The ‘bloody’ Punjab partition by Ishtiaq Ahmed

Published in Pakistan Daily Times in a series.

The bloody Punjab partition — I — Ishtiaq Ahmed

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I am not a hagiographer of any idol, icon or saint. Hagiography is reverential homage to a cult figure, irrespective of what he has said and done

Mr Yasser Latif Hamdani’s comments on my book, The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed (Oxford University Press, 2012) published in Daily Times on June 16, 2012 belittle and scandalise my work. He writes: “For all his barely concealed contempt for Jinnah, the Muslim League and the Pakistan demand, the central thrust of Ishtiaq Ahmed’s argument is that the tragedy of hundreds of thousands being butchered happened after Congress insisted (my emphasis) — and the Sikhs leaders supported (my emphasis) the Congress on that — on partitioning Punjab.”

A more misleading description of what I have done and demonstrated in my book cannot be imagined. I have argued just the opposite: the Sikhs demanded and the Congress belatedly supported them on the partitioning of Punjab. He has tried to occupy the high pedestal of a devotee of Jinnah, a defender of the Two-Nation Theory, a guardian of Pakistan, as if there is a dearth of Pakistani equivalents of Knight Templars.

Mind you, Hamdani’s charge sheet is not based on what I have written in the Punjab book, because nowhere has he shown this in his article. It derives from his general opinion about me.

In India, scores of scathingly critical works on Gandhi and Nehru have been published. Much to the chagrin of the Congress Party, some prominent Indians have recently in their books praised Jinnah to the skies and condemned Nehru and Gandhi. It is testimony to the strength of their political culture and the resilience of their political system. People who have played a prominent role in history will always be an object of scrutiny. Only fascist, fundamentalist and totalitarian systems are based on the cult of infallible leaders. These systems suppress free discussion and debate but they cannot do it forever. This we all know.

A review of my book by Mr Imran Kureshi was published in Daily Times on March 21, 2012. In that he had concluded just the opposite of what Hamdani alleges. Reviews of my book have been published in the many leading dailies and other publications too. In one daily, a discussion on it has taken place over several weeks. In an Urdu-language weekly, and some dailies, reviews have appeared too. They are unanimous in appreciation of my objectivity, strict impartiality and scholarly responsibility.

Through painstaking, unprecedented research, heavily documented by official documents, newspapers and hundreds of eyewitness accounts, I have shown that after the Muslim League demanded the creation of separate Muslim states in its Lahore Resolution of March 23, 1940, the Punjab Sikhs began to demand a partition of Punjab.

On the other hand, the Congress wanted a united India, and struggled for it from December 1929 onwards when it gave such a call in its famous Lahore session. Its leaders and cadres filled British jails for years. The May 1946 Cabinet Mission Plan was fraught with risks the Congress was not willing to take, notably one that every 10 years, the three groups of A, B and C could choose to opt out of the federation or even individual provinces could do so. Two, the fourth group outside them, the princely states could establish direct relations with external powers. It could mean the British being invited to remain with troops in those princely states; thus going out by one door and returning by another.

Regarding a consociational arrangement between the Congress and the Muslim League, it was a non-starter from the outset. Whatever ‘trust’ hitherto existed between the Congress and Muslim League rapidly depleted after the 1937 election. For the consociational model to succeed, a number of preconditions have to be fulfilled. Of these, the most pivotal is a high degree of cooperation between different communal leaders to counteract separatist tendencies. That precondition was conspicuous by its absence from Indian politics since March 1940. At most a coalition government could have been formed. It was tried when an interim government was formed on September 2, 1946. The antagonism that marked relations between the Congress and the Muslim League ministers is too well known to deserve elaboration. Therefore, a consociational government was out of the question.

With regard to Punjab, an even more crucial fact to be noted is that the Akali Sikhs and the Indian National Congress were estranged parties in Punjab until as late as 1945. During the Quit India Movement of 1942, their differences became even wider, because while the Congress wanted the British to leave India, the Sikhs who were employed in disproportionally large numbers in the Indian army were against it. The Congress’ support came for the partition of Punjab only on March 8, 1947.

Consequently, the research puzzle the book seeks to solve is the following: why did the Sikhs, who were essentially a Punjabi group with their religion and history rooted in Punjab, opt for the partition of the province? What strategic mistakes did the Muslim League and Jinnah commit that the Sikhs did not join forces with them and kept Punjab united? A united Punjab — even if India were partitioned — would have served Sikh interests optimally. These questions I will address in my column next Sunday.

In my book, I criticise Gandhi and Nehru where I believe they were in error. I duly acknowledge that Jinnah made a number of attempts to win over the Sikhs but such efforts came too late. I have shown that Sardar Patel was involved in financing bomb factories. He told the Sikhs, “Qatal kar do” (Kill them [Muslims]). He told the Hindus of Jullundur to kill and drive out Muslims, thus reversing Jawaharlal Nehru’s instruction given to them a few days earlier to protect the Muslims. I have quoted Begum Shahnawaz who has asserted that Nehru’s personal intervention in Batala in August-September 1947 prevented a slaughter of Muslims by armed Sikh jathas (groups). Mahatma Gandhi saved thousands of Muslims in Delhi in September 1947.

As a scholar, my only responsibility is to conduct open research, devise a replicable method and make theoretical inputs that any other researcher can apply to the source material and decide if what I say is plausible or not. I am not a hagiographer of any idol, icon or saint. Hagiography is reverential homage to a cult figure, irrespective of what he has said and done. Most works of Pakistani authors on Jinnah are hagiographical. Scholarly analysis that looks at his role in history in an analytical manner is necessary to restore him to the world of human beings with all the strengths and weaknesses of human beings.

(To be continued

The writer has a PhD from Stockholm University. He is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University. He is also Honorary Senior Fellow of the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. His latest publication is The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed: Unravelling the 1947 Tragedy through Secret British Reports and First-Person Accounts (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2012; New Delhi: Rupa Books, 2011). He can be reached at billumian@gmail.com

The bloody Punjab partition — II — Ishtiaq Ahmed

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The thesis can be formulated in the following words as well: the partition of India was a necessary but not a sufficient basis for the partition of Punjab

The thesis I have established in my book, The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed (Oxford University Press 2012, Rupa Publications, 2011) is the following: if India had not been partitioned, Punjab would not have been partitioned. The Punjab partition took place because the Muslim League and the Sikhs could not agree on keeping Punjab united.

I, however, do not suggest that if India were partitioned, Punjab must also be partitioned. There is no logical necessity or inevitability involved in the two outcomes though without the first the second would not occur. The thesis can be formulated in the following words as well: the partition of India was a necessary but not a sufficient basis for the partition of Punjab. For it to happen we need to focus on the political dynamics underway in Punjab at that time.

Consequently, in my book, the partition of India is discussed to the extent it impinged on the politics of Punjab. It is not the main focus of the investigation but it is most certainly the necessary link to explain what happened in Punjab. The dynamics of the Punjab partition are analysed in depth and in great detail with the help of source material that includes the Punjab governors’ fortnightly secret reports from 1936 to when the rule ended in 1947; newspapers, especially for the period January 1947 onwards; more than 200 interviews with witnesses, survivors of attacks and perpetrators of violence. I have used the secret fortnightly reports of the Punjab chief secretaries to a much lesser extent because both these fortnightly reports cover the same issues. The advantage of using the governors’ reports is that they represent the observations of the main British officer in charge of Punjab. I have also used police reports for details on specific incidents.

Government reports did not cover all events. I have shown that in many cases incidents that have been very significant to the Punjab situation are not reported. The police reports are also not enough. Officialdom tends to report conservatively and can even remain quiet on many events because of the biases of those collecting data as well as the authorities not wanting to expose their own failures in quelling violence. Consequently, the evidence given by those who were there when things happened in the fateful period when Punjab was bloodied and partitioned and cleansed was collected. I travelled throughout the length and breadth of the Pakistani Punjab and the Indian Punjab, going to remote villages, talking to people who remembered anything from those days. It cannot be ruled out that the interviewees could have distorted the facts or confused them because of the enormous time gap since 1947. I had to choose those interviews I judged were reliable.

For the events taking place in Delhi and the United Kingdom, I have used the 12 volumes of the Transfer of Power that the British government prepared. I have also used secondary sources to put together the all-India context of the partition of Punjab and of Punjab as well.

The Sikhs demanded the partition of Punjab almost as a knee-jerk reaction to the Muslim League demanding in March 1940 the creation of Muslim states in the Muslim-majority northeastern and northwestern zones of India. The first name given to it was Sikhistan and also Khalistan, which in the 1980s became their slogan. However, unlike the Muslims who did have majorities in those two zones of the subcontinent, the Sikhs did not have a majority in any of the 29 districts of united Punjab. Moreover, they were only 13.2 percent of the Punjab population.

Consequently, if the Sikhs wanted to have a Sikh state, they initially needed allies who could support them to achieve the partition of India. However, at that time the Congress High Command and the Punjab Congress both were committed to keeping India united as well as Punjab and Bengal. At that time, the ‘consociational’ model of power sharing developed by the Punjab Unionist Party provided stability and peace in Punjab. The Unionist Party was opposed both to the partition of India and of Punjab. The Muslim League wanted to have the whole of Punjab in a Pakistan created out of the partition of India.

The last premier of united Punjab and leader of the Unionist Party, Sir Khizr Hayat Khan Tiwana, proposed that irrespective of whether India was partitioned or not, Punjab should seek separate membership in the British Commonwealth as a dominion in its own right. That proposal suited neither the Congress nor the Muslim League, not even the British.

Since the Sikhs and not the Punjabi Hindus made the demand for the partition of Punjab, the puzzle why the Muslim League and the Sikh leaders failed to agree to keep the province united has to be solved. This is the main concern of my investigation.

By rejecting the Cabinet Mission Plan of May 15, 1946, the Congress was prepared to pay the price in terms of a partitioned India to consolidate India as a cohesive and unified state, albeit reduced in size so that Pakistan as demanded by the Muslim League could emerge as a separate Muslim-majority state. On March 8, 1947, the Congress decided to support the Sikhs on the partition of Punjab as a means to checkmate Punjab as a whole going to Pakistan. A united Bengal was also out of the question for the same reason in the aftermath of the Great Calcutta Killing of August 1946.

It is most interesting that in July 1947, the counsel for the Muslim League, Sir Muhammad Zafrullah Khan, pleaded before the Punjab Boundary Commission that defence and security requirements were such that that the border in the Punjab should be drawn on the Sutlej — away from Lahore. The same logic informed the Congress strategy on partition — that is, to keep the border as far away from Delhi as possible — both in Punjab (and by the same token in Bengal too). All this is systematically presented in my book.

The bloody Punjab partition — III — Ishtiaq Ahmed

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The arch-imperialist Winston Churchill was dead set against the freedom of India but in 1946, he was sitting on the opposition benches in the House of Commons

The 1945-46 election was fought on clear-cut contrasting stands on the future of India: the Muslim League sought a mandate to create Pakistan through a partition of India and the Congress stood for a united India. Both received thundering support from their voters — from Muslims by the former and general voters by the latter. At that time, only 11 percent Indians had the right to vote. Protracted but deadlocked negotiations brokered by three ministers of the British Cabinet, the Secretary of State, Lord Pethick-Lawrence, Sir Stafford Cripps and Mr A V Alexander culminated in constitutional proposals being made then. Those proposals came to be known as the Cabinet Mission Plan of May 15, 1946. Lord Pethick-Lawrence has put on record, “We were at once confronted with an obstacle…The Muslim League claimed that British India should be divided into two completely separate sovereign States, and refused to take part in constitution-making unless their claim was conceded in advance. Congress insisted on one single India” (Transfer of Power, vol. VII, page 592).

The Cabinet Mission Plan rejected the idea of a separate, sovereign and independent Pakistan because it would include 30-40 percent non-Muslim populations as well as leave 20 million Muslims in India. Equally, a smaller Pakistan from which the non-Muslim areas were taken away would leave the Sikhs in substantial numbers in the two Punjabs that would emerge. It also made this cryptic remark, “Paramountcy can neither be retained by the British Crown nor transferred to the new Government…The precise form which their (the States) co-operation will take must be a matter of negotiation… and it is by no means follows that it will be identical for all the States” (Transfer of Power, volume VII, page 586). The Cabinet Mission Plan made the following main recommendations:

A Union of India, embracing both British India and the princely states, which should deal with foreign affairs, defence and communications and have the power to raise finances required for those three areas of government activity.

All other areas of policy would be delegated to the provinces.

The princely states would retain all powers other than those ceded to the union.

The constitutions of the Union and of the Groups should contain a provision whereby any Province could, by a majority vote of its Legislative Assembly, call for reconsideration of the terms of the constitution after an initial period of 10 years and at 10 years intervals thereafter (Transfer of Power, volume VII, page 587).

Yasser Latif Hamdani has relied on Ayesha Jalal to assert that the Cabinet Mission Plan did not provide for secession every 10 years. He has not himself cited or quoted from the Cabinet Mission Plan. Jinnah, however, interpreted it exactly to mean the secession option. He personally sent the Muslim League resolution of June 6, 1946 to Viceroy Lord Wavell, which accepts the Cabinet Mission Plan but only most reluctantly and as a temporary retreat from the demand for a sovereign, independent Pakistan. It was clearly stated, “That notwithstanding the affront to Muslim sentiments by the injudicious words in the preamble of the Statement of the Cabinet Mission, the Muslim League, having regard to the grave issues involved, and prompted by its earnest desire for a peaceful solution, if possible, of the Indian constitutional problem, and inasmuch as the foundation of Pakistan are inherent in the Mission’s plan by virtue of the compulsory grouping of the six Muslim Provinces in Sections B and C, is willing to co-operate with the constitution-making machinery in the scheme outlined by the Mission, in the hope that it would ultimately result in the establishment of complete sovereign Pakistan, and in the consummation of the goal of independence for the major nations of Muslims and Hindus, and all the other people inhabiting the vast subcontinent. It is for these reasons that the Muslim League is accepting the scheme, and will join the constitution-making body, and it will keep in view the opportunity and right to secession of Provinces or groups from the Union, which have been provided in the Mission’s plan by implication” (Transfer of Power, volume VII, pages 837-8).

I have derived all the above material directly from the relevant volume of the Transfer of Power but it can also be accessed from the Statements and Messages of the Quaid-e-Azam, volume IV, compiled by Khurshid Yusufi, Bazm-e-Iqbal, Lahore. Mr Sudhir Singh brought Khurshid Yusufi’s compilation to my notice.

I need not labour the point that the Congress rejected the Cabinet Mission Plan because of diametrically opposite reasons. It did not want to enter into a union that envisaged a weak centre, created confusion about the implications of paramountcy not being transferred to the union government in relation to the princely states, and opened a door for the dissolution of the union either by the three groups or by individual provinces. The Muslim League’s June 6, 1946 resolution left no doubt about what its leaders were thinking on this matter.

Let me in passing mention that even when on July 18, 1947, in the India Independence Act that was announced by the British government, the language and terminology that was used to describe India and Pakistan was a confusing one. They were called as ‘two independent Dominions’. The arch-imperialist Winston Churchill was dead set against the freedom of India but in 1946, he was sitting on the opposition benches in the House of Commons. He insisted it should be called as the ‘Indian Dominions Bill, 1947’ (The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed), but Clement Attlee chose two independent Dominions — a notion that left the relationship with Britain ambiguous. The Labour government of Clement Attlee was under intense pressure from the United States to grant India freedom. Such interactions were taking place in the context of extreme volatility and uncertainty surrounding the decline of Britain and the rise of the United States.

The ‘bloody’ Punjab partition — IV —Ishtiaq Ahmed

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The fundamental premise underpinning my book, The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed, is that if there was no partition of India there would be no partition of Punjab, but, equally, it does not mean that if India were divided so must Punjab. I shall be identifying in the next few articles the context in which Punjab gradually slid towards partition.

When the British annexed Punjab in 1849, it was in a state of extreme dilapidation because of 10 years of warfare among the Sikhs following the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1839. The British were fully cognizant of the strategic importance of Punjab in the Great Game purporting to keep the Russians out of Central Asia and Afghanistan. After the October 1917 Russian Revolution, the importance of Punjab as a frontline province increased dramatically.

The British were very keen to win the loyalty of Punjabis and adopted measures accordingly. The biggest land irrigation network in the world was laid out and a number of canal colonies were developed in western and central Punjab where the best cultivators among Punjabis — Sikhs, Jatts and Muslim Arains, and other groups such as Gujjars and Rajputs too were granted land. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people from the overpopulated eastern districts shifted to the western districts. Retired army personnel and civil servants were also granted land in the canal colonies.

Hindu and Sikh Khatris and Aroras, often related to one another through family ties, made the most of the new opportunities that modern commerce and capitalism offered. They also took to modern education with enthusiasm. Muslims were averse to modern education despite the great efforts of Sir Syed and had great difficulty in participating in a capitalist economy.

The Land Alienation Act of 1901 expressed the biases of the colonial authorities in favour of the agricultural classes and against the Punjabi Hindu trading and money-lending classes because it put a stop to the non-agricultural castes acquiring land of the agricultural castes. In practice, land did change hands through informal ways.

The landlords recruited soldiers to the British Indian Army and kept the peace in their areas of influence. The so-called martial races theory ensured a steady supply of soldiers from Punjab. The Punjabis constituted almost 50 percent of the British Indian Army during World War I. On the other hand, landless peasants, artisans and the urban poor were alienated from such benefits.

In this regard, it is important to note that at the outbreak of World War I, Muslims serving in the colonial army were reluctant to fight against Ottoman Turkey, which had entered the war in alliance with the Germans. The Ottoman Sultan was considered the caliph of Islam by Sunni Muslims. The British obtained a fatwa from the head of the main sub-sect of Sunnis, the Barelvis, Maulana Ahmed Raza Khan Barelvi, to the effect that since the Ottomans were not from Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) Quraish tribe, they could not be the caliphs of Muslims. That fatwa was supported by most pirs (incumbents of Sufi shrines) of Punjab and NWFP. Thereafter, recruitment to the army continued.

Some revolutionary commotion was caused by the Ghadarites in Punjab and there was a period of radicalisation as well in the aftermath of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of April 13, 1919. There was also a spurt of Islamic revivalism in the form of the Khalifat Movement and Hijrat Movement. On the whole, Punjab remained loyal and gained the reputation of being the ‘sword arm’ of the British Raj.

In 1923, Sir Fazl-e-Husain founded the Punjab Unionist Party. It was an amazingly successful experiment in consociationalism based on ‘Punjabiyat’. A stable alliance of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs came into being. Muslim landlords and Hindu Jatt peasants constituted the leadership and support base of the Unionist Party. Sir Surinder Singh Majithia supported the Punjab Unionist Party with his Sikhs from outside. The Akali Sikhs too represented agrarian interests and were supporters of Sikhs joining the colonial army.

In the 1930s, neither Congress nor the Muslim League had any significant presence in Punjab. Sir Fazl-e-Husain introduced quotas and reservations for Muslims in some educational institutions and in government jobs. This set in motion processes that enabled Muslims to progress though Hindu and Sikh educated classes had a head start over them. Sir Fazl-e-Husain died in 1936, leaving behind a solid legacy of Punjabiyat based on ‘hands off Punjab’ policy towards the Congress and Muslim League.

His successor, Sir Sikander Hayat Khan was elected in 1937 as the first premier of Punjab under the 1935 Act. The Unionists swept the elections. In the history of Punjab, there has never been a better, more honest and more efficient elected government. Because of Sir Sikander’s efforts, Muslims constituted 73 percent of the Punjab police in the 1940s. In other branches of the administration, the Muslim component was improving gradually. All this is documented in my book. The only blot on the Sikander ministry was the police firing on the Khaksars in Lahore on March 19, 1940. It was a use of brute state force against a quixotic army of spade-bearing agitators. It caused a number of deaths and injuries.

After the 1937 election, Nehru announced the liquidation of landlordism in a future, free India as well as a mass campaign to contact Muslims. Such moves caused considerable consternation among the landlords and the Muslim League that had been badly battered in the elections. The Jinnah-Sikander Pact of 1937 was reached with a view to keeping the Congress at bay. It meant that the Muslim League could represent Muslim interests on the all-India level, Unionist Party members would join the Muslim League, but in return, the Muslim League would keep away from Punjab. Although Sikander hosted the March 1940 session of the Muslim League in Lahore, he was strictly opposed to the partition of India and Punjab.

The ‘bloody’ Punjab partition — V —Ishtiaq Ahmed

Jinnah further argued that Islamic history was testimony to the glorious treatment of minorities, and advised the Sikhs to support Pakistan 

A few words on nation and nationalism are in order to proceed with the Punjab case. In the simplest political science language, a nation is a group of people sharing a sense of belonging together and claiming a special relationship to a particular territory. The relationship to a territory is important to distinguish it from a cultural or religious group, community, a sect and so on, which also are based on shared solidarity. Nationalism is the ideology that is set forth to legitimise the claim to being a nation and the association with territory and to mobilise people behind that project.
Now, the rhetoric used to mobilise support of ‘the nation’ is also a challenge to other groups excluded from that nation, who would interpret the mobilisation ideology as a threat. More importantly, all forms of nationalism can be classified analytically into two main types: nationalism that is inclusive and is based on shared residence in the same territory, and its opposite, nationalism that is exclusive and is based on shared religion, race, ethnicity and so on.
Keeping this simple scheme of analysis in mind, we can now appreciate Mr Shakil Chaudhry’s article, ‘In defence of Dr Ishtiaq Ahmed’ (Daily Times, July 26, 2012). In that, he most perceptively identified Jinnah’s presidential address of March 22, 1940 at the Muslim League session in Lahore as the key speech, which became the leitmotif of Jinnah’s subsequent reiteration of the underlying logic on which the Two Nation Theory was premised. Thus, for example, Jinnah said: ‘To yoke together two such nations under a single state, one as a numerical minority and the other as a majority, must lead to growing discontent and final destruction of any fabric that may be so built up for the government of such a state’ (Speeches and Statements of Mr Jinnah, Volume I, Sh Muhammad Ashraf, Lahore, page 169).
From that day onwards, at no stage did he deviate from his assertions that Hindus and Muslims were two separate and irreconcilable nations. And that nations can be founded only on the basis of religion; nations are entitled to separate statehood and sovereignty; that Islam would be in danger under Congress Raj; and since Muslims were in a majority in the north-eastern and north-western zones of the subcontinent, two (later one) separate, independent states must be created to solve the communal problem in India.
According to him, Hinduism was inimical to democracy and Congress was a Hindu political party even though from its inception in 1885 its ideology, programme and manifestos were inclusive and secular. In fact, until 1909, Muslim participation in the Congress was quite significant. However, the system of separate electorates introduced for Muslims in 1909 effectively separated Muslims from other communities of India. Henceforth, they had to organise and mobilise as a separate communal group to make claims on representation in various councils and legislatures as well as for making claims to job quotas.
Nevertheless, the Nehru Report of 1928 made an explicit commitment to the following main features of a free India: one, that there shall be no state religion; two, men and women shall have equal rights as citizens; three, that there should be a federal form of government with residuary powers vested in the centre.
After Jinnah adopted the Two Nation Theory, he began to say that those Muslims who were still Congress members were either naïve or traitors to the Muslim community. These Muslims were anti-imperialists. I found out to my great surprise that in the pre-partition Punjab, anti-colonial Muslims were with the Punjab Congress. Some anti-colonial Muslims were also with minor parties such as the Communist Party, the Majlis-e-Ahrar and the Khaksar Tehrik.
Now, the fact that any division of India would inevitably entail substantial minorities being left behind in the ‘wrong’ states was something Jinnah had to reckon with. He asserted that Islam was the embodiment of democracy and Muslims had ‘democracy in their blood’. Jinnah further argued that Islamic history was testimony to the glorious treatment of minorities, and advised the Sikhs to support Pakistan.
The Khalsa Sikhs founded by the last guru, Guru Gobind Singh, who constitute the overwhelming majority of the Sikh community, did not have such a benign opinion about Muslim rule, however. The persecution of Guru Gobind Singh, his children and his devoted followers by the Mughals, is a theme that figures in their daily prayers. In many gurdwaras, paintings of the beheading of their spiritual leaders on the orders of Muslim rulers are displayed. The daily ardaas (prayer) also includes the battle chant ‘Raj kare ga Khalsa, aakee rahe na koi’ (Pious and pure Sikhs shall rule, and their enemies will be no more’). Conflict between the Sikhs and the Mughals started from the sixth Guru onwards. The first five Gurus were treated well and even rewarded with land grants and other favours by the Mughals.
Persecution of Muslims at the hands of Sikhs also has a bloody history, especially when Banda Bahadur (1670-1716), seeking revenge for the ill treatment of Guru Gobind Singh and his family, unleashed terror against innocent Muslims all over Punjab. On the other hand, after Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1799-1839) defeated the Afghan governor of Lahore and consolidated his power, he provided the most tolerant and benevolent rule. His Muslim subjects were beneficiaries of his favours as much as Hindus and Sikhs.
In the theoretical chapter of my book, The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed, I have explained that historical memory is always selective. When societies are in turmoil and gripped by uncertainty and insecurity, and violence begins to afflict them, both individuals and communities fall back on historical memory that highlights real or imagined threats and dangers posed by the enemy community. In the background of such a mixed legacy, we can now examine the main events that resulted in the partition of Punjab in August 1947.

The ‘bloody’ Punjab partition — VI — Ishtiaq Ahmed

Pre-partition Punjabis were pious and religious as well as tolerant and respectful of other faiths

Pre-partition Punjab had an excellent legacy of communal harmony. Centuries of Sufi, Gorakhnathi, Bhakti and Sikh Guru teachings had produced a wisdom based on ‘live and let live’. Folk Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism were about spiritualism and personal moral conduct. Pre-partition Punjabis were pious and religious as well as tolerant and respectful of other faiths. Hussaini Brahmins, the Radha Swamis, comprising Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs who believed in no religious dogma but drew inspiration from Bhagat Kabir, Guru Nanak, Bulleh Shah and other humanists; Hindus and Sikhs who were enrolled in the Chishtia and Qadriyya Sufi Orders; and Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs who took part in each other’s religious festivals –all were part of the Punjabi cultural-spiritual landscape. This is documented in my book. No doubt the deplorable caste system and the Islam-kufr dichotomy were always there as dogmas, but Punjabi syncretism was robust and pervasive.

The 20th century witnessed religious revivals in the three communities: Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. Such revivals not only created dissension within these three communities as new theological schools emerged, but also between them. It was in the urban areas that such new tensions emerged in the 20th century. First, an ugly Hindu-Muslim confrontation took place in the wake of the publication of the highly provocative Rangeela Rasul (The Colourful Prophet) pamphlet in 1926 by Rajpal. It resulted in the murder of the publisher and the conviction and hanging of the assassin, Ilam Din, in 1929.

In 1935, the Muslims and Sikhs of Lahore were drawn into the notorious Masjid-Gurudwara Shahidganj dispute. Besides tense courtroom scenes, violence crept into the conflict. Both communities claimed ownership of that sacred place, which at that time was in Sikh possession. The Muslims claimed that it had originally been a mosque. The agitation was started by Muslims. The Sikhs were outnumbered as Lahore was an overwhelmingly Muslim-majority city (more than 64 percent) while the Sikh population of the city was five percent only. A number of deaths took place. The Sikhs became increasingly fearful of Muslim majoritarian domination. The Lahore High Court confirmed the Sikh claims to that disputed place. It was received with great resentment by the Muslims.

We need to consider events transpiring on the national level that inevitably impinged on Punjab. By resigning their ministries in September 1939 to protest India being committed to World War II by the British without consulting the elected representatives of the Indian people, the Congress leadership displayed an utter lack of realism. The lack of cooperation by Congress in their hour of need meant the British looked to others for support. Jinnah described the end of the Congress ministries as the Day of Deliverance.

When the Lahore Resolution was adopted in 1940, considerable anxiety could be noted in Punjabi Hindu and Sikh circles. The Sikh leaders were determined to oppose the partition of India tooth and nail and immediately afterwards their leaders began to peddle ideas of Sikhistan while the Hindu Mahasabha and RSS, minor players in Punjab politics, were invigorated too. They had evolved a Hindu version of the Two Nation Theory, directed against Muslims. The Congress, which believed in the One Nation Theory based on inclusive criteria and secularism, was at that time still a minor player in Punjab. It was the Punjab Unionist Party’s inclusive ‘Punjabiyat’ that provided stability and peace. On March 11, 1941, Sir Sikander told the Punjab Assembly: “We do not ask for freedom that there may be Muslim Raj here and Hindu Raj elsewhere. If that is what Pakistan means I will have nothing to do with it.”

When the Cripps Mission arrived in 1942 to find a constitutional solution to the communal question, the Sikhs submitted a memorandum that stated: ‘We shall resist, however, by all means the separation of the Punjab from the All-India Union. We shall never permit our homeland to be at the mercy of those who disown it’ (OUP edition of my book, page 67).

At this stage, the Congress committed a fatal blunder. Gandhi launched the Quit India movement in August 1942 with a view to driving the British out. Viceroy Lord Linlithgow retaliated with great ferocity. Arrests, public whippings and long prison sentences were meted out and the movement collapsed. In Punjab, the Quit India movement did not make much impression; the few Congress leaders and cadres were incarcerated, while most of Punjab remained loyal to the British. On the all-India level, the whole Congress leadership was sent to jail and remained there till the summer of 1945.

Jinnah offered his hand of cooperation to the British. It helped recruiting soldiers into the army. In Punjab especially, this was very useful. The martial races theory was set aside and Muslims from urban backgrounds were now welcome to join the armed forces. It was among them that the Muslim League enjoyed support.

The Punjab Unionist Party suffered a great blow when Premier Sir Sikander Hayat Khan died suddenly on December 26, 1942. His death set in motion a leadership contest, which Sir Khizr Hayat Khan Tiwana won, but just. His succession was challenged by several contenders including, Sikander Hayat’s eldest son, Sardar Shaukat Hayat. Khizr survived such challenges, but his position weakened considerably. From 1943 onwards, his opponents within the Unionist Party began to decamp and they headed towards the Muslim League.

At this juncture, Jinnah began to exert intense pressure on Tiwana to comply with the League’s Pakistan scheme, something he resisted resolutely. Tiwana was an equally firm believer in the unity of Punjab. Jinnah then expelled Tiwana from the Muslim League in 1944. In January 1945, the Unionist Party suffered another blow. Sir Chhotu Ram, the Hindu Jat leader from Ambala who had helped Sikander Hayat build up the party, died. The 1945-46 election created cumulative commotion and pressure and drove Punjab towards confrontation and conflict.

(To be continued)

 

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One thought on “The ‘bloody’ Punjab partition by Ishtiaq Ahmed

  1. Its very pity and strange they are only talking about Punjab. Why so much discrimination .and how long punjabi people make world fool.

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