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The Punjab: Bloodied, Partitioned, Cleansed (Unravelling the 1947 Tragedy Through Secret British Reports and First Person Acconts)

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Item Code: NAD475
Author: Istiaq Ahmed
Publisher: Rupa Publication Pvt. Ltd.
Edition: 2022
ISBN: 9788129129611
Pages: 806 (42 B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 9.5 inch X 6.0 inch
Weight 1.19 kg
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Book Description
About the Book

This book is a definitive Path-breaking account of the partition of the Punjab in 1947. It chronicles how east and West Punjab were emptied of unwanted minorities. Besides shedding new light on the events through secret British reports, it contains poignant accounts by eyewitnesses, survivors and even participators in the carnage, from both sides of the border. These exclusive accounts present partition through the eyes of those who were a part of it, and the effected has had on their lives up to the present day. With interviewees from both sides of the border, the nook aims to give a balanced aims 5to give a balanced account of Partition, and shows how religious differences are no bare to peaceful coexistence, unless highlighted by divisive forces. It will be of immense interest to anyone even remotely curious about the happenings of the most traumatic event in recent Indian history.

About the Author

Born in Lahore on 24 February 1947, Ishtiaq Ahmed holds a PhD in Political Science from Stockholm University. He has taught at Stockholm University, and was Senior Research Fellow and visiting Research Professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore.

He is now Professor Emeritus of Political science, Stockholm University and Honorary Senior Fellow, Institute of South Asian studies, National University of Singapore. His research interests cover diverse fields like political Islam, ethnicity and nationalism. Human partition studies.


I cannot say with certainty when the idea of researching the partition of the Punjab first occurred to me, but it was something that whetted my curiosity from early childhood. I grew up listening to elders, who would describe some of the events that took place on Temple Road, Lahore, where I was born. That canvas expanded over time as I went around Lahore on my bike, because I was deeply in love with my city of birth and always thirsted for more knowledge about its past. The bike rides inevitably took me to localities which were once Hindu—Sikh majority areas, but from where virtually all traces of Hindu—Sikh presence were now gone. Even as a teenagei I could figure out that such people would not have left their homes and localities whiffing or happily. Only in the famous shopping locality of Anarkali, almost entirely studded with shops owned by Hindus before the Partition, did Beli Ram and Sons continue as major dispensers and chemists till the 1970s. They left for India after the breakup of Pakistan in 1971. It is still a mystery how that shop and its Hindu owners survived so long.

Post-Partition Lahore also had many examples of Muslim suffering. My earliest memory of it is associated with an old man who lived in a small shop in front of our house. He had no proper home. He was a retiree from the other side of the old Punjab. He spoke a rough type of Urdu; an accent I later learned was typical of what is now Haryana. Prior to Partition, it constituted the easternmost portion of the united Punjab. Every evening, he would start cursing and abusing the whole world. Street urchins would taunt him and knock at his door. When he came out, they would run away. He was known as Chacha Churanji La!, suggesting that he was a Hindu. Actually, he was a Muslim. Some said his real name was Lal Din; others, La! Mohammad.

I learnt that he had married late, his wife had died at childbirth and he had brought up his only son all by himself. That boy was killed in front of him during Partition violence. The trauma rendered him a mourner forever, but also obviously led to some serious mental problems. In 1953, when sectarian disturbances against the Ahmadiyya community took place, curfew was clamped on Lahore. Every evening, soldiers sitting in trucks would patrol Temple Road. The vehicles moved very slowly. They had guns ready to shoot at miscreants. It was a scary scene. However, the old man was oblivious of the danger they posed and continued with his daily barrage of abuses. That greatly angered the military who wanted to teach him a lesson, believing his invective to be directed at them. However, elders of the area intervened just in time and told the soldiers about his grief and sorrow. Thereafter, they ignored him. Eventually, he died. In 1947, the lives of millions of Punjabis were shattered. Perhaps those who survived paid a heavier price. I am not sure how such suffering can be fathomed or measured.

Fictional writings
Fictional literature on the partition of the Punjab, often times a masterly combination of fact and imagination, illustrates this point most graphically. It was the second source of inspiration that made me interested in the Punjab partition. The short stories and novels of the trio — Krishan Chander, Saadat Hasan Manto and Rajinder Siugh Bedi — are well known. Manto’s ‘Toba Tek Singh’ is perhaps the ultimate indictment of the Punjab partition. Many others also created masterpieces while probing the same theme. Sixty-four years later, Partition still continues to be the subject of quality fictional writing.

As far as I know, the Punjab partition did not receive the same degree of attention by poets. I sometimes wonder why. Perhaps the parameters of poetry did not provide the same degree of freedom to capture profoundly complex situations. However, I could be wrong in my assessment. There is at least one remarkable poem, addressed to the great Sufi poet of the Punjab, Waris Shah (1722—1798) whose epic, Heer Ranjha, is one of the most famous renderings of Punjab’s indigenous Romeo—Juliet folklore. Twill quote only the earlier stanzas of Amrita Pritam’s Ode to Waris Shah:

Researching the Punjab partition
The first opportunity to enquire into the partition of the Punjab was an invitation to a conference at Coventry University UK, in 1999 by Ian Talbot and Shinder Thandi, to mark the three-hundred-year celebrations of the founding of the Khalsa by Guru Gobind Singh. The conference concept included spotlighting the partition of the Punjab. I offered to write about the events that had transpired in Lahore in those days. Thereafter, there was no turning back.

As a political scientist, I was naturally keen to extend the frontiers of my knowledge about forced migration, ethnic cleansing and genocide that wreaked havoc on Punjabis in 1947. In one sense, the Jewish holocaust, ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia, genocide in Rwanda and Darfur, and the partition of the Punjab are manifestations of the same irrationality and aggression that have bedeviled civilisations in antiquity in the Middle Ages and in our own time. In this study, I bring forth abundant evidence to underscore that.

However, the main focus is on identifying and highlighting the peculiarities of the specific Punjab situation and explaining it in theoretical terms. Such an undertaking furnishes a basis for testing theory. In other words, theorizing the Punjab case should be useful and relevant for scholars studying the Punjab as well as similar phenomena elsewhere.


The Partition of the Punjab Took Place As Part Of An Overall argument to partition India, brokered by the British government between the main country-level political parties — the Indian National Congress and the All-India Muslim League — and the Sikhs of the Punjab. The Partition Plan was announced by the British government on 3 June 1947 and was endorsed by the representatives of the main political parties and Baldev Singh, the representative of the Punjab Sikhs. In mid-August, the British Indian Empire ended. The international boundary between the two states was drawn, through the Punjab in the north-west and Bengal in the north-east of India, a couple of days later.

At that time, Muslims comprised the majority of the Punjabi population. According to the 1941 census, the total population of the Punjab — including British Punjab and the princely states — was 33,922,373. Muslims were in an absolute majority of 53.2 per cent, while Hindus made up 29.1 per cent (including 6.4 per cent scheduled castes and tribes), Sikhs, 14.9 per cent and Christians, 1.9 per cent.

British Punjab comprised twenty-nine districts with a total population of 28,418,819, of which Muslims were 57.1 per cent; Hindus 27.8 per cent (including 5.6 belonging to the scheduled castes or ‘untouchables’); Sikh 13.2 per cent and Christians 1.7 per cent.

There can be no denying that if India had not been partitioned, the Punjab would not have been divided either. The demand for partition of the Punjab was made by the Sikh leaders in reaction to the demand by the leaders of the Muslim League for a separate Muslim-majority Pakistan, that would include the Punjab as well. However, it was not inevitable that the Punjab would have been partitioned if the leaders of the three main communities, the Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, had agreed to remain together.

The decision to partition the Punjab applied to British Punjab: an administrative unit directly under British administration. However, the great commotion and upheaval that attended the partition process inevitably enveloped the princely states of the Punjab as well. The culmination of the partition process resulted in the obliteration of all traces of Muslim presence in the Indian Punjab; the sole exception was the tiny princely state of Malerkotla (total population 88,109) ruled by a Muslim nawab. Equally, Hindus and Sikhs became conspicuous by their absence from the Pakistani West Punjab and the princely state of Bahawalpur (total population 1,341,209).

The intriguing aspect about the Punjab was that pre-colonial Punjab had a rich tradition of liberal and pluralist interpretations of the three major religions — Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism — as they interacted with Sufi, Bhakti and Sant movements, which preached harmony rather than confrontation. There can be no denying, however, that the history of the Punjab was also one of frequent warfare, as invaders used to arrive in the subcontinent through the north-western mountain passes and establish their rule in the Punjab and beyond, in northern India and even further. Before the British annexed it militarily in 1849, the Punjab was under Sikh rule, though half a century earlier it had been one of the provinces of the Mughal Empire.

On the other hand, the three communities could invoke a long list of grievances against each other, with all of them deploying their historical memory’ selectively. Yet, the evidence is overwhelming that most Punjabis, till almost before the end of colonial rule, lived in peace. A shared sense of common Punjabi cultural identity was prevalent in the thousands of villages, towns, and cities of the province. That bond would later prove too weak, in the face of divisive forces that became active in the twentieth century. The Punjab administration began reporting from 1945 onward the establishment of ‘private armies’ by the three communities. The Sikhs bore arms, a sword called the kirpan, as a matter of religious right. Moreover, Punjabi Muslims and Sikhs, and Hindus from the Hindi-speaking districts of eastern Punjab, constituted the largest single provincial group in the colonial army. Nearly one million of them returned to their villages because of general demobilization after the Second World War. In addition, gangs of strongmen or criminals known as badmashes and goondas were to be found throughout the length and breadth of the Punjab. They, in turn, had links with the politicians and the police.

It was under these circumstances that the provincial election campaign began in the Punjab in the second half of 1945, and culminated in the election of February 1946. It resulted in a highly volatile situation. The Muslim League, which stood for a separate Pakistan through the partitioning of India on the basis of contiguous Muslim and non- Muslim majority areas, won the largest number of seats in the Punjab legislature. However, it did not win a majority and therefore, could form a government only by entering into a coalition with other parties. That did not happen. Its opponents formed a coalition government under the leadership of Sir Khizr Hayat Khan Tiwana, whose party had been routed in the election. Such a situation created a classic problem — that of distinguishing legality from legitimacy. The coalition government was undoubtedly legal, according to parliamentary procedure, but among the Muslim majority of the Punjab, it was not perceived as the legitimate representative government. That resulted in agitations and demonstrations by the Muslim League, culminating in the fall of the Khizr ministry on 2 March 1947.

Almost immediately, the Punjab Congress party and the Sikh parties took to the streets to protest the fall of the government, vowing not to let the Muslim League form a new one. The agitations triggered violent riots, particularly in the villages in Rawalpindi district, where the Sikh minority was attacked with unprecedented savagery by Muslim hordes. It resulted in thousands of Sikhs fleeing to safety in the eastern districts, where their community was present in significant numbers.

The government brought matters ‘under control’, yet only barely, as the old harmony could not be restored again. Everyone wanted an answer to the crucial question: Will Punjab as a whole be awarded to Pakistan, as the Muslim League was hoping, or will it be divided between Pakistan and India, as the Sikh leaders and the Indian National Congress demanded? Neither one, obviously, would have satisfied all the three groups.

Starting from the middle of May 1947, there was a revival of attacks, becoming more frequent and more organized as the weeks passed. The s continued well into the end of that year, reaching their peak in no August, while a British governor was still in power. After power handed over to India and Pakistan in mid-August, the violence awed dramatically, continuing at a very high level for some three ix months. It is widely acknowledged that what happened in the Punjab Dwarfed the violence of the communal rioting that happened in Calcutta, & hard. And some other places in 1946. In the end, it would prove to be c first large-scale experiment in population cleansing after the Second did War.

It must be stressed that the decision to partition the Punjab was taken not by the Punjabi masses or even their elite, but at the central l, by the colonial government at Delhi, the high commands of the Indian National Congress, and the Muslim League; only the Sikhs ion the Punjab were consulted by the viceroy, where they put their case forward for special treatment. They claimed that their religion and cultural identity was rooted in the Punjab more than those of Hindus or Muslims. The fact was that they were a minority in the Punjab, and in the context of India, a miniscule minority Yet, that they were employed huge numbers in the colonial army rendered them an important .immunity The Punjabi people, in general, were not consulted on this issue and most of them had no inkling that they would be required to leave their homes and ancestral abodes. (This point comes across cheerfully and unequivocally, over and over, in my interviews with a cross-section of Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs.) The worst aspect of the rotation process was that the much-discussed Radcliff Award, which &marketed the international border between India and Pakistan, was made public on 17 August after Pakistan and India, on 14 August and 15 August respectively, had become independent. Its timing was most inappropriate, as suddenly, millions of people were on the wrong side 1 the line. The colonial government that could have maintained order was removed from the scene, and the displaced people became sitting ducks who could be easily targeted by men who had, in the preceding months, prepared to inflict violence on the other side.

The slaughter of innocents that followed was horrific, described to me with immense pain by the veteran journalist, writer and art critic Reginald Massey, during our interview on 5 July 2006 in his home in Landless in mid-Wales. Massey belongs to a Punjabi Christian family in Lahore, among the few that decided to leave for India. His father, an officer in the Royal Indian Air Force, felt that Pakistani leaders, after the new country’s founder Jonah’s death, would succumb to the temptation of experimenting with an Islamic state. Such a state would inevitably set in motion processes that would put religious minorities in a vulnerable position. He put more faith in Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s secularism and decided to move to India in the beginning of September 1947. It was not easy for Massey’s family to leave Lahore, though, as he portrays in his own words:

obey toLahoreth September 194 laws not easy. My mother was in tears. We left, not by train, because trains were being looted and burnt, but by tonga, a horse-drawn buggy Flying from the tonga was a red cross. By proclaiming that we were Christians, we were safer. A few Hindus and Sikhs used the same ploy. Some employ the trappings of religion to kill, others use the trappings of religion to save their skins. I leave it to the moral philosophers to argue the pros and cons.

‘The scenes on the Ford Goths past the Shalimar Gardens, Jallo, Batanagar and Burki were horrific. We were held up for hours. Hundreds of thousands were fleeing to India and hundreds of thousands were streaming into Pakistan. I saw corpses and mutilated limbs on either side of the road. The lamentations and the wailing were scenes from Dante’s Inferno.

After crossing the Wagah—Attari border into India the scenes were, if truth be told, even worse. Master Tara Singh’s Akali cohorts massacred the poor Muslims of East Punjab indiscriminately. Muslim girls were raped by the thousands.

Gandhi’s cries and fasts for communal harmony made no impression whatsoever. The Punjab was convulsed with insanity. c can never, till my dying day forgive the British who, in their utter panic, lost their nerve and left my country in such a blood-soaked mess. The Punjabi poet Amrita Pritam has said it all in her graphic and memorable verses.’

Such an appraisal has been repeatedly confirmed in interviews that I conducted, both before and after speaking to Massey. In this connection, I must acknowledge with great humility the meeting I had with Sikh elders in Gujjarwal village near Ludhiana, in January 2005. Their flirtation of events in Gujjarwal will be presented in a latter part of the book. Suffice it to say that a couple of them had shifted to Gujjarwal from areas left in Pakistan. They confirmed that the crimes committed against the Muslim minority in eastern Punjab were on a much greater scale. However, it remains a matter of dispute as to how many Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs perished during the partition of the Punjab.

A Muslim Plan to eradicate Hindus and Sikhs from West Punjab Two reports from the Indian side, on the Punjab, are currently available. Sardar Gurbachan Singh Talib collected data for the Sikh religious organization, the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhik Committee (SGPC), end presented them in a 453-page book, Muslim League Attack on Sikhs ad Hindus in the Punjab 1947. The report served to refute allegations that the Sikhs had a plan to eradicate Muslims from East Punjab. It argued that the main Muslim communal party the Muslim League, wanted the whole of the Punjab and planned the expulsion of Sikhs and Hindus from the areas that were assigned to Pakistan. It blamed not only the Muslim League, its leaders and cadres, but virtually the whole Muslim community for participating in that project. The report contains a great deal of data but omits to mention the instances of Sikh actions that provoked the chain of events, that fmally ended in the bloodbath at the time of the partition of the Punjab. The SGPC report stated:

The Sikh (and Hindu) revenge was violent, swift and terribly destructive. Muslims of East Punjab had to pay for the misdeeds of their co-religionists in West Punjab and other parts of India. This was unfortunate and not very logical either, but in human affairs it is not always logic which governs conduct, and the mass mind, once it is roused to the pitch of fury will grow terribly revengeful, unreasoning and hysterical. That is what happened to Muslims in East Punjab after the terrible sufferings undergone by Sikhs and Hindus at the hands of Muslims in West Punjab and in the North Western Frontier Province (1991: 243-4).

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