The partition of the Punjab and the communal holocaust which followed has baffled and puzzled scholars for the last seventy years. On one side, some have argued that it was a time of ‘spontaneous madness’ in a land where Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs lived peacefully for millennia, while others have argued that it was the natural result of pent up resentment of communities against each other.
These scholars have argued that the Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs in the Punjab never really saw eye to eye and were simply waiting for a time to unleash their fury upon each other. The ‘shameful flight,’ to use the phrase of Sir Winston S. Churchill, of the British from India, gave these communities an opportunity, and it all ended in a bloodbath. The massive exchange of populations — almost all unwillingly — also had little precedence in history, and demographically transformed both sides of the Punjab.
The multi-religious mosaic of the Punjab, where almost every village contained members of different religions, became largely mono-religious on both sides of the Radcliffe Line. In West Punjab, which became a part of Pakistan, the non-Muslim percentage dropped from about a quarter to just over two per cent, with an almost cleansing of the Hindu and Sikh population, and only a few Christians remaining. Similarly, nearly a third of East Punjab and the princely states in East Punjab was Muslim, but by the end of the partition process, only tiny Malerkotla boasted a significant Muslim community, and that too because the blessing of a Sikh Guru for the Muslim inhabitants of the princely state, prevented Sikhs from attacking Muslims in the area.
It is estimated that by the end of the partition process, nearly three quarters of a million people died in the Punjab alone, and over fifty thousand women were abducted, raped and brutalised. The horror of the partition process was such that for decades people never spoke about the event, and scholars had to make do with the scarce official records of the holocaust.
It was only in the late 1980s and early 1990s that people began to talk about the partition and therefore opened a new vista for researchers. Oral history, then, greatly supplanted and gave depth to the often bare and dry official records. The extent of human suffering, the depth of pain, and the lasting scars of partition, then began to be realised and assessed.
In the developing realm of partition studies, Professor Ishtiaq Ahmed’s magnum opus, The Punjab: Bloodied, Partitioned, and Cleansed, deserves a special mention. I had the honour of being part of the launch of its second edition a few days ago, and it reminded me that in a number of ways, we, on both sides of the Radcliffe Line, are still trying to grapple with the reality of partition and its enduring effects.
Professor Ahmed’s book is important for several reasons: very significantly, a large part of the book is based on oral history. Dr Ahmed began the work of interviewing survivors of partition in the 1990s and over a decade of work resulted in nearly 250 interviews from both sides of the Radcliffe Line. He is among the very few who have had the opportunity to visit and conduct research on both the Indian and Pakistani side, and so has been able to undertake a comparative analysis of the oral history he has collected. The centrality of the ‘human story’ through these partition narratives are critical if we are to really understand and learn from the experience, and Professor Ahmed certainly broke new ground by weaving his book through them.
Furthermore, Professor Ahmed’s book provides an almost day-by-day narrative. While for some it might be tedious, but for scholars it provides ready reference and evidence of what happened in the Punjab, when and how. Gleaned from official records, corroborated by oral testimonies, this narrative gives a broad picture of how the partition took place in the Punjab.
In an age where nationalist narratives are again coming to the fore and taking centre-stage, it is important to remember the initiation and development of violence in the Punjab. Dr Ahmed skilfully sets the record straight by recording almost all of the major events in the partition.
Professor Ahmed’s book is also important since it does not end the debate, in fact, it gives a very sound basis for the start of an in-depth analysis of the partition, now based in both archival and oral histories. For example, the concept of cleansing which Dr Ahmed discusses in the book is not just a cleansing of the ‘other’ but also of the ‘self.’ So while in the partition, the ‘other’ was eliminated in Pakistan, the cleansing of the ‘self’ continued.
The attacks against Ahmedis, then Shias and now between different Sunni sects, is a result of the process which began in the summer of 1947. The recent rise of anti-Muslim sentiment in India, and the ascendancy of the Saffron brigade, is also a result of the forces which were unleashed during the partition.
The question of women and their voices in the partition — a process initiated, led and tentatively finished, by men — is also something which needs to be further delved into. Professor Ahmed acknowledges that he could not collect as many oral histories of women as he would have liked to, but emphasises that others must pick up from where he has left.
Earlier works by Ritu Menon and Urvashi Bhutalia were pioneering in their testimony of women during the partition in East Punjab and Delhi, while recently the work of Pippa Virdee From The Ashes of 1947, Reimagining Punjab, has, for the first time, brought to the fore the experience of women from both East and West Punjab. A lot, of course, needs to be done to uncover, understand and learn from their voices.
Just as Vazira Zamindar argued a decade ago, the partition of 1947 was a ‘long partition’; and in some ways it is still continuing. No matter how far South Asia runs away from its past, it continues to latch on to the present and the future, and refuses to give way. Perhaps it is because we have been unable to still comprehend its reality and its effects, or perhaps we have been unwilling or even unable, to grapple with the forces it unleashed — whatever the reasoning, the debate over the partition of 1947 has not ended, and in fact, it is now our enduring reality.