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Eyewitness to perils of Partition

A glimpse of what Dr and Mrs Benade of FC College, living and working in carnage-stricken Lahore in 1947, observed and felt

Eyewitness to perils of Partition
The traumatic events of 1947

The stroke of the midnight hour on the night between the 14th and 15th of August 1947, signaled the creation of two new dominions out of the British Indian Empire. The “Jewel in the Crown” was being divided in two, and the British were relinquishing their most prized possession. The independence of India and Pakistan also unleashed the horrors of mass murder, rape and pillage, and in some ways, both countries are still reeling from it now.

The partition of India, and especially the partition of the Punjab, also had a deep and lasting impact on Forman Christian (FC) College, one of the premier colleges of north India. In fact, FC College competed with its twin, Government College Lahore, for being the most coveted and reputable college in the Punjab. The partition of the Punjab and the creation of India and Pakistan crucially impacted the College, which boasted a large Hindu and Sikh student and teacher population. Being a Christian missionary college its status in the new ‘Muslim homeland’ was also precarious and it was unclear what role and position it would occupy in the new dispensation.

The traumatic events of 1947 led to a severe disruption of College activities and when the College reopened in the fall of 1947 it was practically a new institution. Dr and Mrs Benade were on the staff of FC College in 1947, back from a five-year absence, and their letters to the Presbyterian Church’s Board of Foreign Mission in the United States gives us a glimpse of what a missionary couple, living and working in carnage stricken Lahore, observed and felt.

Mrs Benade wrote a letter to the Mission Board in July 1947, just before the killings began. In her letter, Mrs Benade underscored the deep gloom the looming partition had wrought on the lively city. Once called the ‘Paris of the East,’ that fateful summer of 1947, Lahore was unsure where it would fall—the population of the district was majority Muslim, but Hindus and Sikhs formed its most influential class. Regardless of the outcome, it was clear that Lahore would never be the same, and perhaps never even recover from the impending doom.

Mrs Benade wrote: “No one is exuberant over partition for in every way its cost is going to be heavy. Many of us have serious questions as to how the two fragments of India which will compose Pakistan can make their way economically, for they are almost entirely underdeveloped industrially; and so far there is little technically trained leadership or established capital in the Muslim community.” Questions over the fate of the new country, its viability, especially in the wake of the Cold War, were certainly questions no one new the answer to.

Despite the fact that Mrs Benade was a Christian missionary and a foreigner, she had a keen grasp of the political happenings of the country. In her letters, she is clear that the Muslims of India had not been treated fairly and that their fears of Hindu domination were real. However, like many other Christian leaders, she felt a united India, with full minority rights, might have been a better option.

Once called the ‘Paris of the East,’ that fateful summer of 1947, Lahore was unsure where it would fall—the population of the district was majority Muslim, but Hindus and Sikhs formed its most influential class. Regardless of the outcome, it was clear that Lahore would never be the same.

She wrote: “…we recognize that there has been real need for the Muslims to rouse themselves to improve their economic and educational status and to free many of their group from the clutches of monied interests among the Hindus. We wish however that the tactics of the Muslim League revealed less a sense of inferiority and that the party could have worked to obtain rights within the context of a whole united India as envisaged by Jawaharlal Nehru and the National Congress Party, including some of the more thoughtful Muslims.”

By July 1947, Mrs Benade could see the looming crises as its effects were already being felt. Living in Lahore she was one of the very few non-British foreign residents of the city and so her accounts and observations give a particular understanding of the events of 1947.

Interestingly, while describing the deteriorating communal situation in the city, Mrs Benade is careful to mention other reasons for the unrest aside from pure religious passion. The mixing of several reasons and conditions then set alight the holocaust which engulfed the city in the summer of 1947.

She wrote: “Lahore has been the very center of the recent struggle…The agitation caused complete disruption of the programs of schools and colleges, many of which closed for the summer two months ahead of time and all of which were closed a month early. The city has been the scene of stabbings and arson and some looting. Tension between the communities (Hindus and Sikhs against the Muslims) has been the excuse for all the destruction, but factors of personal enmity, of restless discontent on the part of demobilized but unemployed soldiers, and of a general feeling that the forces of law and order were pretty weak, are all parts of the picture…Many feel that some communal leaders were not averse to encouraging, with the promise of reward, the rough elements of the population to set off crude bombs, to murder, and to set fire to buildings.”

Since the new campus of Forman Christian College was away from the city centre, Mrs Benade noted that there was little unrest around the campus, but that people in the College were acutely aware of stabbings and looting in nearby places. The Rang Mahal High School and the Forman High School for Girls, however, were in the old city and witnessed gory scenes near them. For example, Mrs Benade notes that one day near the Rang Mahal, “…a Muslim mob in the streets was ready to do away with Mr. Rallia Ram, the headmaster of the school, thinking him to be a Hindu, but a Muslim lad took him by the hand and led him to safety saying to everyone, “He is the headmaster of my school, you mustn’t touch him.””

Mrs Benade also noted that in the Forman High School for Girls, Hindu girls had stopped coming since early spring, and that once when she was visiting the Muslim girls in the school, one of them said to her: “We think you’d better not come into the “City” again until peace is established, there is too much unrest just now.” The very next day, Mrs Benade notes, there was a stabbing near the school and that very soon the whole of the old city entered a phase of communal frenzy as “…a day or two later bombs killed several in Sabzi Mandi (Vegetable Market) past which I used to go on my way in to Mochi Gate. Then a few nights after that terrible fires were started inside Shahalmi Gate, very near our school, a very wealthy and thickly populated Hindu section.”

During the days following partition, FC College also played a critical part in refugee rehabilitation. Two residence halls, North and West halls, were transformed into a makeshift hospital with the aid of mainly American missionary doctors and nurses to aid wounded refugees. This makeshift hospital continued to work from the premises of the College till it shifted several years later to its present location on the Main Boulevard in Lahore as the United Christian Hospital, becoming one of the best modern hospitals in Pakistan.

The death and destruction witnessed by the Benades during the summer of 1947 did not dampen their missionary zeal. The scale of the holocaust of 1947 would have deterred those with the strongest of wills, but it did not break the resolve of the missionaries in the Punjab, and especially those associated with FC College.

In fact, like the Benades, most missionaries now looked forward to continuing—even expanding—their social work in the new Pakistan, with which they had high hopes—just like the millions of Muslims who had hoped for a betterment of their life in their new homeland. The Benades further noted: “We have indicated our disappointment at partition…[T]his does not mean that we cannot participate in many of the effects which will animate those whose aim is to establish Pakistan. We have some fine contacts and friendships in the members of all groups. We see no reason for these to be destroyed. Our hope is that we may strengthen them all and in the process help to reestablish the wholesome friendliness and cooperation among the groups…”

And thus Forman Christian College, its faculty ands students, resolved to play a formative role in the development of the new country, and gave it several of its leaders, in politics, business, industry and academia.

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.

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