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Amritsar & Lahore:
The Partition of Punjab




The following was first published as a chapter in Arnold J. Toynbee's East to West: A Journey Round The World", Oxford University Press, London, 1958, pp 121-23. 

Toynbee [1889 - 1975] is widely acclaimed as one of the greatest historian-philsophers of the twentieth century.

He was a British historian whose twelve-volume analysis of the rise and fall of civilizations, A Study of History, 1934–1961, was a synthesis of world history, a metahistory based on universal rhythms of rise, flowering and decline, which examined history from a global perspective. A religious outlook permeates the Study and made it especially popular in the United States, for Toynbee rejected Greek humanism, the Enlightenment belief in humanity's essential goodness, and what he considered the "false god" of modern nationalism. Toynbee in the 1918-1950 period was a leading British consultant to the government on international affairs, especially regarding the Middle East.



Minnesotan reader, imagine, if you can, that the perversity of human nature has split your splendid state in two by driving an international frontier in between Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Imagine that every Catholic in the United States, north-west of that outrageous line, has had to flee for his life, leaving home, job, and professions behind him, and cross the line to live the wretched life of a “displaced person” on the safe side of it.

Imagine that every Protestant south-east of the line has had to make the same tragic migration in the opposite direction.

And then imagine that the road traffic across the new frontier has been entirely cut off (there is a no-man’s land, two miles broad, that is forbidden ground for cars traveling in either direction). Railroad traffic still survives, but it has been reduced to a single train a day. The armed guards on board it change as the fearsome border is crossed.

Imagine all this, and you will have pictured to yourself what has happened in real life to that unfortunate country, the Punjab, and its historic twin cities, Amritsar and Lahore.

Amritsar is a creation of the Sikh religion. The Golden Temple was planted in the wilds, and a secular city grew up around it. But, till the deadly partition in 1947, a Sikh who lived in Amritsar never dreamed that he might be debarred from carrying on his profession in Lahore, while a Muslim who lived in Lahore never dreamed that he might be debarred from owning and cultivating a field in the district of Amritsar. Lahore was the Sikhs’ and Muslims’ common capital; the broad Panjab countryside was the common source of their livelihood.

Why has the rankling memory of an ancient feud impelled these once intermingled communities to sort themselves out at such a dreadful cost to both of them? The fate that they have brought on themselves seems ironic to the foreign inquirer who feels sympathy for both alike; for, as it appears to the outsider, the Sikh faith and Islam have a close affinity with one another.

The atmosphere of Amritsar strikes a Western observer as being decidedly Islamic and, indeed, almost Protestant. Hindu worship is a casual disorderly affair; Sikh worship is a precise and as highly disciplined as the proceedings in a mosque or in a Calvinist church.

The Guru Granth Sahib, which is the Sikh Khalsa’s holy scripture, is an anthology in which selections from the works of Kabir and other Muslim mystics find a place beside the works of Guru Nanak, the father of the Sikh faith. And the veneration paid to the Granth Sahib goes beyond the furthest extremes of Protestant Christian bibliolatry. Why could not Sikhs and Muslims - and, for that matter, Hindus as well - go on living side by side in an unpartitioned Punjab?

The perversity of human nature is the greatest of the mysteries of human life.

We took that internatioanl train and arrived at Lahore, without incident, in advance of the scheduled time. How strange to see Ranjit Singh’s tomb shouldering its way between fort and mosque. It was certainly a provocative act to plant the Sikh warlord’s sculpture at the most sensitive spot in the Muslim quarters of Lahore. But, then, who built that magnificently austere imperial masjid, whose courtyard is bigger than that of any other mosque in the sub-continent? The builder was Aurangzeb.

And who committed the provocative act of razing the principal Hindu temple in Benares and planting a mosque in its place? Aurangzeb again. Who else could it be? And so the tale of wrong and counter-wrong stretches back through a long chain of generations.

As a result of partition, Lahore has gained in political importance. It is no longer the capital of a unitary Punjab, but it has now become the capital of a unitary Western Pakistan. Yet it is no longer what it was when Kim clambered over the famous cannon (which still stands in its place) in a city that was then still a common home for the followers of three faiths.

Amritsar has a surer future, for it will remain the religious centre of the Sikhs so long as the Khalsa endures; and the Sikhs, in losing the Punjab, have gained the World. Today they are established all over India (above the wheel of every second bus and taxi, you spy that unmistakable bearded and turbaned head). And they have not kept within India’s frontiers. They have made their way eastwards through Burma and Singapore and Hong Kong to the Pacific slope of Canada.

They are the burliest men on the face of the planet - tough and capable and slightly grim. If human life survives the present chapter of Man’s history, the Sikhs, for sure, will still be on the map.


June 23, 2011

Conversation about this article

1: Blighty Singh (London, United Kingdom), June 23, 2011, 4:28 PM.

The 'twin' cities are now complete strangers. In 1947 Amritsar and Lahore were almost the same size (Lahore being only ever so slightly larger). Today, Lahore is a bustling metropolis. Its government has invested in it heavily. Modern, vast, sophisticated. Amritsar, in contrast, has been left to run down. Backward, small, drug-infested, neglected. Amritsar, which was a decidedly Muslim majority city in 1947, got rich because of its trade with Central Asia. Since 1947, its had to look south. Really not much to see down there.

2: Dr. Birinder Singh Ahluwalia (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), June 24, 2011, 6:41 AM.

Hey, hey, hey! Slow down, my fellow commentators. Amritsar is one of the (rather, "The") city to live in for anyone who wishes to reside in India. This city is way ahead of any other metropolis in the world. The world class kulchas, the bustling bazaars, boasting at least five clubs for nightlife since the 70's and 80's, even when Delhi could not claim as many, the rich architectural ambience to be cherished in buildings such as The Khalsa College, the Guru Nanak University which futuristic in its lay-out when completed in the70's, competing with any university in the world even today - I can go on and on ... and, of course, the ultimate spiritual centre for all humanity (not just for Sikhs): The Darbar Sahib. I will be more than happy to show glorious Amritsar around to anyone who wants to really enjoy this great city, my beautiful hometown.

3: Usman (Birmingham, United Kingdom), October 29, 2011, 1:09 PM.

Lahore was and is the capital of Punjab. It is a city steeped in history. It has always been a much larger city than Amritsar. Amritsar's only real importance is that it is home to Sikhism's holiest shrine. There is an old saying: "Jinna nai Lahore nahi vaikhyaa, oh jammiya hi nahi".

4: Jamil Mirza (Lahore, Punjab), February 08, 2012, 12:36 PM.

Amratsari kulchas - made by Kashmiri Muslims who migrated from Amritsar in 1947 - are very popular in Lahore.

5: Ghulam Lakshman Singh (Tanjawur), July 20, 2013, 4:08 AM.

One day inshallah the twin cities will be twins again. Sat Sri Akal.

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