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The enduring Partition

In an age where nationalist narratives are again coming to the fore and taking centre-stage, it is important to understand the initiation and development of violence during the Partition

The enduring Partition
While in the partition, the ‘other’ was eliminated, the cleansing of the ‘self’ continued.

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.

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.

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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.

Yaqoob Khan Bangash

Yaqoob Bangash
The writer teaches at the IT University in Lahore. He is the author of ‘A Princely Affair: The Accession and Integration of the Princely States of Pakistan, 1947-55.’ He tweets at @BangashYK.


  • Why did Partition happen is a subject worthy of study and exploration. How did communal polarisation, whereby benign religious differences morphed into inter-community competition, rivalry and antagonism, arise and intensify following British Raj and its policies can and should be investigated and exposed. I am sure the combined assault of British imperialism and European modernity will have to take the major blame for it. There is no escape from this fact. However, the savagery shown by our own people at the time of Partition – the steep descent into the lowest levels of inhumanity – is the most shocking and inexplicable aspect of the horrible tragedy the micro-consequences of which still continue to afflict families in various ways. Metaphysics of Evil (Satan in some form is eternal and coexists with God in all religions), Contingencies of History, Stampede Psychology plus sociological variables may throw some light on what transpired to our eternal shame, but we will never fully grasp the phenomenon. There are surely other examples too: What the Germans did to Jews and others or Stalin to his own Slavs and comrades. But perhaps there is no other example of such a partition and people who were, a few months earlier, living together in peace turning mad and killing each other.
    But all said and done, are we going to remain grave-diggers forever and cry over the past, or look forward to a new future? What is equally amazing, as amazing as Partition and holocaust, is the feeling of love that Punjabis, East and West, still feel for each other. They know they are the same people, with the same race, language and basic culture and that they are not complete without each other. It is imperative for us to move together to a new and positive phase of history.

  • That was no momentary madness, it was a ruthlessly cold calculated thing, an implementation of FUD Theory
    Which Starts with the creation of FEAR, FEAR of survival, [ link it to the Aug 46 Direct action day ] then repeated in Punjab post-March 47, leading to Uncertainty the period in between till Aug, for a Deception … Period

  • Great summary . I lived in Dharampura . Before May ,1947 ,life was peaceful and even in Sept 1947 when my father was returning from Lahore Cantonment in military truck ,he met his Muslim JCO who was officer on duty at the border taking care of construction and dead bodies .He cried and told my father that he went to my father’s house ,but looters had taken everything except my furniture .He ordered the gate to be opened but police wanted to search my father and the truck . But the military officer was firm and the police man opened the gate .
    My ancestral home is Bannu where Badshah Khan ji influence meant that Hindus Sikhs stayed on until December 1947.. My grandmother was not harmed including my aunts etc .My father ‘s Pathan friend took care .Their train was attacked in Punjab but Gurkha soldiers fought back .
    Why NWFP was peaceful ? I think politicians /magistrate/Police started Cleansing with Rawalpindi followed by Lahore Shahalmi fire that I saw from the roof at age 10.

  • Nehru visited Lahore with Sachar in July 1947 . He assured Hindus to stay on as new countries will protect minorities .Even Nehru signed an agreement with Liaquat Ali Khan on sept 2,1947 for peaceful migration, but violence escalated .
    People in power were following different orders .
    Badshah Khan said “Congress by accepting Partition has thrown him in front of Wolves “.
    Mountbatten and our leaders should have developed a gradual plan to permit safe migration of millions of Punjabis .
    Look at NWFP migration or Bengal migration . Killings was less after partition .

    We were in transit to Delhi from
    Lahore and it took us 2 months to reach there as the transportation system was jammed up even for my father who was an officer in Royal Engineers .Military trucks were too busy and railways could not handle so many people.
    In oct 1947 I did not see any violence in Delhi but saw thousands of refugees in kurukshetra camp waiting for travel Our leaders were naive and left millions die

  • Hindus Sikhs Muslims lived together peacefully .
    All of a sudden violence emerged in Lahore with Shah almi Fire . People like Magistrate Cheema with police help overtook law and order.
    Nehru was surprised as he had not planned for safety of minorities in Lahore etc .. Bannu was peaceful till
    Dec. 1947 .
    We lived together for generations and in USA we live together now peacefully and enjoy each other functions and culture especially music .
    So killings was due to acceleration of forced migration that Nehru failed to recognize .
    My family moved from
    Bannu in November 1947 when military was guarding the trains .
    Military planning should have been done adequately and then Independence Day and Partition should have been announced .
    Mounbatten rushed and left Nehru and Jinnah to figure it out .
    Well how could millions be moved with inadequate transportation with full safety .
    British are responsible for rushing a major decision of partition .

  • Above absolutely truthful comments by Minhas Ji and Satinder Ji are most worthy of reflection and even more so in the light of the subcontinent’s great advocate for human rights, Mrs Asma Jahangir’s unexpected passing. Mountbatten’s rush to resume his naval career and consequently his pushing through the partition with hardly any preparation in place, caused this tragedy. Mr. Jinnah’s religion based inflammatory rhetoric from 1940 onwards culminating in his call for “Direct Action” added fuel to the British set fire of divide and rule. Evildoers who organized the killing of innocent millions were of course on both sides. At least at the top on India’s side Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru never ever esposed violence in any form unlike Mr. Jinnah whose Aug 11 speech came too late & which he did not implement. Violence instigated from one side is bound to draw retaliatory reaction leading to the muder of innocent millions.

  • My father belonged to Doda village of erstwhile Sargodha district. He was saved by his Muslim neighbour who hid him in Tandoor when goons came to kill the Hindus. My father had already send his family to sargodha camp believing that when violence would be over he would bring them back to Doda. But unfortunately the goons arrived from another village and started killing all the Hindus. It is then that his neighbour hid him in Tandoor. At night he put a burqa on him and escorted him to the Sargodha camp. My father was never bitter about Muslims. He expired in 2000. Till the last moment he used to read only Urdu newspapers.

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