Dilemma of Indian Muslims After Partition: Yasmin Qureshi

Guest post by YASMIN QURESHI. Excerpts from this essay were read at an event organized by the Partition Archives project in Berkeley earlier this year.

Abbu’s family, like many other Muslims in India was torn between staying in their ancestral land and going to the new country founded for Muslims. The call for Pakistan and the Muslim League movement was more prominent in the elite or educated classes. For Abbu’s family it was a distant idea and life outside Dilli was inconceivable. But the partition wave didn’t leave them untouched and a few family members including Abbu migrated to Lahore. Lahore was chosen because they had heard it was similar to Dilli. A year in Lahore was enough for them to realize their heart was still in DilliGhalib ki galiyan, echoes of azaans from Jama Masjid, pigeons flying above their roofs and the aroma of korma brought them back to the home their father had built.

The conflict of choosing between the newly founded nation states of India and Pakistan divided many families. Some of Abbu’s relatives shuffled between the two for many years till they were forced to make a choice by the governments in the 1960s. His elder sister’s family and a few other nieces and nephews decided to become Pakistani citizens.

For Muslims that stayed in India, the next few decades were years of fear and subjugation. Communal violence, often organized and manufactured by political parties or the right wing Hindu organization, RSS throughout the 1960s in cities where Muslims were in large numbers was a threatening message to the Muslims that if they choose to stay here they would have to live as a silenced minority with a constant reminder they were guilty of dividing India.

Discrimination in jobs and bloody riots led many Muslims to change their mind and migrate to Pakistan in the 50s and 60s.Ammi’s family was one of them. Her two brothers and mother migrated in the 1960s leaving her and her sister, both of who were married, behind. Due to visa restrictions and wars between the two countries Ammi wasn’t able to meet her mother (my nanni) for 15 years. Memories of Nanni’s first visit to India in the mid 70s are still vivid in my mind.

Due to frequent riots, Muslims often traveled in trains with changed names. Ammi recalls an incidence when she was traveling from Aligarh to Bombay in the 60s for her new job. A Punjabi lady in her compartment was very affectionate, sharing food and stories. After a few hours she asked Ammi her name. She didn’t speak for the rest of the journey. The lady’s family had been uprooted from their home in Gujranwala during partition. My mother’s Muslim name had brought back memories of the brutal violence she had witnessed in her hometown, now part of Pakistan.

When Ammi woke up in the morning she noticed the lady had covered her with a blanket.

Migration of many intellectuals and educated Muslims left a vacuum in Muslim leadership in India. Over the next few decades, the community became more marginalized and weak. It was safer to live in a Muslim ghetto than a mixed society. Education was poor and few could rise to prominent positions.

 Abbu was the first person in his muhallah to go oversees for higher education and his galli neighbors still remember the decorations and celebrations to welcome him on his return from the US in the mid 60s. He was amongst some of the most prominent geophysicists of his times. He contributed significantly to the field of science and technology but an incidence created a deep wound in his heart never to be healed. He was leading an expedition of scientists in the Himalaya. After a point in the high mountains near the Pakistan border, everyone from this team except him was allowed to go further. On questioning why he was stopped but not any of his students, cook or driver, he was informed it was because he was a Muslim.

Throughout his life Abbu struggled with his Indian nationality and Muslim identity. He often recalled with great fervor how he along with his family and friends had gone to Lal Qila (Red Fort) to hear Nehru’s ‘Freedom at Midnight’ speech sitting on his elder brother’s shoulders. Maulana Azad too was an inspiration for him, both from a religious and educational perspective. His speech at Jama Masjid in 1948 addressed to the Indian Muslims predicting the challenges the new state of Pakistan would face in coming years due to regional identities, emphasizing that the new state would not solve the problems facing Indian Muslim left a lasting impression on Abbu and played a key role in deciding to stay in India.

An admirer of Allama Iqbal, Abbu was against the feudal and aristocratic foundation of Pakistan but in the next few decades he would often show disappointment at the continuation of the elite class rule in India and the privileges Nawabs and Rajas(who in his opinion participated little to nothing in the freedom movement) enjoyed.

Although India was established as a secular country, Hindu culture’s dominance was evident with Bhoomi Pooja and Aarti being performed at government functions. Abbu raised an objection to the organizers in his office a few times, only to be questioned about his nationalism. Muslim faith to Abbu meant being part of the Umma (global Muslim community) irrespective of national boundaries and bowing only to Allah. But Indian nationalism often demanded submission to ‘Mother India’.

He loved the land he was born and chose to live in but his religion was just as important to him. Sadly the country he envisioned in his youth with socialistic ideals of communal harmony, equality and justice for all continued to be an unfulfilled dream.

We were glad during his last years the massive stroke he had suffered didn’t allow him to comprehend the horrors unleashed by the pogrom in Gujarat in 2002 or the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq post 911. His mind had become like a child, devoid of absorbing or understanding such human atrocities that would have disturbed him tremendously.

Yasmin Qureshi is a social justice activist and writer based in the bay area, California. Here work includes US wars in the Middle East, impact of global militarization and drone warfare, people’s resistance movements in places like Palestine and Kashmir. Her essay, The Militarization of India was published in Counter Punch in May 2011.

32 thoughts on “Dilemma of Indian Muslims After Partition: Yasmin Qureshi”

  1. The point you make about your father feeling strongly about the Ummah as opposed to seeing India in the same manner is actually the exact same point that Savarkar raised when he said that India should be a Hindu country since for Hindus, India is the “holy” land and so is everything. Whereas that is not the case for Muslims for whom Mecca and Medina will always be holier and more important. And the same is true for a feeling of oneness among the people of a geographical area that nationalism so expressly demands. These issues confuse Indian Muslims to this day i suppose.

    It is a queer predicament. The Ummah can be seen as an egalitarian idea wherein you breach the parochial bonds of nationalism but on the other hand, the Ummah is an idea of brotherhood restricted to those who embrace your faith keeping others at a distance. Indian nationalism on the other hand is restricted by the modern boundaries of India and so is limited and narrow but at the same time means that once you belong to the subcontinent, i will see you as one of my own regardless of your faith and beliefs.

    On the one hand you have an idea that breaches differences in race and on the other hand you have an idea that breaches differences in faith. I wonder if this is the reason why in a survey recently, it was revealed that Pakistan is far less racist than Indiahttp://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2325502/Map-shows-worlds-racist-countries-answers-surprise-you.html. Whereas India on the other hand is far more secular than Pakistan.
    It seems like as if Indians have still not overcome the historical intolerance of ‘outsiders’ (mlecchas as they were called in ancient India) but Pakistan seems to have overcome that but at the cost of it’s secularism.

    I suppose the reasons your father felt so out of place in both countries is that he belonged to that rare minority who had overcome both intolerance’s but were unable to feel content in societies that had not.


    1. I dont think that Ummah vs India was any issue for Mr. Kazi. He saw himself as part of a global community of Muslims, and an Indian citizen. Many Indian Hindus/Sikhs/Buddhists/Christians do the same. He lived the life of a good citizen, and came back to India rejecting the lucrative options of the US. The contradiction that seems to have troubled him was that of the secular, tolerant India on paper and the more communalized reality he faced. That is the dilemma of the Indian Muslims.


  2. The writer has recounted a wrong fact:- Nehru did not give the ‘Freedom of Midnight’ speech at the Red Fort, it was given in the constituent assembly. The use of this misappropriated fact conveys everything about the article. Can’t we Indians live without any reference to our religious identities.


  3. Well written and entirely true: I have seen these things happen to many families whom I count among “apne log”.


  4. Beautifully written. Partition of course cant be judged as good or bad. People lost their livelihood and most importantly ‘lost feelings’ ..

    Time is a great healer, but some pains can’t be healed.

    It is better to live as a single country INDIA, keeping our religions aside (though religion would hinder now & then).


  5. Nehru’s ‘Tryst with destiny’ speech happened in the Parliament. While I appreciate the sentiment that the article is trying to convey, the lack of correct information makes me question the objectiveness of the piece. The muslim community has been a marginalized lot. What we need is to wake the rest of India to their cause, and not simply pluck a few sympathy points. There are many Muslims that are more patriotic than their Hindu counterparts. Thus, it is not the submission to Mother India that they find demeaning, but unfortunately, the only time ‘nationalism’ seems to matter is when India is pitted against their Muslim neighbor Pakistan. Hindu majority seeks to pompously display their obvious differences by parading their religion. Any Muslim who does not do the same, is considered to be secretly supporting Pakistan. Where does this nationality go when we are faced with the indigenous problems of Corruption, Inequality, Curbs on Individual freedom and rights of communities? The People of India seem quite indifferent to such problems. It is time to move away from the familiar rhetorics. It is time for all of us to shed the ‘secular’ mask that hides our communal self. It is time to ditch religion, for “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people”


  6. Yasmeen’s extended family had luxury to choose and move whenever they wanted, my family had no choice whether it was partition or where we lived, my grandparents were forcefully chased out from their home, and everything they knew but they never showed a bit of negativity about Pakistan or any muslims , they accepted new situation as their fate , started a new life from scratch and saved their new generation from any kind of baggage which authors seems to carry.


  7. sandhya, like your family,many Hindu and Muslim families chased out from their homes even from their villages and towns,though my family had not suffered forced eviction during that period, but they faced violence erupted because of pertition. my nana’s brother went out in search of food for his childern and never came back to home. later her burnt body found on pahar ganj road.Many other families of our Old Delhi mohalla had to survived on leftovers or only water. people had to sell their assests for one roti.we all know such kind of horrifying incidents took place on the other side of the border too.question is not that how much demege was being done to which community but, the continuation of bloodshed on both sides of border has not been stopped. politicians and beaurocrates of both counties have not learned from their mistakes.instead they are using this historical blunder as tool keeping peole away from real issues and carry out thier political agenda.there no difference between peshawar and gujrat and more recently Muzaffernagar.


    1. If we keep on recalling the horrors of partition our mind will never be able to come out of religious divide. We will always mistrust each other. Muslims and hindus are human beings first and should abide by the religion of Humanity . People who are dividing us in the name of religion are furthering their ends why should we fall into their trap.


      1. The point is not to re-open old wounds. A Muslim who hears of what a Hindu’s family went through can only realise that she or he is no different. What is important is that both sides suffered, and in the same ways. The opposition is not to “the other” but to hatred and to violence.


  8. Appreciate the corrections pointed out about location of Nehru’s speech and accept my mistake. However to base that as a basis to judge the entire essay is a bit unfair. it was more my fathers and many Indian Muslims dilemma which is through their personal experiences but agree I should have researched the location better. It was an oversight on my part since my focus was so much on what many went through and some still do.


    1. Dear Yasmin,

      I do not believe this should be a matter of apology: for heaven’s sake that speech is etched in my mind even decades after it was made — who is to decide when and where they heard it—Dudes, radio broadcasting had existed for a long while.

      And not every Indian was a member of the Constituent Assembly or a witness to its proceedings.

      Not that I know with any certainty, but I’m prepared to guess, Yasmin, that your father heard it over the radio; Nehru’s overly-rated agglomeration of words has been repeated so many times on Indian television, it hearts the ears.

      I cannot believe that our collective chachajee (note to self: let’s not forget to congratulate uncle saheb — may he rest in peace–or whatever ashes do, on the 14th of next month) and his ridiculously intoned verbosity is part of this debate.

      I enjoyed your article very much.

      Best wishes,


      1. Dear Mridu,

        Thanks for your excellent comment! Actually a close friend of mine said exactly that to me :) He said, whether this minor fact is correct or not is not relevant because you are recalling memories of what you heard from your father. The essence of this essay and what your father felt or experienced, along with many others is what matters.

        And he said, why did you post this comment? This is exactly what some people might have wanted you to do and you fell into their trap. Well, I am still learning and any feedback from readers is important to me, good or bad :)

        Thanks for your support, as always!


      2. Mridu,

        To add to my previous response to your comment, after reading the critiques I did think about that famous speech and realized that I had confused the location with two speeches of ‘dear’ chacha ji.
        I distinctly remember abbu mentioning the midnight one but I also distinctly remember him mentioning he heard and watched Nehru’s speech sitting on his elder brother’s shoulder at Red Fort. It might have been his first one after becoming the PM….


  9. This essay is thought-provoking indeed and made me think if a prominent geophysicist can be discriminated because he was a Muslim, what happens to the poor Muslims in India?


  10. One could write a latter-day Mahabharat on the Indian partition. I still recollect a double-tragedy of an Indian Muslim family from UP who had migrated to the then East Pakistan. The family is now home less, psychologically, stays in England.Could not face the possibility of going over to stay in Pakistan as a Muhajir, and of course going back to UP was an impossibility.

    Personality I have never understood what Muslim Umma means in reality among the Shias and the Sunnis, the Ahmedias, the Qadianias, the Ismailias, the Hanafis, and of course between the Bengali Muslims and the Bihari Muslims, the Punjabi Muslims, the Irani Muslims, the Iraqi Muslims, the Kurdi Muslims, and, well, —- do I need to elaborate more?

    I would, personally again, appeal to those who would want the old wounds to heal and do not want to open new wounds, to come forward with constructive practical programs so that politicians do not capitalize on our differences. Differences and diversities are the law of nature and preconditions to evolution and progress. Let us all appreciate our differences and thank our gene that we do not all look and think and behave alike. Having done that, let us all unite to construct on our diversities.


      1. I believe Partition was done only for the greed of some political leaders and some wealthy buissiness class and off course some countries who wanted it that way for their advantage. We had stayed together for so many years what would have been different? In fact what is different in India? The main reason for a separate nation, wasn’t it defeated? Brothers fight due to difference in point of view, that doesn’t mean they stay separately. Fights happen even in Pakistan. I feel the forces responsible for partition are still active ensuring that issues never die and we stay enemies.


  11. It must be said, without any fear of contradiction, that post partition both Countries have treated their minorities shabbily.India, which prides itself as a secular Country, should have been grateful to those muslims who chose to stay put and lent color to its population mix but unfortunately this is not the case. Sachar Committee report is a stong proof of this indictment.It claimed Kashmir as a crown needed for the body of secularism but if you know what it has done & is doing in Kashmir, you will have to hang your head in shame.
    Pakistan which claimed religeon as its foundation, did a great disservice to Islam by maltreating its minorities. Like in India they are treated as second class citizens, few ornamental heads like justice Bagwan Das, here & there notwithstanding.
    If at all I have any hope & something to rejoice, it is the existence of people like Mridu Rai, who carry a human heart and a sharp intellect.


  12. When we hear of the experiences of others, we learn something. We also understand that they, the “others”, are no different from ourselves. Yasmin Q’s comment speaks of things about which too many Indians know nothing.


  13. Your write up is based on exactly happened incidences.What ever happened and happening is very unfortunate.Some day we have to answer for these uncivilized deeds and attitude to our predecessors in the whole Subcontinent.We all are hopeless lot in the hands of very minor so called self fashioned Statesmen.


  14. Well written and thought provoking. My father always says that Hindustani muslims have suffered because of partition: those who willingly migrated or were forced to move to Pakistan are still mohajirs and don’t really belong, whereas those who chose to stay behind have to deal with the issues you have discussed. Partition has divided and weakened the muslims of the sub continent.


  15. Vivid portrayal of the aftermath of partition and the present position of minorities, which unfortunately affects people in both countries.
    As regards the speech of Nehru your late father heard at Red Fort, it must be the Independence Day speech which is given every year by the Prime Minister of the country from the ramparts of Red Fort, plumb opposite Jama Masjid. From 1948 to 1963, Nehru gave speeches from Red Fort every year. The midnight speech on 14/15th August (tryst with destiny) was given in the Iindian Parliament then known as Legislative Council.

    The mohallas around Jama Masjid were picturesque, just like Chandni Chowk. I used to frequent Jama Masjid area because I was a good player of carroms and the champions of this game used to reside in Jama Masjid area. I have played many a tournament in my muslim friends’ houses.

    I agree with you that secularism in India is a policy statement recorded in the constitution and much needs to be done to practise it in letter as well as spirit. Besides Muslims, there are other minorities like Sikhs and Christians who also are not getting their due representation in Govt jobs, defence services, etc. Besides these we have the problem of scheduled castes/tribes ( dalits) who constitute about half the population and believe it or not there are dalit muslims and dalit christians as well. This is a huge sociological problem and despite reservations prescribed by law ( thanks to V.P. Singh the former PM) in actuality these quotas are not filled, which again boils down to the educational level of the deprived classes.

    Whatever said and done, we have people and political parties who are aware of these problems and and many an NGO fighting for their rights. Progress is slow, but we are on the track.

    Thanks for your illuminating and personalised account of the condition of muslims in India after partition. Keep writing. And get well soon.


  16. There is an Indian (American Indian) saying that goes something like this: The consequences of actions by one generation is carried over to seven generations.Well, we have passed only two generations, barely. Five more to go !!


  17. In nutshell whole world is divided in christianity ,judaism and islam ,the majority of each makes them christian country jew country and muslim country ,on the same scale India being overwhelming hindu it is hindu country ,secularism is beautifully spelled and appeal to few intellectuals but in practice we cant find it anywhere in its true undiluted form.hence all minorities must reconcile with the fact that they live at the mercy of the system and only try to get best out of it ,donot expect much ,or keep thier voices heard in so called democratic halls called parliaments where they can be heard or herded.


  18. Indian Muslims have undergone much psychological and intellectual change, from the generation of Yasmin Qureshi’s father to Yasmin who is from our modern generation that was born after the 1947 partition. Today’s Indian Muslims see the many instances of Muslim-on-Muslim oppression (Sunni-Shia, Arab-Irani, Arab-Southasian, Saudi/Gulf Arabs-Palestinian & Egyptian etc) and know well that the concept of Ummah is just a lofty ideal, a holy grail. Our generation of Indian Muslims also sees that many other Hindu communities other than the upper caste Hindus also face much injustice in India. Despite the Affirmative Action laws for lower caste Hindus, a lot of them suffer. Not only Yasmeen’s father was denied equal opportunity, quite a few from the lower Hindu castes suffered the same way. That is why the Maoist movement is so strong in India’s tribal regions. A huge social justice movement is raging in India through democratic means and it will usher in an egalitarian India in time to come. Yes, it is taking longer than we hoped. “Us subah kaa intizar kur”.

    What really matters is that those who are in the deprived communities work harder , overcome the biases, compete and be successful. Look how blacks are emerging in America against huge institutionalized oppression. The leaders of Indian Muslims should help transform the thinking of Muslim youth from despair & complaint to hope hat comes from hard work. Unfortunately the leaders of Muslims and their media is spending more time on the failures in the community and less time on instances of successes of Indian Muslims, building schools, coaching centers etc . Instead of spending so much time and energy on the problems in the Muslim world, they should spend it on the problems of India and Indian Muslims, problems of corruption, harassment of women etc.

    Many, many Indian Muslims became engineers, doctors, scientists like me, studying in India. I entered an IIT and did well with the quality education they provided me. My Hindu teachers were always nice to me and helped me. When I worked in Mumbai my colleagues and seniors were good to me. So what if a few Hindus talked nonsense about Muslims. They did the same to Hindus from regions and castes that they did not like. Is not Shiv Sena abusing Biharis!

    If only many more Muslims in India will work hard at education and ignore the nonsense of the narrow-minded Hindus who are no more than one-fourth, and stop responding to it, in one generation India will recognize Muslims as quality people. For sure there is no use repeating stories of our parents’ generation. Indian Muslims should look at today’s India and Hindus. For every Modi there are tens of Testa Setalvads, Jyoti Punwanis, Medha Patkars, Swami Agnivesh.


    1. Excellent reply by brother Kaleem, hope your views are spread all over India and the world. Muslims do need to realize(all non-muslims of the world too) that we all are humans from single pair of Adam and Eve. Let’s be (Just) Human first.


  19. Well written & expressing true feelings of sufferings. Where all now “For every Modi there are tens of Testa Setalvads, Jyoti Punwanis, Medha Patkars, Swami Agnivesh.”


  20. My grandfather decided he would have nothing to do with either India or Pakistan and left for Southeast Asia in 1947. All his descendants have never returned to settle in India or Pakistan.


  21. This piece of writing in first person narration has own importance and need to extract as well as urge the society to write such narration because narration some time is most influential to reflect upon and to make social change starting from individual level. This article reminded me the plight of ghettos life where I lived for few years during my graduation in Delhi and also the days of data collection for my research in post graduation in Mumbai. Very well written and a reflection for our society.


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