The partition of British Punjab might have happened more than seven decades ago and several hundred books might have been written on it, yet a study of the subject still manages to fascinate both the scholar and the layman. The many layers of the partition still keep unravelling, its reality, meaning and legacy haunting us scores of decades later. We might have past the actual historical event, yet it is still fresh in the memory of its survivors, a point of reference for the many generations which have followed, and an important marker of identity for people who inhabit the successor states. The opening of the Kartarpur Corridor this weekend which, for the first time, will bridge — quite literally, the line drawn by the then Sir Cyril Radcliffe, is a poignant reminder that the partition moment has still not passed.
The partition of the Punjab is often told as the story of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. After all these were the three main communities which inhabited this great province which once stretched from the roaring Indus at Attock to the majestic ramparts of the Red Fort. And it was the result of a lack of a political settlement between these three communities that the Punjab, a province run as one unit for nearly a hundred years, was partitioned in the summer of 1947. So while Pakistan was being born and becoming independent, the Punjab was being partitioned. No wonder then most Punjabis still refer to the events of August 1947 primarily as ‘partition,’ rather than ‘independence.’
But while the partition of the Punjab was the result of the All India Muslim League, representing the Muslims, the Indian National Congress primarily representing Hindus, and the Panthic Party, representing the Sikhs, not agreeing on a power sharing arrangement among themselves, there were also other communities in the Punjab, however small, which also suffered the brunt of the partition.
By 1947, the Christians in the Punjab were just over half a million strong. In less than half a century, the Christians had managed to dramatically increase their numbers, from a minuscule minority in the 1860s to boasting wholly Christian villages by the 1920s, and a huge network of schools, hospitals, and other charitable organisations throughout the Punjab. The Christian imprint in the Punjab was so strong that the first English medium school (and for a while the only high school in Lahore) was established by American Presbyterian Missionaries in 1849. The first school for girls in the province was established in 1856 in Sialkot also by missionaries.
Forman Christian College, also established by American Presbyterians, was opened just a little later than the Government College as a higher education institution. Christian missionaries were also often the first ones to establish dispensaries in far-flung areas, and many times preceded the government in remote areas. Thus, while still being a small community their role, significance, and impact, was much larger.
When the Viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten announced on June 3, 1947 the partition of the Punjab this small and new community was taken unawares.
While they certainly knew that something had to be done, as communal tensions were high and the Muslims and the Sikhs in the Punjab had already begun to attack each other, yet they did not know that in the crossfire they too would have to make the same decisions the warring communities had to make. The partition of the Punjab was to affect all communities, classes, and types of people — the only thing perhaps which affected everyone without discrimination that hot summer.
One of the first things to be divided among the soon-to-be ‘West Punjab’ and ‘East Punjab,’ was the famed Punjab cadre of the Indian Civil Service (ICS). While the ICS was known as the ‘steel frame’ of British rule in India, and its members the ‘heavenly born,’ its Punjab cadre was even more special. The Punjab cadre was considered the ‘corps d’elite’ of the ICS, and so many of its members rose to high positions at the Centre that ICS officers from Madras and Bombay used to complain of a ‘Punjabi takeover of the Government of India.’ The Punjab was so often the first choice of toppers in the ICS examinations that the India Office had to introduce rules to prevent all top candidates from going to the Punjab. Thus the crème de la crème of the ICS had to make the difficult choice in the summer of 1947 where to go, east or west Punjab!
In 1947, there were just under a hundred ICS officers of the Punjab cadre, nearly equally divided between British and Indian officers. Out of them nearly one-fifth, mostly British officers, decided to take early retirement and not live through the changed circumstances. From the rest, most chose their options according to religion: so Muslim officers mainly opted for West Punjab, while Hindu and Sikh officers picked East Punjab. While there were some very interesting exceptions among both Muslim and Hindu officers, the decision of the Indian Christian ICS officers is of present concern.
In 1947, there were five Indian Christians in the Punjab Cadre of the ICS. For them there was no obvious choice. West Punjab was supposed to be predominately Muslim, while Hindus and Sikhs would form the overwhelming majority in East Punjab.
Thus, there was no ‘natural’ choice for them.
Therefore, the decision to opt for either of the new provinces was certainly very daunting, and would lead them into uncharted territory.
The first clear answer from among the Indian Christian officers of the ICS came from Samuel Martin Burke, who declined to serve in either of the new provinces and wished to take early retirement. Mostly known by his initials, ‘SM Burke,’ was born in 1906 in Martinpur, a model ‘Christian’ village set up by Anglican missionaries in the Punjab. His grandfather had converted, and his father held the distinction of being the first high school graduate from Martinpur. His father, Janab Khairudin—a school headmaster, was very fond of Urdu poetry and wrote under the pen name of ‘Barq,’ which means lightning in Urdu. This then became his surname as the Anglicised ‘Burke.’
SM Burke was a brilliant student and won a scholarship to the prestigious Government College Lahore to study science, as he hoped to purse a career in medicine. However, as is frequently the case in college, his interests developed (I’d like to argue that!), and he switched to history, philosophy, Persian and Urdu, graduating with a first class in the bachelor’s examination. Thereafter, he took an MA at the Punjab University in history, again in the first division.
Burke subsequently sat for the ICS examinations and got selected in the 1931 batch of the ‘heavenly born.’ After training in England at the School for Oriental Studies, he came to India in November 1931, and served as assistant commissioner in various charges. In July 1941, he became part of the Judicial Service and became a district and sessions judge. It was as a sessions judge that he was appointed in May 1946 as president of the Elections Petitions Tribunal which was set up in the aftermath of the provincial elections. It was then precisely because of this position that he refused to join either of the future provinces, so that no doubt could be cast on his impartiality—such was height of his professionalism that he chose to take retirement than anyone have any reservations to his judicial decisions (certainly a lesson for today’s civil servants!).
Since Burke’s home village, Martinpur, ended up in West Punjab he decided to settle in West Punjab after retirement. However, as there was already a dearth of trained civil servants in Pakistan, the Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah very soon requested him to come out of retirement and help the nascent country which was in dire need of capable hands. Sensing that there was a real need, and with a zeal to help this new country, Burke decided to re-join the civil service and agreed to become part of the Foreign Service of Pakistan.
Burke’s first assignment in the Foreign Ministry was to look after the all-important desks of India and the United Nations. With the partition hardly over, and with the Kashmir issue boiling in the United Nations, these were the two most important desks in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Commonwealth Relations—and luck had it that a Christian was manning them both, less than a year after the creation of the Muslim country!
Soon Burke was sent abroad, first as counsellor at the Pakistan High Commission in London, followed by a stint as minister in the Pakistan Embassy in Washington DC from 1952. Thereafter, he served successively as chargé d’ affaires in Rio de Janeiro, deputy high commissioner in London, minister to Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark from 1953 to 1956, ambassador to Thailand, and then finally as high commissioner to Canada from 1959 to 1961, after which he retired from service after a distinguished career.
But for Samuel Martin Burke, retirement from the Foreign Service meant the start of another career. He retired to the United States where he joined the University of Minnesota as a Professor of South Asian Studies and embarked on a long career writing seminal books on South Asia. His books like Foreign Policy of Pakistan, Akbar the Greatest Mogul, Bahadur Shah, the Last Mogul Emperor of India, The British Raj in India, and Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, His Personality and His Politics, made him a household name in South Asia. In fact, to date students in high school and university in Pakistan read a number of his books as set texts.
SM Burke lived to a ripe old age and died when he was 104 years in 2010. He was the first non-Muslim Indian who joined the civil service in Pakistan, and also was the first non-Muslim to serve as an ambassador for Pakistan. Such were the early years of Pakistan!
To be continued