When Christians were partitioned in the Punjab-III

The case of some Indian Christians who eventually chose East Punjab after the Partition

Just as Samuel Martin Burke and Justice Alvin Robert Cornelius threw in their lot with West Punjab, and therefore Muslim-majority Pakistan, there were also some Indian Christians who eventually chose East Punjab and hence service with India.

A very interesting case was of Mr Harnam Das Bhanot who was of the Punjab cadre of the Indian Civil Service (ICS). Bhanot was born on January 6, 1897, in Ajnala in the Amritsar district to parents who hailed from a Hindu family who had converted to Christianity. Bhanot took his BA at Punjab University before passing the ICS examinations in 1921.

He was sent to Sidney Sussex College Cambridge for his training, and arrived in India on January 9, 1922. He served in various capacities — as assistant commissioner, deputy commissioner and then eventually commissioner — in the districts. He was made Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire in the New Years Honours List in 1942, and in 1946 was further honoured by being made the Companion of the Order of the Star of India, the senior honour associated with India, after he had served in the coveted post of chief secretary to the government of the Punjab in 1945-6. Thus, by the time of the partition of the Punjab in 1947, Bhanot was one of the most senior ICS officers in the Punjab.

When the questionnaire was circulated to ascertain the choice of the ICS officers in July 1947, it was unclear where the actual boundary between East and West Punjab might lay. So when Bhanot replied he noted that he wished to be in the province where his home tehsil of Ajnala lay. Since the Boundary Commission had yet to demarcate the boundary between the partitioned province, he was unable to give a firm reply.

Bhanot was obviously not swayed by the arguments from either side in the debate. Since he belonged to a community which was not an active participant in the partitioning of the province, he chose the side of his home. He was tied to his village and wanted to be near it. For him his home was where his birthplace was and no matter what the exigencies of partition, he did not want to live in a province, and country, which did not contain his home tehsil.

This strong connection to ‘hearth and home,’ was not a concern for Bhanot alone. Several other officers, especially in the provincial and lower services, picked sides according to the place they belonged to rather than purely communal allegiances.

When the Boundary Commission decision was announced on August 17, 1947, Ajnala fell in East Punjab and so HD Bhanot also joined East Punjab.

Another Punjab cadre ICS officer who opted for East Punjab was Antony Leocadia Fletcher. He was not from the Punjab but was from Trivandrum in South India. Born on December 12, 1909, Fletcher was educated at St Joseph’s High School in Trivandrum, followed by higher education at the universities of Madras and Nagpur. Passing the ICS examinations in 1933, he completed his probationary studies at the School of Oriental Studies at the University of London, arriving in India in October of the same year. In 1947, he was serving as a district officer in the Punjab, when he opted for East Punjab. Since he hailed from South India, perhaps the choice of East Punjab was not so hard for Fletcher. His family and ancestral home were going to be in India, and so it was perhaps an easy decision for him. However, this did not mean that he was not committed to the Punjab.

After the partition of the Punjab, Fletcher served on several important positions in East Punjab, including five stints as financial commissioner. He was also at various times, Rehabilitation Commissioner, the Jullundur Division Commissioner, and secretary of the departments of Industries, Medicine, Labour, Transport and Local Government. During his long career in the civil service, Fletcher left his mark on a number of issues and his fellow civil servants often cited stories of his professionalism and commitment.

In one case, in 1942, when Fletcher was the district and sessions judge in Gujranwala, a case came before him which involved the lands of the then premier of the Punjab, Sir Khizr Hayat Khan. The then governor of the province, Sir Bertrand Glancy, asked Fletcher to be kind to the cause of he premier, but deciding the case on its merits, Fletcher ruled against the premier of the Punjab, much to the shock of everyone! Suffice it to say, the premier was not pleased and never forgot the insult. Nor did he ever meet Fletcher again.

In another incident, a member of the Punjab Assembly, Karamat Ali, had abducted two girls from Gujranwala. The father of the girls approached Fletcher as district and sessions judge, and he immediately gave orders to the superintendent of police, Masood Aziz, to recover the girls and arrest Karamat Ali, orders which were carried out forthwith.

Even after partition, stories regarding Fletcher sahib, and he was then widely known as, abounded. In one case, when the chief minister of East Punjab found him not in his office at 9am, he is reported to have remarked: “Sir, I am a British ICS officer and the British timings were 10am to 4pm. I am habitual of that and old habits die hard.” The chief minister then got the hint, smiled, and left. Another anecdote about Fletcher was that once a contractor approached him as financial commissioner for a payment. Seeing that there was no paper around, Fletcher wrote the order on a piece of torn newspaper, ordering that the payment be made within the next hour. Accordingly, the piece of torn newspaper was brought on the file and the amount issued.

Even during his retirement Fletcher did not stop working. In 1970, he founded the Haryana Agricultural University, of which he remained the vice chancellor till he died on December 14, 1974.

Thus, while some Indian Christians chose West Punjab, others opted for East Punjab. But in all cases they excelled and were very well respected in their fields. The partition provided them new opportunities and ways in which to serve their communities.

To be concluded.


The author is a Research Excellence Fellow at the Central European University, Budapest, Hungary. He tweets at @BangashYK and his email is: [email protected]

India-Pakistan 1947 Partition: When Christians were partitioned in the Punjab