Col J P Singh
Partition is one of the bloodiest episode of sub-continental history. It is central to the identity in the Indian subcontinent, as the Holocaust is to the identity among Jews. Partitions, historically have always been painful. 1947 partition is branded painfully into our regional consciousness by memories of unimaginable horror. Radcliffe divided India like slicing a cucumber with a kitchen knife thus inflicted a deep wound which never healed. The surgical division has inflicted an everlasting negative impact on India and Pakistan. The acclaimed Pakistani historian Ayesha Jalal, calling the Partition as the central historical event in twentieth century writes, “A defining moment that is neither beginning nor end, partition continues to influence how the peoples and states of post-colonial South Asia envisage their past, present and future.”
On the evening of 14 August 1947, when Lord & Lady Mountbatten sat in the Viceroy’s Lounge in New Delhi, after finishing their day’s hectic business to watch a movie over a glass of wine, short distance away, at the bottom of Raisina Hill, in India’s Constituent Assembly, Pt. Nehru rose to make his most historic speech, “Long years ago, we made a tryst with destiny. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.” There was jubilation all over Delhi, infact, almost all over India. Unfortunately the jubilation was short lived. A little away from New Delhi, the horror was well underway. The same evening, as the British officials in Lahore set off for the railway station to reach Delhi, they walked through streets littered with dead bodies. On the platforms, they found the railway staff hosing down pools of blood. Hours earlier, a group of Hindus fleeing the city had been massacred by a Muslim mob as they sat waiting for a train. As the train pulled out of Lahore, the British saw that Punjab was ablaze, with flames rising from village after village.
In August 1947, when, after three hundred years of rule in India, the British left, they partitioned the subcontinent into two independent nations; Hindu majority Secular India and Muslim majority Islamic Pakistan. Thus began one of the greatest migrations in human history, as millions of Muslims trekked to West and East Pakistan while millions of Hindus headed in the opposite direction. Hundreds of thousands never made it. Twentieth century as a whole was the bloodiest century of the recorded history in which both the world wars were fought and territorial divisions, partitions and ethnic cleansing also occurred in this very century. In 1941, Karachi, designated the first capital of Pakistan, was 47.6 per cent Hindu. Delhi, the capital of independent India, was one-third Muslim. By the end of the decade, almost all the Hindus of Karachi fled, while two lakh Muslims fled from Delhi. By 1948, as the great migration drew to a close, the partition, which carved up British India roughly along religious and political lines, uprooted over fifteen million people. Hindus and Sikhs escaped to India; Muslims to Pakistan. Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians were left to choose where to live as minorities. The dead were difficult to count. Rough estimates range to two million. No one knows exactly how many were raped. The comparison with the Nazi death camps is not so farfetched as it may seem. The demographic changes made within months remain indelible seventy one years thence.
Punjab was the principal centre of horror. What followed there was one of the greatest human tragedies of the twentieth century. As acclaimed historian Nisid Hajari wrote in Midnight’s Furies, “Foot caravans of destitute refugees, fleeing the violence, stretched for 50 miles and more. As the peasants trudged along wearily, mounted guerrillas burst out of the tall crops that lined the road and culled them like chickens. Special refugee trains, filled to bursting, repeatedly ambushed along the way. All too often they crossed the border in funereal silence, blood seeping from under their carriage doors. Gangs of killers set whole villages aflame, hacking to death men and children and the aged while carrying off young women to be raped. Some British soldiers and journalists who had witnessed the Nazi death camps claimed Partition’s brutalities were worse. Pregnant women had their breasts cut off and babies hacked out of their bellies; infants were literally roasted on spits and eaten.”
Within months, the humanity and the landscape of South Asia had changed irrevocably. Across the Indian subcontinent, communities that had co-existed for almost a millennium attacked each other in a terrifying outbreak of sectarian violence, with Hindus and Sikhs on one side and Muslims on the other, a mutual genocide, as unexpected as it was unprecedented. In Punjab and Bengal, provinces abutting India’s borders with West and East Pakistan respectively, the carnage was especially intense, with massacres, arson, forced conversions, mass abductions and savage sexual violence. About seventy five thousand women were raped, many of them were disfigured or dismembered.
After the Second World War, Britain probably no longer had the will and the resources with which to control their greatest imperial assets. They just wanted to get out of India and get away. Hence their partition plan was messy, hasty, and clumsily planned. But their own retreat from India was well planned and fairly smooth.
‘Train to Pakistan’, a book by famous Sikh historian Khushwant Singh, on which a movie has also been made by the same name, elaborates horrors of partition. Trains full of corpses of Hindus coming from Pakistan and the returning trains with corpses of Muslims are the core of the book with many stories of horrors. In one of the story Sikhs are alleged to have ambushed a train at Sutlej Bridge to avenge killing of migrant Sikhs. In another, in Mano Majra, a border village in Punjab, over one thousand Hindu corpses were unloaded from the train and collectively burnt by the army and police which locals saw from their roof tops. They saw vultures diving at half burnt bodies amongst the howls of Jackals and barks of stray Dogs. And the corpses which came in the next train were buried because of shortage of firewood. To revenge the merciless killing of fellow Hindus, people of Mano Majra also planned an ambush of a train carrying Muslims to Pakistan at Sutlej Bridge. They tied a rope on the steel span of the bridge 20 feet above the ground horizontally. It was meant to sweep those who would be sitting on the roof top so that they fall in the River and die. And those sitting inside the train were to be shot at. When the train was about to reach the Bridge, an unknown Sikh was seen climbing the Bridge where the rope was tied. Initially he was taken to be one of the ambush party gone there to check the rope. But just when the train was to arrive, he took out his Kirpan and started cutting the rope. He was shot at but he continued cutting the rope despite being hit. Many more shots hit him. Finally he fell and the rope also snapped. The tragedy was averted. The train crossed and reached Pakistan safely. This episode is the theme of ‘Train to Pakistan’. But nothing like that happened on the other side. No reciprocity was shown by the other community. The book suffices to understand sufferings of the millions.
The horrors of partition bring out two types of significant lessons as apart as North and South Pole. Compassion of ‘love & hate’, ‘save & kill’, ‘pardon & revenge’ were seen during the partition. Tremendous sense of brotherhood and belonging to a village community and at the same time tremendous fear of being killed by the neighbor grew with which the distrust grew more and more among the friends. There was urge not to allow Hindus / Muslims to go, at the same time there was greed to grab their vacated properties. Amongst the killers, there were saviours. A small anecdote takes us to the era of Guru Govind Singhji, where Maler-Kotla, a border village, has great significance in the context of partition. This village was witness to the horrors of partition but remained peaceful and undisturbed. This village should have been in Pakistan because of its Muslim population but remained in India and has never seen any communal riots till now because Sher Mohammad Khan, the Nawab of Maler-Kotla, had shown his humanity and courage against criminality. He walked out of the court of Wazir Khan, who had ordered two young sons of Guru Govind Singh to be bricked alive. Sher Khan got Guru’s blessings for showing humanity after which Sikhs always protected Maler-Kotla.
Those who survived, their struggle didn’t end. It took them years to find their bearings and settle down at various places. Jammu, despite being closer to Punjab, didn’t have the spillover. Hence many came from Pakistan and POJK and made Jammu as their abode. Many have not yet got citizenship rights allegedly because of disputed Article 35 A, but no violence. Contrary to it, voices of cession in Kashmir are becoming violent. Let them not carry the baggage of partition too long lest it leads to one more painful partition. That will be more painful, I swear.
Col J P Singh