a time when the nation was about to get its independence.

It is thus not surprising that “Sir Evan Jenkins noted that the announcement of the 3 June Partition Plan did not rouse much enthusiasm among the Punjabis. However, it made the task easier for the criminal elements and their political patrons and sympathisers in the administration to escalate violence.”(p. 667)

A Reuters report of the time very poignantly described the contrasting situation when members of Punjab Assembly met separately to vote on the partition of the province. “With large sections of Lahore and scores of villages throughout the province fire-blacked ruins, the 168 members of the Punjab Legislative Assembly laughed and joked as they shook hands in the lobbies of the Assembly building on their way to record their votes to decide whether the Punjab should be partitioned.”(p.279)

In hindsight we know that Punjabis, irrespective of their religious identities, didn’t want to leave their vatan, their home, and their lands. They resisted it till the very end and finally paid a very heavy price for their attachment. Had they been given a chance to decide the fate of Punjab through a general referendum in 1947, who knows they may have opted to stay together, and independent.  That might have given birth to a radically different South Asia.

(Ajay Bhardwaj is a Delhi-based documentary film maker. His recent work Rabba Hun Kee Kariye (Thus departed Our Neighbours) captured feelings of guilt and remorse about the genocidal violence of the partition in East Punjab. This review first appeared in Biblio.)

19 thoughts on “An undivided history of Punjab’s Partition: Ajay Bharadwaj

  1. Shah

    The last lines of this review are quite naive. If a referendum had been held for the masses to vote with a simple majority to vote for either joining India or Pakistan, the muslim majority populace would definitely have voted for the latter. That would’ve not set well with the Sikhs & the hindus resulting in conflict again. The whole of Punjab joining India was out of the questions for the Punjabi muslims of that time (Including my grandparents). Partition was pretty much inevitable.
    The only way to avoid massive bloodshed would’ve been for the British government or the UN to take a proactive role and deploying massive numbers of British/foreign troops to oversee the transition before practically giving charge of the police and the army in that provice. The same goes for Bengal & Sylhet. Alas Mountbatten wasn’t interested in that neither were the Indians (from which I mean both Congress & ML ones). For the choosing to remain independent doubt I think the examples from the fates of Hyderabad Deccan, Junnagarh, Kashmir, Sikkim, Goa etc. should serve well toprove that thesis wrong.
    Apart from that the book seems interesting enough to give a read.

    1. K. Hussan Zia

      It is prepostrous to equate what transpired in East Punjab with events in West Punjab at the time of Partition. The fact is that is that situation is West Punjab was brought under control very quickly, as witnessed by people like myself who saw it from both the sides, whereas killings went on in East Punjab on a horrendous scale for four months from August to December 1947. The main reasons for this included:
      1. The lack of control by the new Provincial government in East Punjab and its fateful decision to disarm and disband Muslim policemen after they had become Indian citizens and had constituted more than three-quaters of the force.
      2. Nehru’s decision to disband the Boundary Force for unsustaible reasons.
      3. Indian government’s failure to take control of the Patiala and other state armies that had joined the marauding Sikh jathas.
      4. Lack of sufficient resolve on the part of the government of India to bring the situation under control.

      Jinnah never wanted and did his best to stop the division of Punjab. The partition of Punjab and Bengal was demanded by the Congress as a pre-condition for accepting the division of India. Both the British and the Congress had ruled out holding referenda in not only the two provinces but also in Calacutta because, as Mountbatten put it, they did not want the ‘wrong answer’. The great fear was that both the Christian as well as the scheduled caste vote would go to Pakistan. Most people don’t seem to know this but Christian representatives actually took part and supported the Lahore Resolution.

      K. Hussan Zia.

      1. it was not just violence dat lasted for more than a year in East Punjab…it was the first ever community (muslim) cleansing on such a large scale Hindustan ever witnessed…
        could u gimme the names of books,or sites on related topics of our history of partition….Fall of deccan-hyd.. mainly

    1. Jogesh, I agree with you that there is not enough on Sind, however that does not mean there should be no more histories of Punjab (or for that matter, of anywhere). Punjab probably dominates partition historiography because of the scale of the violence witnessed there. Bengal, Sind and Assam did not experience that sort of horror, although partition affected the people of these places greatly.

      I am working on Sindhis and partition for a PhD. Lata Parwani is also working on Sindhis (at Tufts). There is some work available, that you might already know about: Rita Kothari’s The Burden of Refuge, Saaz Aggarwal’s Sindh: Stories from a Vanished Homeland, Lata Jagtiani’s Sindhi Experiences, and a compendium of essays edited by Boivin & Cook. Sarah Ansari has a book on post-partition Sind, Life After Partition. Vazira Zamindar’s The Long Partition has a chapter on the Hindu exodus from Karachi.

  2. Dara Shamsuddin

    Sixty six years after partition and the follow up “cleansing”, we have not really cleaned up the religious issues, neither in terms of numbers nor in terms of tolerance, let alone living in harmony and love. The Muslim population in India is over 177 million, slightly less than that in Pakistan’s 178 million.The schism is as wide as ever. Please correct me if I am wrong.

    The 1947 generation must all be dead and gone for all practical purposes. Those who are in the decision making now, what practical lessons would they take home from reading this book, in operational terms? Should we make a start at home and tell our children to respect the differences among us? Should we have text books that would tell us the same? Should we have teachers that would teach the same?Should we make it an offence to make political capital out of our differences? OR should we just pick this book up because it makes an interesting read?

    1. updesh pandher

      Dara sahib,
      Those are beautiful sentiments.Mr. Jinah is a highly respected personality in Pakistan.Yet is the following statament true,He was offered the position of Prime Minister and he agreed not to go for partition of the country,But Nehru would not agree to this arrangement,
      So the country was divided to fuel the arrogance of these leaders.
      There are almost the same number of moslems in India as in Pakistan.Do you see the name of Pakistan jn the manifesto of political parties in India.
      Do the political parties of Pakistan have it on their agenda,an items,that says we have to free moslems of Kashmir from clutches of Hindu rule,there are more moslem out of Kashmir in India,elsewhere as well.Why not just worry about welfare of people in Pakistan.How many moslems are being killed by moslems in Pakistan.
      Hope we can learn to live and let live.

  3. South Indian

    “That might have given birth to a radically different South Asia”

    But sir, Punjab (undivided) is already the shit-hole of South Asia.

    One-half is the undisputed leader of female foeticide in the world

    The other-half is a pioneer in Islamic terrorism.

    So, yeah, you have created a radically different image of South Asia.

    1. DOCPINDU- Proud Punjabi (of brilliant Tamilian son-in-law)

      Mr South Indian– Agree with your comments and I can talk plenty about Madras and subsequent Andhra, Karnatka, Kerala and Tamilnaadu misdeeds!! That is not the point. Every society has bad elements and we should control them and not focus on them.
      Here is my main point– Can you show a single East Punjabi who is a beggar? All of those EAST Punjabis have entered and Mastered the art of being India’s Industrialist, Educators, Philosphers, Bread Providers , cultural change agents through BOLLYWOOD(Punjabi dominated) and on and on!! You will find an East Punjabi refugee, on an average, doing much better than the rest of average Bharatvaasi by a large margin!! Go google the top 10 places of high per capita income cities in India AND you will find six in EAST PUNJAB and DELHI(essentially Punjabi refugees).
      So, lets admire the human spirit of India with its contribution by South, East, West and North Indians!! We should be all proud of each other, period!

    2. Rajiv

      Mr South Indian, perhaps you do not know that it is because of Punjab (and Haryana – which is mostly Punjabi) that India no longer has to go the world with a begging bowl in it’s hand.Your comment only shows your bigotry and prejudice,and little knowledge – something it is fair to say is very common among South Indians.

  4. Chander Patel

    “It is prepostrous to equate what transpired in East Punjab with events in West Punjab at the time of Partition. The fact is that is that situation is West Punjab was brought under control very quickly, as witnessed by people like myself who saw it from both the sides, whereas killings went on in East Punjab on a horrendous scale for four months..”

    It was the Moslem Leagues’s goons who started the violence in the first place, in March 1947, with savage attacks mainly on Sikhs, but also on Hindus. The killings were very much in ‘favour’ of the Moslems until early August, 1947. Then the retaliation, mostly by Sikhs in East Punjab, started. Most of the killings were in Aug and Sept, but there were a few attacks even later. However, there were also attacks on non-Moslems in Punjab, Sind and NWFP well into December. So it is simply false to claim that West Punjab was brought under control quickly.

    Let me naively also pose the question, why was there any violence at all, on the basis of religion. And what role did the British with their known perfidy, play in stoking the violence?

  5. Chander Patel

    ‘Instead, he proves that Punjabis — Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus — were both victims as well as perpetrators of the crimes committed against each other’

    Would this new approach hold for women, children, the aged, the handicapped, even young males totally outnumbered in certain areas? Common sense alone tells you that there were genuine victims, and those particular victims could not also have been perpetrators. You have to draw the line somewhere.

  6. I remember reading a comment from one of the many Partition Violence book which I can not quote now is from a Hindu Refugee who said ” Muslims would share their Food with us and invite us for Festivals but We would not even share our Vessels with them and this was the reason why Punjabi Muslims resented us”

  7. Sukh Bajwa

    it was a horrible experience of my grandfather…….who was victim of this partition…our anchesters migrate from sialkot to east punjab….only thing what i want to say ,is,it should not be like that how it was!!

  8. updesh pandher

    There is a paragraph,that is supposed to be comments from governor of Punjab,in the form of a FR,this seems like a complete fabrication on the part of the writer.It states that the sikhs were raising armies by written pledges in blood.This is simply not true.Most of the sikh at that time lived in villages ,business of making a living at that time was hard enough they didn’t had much time for politics.
    They had to fight when fight was imposed upon them,not to kill others but to survive.The rule of Sikander and Khizzar had shown them what to expect from those political Masters.

  9. Pingback: Home, Uprooted: A Book Review | Tilling the Earthwoman

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