October 2007

Vol 7 - No. 4
 

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Glimpses: Historical Perspective | October 2007

 


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Partition of Punjab
A bloody March in 1947 

BY ISHTIAQ AHMED (IDN) *

(This is the second in a series of articles with author sharing his findings on the partition of Punjab.)

The Great Calcutta Killings of August 1946 in which both Hindus and Muslims lost lives in the thousands transformed forever the nature of the Congress-Muslim League standoff from a constitutional imbroglio to a violent communal conflagration that culminated in the subcontinent bleeding, burning and partitioned in mid-August 1947. 

The first attacks on August 16 were the doings of Muslim hoodlums, but their Hindu counterparts retaliated with equal force within a day or two. South Asia’s most revolutionary city had been turned into a killing field where poor and innocent blood was spilled without let or hindrance by criminals from the underworld connected to respectable political patrons. A few days later Hindus in Noakhali, East Bengal, were attacked by Muslims and hundreds were killed. In Bombay communal clashes took place at about the same time and the Muslims were on the receiving end.

It was followed by terror let loose on the Muslim minority in Bihar in September-October 1946. Official count of deaths in Bihar was put at 3000 and later at 5000, but the Muslim League claimed that at least 8000 Muslims were killed. In Garhmuktesar, UP, Muslims were killed in the dozens though the reason for that outrage was not political.

In December 1946, Sikhs and Hindus in Hazara district of NWFP were assaulted by Muslims. Hundreds of deaths and injuries took place and looting of property was widespread. Thousands fled to the Punjab taking refuge mainly in Rawalpindi. It must be said to the full credit of the Punjab Unionist Party that all its leaders, Sir Fazle Hussain, Sir Sikander Hyat and Sir Khizr Tiwana maintained impartial government, and communal peace and harmony were hallmarks of their government. All this was about to change.

Since at least the beginning of 1946, intelligence agencies had been reporting that private armies were being recruited and trained in the Punjab. On January 24, 1947 Punjab Premier Khizr Tiwana banned the Muslim League National Guard and the Rashtriya Swayam Sewak (RSS). The same day the Muslim League’s direct action broke out.

A Muslim youth, Abdul Maalik, was killed on February 8 when a brick thrown at a Muslim League procession from a housetop in a Hindu locality of Lahore hit him. On February 24 an off duty Sikh constable was clubbed to death by a Muslim mob in Amritsar. The Punjab was now rapidly converting into a communal powder keg ready to blast any moment. Khizr resigned on March 2. On March 3 Master Tara Singh unsheathed his kirpan (sword) from the steps of the Punjab Legislative Assembly and gave the call to finish off the menace of Pakistan. That evening Sikh and Hindu Mahasabha leaders addressed huge crowds in Lahore making highly provocative speeches. Incited Hindus and Sikhs returning from the meeting killed three totally innocent Muslims when they reached their stronghold of Shahalmi Gate.

Regular communal clashes between armed gangs took place in Lahore and Amritsar on March 4. Knives, axes, long sticks and even firearms were used by both sides. In Multan on March 5 a Hindu-Sikh procession shouted anti-Pakistan slogans. It was immediately attacked by Muslims. Serious rioting followed in the next few days. Dozens of non-Muslims were killed and suffered huge loss of property.

But the most critical rioting took place in the Rawalpindi region. Rawalpindi city had almost a 50-50 per cent Muslim and Hindu-Sikh population balance, but in the district as a whole the Muslims were 80 per cent. The Sikhs were the most prosperous Sikh community in that district, while the Hindus were mainly small shopkeepers, many engaged in the jewellery business.

On March 5, Sikh-Hindu agitators began shouting anti-Pakistan slogans and were challenged by Muslims. Firearms, stabbings and arson were employed by both sides. Initially the non-Muslims felt they had been successful in driving off Muslims from the streets of Rawalpindi. In the evening of March 6, however, the direction of violence changed from the city to the villages in the district. Suddenly armed Muslims in the thousands began to raid Sikh villages. Neighbouring villages in the Attock and Jhelum districts were also surrounded. In some places the Sikhs fought back, but on the whole the conflict was one-sided.

Subsequent inquiry reports established that the attacks had been planned according to military strategy and tactics and carried out accordingly. These districts were the main recruiting ground for the British Indian Army and the government investigation found abundant evidence of Muslim ex-soldiers taking part in the attacks. Government statistics claim 2,000 dead, but Sikhs say that as many as 7,000 lost their lives. My own research, based on visits in December 2004 to some of the villages, suggest that the figure of 2,000 was too low. In some places nearly the whole Sikh and Hindu populations were wiped out. However, the deaths included the Sikhs killing their own women and children rather than letting them fall in the hands of Muslim marauders.

Additionally many Sikhs and Hindus were forcibly converted to Islam. Most of them reverted to their original faith when help arrived. Many women and children were taken away by raiders but most were later recovered. Looting and pillaging of property was the prime reason for the attacks. The raids on the Sikh villages continued for a week: from the evening of March 6 to March 12 or 13. Such villages were only an hour or two away for military trucks to reach from the city. The headquarters of the Northern Command was in Rawalpindi and there was no dearth of troops. But intervention was delayed for too long. Perhaps government preparation for controlling rioting anticipated urban trouble and that it occurred on such a large scale in rural areas surprised the administration, but my research suggests that at least locally there was some sort of conspiracy at work to let the blood-spilling go on for some time. There was an exodus in the thousands of Sikhs from Rawalpindi, Attock and Jhelum districts to the eastern districts and the Sikh princely states; some reports suggest hundreds of thousands left and never returned. It is among them that many members of future Sikh jathas (armed gangs, often on horseback) were recruited that from August 18 onwards wreaked havoc on the Muslims of East Punjab.

Meanwhile on March 8, 1947 the Congress in its Delhi session had adopted a resolution supporting the Sikh demand for a partition of the Punjab in which the predominantly non-Muslim areas should be separated from the Muslim areas and given to East Punjab.  

Part  I

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* This article was first published in the News International . The author is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), National University of Singapore on leave from the University of Stockholm. Email: isasia@nus.edu.sg.

  

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