In the early 1940s, when the idea of Pakistan had been well mooted and in the air, no one quite knew what it stood for. Most certainly, no one had reckoned with what it would entail if Punjab were to be partitioned along with the division of India. Then, neither the Congress, Muslim League or the Sikh Panthic parties in Punjab could have envisaged that in their zeal to mobilise vote banks, they were a few years away from one of the most horrific genocides in history.
The British administrators had more acumen. In October 1944, Sir Bertrand Glancy, the governor of undivided Punjab, noted with despair in his Fortnightly Report (FR): “No one can deny the possibility of political unrest after the end of the war, but I can think of no more alarming menace to peace, so far as Punjab is concerned, than the pursuit of the Pakistan doctrine. Any serious attempt to carry out into affect this idea in Punjab with its bare Muslim majority and its highly virile elements of non-Muslims means that we shall be heading directly towards communal disturbances of the first magnitude....’’
Glancy was among the first who foresaw the future. His successor Sir Evan Jenkins witnessed and indeed presided over, even more disturbances and saw the gory drama as it unfolded, knowing that the outgoing and once-influential British administration was utterly powerless to stop Punjab from turning into a communal inferno, which in 1947 claimed anywhere between 500,000 to 800,000 lives with many hundreds of thousands displaced once the Radcliffe Award on August 17, 1947 had demarcated the boundaries between the two new dominions, India and Pakistan and the two new states of west and east Punjab.
Ishtiaq Ahmed, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the Stockholm University, and a Punjabi Lahori himself, has chronicled these facts and must be credited with one of the most — if not the most — intensive work done on the Partition massacres and the division of Punjab.
The 700-plus pages of The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed unravels the 1947 tragedy through a series of secret British documents, including the Governor’s Fortnightly Reports (FRs) and some of the most exhaustive first person accounts of survivors who escaped from west and east Punjab with the help of their friends, most of whom belonged to the ‘other’ community.
This work of a lifetime, intricate and fascinating, reads as if the events took place just recently. Even though the treatment of the communal question is exhaustive, the incidents as they occurred in two of the worst effected districts of undivided Punjab, Lahore and Amritsar, should be considered exemplary in its details.
Ahmed has an advantage over scholars from India and Pakistan: as a holder of a Swedish passport, his access is greater. He has been able to conduct extensive interviews with victims in Pakistan and India. Included are Sikhs and Hindus who managed to get away from west Punjab and Muslims who survived the bloodbath in the east.
Ahmed revisits old but pertinent questions. Could Louis Mountbatten’s ambition to be Governor General of India and Pakistan have averted the bloodletting in that fateful monsoon of 1947? Were the Sikhs determined to ‘cleanse’ east Punjab of all Muslims so that Sikhs facing a similar fate in west Punjab could be accommodated there? Equally, did the Muslim League decide to get rid of all Hindus and Sikhs in the west so that Muhammed Ali Jinnah’s two-nation theory could be implemented on ground for an all-out Islamic state? There is good chance that Mountbatten’s decision to leave India a year in advance —August 1947 in place of the June 1948 — left no time for the administration to get its act together and save lives when civil disturbances broke out of an unprecedented scale. The Punjab Boundary Force (PBF), designed to enforce peace in the state, lasted a few weeks and proved to be totally inadequate to deal with the violence of magnitude unleashed by what Ahmed calls ‘political entrepreneurs’.
His interviews with survivors began in 1997 and continued till as late as 2011. Interestingly, as they reveal, Punjabis, who go back to their original places of birth — Muslims to east Punjab and Hindus and Sikhs to the west — receive an emotional welcome from their former tormentors, as if 1947 was just a minor blip in history. “The classic case in this regard was when the Pakistani High Commissioner to India allowed east Punjabis to come to Lahore to watch a cricket Test match in early January 1955. Thousands of Hindus and Sikhs accepted the invitation and they were received with unprecedented warmth and generosity,’’ writes Ahmed.
In another account, Dr Khushi Mohammed Khan, a Muslim who escaped the knife in the princely state of east Punjab’s Nabha in 1947 and managed to reach Pakistan, says he now spends a month in good old Nabha since he first got a visa to visit India in 1979.
Ahmed’s book, which boasts of a distinguished bibliography, is in many ways an ode to Punjabiat. A must read for those interested in Partition to understand how communities who live side by side for hundreds of years can suddenly, within a matter of weeks, become implacable enemies.