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September 8, 2007

Punjab holocaust of 1947

September 8, 2007

Intelligence about private armies and sale and movement of arms and ammunition had been collected by the Punjab administration since a long time, and the fact that a very large population in Punjab had served in the army should have left no doubt that a bloodbath would occur if proper arrangements were not made to prevent it. The Sikhs could always use their kirpans as daggers. They were also better organised for the final showdown.

Governor Jenkins requested at least four divisions of troops under British command to supervise the partition, but the British government replied curtly that no such divisions existed. Mountbatten remained supremely confident that Jinnah, Nehru, Patel, Tara Singh, Giani Kartar Singh and others would exercise their influence in seeing to it that the partition of Punjab could be carried out peacefully without causing any displacement of people!

My extensive interviews with Muslim survivors from East Punjab show that almost nobody in the rural areas had any idea that Punjab will be partitioned; much less that they will have to abandon hearth and home. Hindus and Sikhs in the villages and small towns of western Punjab were equally unaware of what lay in store for them, although half a million had moved eastwards beginning from March 1947.

Conspiracy theories have surrounded the Radcliffe Award of August 17, but a serious analysis would reveal that it largely followed the "contiguous population" principle and "other factors" were only recognised partially. Thus despite Sikh and Hindu arguments about owning 75 per cent or more property in Lahore and other districts of Lahore division they were given to Pakistan including Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of Guru Nanak; so were the canal colonies of Lyallpur and Montgomery where the Sikhs owned nearly 75 per cent of rich agricultural land.

In any event, the Sikh holy city of Amritsar remained in India because Amritsar district had a non-Muslim majority. But three

tehsils of the Gurdaspur district on the eastern bank of the Ravi -- Gurdaspur, Batala and Pathankot (non-Muslim majority) -- were given to India, although the district as a whole had a very narrow Muslim majority of 51.1 per cent.

Thus the non-Muslim majority Ferozepur district in the southwest and Gurdaspur district (minus Shakargarh which was on the western bank of the Ravi and given to Pakistan) in the northeast and the Wagah-Attari region in the middle were connected to form an international border more or less equidistant between Lahore and Amritsar. From Lahore the border followed the Ravi upwards into Kashmir.

For serious scholars of the Radcliffe Award it would be interesting to note that it corresponded exactly to the Breakdown Plan which Viceroy Wavell had sent as a top secret document to London on February 7, 1946. Wavell believed that the British should pull out quickly in case of an uprising. He had proposed a border in a partitioned Punjab, which was identical to the Radcliffe Award.

From August 18 onwards hell literally broke loose, especially in East Punjab where troops from the Sikh states such as Patiala, Nabha and Faridkot were involved in the attacks. The successor governments of East and West Punjab proved thoroughly incompetent in protecting the lives of the minorities. There is abundant evidence that the administrations turned partisan on both sides. Suddenly the greatest involuntary migration in history began to take place.

The Punjab Boundary Force was disbanded on September 1 as it proved to be completely ineffective and in some cases partisan. The Indian and Pakistani military then agreed to form mixed units to supervise transfer of populations. This formula worked much better and hundreds of thousands of lives could be saved, but even their best efforts proved to be grossly inadequate.

From East Punjab some six million Muslims tried to cross the border into Pakistan while some four million Hindus and Sikhs moved in the opposite direction from West Punjab. According to Sir Penderel Moon 60,000 Hindus and Sikhs were killed in West Punjab and twice as many: 120,000 Muslims in East Punjab. This estimate is too low. Justice G D Kholsa claimed that at least 500,000 died, of which 200,000 to 250,000 were Hindus and Sikhs. He admitted that more Muslims were killed in East Punjab than Hindus and Sikhs in West Punjab. Lt-General (r) Aftab Ahmad Khan who served in the Punjab Boundary Force and then in the Pakistani force that along with Indian units escorted refugee conveys across the border, claimed in a letter to me that at least 500,000 Muslims lost their lives.

I have done interviews on both sides of Punjab. There is no doubt that many more Muslims lost their lives. Between 700,000 and 800,000 Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs perished altogether. That year the monsoons were also in a bloody mood. A large number of deaths was the result of cholera, dysentery, malaria and typhoid which plagued the refugee camps and the caravans on the move.

Good people from all communities helped their neighbours and friends and even complete strangers. The Khaksars did a great job in protecting Hindus and Sikhs in Rawalpindi while in Amritsar the communists will never be forgotten for saving thousands of lives.

The Sikh hordes did not touch Muslims who crossed into Malerkotla State, but those just a few feet away from its borders were cut down without any mercy. Thanks to Guru Gobind Singh's instructions, the Muslims of Malerkotla were not to be harmed come what may in the future because the Nawab had not complied with the demands of the Mughals to arrest the Guru's minor sons who were passing through his State. Malerkotla is the only Muslim-majority town in East Punjab and elects one member of the East Punjab Assembly.

The killing units on both sides were formed by nexuses of local political bosses, police, corrupt magistrates, badmashes (criminals), fanatical religious figures and drug addicts from all the communities. The gangs excelled each other in inflicting cruelty on hapless men, women and children. Revenge, "communal honour", loot and lust were the main factors that impelled them to commit crimes against humanity. There was nothing remotely noble about their conduct. In this regard the shameful role of communal newspaper needs to be particularly condemned. They played a most vicious role in creating the mindset that demonised and dehumanised rival communities.

As far as the main leadership is concerned, we should note that a Gandhi-Jinnah peace appeal was issued as early as mid April 1947, but it did little to change the situation on the ground. Jawaharlal Nehru intervened personally to save the lives of thousands of Muslims in Batala and Jalandhar while the goondas of Sardar Patel funded bomb factories in Amritsar and elsewhere. Prime Minister Nehru and Prime Minister Liaqat Ali Khan together toured the two Punjabs in the last days of August trying to calm down the situation, but things had gone out of control.

Although Delhi was not administratively a part of Punjab its Muslims had to bear the fallout of the Punjab bloodbath. The late Dr Ishtiaq Hussain Qureshi has written what happened to thousands of desperate Muslims who pleaded to Gandhiji to save them. He promised to do his best. Dr Qureshi notes that most of them survived and concludes that Gandhiji kept his word.

The writer is professor of political science at the University of Stockholm, Sweden. Email: [email protected]