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The great summer exchange

The cataclysmic migration of 1947, which uprooted millions of people from places they had lived in for centuries, still needs to be understood

The great summer exchange

The exchange of populations which followed the transfer of power in August 1947 was one of the largest and bloodiest such migrations in recent memory. Millions left their hearths and homes, hundreds of thousands lost their lives in the process, and countless were (and still are) unaccounted for.

This great demographic shift has unfortunately not received much academic attention, and the focus has been mainly high politics and the numbers game. However, this cataclysmic event, which uprooted people from places they had lived in for centuries and made them move to a new, unknown, land full of expectations, still needs to be understood.

For example, in Pakistan the so-called ‘Muhajirs’ — people who actually suffered for the sake of Pakistan — were very different from the already resident populations of what became Pakistan. Since the areas which became Pakistan were Muslim majority, the issues here were very different from Muslim minority provinces where the threat of Hindu domination was very patent, and therefore their attitude towards a separate homeland for Muslims was also different than those coming in. Similarly, how the incoming people — the Muhajirs — were accepted and treated remains to be fully investigated.

Unfortunately, very few firsthand accounts remain on the subject of the population exchanges, and so our information is limited to official documents which are usually concerned with numbers and lack any kind of emotion. Among the primary sources we do have is the excellently written account of 1947 by the then Revenue Minister of Bahawalpur State, Sir Penderel Moon of the Indian Civil Service, which gives us a sense of how the Hindu and Sikh populations were evacuated from this princely state on the periphery, and the ways in which the incoming Muslim refugees were accommodated. What follows is a brief discussion based on Moon’s book.

Unfortunately, very few firsthand accounts remain on the subject of the population exchanges, and so our information is limited to official documents which are usually concerned with numbers and lack any kind of emotion. 

Among the states that acceded to Pakistan, Bahawalpur had the most non-Muslim subjects. Most of the Sikhs in the state had come as a result of the Sutlej Valley Project in the 1920’s and 30’s and numbered around 50,000. The Hindu population was more, numbering around 190,000 and most of them had been inhabitants of the state for several generations.

As noted by Moon, communal tensions in Bahawalpur only grew after the partition of India. Before that the tension in the Punjab had had little effect on the state except in a few places in the north eastern part near Bahawalnagar where a lot of malicious propaganda was carried out. Moon noted: “In order to spread alarm and afford colourable pretext for an exodus — since Bahawalpur had remained entirely peaceful — some Hindus started petty cases of arson in their own houses…and then made out that Muslims had done it, that their lives and property were in danger and that they must leave at once to some place of greater security.” As a result, both Moon and Gurmani, the prime minister, toured the area and assured the Hindus and Sikhs that there was no reason for alarm and that they should feel safe in the state.

By the end of August 1947, however, disturbances had erupted in Bahawalpur State. The arrival of Muslim refugees with their tale of misery and woe had incensed the local population in Bahawalnagar and led to a series of riots in the city that ended up in the massacre of over four hundred Hindus. Moon and Gurmani had driven up to Bahawalnagar from Bahawalpur city in the last week of August 1947 to ascertain the situation, going through several towns, including Hasilpur where large scale looting and massacres had taken place.

As with the rest of the Punjab, civil administration had broken down in Bahawalnagar and both the police and the army personnel were not following orders. In these circumstances, both Gurmani and Moon decided that Moon should be given “not only powers of District Magistrate but full powers of Government over the whole of the eastern half of the state i.e., Bahawalpur district.” Gurmani then returned to Bahawalpur to look after the part of the state which as yet did not appear affected by riots and looting.

Moon immediately set upon restoring law and order in Bahawalnagar and the adjoining towns and villages. His main tasks were:

  • The collection and protection of the Hindus and the evacuation of those who wished to go to India.
  • The custody of their property, or whatever remained of it.
  • The recovery of stolen property and abducted women and the arrest of as many offenders as possible.
  • The collection and safeguarding of stocks of grain, and
  • More and more as the days passed — the settlement of incoming Muslim refugees.’

As Moon describes, all the aforementioned tasks were undertaken solely through the state machinery — no help was sought or received from the government of Pakistan. The main reason behind not approaching the government of Pakistan was that the Bahawalpur government did not want to allow the Pakistani establishment to use these circumstances to create a sense of paramountcy over Bahawalpur. Moon noted: “…if we went cap in hand to Pakistan, we should be ourselves at their mercy and enable them to assert the Paramountcy of the old British-Indian government.”

Restoring order in Bahawalnagar and the surrounding areas was not an easy task, especially since most of the Hindus in the area were in a panic and wanted to leave. Therefore, Moon decided to evacuate all Hindus who wanted to leave to Hindumalkot in Bikaner State (which had acceded to India). Hindumalkot was only a few miles from the last station in Bahawalpur State, Macleodganj Road and so was a very convenient passage. However, initially the train drivers refused to take the Hindu refugees to Hindumalkot, fearing an attack by the Indian forces stationed there.

Moon has to personally travel from Macleodganj Road to Hindumalkot to allay their fears. While a number of Hindus in the district wanted to leave, many, especially those who had been resident of the state for many generations, were reluctant to leave. At that time the policy of Bahawalpur was not to encourage Hindus to leave the state.

As noted by Prime Minister Gurmani: “His Highness and his Government are anxious that they should stay and every possible effort is being made to restore confidence among them.” However, soon disturbances in Bahawalpur city in September 1947 and later in Rahimyar Khan led to the large scale evacuation of Hindus to India, which was done mostly through State resources. Moon wrote: “The process of evacuation extended over a couple of months. Altogether sixteen special trains were run and the number of persons evacuated was about sixty thousand.”

The coming of refugees from India also posed a formidable problem for the government of Bahawalpur, especially when it was trying to evacuate non-Muslims from the state and restore order. By the end of September 1947, not many refugees had arrived in Bahawalpur and those which had come were quickly allotted evacuee land on a six-month temporary basis. In the meantime, the government of Bahawalpur had also promulgated an Evacuee Property Trust Law, similar to the West Punjab Ordinance.

The refugees had proved to be quite industrious and had settled themselves in lands vacated by Hindus and Sikhs without much help from the government. By the end of October 1947, however, the government of India had begun to dump huge numbers of refugees on the border with Bahawalpur State at Macleodganj Road primarily because it was the safest route available.

As noted by Moon, the Bahawalpur government had nearly reached its limit of accommodating refugees and could not take responsibility for resettling anymore, despite attempts by the government of West Punjab in forcing them to do so. Moon wrote: “Our stand throughout was that the government of Bahawalpur, unlike that of West Punjab or the federal government of Pakistan, could not be held responsible for refugees. We had not asked for the creation of Pakistan or even been consulted about it, and therefore anything that we might do to mitigate its consequences by settling refugees within the state was purely ex gratia.”

The government of Pakistan, to the surprise of Moon, accepted this argument, in light of the fact that Bahawalpur had already accommodated about two hundred thousand refugees, and at a refugee rehabilitation conference in Lahore in early December 1947 impressed upon the provinces of Sindh and NWFP to take on more arriving refugees. However, the refugee problem in West Punjab still plagued the Pakistan government as hundreds of thousands still remained in refugee camps well into 1948.

Not only were the other provincial governments reluctant to receive any more refugees, even the refugees themselves were hesitant to move. Therefore, Governor General Jinnah declared emergency on August 27, 1948 on the grounds that the economic life of Pakistan was threatened by the mass influx of refugees and the following day all the refugees were divided among different units, with little room for negotiation. Hence, Sindh had to accept 200,000, NWFP 100,000, Balochistan Agency, Bahawalpur and Khairpur 100,000, while the Punjab had to resettle another 100,000. A sizeable number of the 100,000 allotted to the princely states and agencies thereafter were absorbed by Bahawalpur.

This short description of how and why the non-Muslim populations of Bahawalpur were evacuated, how violence erupted and the attitude of the Bahawalpur and other provincial governments towards the incoming Muslim refugees substantially complicates our understanding of the transfer of populations.

We have only recently begun to understand the events of 1947, and only more research on those tumultuous days will enable us to understand Pakistan then, and now.

One comment

  • My father had came from Hasilpur.He was 1 year old then.He came with my grandmother and buaji we do not know anything about remaining family there.can you search any reliable information.

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