For centuries, the fertile land of five
rivers in the north of the Indian
subcontinent was coveted by numerous
empires and invaders. In this, the first
major account of undivided Punjab,
award-winning historian, biographer
and scholar, Rajmohan Gandhi, gives us
its history during its most tumultuous
phase from the death of Aurangzeb, in
the early eighteenth century, to its brutal
partition in 1947, coinciding with the
departure of the British.
Relying on fresh sources as well as
previous accounts provided from
opposing perspectives, the author
fashions a compelling narrative about
the great events of the time in the
region-the battles and tragedies
that routinely disrupted the lives of
ordinary Punjabis, the sacking of
iconic cities like Lahore, Amritsar,
Multan and Jalandhar by a succession
of conquerors, the ravages wrought
by invaders like Nadir Shah, the
rise of the Sikhs culminating in the
storied reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh,
Britain's successful wars against the
Sikh kingdom, the Great Rebellion
of 1857 and its effect on Punjab,
imperialist machinations, the
influence on the people by leaders
of the independence movement like
Mahatma Gandhi, Muhammad Ali
Jinnah and Lala Lajpat Rai, as also key
regional figures such as Fazl-i-Husain,
Master Tara Singh, Sikander Hayat
Khan and Khizr Hayat Tiwana, the devastation of partition-and much
Believing that modern India and
Pakistan cannot be understood without
comprehending the Punjab that was,
the author also delves into the idea of
and poetry of creative giants like Bulleh
Shah, Waris Shah, Iqbal, Amrita Pritam
and Saadat Hasan Manto, the spiritual teachings of the Sikh Gurus and Sufi
saints, and, above all, the testimonials
and narratives of ordinary Punjabis,
to create an unforgettable portrait of a
place-undivided Punjab-that continues
to fascinate us (even though it broke up
more than six decades ago) and of its
hard-tested and resilient people, Hindu,
Muslim and Sikh.
Rajmohan gandhi's previous
book, A tale of two revolts: India
18'57 and the American civil war, was
published in 2009 in India, the UK and
the US. Until end-December 20I2 he
taught political science and history at the
University of Illinois. Dividing his time
between India and the United State,
Rajmohan Gandhi has also made several
visits to Pakistan.
Apart from the considerations cited in the Introduction that follows, personal
reasons drove me to understand and tell this story. The poisonous winds of
1947 had buffeted millions, and also me, then a boy going from eleven to
twelve and living in Delhi, a city which received (and enacted) it own share
of convulsion that year.
Two years before that, in November 1945, I had faintly absorbed the
drama of three Punjabis, a Hindu, a Sikh and a Muslim, officers all in
Subhas Bose's Indian National Army, being tried together at the Red Fort
for treason against the British Empire. The sound 'Dhillon, Sehgal, Shah
Nawaz' had entered Delhi's air.
Half a century later, on my first visit to Lahore, I was struck (like many
others) by the strong similarities between Delhi and Lahore, including an
identical mix of Mughal and British monuments. Interest turned into a
bond, and I made several subsequent visits to Lahore, none more enriching
perhaps than the one made in 2005, when my wife Usha and I interviewed
two dozen or so persons with memories of how Hindus and Sikhs had
saved Muslims, and vice versa, in the Punjab of 1947. From those carriers
of history we learnt of the insaniyat which in numerous priceless instances
defeated the insanity of that year.
In Lahore I also learnt that many in the city continued to miss, more
than half a century after 1947, its Hindus and Sikhs. Surely this former Punjab, a single entity so different from today's two Punjabs, required to be understood. The need for this understanding was further heightened in the 1980s, when I lived close to the conflicts associated with Sikh militancy in Indian Punjab (which took the lives of some people I knew) and could not escape the impact of the Indian army's assault on the Golden Temple, the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the carnage that followed, and the indignities that Sikh friends in Delhi suffered.
Much earlier, in 1948, my assassinated grandfather, the Mahatma, had
joined the numberless victims of Punjab's and the subcontinent's angers.
Punjab had become a part of my life, a question-provoking yet precious
part, and I needed to understand it as well as I could.
I should confess that I grew up in Delhi with a mild anti-Punjabi prejudice. The Delhi where I was born in 1935 was not the more-or-less
Punjabi city it would become after 1947. In those early days, Delhi's was a
non-Punjabi world, despite the fact that from 1858 until 1911 the British
had administered the city as part of their Punjab province. (Punjab had been
the Empire's base for crushing the Great Rebellion in Delhi, an exercise in
which Sikhs and Punjabi Muslims mainly, but also Dogras and Gurkhas, had
enlisted on the Empire's behalf.)
Yet this earlier Punjab connection was scarcely noticeable in Delhi in
the years preceding 1947. I, and people like me, can remember a time when
Banias, Bengalis, Jains, Mathurs and Muslims-to name them in alphabetical
order-seemed to be, at least from some perspective, Delhi's dominant
As British India's capital from 1911, and hungry therefore for bureaucrats,
journalists, accountants, clerks and typists, Delhi also attracted many south
Indians. Since my mother was Tamil, our family had contacts with several
south Indian families living there. (My Gujarati father did not bring to us-
my siblings and myself-quite as many Gujarati contacts, possibly because Delhi seemed to contain fewer Gujaratis than Tamils, though our Gujarati
neighbours at the time, the Pandyas, were like family.)
With 1947, Delhi changed demographically, linguistically, and food-wise.
Muslim boys in my school-we didn't have a great number-vanished from
one day to the next. One of them, a classmate, was called Javed Akhtar.
(Javed's father, Chaudhri Muhammad Ali, then one of Delhi's top civil servants,
would serve as Pakistan's Prime Minister in the 1950s. Later I would learn
that Javed and his father were not merely Muslim, they were 'Arain' as well,
as was General Zia-ul-Huq, the Jalandhar-linked ex-student of St. Stephen's
College, and that Arains constituted one of Punjab's significant groups.)
Even as Muslim boys disappeared from my school, a number of Punjabi
boys, Sikh and Hindu, materialized. Several Punjabi teachers also suddenly
Hitherto run jointly by a Bengali principal (a lady of Brahmo extraction,
I would much later learn), a wheelchair-confined Jain 'chief', and a Sikh
founder or co-founder who always remained in the background, the school
obtained a new Punjabi principal. With a mix of pride and sadness, Kapur-saab
at times spoke in his gentle, deep voice of his 'Gov'ment College, Lahore'.
From Kapur-saab and the other newcomers in my school, I learnt that
Punjabis were a wonderfully gifted and friendly lot who loved the places
they came from. (In due course I learnt also to gauge their respect for Tamils
and other south Indians by, among other things, their love of dosas.) My
silly bias was blown away.
As Punjab was traumatized in 1947, Delhi started becoming Punjabi-ized.
Even if they belonged to non-Punjabi-ized tracts, at least two generations of
Indians and Pakistanis were affected by Punjab's suffering. That long-lasting
trauma, or rather the need among Indians and Pakistanis to get out of it, is
probably the strongest impulse, even if mostly in the subconscious, behind
this inquiry. I was venturing into it under a half-recognized pull to assist,
never mind how poorly, in healing the wound.
While most accept that there can be no reconciliation without truth,
establishing historical truths clinically is an impossible exercise, for you cannot
cross-examine long-dead witnesses: the writers of diaries, memoirs, police
reports, newspaper stories, personal letters, and authorized and unauthorized
biographies, which form the staple of history's raw material.
Yet it may be possible and also desirable to strive for a balance in historical
perspectives by studying, in Punjab's case, a variety of conflicting accounts
as, for example, those provided by different Sikh, Muslim, Hindu and British
sources. Even if ultimately futile in recalling the past's exact reality, such an
attempt may yet, God willing, serve the causes of truth-telling, understanding
This study does not claim to offer hitherto unknown facts or documents.
However, though the cellar did not yield hidden bottles, the searcher has
distilled available wines, including overlooked ones. Apart from posing a
few questions thus far unasked, this study seeks to interrogate, contextualize,
balance and distil known material.
As I researched and wrote this story, long-gone Punjabi friends re-entered
my mind and moved me: Principal Mahendra Nath Kapur; early family friends Dr and Mrs. Krishna; that witty and dedicated Gandhi companion
and scholar, Pyarelal Nayyar; his redoubtable sister, Dr Sushila, who helped
so many refugees and non-refugees in her long public life; their brother
Mohan Lal and mother Tara-ji; the fearless Amtus Salaam of Rajpura, whose
loving warmth for person after person totally concealed her loss of numerous
relatives in 1947; Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, who for freedom's sake farewelled
palace comfort and whose forebears I would meet in my research; Gulzari
Lal Nanda, twice (each time very briefly) India's prime minister; and several
Had they been living, these friends would have been of help and guidance
for this study. So would have the gifted historian, biographer and generous
friend, Balram Nanda, who lived until 2010 but, sadly for me, did not delay
his passing by a year or two. Some Punjabi schoolmates of mine have also
gone, including the determined Mohanjit Singh and the brilliant and blunt
Even so, these persons, and other friends still living, 'connected' me
somehow to the Punjabis of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries whom
I encountered in the course of my research.
Others helped with insights, information, questions, memories of 1947,
or access to knowledge about earlier periods. I should specially thank those
connected with the archives of Pakistan preserved. in a place in Lahore
believed also to contain Anarkali's tomb, where I had the opportunity to
look at papers from the times' of the later Mughals, Maharaja Ranjit Singh
and the British; and also Syed Babar Ali and his remarkable team at the
Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) for the time I spent
there in 2011 for my research. The Lahore Museum proved helpful too. In
its archives I was fortunate enough to find a Kangra School portrait of an
eighteenth-century viceroy of Punjab, Adina Beg, whose career had caught my
interest. The museum kindly furnished me with a photograph of the painting,
which appears in this book. I don't believe it has been published elsewhere.
Most of my study was done amidst the rich South Asia collection of
the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where I have spent twenty-
four semesters during the fifteen-year period between 1997 and the end of
2012. While the authors of the works I researched provided much of the
information presented in this study, I owe a good deal also to colleagues
at the university, and appreciate the university's funding of the research in
Lahore in 2011. The campus's Varun Goel, graduate student in geography,
valuably assisted with the maps.
I was fortunate, too, that Ishtiaq Ahmed, the reputed Lahore-born political
scientist who has lived for years in Sweden, read the manuscript and suggested
improvements. His comprehensive study, published in 2011, of Punjab's 1947
trauma was of invaluable help. I am greatly indebted to him. Helpful thoughts
were also given by Professor Amita Sinha of the University of Illinois. Only
I am responsible, I should add, for this study's opinions and shortcomings.
David Davidar's enthusiasm about publishing my Punjab story has meant
much to me. I thank him and his gifted Aleph team, including Ritu Vajpeyi-
Mohan, a meticulous editor, and Aienla Ozukum, for their hard work on the text and for suggestions that have enhanced its clarity, as also Bena Sareen
for evoking undivided Punjab on the striking cover.
I thank my wife Usha, daughter Supriya, son-in-law Travis and son Debu
for supporting this work with love and criticism.
Now that, despite difficult odds, this book has 'happened', I have a few
prayers regarding it: that it might prod some to pursue their own research
into Punjab's history and ask new questions; that a few reading this work may
conclude that there was more to the Punjab story than they had thought,
more complexity and richness perhaps, or maybe more humanity in the
Other side than previously realized, and that our inherited, unexamined beliefs
regarding what occurred in Punjab's history may need revising.
When employed today, the noun 'Punjab', which has come down from the
Persian word for 'five rivers', usually means either Pakistan's largest province
(with a population in excess of ninety million in 2013) or its immediate
eastern neighbour, the Indian state of Punjab (containing twenty-eight million
people), while the adjective 'Punjabi' characterizes the people, ways or things
connected to either of the two Punjabs, or both.
In this study, however, 'Punjab' signifies the subcontinent's Punjabi-
speaking region as a whole, or what old-timers remember as undivided or
'British' Punjab. (In consonance with current popular practice in both India
and Pakistan, this study will speak of Punjab rather than 'the Punjab' of
A hundred years or so ago, around 1914, British Punjab, stretching all
the way from Attock in the northwest to the borders of Delhi, seemed
ideally placed to lead the subcontinent towards economic progress and inter-
communal understanding. The Raj had provided stability to the area for six
decades. While diverse in religion, sect, caste and class, the vast majority of
Punjabis spoke the same language or a closely-related variant. Water gushing
in its great rivers and canals, Punjab's agriculture was vigorous.
Although even in 1914 prominent Punjabis were apt to quarrel in the
press and from public platforms over the situation of Muslims, Hindus or
Sikhs, the population seemed to live in peace. Nine decades earlier, and
prior to British rule, Ranjit Singh's indigenous kingdom had presented a
marked contrast to the instability which enabled the British to conquer the
rest of India.
Why did this promising Punjab witness division and carnage in 1947?
For clues we have to go not merely to what happened between World War I
and 1947 but also to earlier history.
There are global reasons too for recalling Punjab's past. In August 2012,
after a white gunman in America killed six innocent Sikhs in a gurdwara
in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, Harpreet, an eighteen-year-old Sikh woman about
to enter the University of Texas in Tyler, urged fellow-Americans via a large
poster, 'I am a Sikh, please don't hate me.' Circulating her plea on Facebook and Twitter, Harpreet also told CNN: [Y] es, my skin is brown and my hair
is dark but that does not make me and my family Muslims or terrorists'.
Several Sikhs in America quickly dissociated themselves from any
suggestion that it was acceptable to think of Muslims as terrorists. We must
assume that Harpreet herself did not intend to convey such a suggestion.
That she was neither a Muslim nor a terrorist is what she was declaring.
Yet Harpreet's remark was a reminder that the Sikh-Muslim relationship, for
centuries a major question in Punjab, is now a factor in our world as a whole.
Pakistan's Punjab province, almost wholly Muslim, holds today a
population larger than that of Egypt, Iran or Turkey, a fact which makes
Pakistani Punjab by itself one of the most important Muslim regions in the world.
More than half of all Pakistanis-the people who belong to supposedly
the world's most dangerous country-live in Punjab. Moreover, Punjab's
relationship with Pakistan's other provinces, Sindh, Balochistan and Khyber-
Pakhtunkhwa, is critical to that country's future.
In India, Punjab has produced two prime ministers (Inder Kumar Gujral
and Manmohan Singh), twice the same acting prime minister (Gulzari Lal
Nanda), and one president (Zail Singh), as well as the assassins of Prime
Minister Indira Gandhi. While posing tough problems for the Indian state,
Punjab has also performed as one of India's growth engines: the Punjabis'
energy has powered India's agriculture and military, even as the other Punjab
has powered the military and agriculture of Pakistan.
In the twentieth century, Sikhs from undivided Punjab helped in the
process that transformed western Canada and California. In earlier centuries,
Punjab was the gateway for a series of invasions into India. In the middle of
the twentieth century, the subcontinent's partition bisected and traumatized
Punjab and Bengal while the rest of the region remained intact.
Though several angles reveal Punjab's significance, its histories are scant.
Latif's History if the Panjab was published in Lahore in 1889, nearly 125 years
ago, that is. Thereafter British civil servants wrote their district gazetteers,
scholars of Sikh history produced major works, Ranjit Singh's rule (1799- 1839) was recorded by contemporaries and analyzed by later scholars, British
Punjab was portrayed by its architects, and studies and novels sought to
capture the shock and shame of the 1947 killings and migrations.
Historians have delved into other aspects of Punjab's story, too.
The influence of the still-popular eighteenth century poets Bulleh
Shah and Waris Shah
The 1857 Revolt and Punjab
Punjab as the Empire's garrison state
The Bhagat Singh phenomenon during 1929-31
The Muslim League's 'Pakistan' resolution of March 1940, and more
Yet, after Latif's oft-quoted, controversial and now dated work of 1889, there
has been no new history of Punjab as such, no attempt to tell Punjab's story
from, say, the end of the Mughal empire to the finis of the British one
except for Ikram Ali Malik's study of the 1799-1947 period, which however
excludes the eighteenth century. Though Punjab's Sikh story has often been
presented, as well as stories of partition, the history of Punjab itself, assuming
that Punjab had a personality of its own, has been captured rarely or not at all.
If undivided Punjab had a personality and history of its own, then it
follows that we cannot fully understand its descendants, the modern Indian
states of Punjab, Haryana and Himachal and Pakistan's Punjab province, or
indeed modern India and Pakistan, without confronting that personality and
While constituting invaluable intellectual wealth, the Sikh histories
available today-all deriving from the Sikh faith's deep involvement, right
from its founding, with Punjab's language and soil-easily outweigh any
studies available of aspects of Punjab as a whole, or of Punjabi Muslims (even
though Punjabi-speaking Muslims have always outnumbered Punjabi-speaking
Sikhs), or of Punjabi Hindus.
Moreover, an important question has not been addressed in existing
scholarship: Why was Punjab's Muslim majority unable to fill the power vacuum
when, post Aurangzeb, the Mughal Empire retreated from the province? In fact,
eighteenth-century Punjab as a whole, post-Aurangzeb and pre-Ranjit Singh,
has received meagre attention in India and Pakistan, and the same is true of the contribution of Punjabi Muslims to nineteenth-century Punjab.
There were gaps, and I yielded to the urge to try and fill them while
capturing, if possible, the heart of the entire story, starting with Aurangzeb,
of pre-1947 Punjab.
With the death of Aurangzeb, the last major Mughal, central authority
over Punjab started to erode. The ensuing contest for regional power involved
a couple of outside forces, Mghans and Marathas. The contest also involved
Punjab-based Mughal governors who looked either for independence or for
an Afghan umbrella. And it involved a local minority, the Sikhs.
The local majority, Punjab's Muslims, stayed aloof from the contest,
which ended in favour of the Sikhs. Available accounts imply that until the
British conquered Punjab, the more numerous Punjabi Muslims lived almost
invisibly in the shadow of the Sikh minority. What were they doing? What
were their hopes, fears, struggles? The questions called for answers.
Varying a good deal among themselves-in tribe, dialect and local
customs-Punjab's Muslims thought of themselves as both Punjabi and
Muslim, and were so seen by others. Today they dominate a powerful Pakistani
institution, the army. They also dominate Pakistan's business, industry and
agriculture. By virtue of numbers, they greatly influence Pakistani politics
as well. Smaller ethnic groups in Pakistan (Sindhis, Pashtuns, Balochis and
the so-called Muhajirs, Urdu-speaking descendants of refugees from northern
and central India) frequently criticize Punjabi hegemony.
Yet the story of Punjabi Muslims has been neglected by historians,
including by those in Pakistan. In part, the neglect is linked to the status
in Pakistan of the Punjabi language. Not Punjabi but Urdu, the language
spoken before partition by Muslims and numerous Hindus in northern India
and yet seen by many as 'Islamic' (a language, moreover, which Punjabi had
helped evolve), has been Pakistan's national language ever since that country's
Indeed it was Punjab's Muslim leadership which steered the successful
campaign to declare Urdu as Pakistan's national language. It was a way of
showing Muslim Punjab's love for Islam.
But this readiness to yield first place to a language different from theirs
was not necessarily an 'Islamic' preference. Nor did it necessarily mean a
magnanimous refusal by Pakistan's Punjabis to impose their language on the
country's linguistic minorities: Sindhis, Pashtuns and Balochis.
A widespread belief among a section of Punjabi-speaking Muslims that
theirs was a folk idiom rather than a literary language and one, moreover,
that enjoyed a special relationship with the Punjabi Muslims' supposed historic
foes (the Sikhs), helped remove Punjabi as Urdu's competitor. In fact, these
Punjabi Muslims frequently claimed that Urdu rather than Punjabi was the
language they spoke, even as (in Indian Punjab) many Punjabi Hindus claimed
that Hindi not Punjabi was their language.
Thus Punjabi became the 'Sikh' language, Urdu the 'Muslim' language,
and Hindi the 'Hindu' language. Language was uprooted from ground-level
and tied to religion rather than to the varied people who spoke it, or the
tract where it was spoken.
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