Kids Corner


The Partition of Punjab:
A Pakistani Perspective

Book Review by PRAN NEVILE



PUNJAB: BLOODIED, PARTITIONED & CLEANSED, by Ishtiaq Ahmed, Rupa, India, 2011, pp 808, Rs. 995. ISBN-HB: 9788129118622


There has been a spate of books on the Partition of Punjab and India in 1947.  A number of authors have indulged in the blame-game holding the British government and some Indian political leaders responsible for this. 

Some writers have recorded their individual experience of the tragic and horrendous bloodbath that accompanied the Partition of Punjab on both sides of the border.

Then we have a good amount of literature with fact and fiction fused covering stories with graphic details of men and women of both West and  East Punjab who were forced to leave their homes for no fault of theirs and fell victims to brutal violence. Those who managed to save their lives turned into refugees in their new homelands.  We come across great classic stories by Sadat Hasan Manto, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Bhishan Sahni and some touching verses by  poets like Amrita Pritam and Daman.  

Prof. Ishtiaq Ahmed has for the first time indeed brought out in his book factual eye-witness accounts of the tragic happenings in the  two Punjabs during 1947.  It is the result of his dedicated research and personal interviews of more than 200 survivors of the holocaust which he conducted during the 1990s and early years of this century. 

As we turn the pages we discover his extensive travels to remote villages, towns and cities in the two Punjabs.  He spared no efforts to meet and collect information from some eminent Punjabis in Delhi, Mumbai and elsewhere.  Even while travelling abroad in Europe and America, he was able to locate Punjabis who at the time of Partition were grown up enough to recall their personal experience or others who would narrate what they had heard from their elders.      

The author has no doubt worked hard for nearly 15 years with a missionary zeal to collect this voluminous data on the communal riots. The book is the most comprehensive, balanced, unbiased and objective account of the tragic happenings during the Partition in the two Punjabs both of which paid a very heavy price for the country’s Independence.  

As a political scientist, the author carefully examines the British government’s negotiations with the main political parties - the Indian National Congress and the All India Muslim League and the Sikhs of Punjab leading to the final announcement of the Partition Plan on 3 June, 1947. The creation of two Independent Dominions of India and Pakistan in mid-August 1947 envisaged the Partition of Punjab along with Bengal. 

As an eyewitness working in the Government of India during that critical period, I would say that the communal situation then was quite alarming. The launching of ‘Direct Action’ by the Muslim League in August 1946 resulted in the Great Calcutta killings  of Hindus followed by the Bihar massacre of Muslims, leading to the eventual holocaust in the Punjab. 

In the context of this chain of events, the Partition of India had become inevitable. There was a virtual consensus among the British, the Congress and the League that there was no other alternative.

The Interim Government was formed in August 1946 with Nehru as the Vice-President. The Muslim League joined in October 1946. The whole exercise was a fiasco as the Congress and League members worked at cross purposes and the government proved powerless to enforce law and order in the country.

The author points out Punjab Premier Tiwana’s suggestion to the British to delink Punjab from the rest of India and treat it as one united entity to be considered directly for membership in the British Commonwealth without joining either India or Pakistan.  It was too radical for the British to consider it as they were dealing primarily with the Congress and the Muslim League.

It is interesting to observe that Jinnah in his statement published in Dawn dated 1 May, 1947 argued that an exchange of population in Punjab would have to be effected at some stage.  But the Congress and the Viceroy Mountbatten seem to have ignored it. 

In the meantime, communal rioting was spreading like wildfire in Punjab. By the middle of June, Lahore was burning and there was a large-scale exodus of non-Muslims to East Punjab. The arrival of Sikh and Hindu refugees and their stories of horror, rape and brutal killing of men, women and children led to a devastating retaliation and the Muslim population of East Punjab began running away towards West Punjab.

Neither the Congress nor Muslim League leaders bothered to visit Punjab at this juncture to stop this savage mayhem.  

Ishtiaq Ahmed has painstakingly recorded the events beginning from 1945 leading to the Partition of Punjab in mid-August 1947 in chronological order. He has done extensive research into the declassified British official communications.

The secret communications of December 1945 and February 1946 from the Viceroy Lord Wavell to the Secretary of State in London reveal that Wavell's plans were aimed to discourage the Muslim League from demanding Partition of the country.  Much earlier, the Punjab Governor, Sir Bertrand Glancy, in his classified report to the Viceroy, had dismissed the Pakistan doctrine as a menace to communal peace in Punjab. His successor, Sir Evan Jenkins, had forewarned about Punjab descending into anarchy and chaos after announcement of its Partition.  He considered the British June 3 announcement to partition India and leave India as a dangerous decision “amounting to an invitation to the warring parties to make real war upon one another”.

By documenting the eyewitness accounts of the tragic ethnic cleansing in both West and East Punjab, the author makes a significant observation that Jinnah had issued a strong condemnation of the attacks on Muslims in Bihar but remained silent on the riots in the Punjab. The failure on the part of the central leadership of both Congress and Muslim League to comprehend the prevailing communal animosity in Punjab already in flames, is borne out by the attitude of even Mahatma Gandhi.

I vividly remember that during his visit to Lahore in the first week of August 1947, he exhorted the non-Muslims “not to run away from Lahore but die with what you think is the dying Lahore”. 

What an irony that he was not aware of the vast human misery when nearly 75 per cent of the non-Muslim population had already left Lahore by then.  

The learned author considers that the most controversial move in the unfolding Partition drama was undoubtedly Mountbatten’s decision to bring forward the date of Partition to mid-August instead of June 1948.  According to him, only Nehru was informed in advance and not other leaders and this preponing had disastrous consequences for Punjab. It may be pointed out that Punjab was already in turmoil with communal frenzy from March 1947. The June 3 Partition Plan announcement only escalated the communal violence.

The conspiracy to set ablaze the Shahalami area, the heart of the Hindu area in Lahore, is a classic example of this violence.  The Viceroy and the Punjab Governor realised the gravity of the situation when the law enforcement agencies had got communalized. The colonial government felt helpless in maintaining law and order with Governor’s rule in Punjab. There was also an apprehension that this terrible communal rioting may spread to other non-Muslim majority provinces resulting in chaos and collapse of law and order endangering the entire complex process of Partition. It was therefore considered advisable by Mountbatten to pre-pone the date of independence from June 1948 to 15 August, 1947.

Mountbatten’s decision to pre-pone the Independence has been differently interpreted by the writers of Partition literature. 

However, as an eye-witness to the happenings in official circles in the corridors of the Imperial Secretariat, I vividly remember that Mountbatten's decision was welcomed by the people. There was even jubilation among my Muslim colleagues in government who were excited about their rapid promotions in the new government of Pakistan at Karachi.

In his analysis and conclusions the author, on the strength of his collected first person accounts, highlights the organized violence and assaults on Muslims in the Princely states of East Punjab where the rulers were pressed to expel all Muslims from their territories.

After examining different estimates, a figure of 9 to 10 million is considered to be fairly accurate for the two-way forced migration in the Punjab. As regards fatalities, the exact figure will never be known. A majority of scholars agree that more Muslims were killed compared to Sikhs and Hindus put together. However, the total loss of life in the whole of Punjab is estimated to be around one million.

More than six decades have passed since the separation of the two Punjabs. The generation which went through that ordeal usually dismisses it as a bad dream. Whenever the Punjabis from both sides meet, their encounters have been very emotional.

Prof. Ishtiaq Ahmed, a typical Lahoria by birth, though from the next generation, is a keen observer of this ethnic amity.

I vividly remember the bonhomie at the Indo-Pakistan mushairas during the 1950s when Punjabi poets from the two sides with past association met one another. I fully endorse Ishtiaq's observation that the Punjabi identity remains a very strong part of the cultural make-up of the people.            


[Courtesy: The Statesman. Edited for]

October 13, 2011

Conversation about this article

1: Kanwarjeet Singh Chadha (Franklin Park, New Jersey, U.S.A.), October 14, 2011, 7:03 AM.

The partition of Punjab can be summed up in one phrase - 'Genocide at the hands of ego and greed.' Nehru, Jinnah, Gandhi and Patel have blood on their hands due to their ego and lust for power and control. Everything else is irrelevant.

2: H.S. Vachoa (U.S.A.), October 14, 2011, 12:11 PM.

This is really a good work on much neglected work of history. I wonder why it is marked as independence day on both sides, instead of The Bloody Day of August. Surprised there are no responses to this.

3: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), October 15, 2011, 1:49 PM.

The photo accompanying this article sums up the whole Punjab tragedy.

4: H..Singh (United States), October 16, 2011, 6:04 PM.

Kanwarjeet: From what I recall, Gandhi never endorsed partition. Though I could be wrong ...

5: Ranjit Singh (Canada), November 02, 2011, 6:02 PM.

1947? It wasn't division of a country! It was division of a society ... and the genocide of a culture.

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A Pakistani Perspective"

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