The violence of Partition in 1947 has been estimated to have left between one million and two million people dead. While most of the violence took place outside the approximately 600 princely states that had yet to join either India or Pakistan, recent scholarship has drawn attention to large-scale killings in Jammu and Kashmir, Alwar and Bharatpur in present-day Rajasthan, Patiala and Faridkot in east Punjab and Bahawalpur in west Punjab.
In all these cases, scholars have drawn attention to the complicity of state forces in the violence.
The first part of this series focussed on massacres in Jammu, which changed the demographic balance of the region. But records show that the extent and the intensity of the atrocities in Alwar and Bharatpur states, were equal, if not worse, to those in Jammu.
The most authoritative account of the anti-Muslim violence in the two princely states has been written by Shail Mayaram, a historian and political anthropologist who has studied the Meo Muslim community. Meos live in Mewat – which was part of the erstwhile states of Alwar and Bharatpur, in present-day northern Rajasthan and southern part of current Haryana, all adjoining Delhi.
Mayaram’s 1997 monograph, Resisting Regimes: Myth, Memory and the Shaping of Muslim Identity, is based on archival research and interviews with survivors and some perpetrators of the violence.
The targeting of Meos began first in Bharatpur, in May 1947, spilling over to adjoining Alwar in June, as refugees from Bharatpur poured into that state. The violence reached a peak in August, before ending by the end of the month.
Mayaram cites an inspection report by the British Chief Commissioner based in Ajmer, who said that Bharatpur state had run completely amok. He noted, “They have got rid of all the Muslims, and consider all those in traffic as legitimate prey.” He added, “I saw corpses all around. Thirty thousand were killed. A thousand converted and the rest driven out. The property of Muslims was taken by the state and auctioned, the sale proceeds being credited to the state treasury. The Maharaja is reported to have expressed delight that no Muslim was left in the state.”
The prime minister of Alwar state, Narayan Bhaskar Khare, confirmed to the government-instituted inquiry commission that as many as “15,000 Muslims may have been slaughtered just in Alwar”. According to records, he played a determining role in the violence.
The picture that emerges from the records cited by Mayaram and other historians is of intense and systematic violence in the Mewat region, sanctioned by state administrations, often carried out by state force acting under military direction. Mostly, it was carried out by private formations of vigilantes sanctioned and supplied by senior state officials, including Hindu militias in Alwar and Bharatpur, which were 10,000-20,000 strong.
Mayaram’s interview testimonies provide chilling details of the killings.
A former military assistant to the Alwar ruler, who Mayaram interviewed in Alwar in 1993, admitted that “it had been decided to clear the state of Muslims. All the Meos from Firozpur Jhirka down, were to be cleared and sent to Pakistan, their lands taken away.” He went on to detail the “clearing up” and “cleaning up” operations (the officer called it “safaaya” or cleansing).
“Alwar was divided into four sectors under different army officers, to clear the state of Muslims.” he said.
In Tijara, a Muslim-concentrated tehsil, the Alwar army located itself on a hill, with the Meos down below in the valley. “We killed every man,” the military assistant told Mayaram. “All of them. The next four days we had to do the clearing up operation. My men and the villagers dug men’s graves, threw their bodies in.”
The culmination of the operation was the massacre at Kalapahar, north of Alwar. A second Alwar army veteran recounted to Mayaram, “Naugaowa was a large Meo stronghold. We butchered them. That was the last battle of Mewat.” The Meos had fled to Kalapahar to try to protect themselves.
“To finish them off”, the veteran noted, “we made a three-pronged attack from all sides, using the police and army. It took us more than two months, July and August during the rains to clear the whole bloody area.”
He added: “Not a single Muslim was left in Alawar. In Tej Singh Singh’s rule not a single mosque remained. Alwar was the first state to clear all the Muslims. Bharatpur followed”. According to the veteran, “the two rulers used to consult each other”.
The account of the clearing and cleaning up operations was echoed by several military officers who Mayaram interviewed.
Killings were accompanied by forced conversions, and the abduction of women and girls. According to an officer Mayaram interviewed in Kaman, armed columns, on reaching Meo villages, would announce “either be killed or show a white flag and convert, become Hindus”. The Shuddhi Sangathans (literally, cleansing squads) of the Arya Samaj would shave the men’s heads, leaving a top knot and making them eat a piece of pork. They were made to recite the Hindu gayatri mantra and take an oath on sacred water drawn from the Ganga. “The Quran had to be put into the flames,” he said.
Alwar’s Prime Minister Khare claimed that shuddi sanghathans, converted about 10,000 to 12,000 Muslims to Hinduism.
After the “cleaning up” operations, entire Meo villages were auctioned and the land allotted to Hindu and Sikh refugees coming in from West Pakistan. Those Meos who did not go to Pakistan or who returned were unable to regain the land that they had lost. The Indian government decided that Meos hailing from areas in Alwar identified for the resettlement of refugees should not be restored to their original holdings but allotted land in the adjoining Tijara tehsil.
Before the massacres, the 1941 census showed that Muslims had made up 26% of the population in Alwar and 19% in Bharatpur 1941. After the killings, conversions and flight, the 1951 census showed that this dropped to 6% in both states.
Method in the madness
Ian Copland, an authority on South Asia and the colonial transfer of power, has studied princely states closely. He estimates that the toll in Partition-related violence was in the vicinity of 50,000 in Alwar and Bharatpur, and 80,000 in Jammu.
Opportunistic violence accounted for only a fraction of the Muslims killings, Copland argues in his State, Community and Neighbourhood in Princely North India, c. 1900-1950. Instead, most of it was done “with icy premeditation and ruthless calculation by large, well organised, military style formations”. A large part of the motivation for the violence, it would appear, was ideological. The Hindu Mahasabha and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which had significant influence in the princely states, viewed Muslims as enemies and as foreigners, fit to be driven out. Capturing land was a factor too.
For the rest, it was reactive – rumours, often fanned by Hindu nationalist networks, amplified by a communal press, fed fears that Hindus themselves were the target.
By the spring of 1947, leaders of the Hindu Mahasabha and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh had formed the view that Muslims had to be driven out of India by force, Copland writes. Not having the wherewithal to do so themselves, they turned to friendly Hindu princes and to their extensive network of supporters in the northern states, to operationalise the plan.
Only “a handful of the northern [princely] states embraced the ethnic cleansing plans of the Mahasabha”, he says, with “a watertight case of complicity” available with respect to Alwar, Bharatpur and Jammu & Kashmir, and possibly Patiala and Faridpur.
The rulers of Alwar and Bharatpur were members of the Hindu Mahasabha and patronised Hindu organisations, such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Arya Samaj. Rajputs and members of the upper castes provided the mainstay of the support. Support also came from educated classes who had sympathisers in the police and military.
According to Copland, the smoking gun, as it were, pointing to the ethnic cleansing plan in the two states, was a circular sent out on July 8, 1947, by Prime Minister Narayan Bhaskar Khare, under Alwar ruler Tej Singh’s name, to Hindu leaders and rulers and officials of other princely Hindu states. It related to a convention in Delhi, the purpose of which was to “restore Hindu Rashtra” after the transfer of power.
Khare, formerly the Congress premier of Central Provinces, had, after his expulsion from the party, joined the Hindu Mahasabha. In April 1947 he took over as Alwar state’s prime minister, also as advisor to Bharatpur state. He would write later in his autobiography, My Political Memoirs, “Today there is not a single Muslim in the whole of the Alwar state…In this way the Meo problem in the state, which was troubling the state for several centuries has been solved…”
Historians also point to systematic preparations. Bharatpur state secretly set up factories for weapons and munitions, much of which would end up in the hands of rogue militias linked to the Mahasabha and the Sangh. Most of the national press turned a blind eye to these developments. An exception was People’s Age, a left-leaning newspaper, that reported the discovery of an armaments factory at the Bharatpur Police headquarter and the fort. An arsenal with rifles, sten, tommy and bren guns, hand grenades and cases of revolvers was intended for further deployment to the Jats of Alwar, Bharatpur, Mathura and Gurgaon, organised by senior officers of the state and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
Most vigilante groups were able to carry out the attacks due to the protection and support of the princely states. Hari Singh of Kashmir was allegedly seen with truck loads of arms and fired the first shot at the Jammu refugee camp. Copland says that Brijendra Singh of Bharatpur was observed witnessing massacres of Meos at Kumbar and Deeg.
Following Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination in January 1948 and reports that Alwar state was involved in it, the government of India dissolved the Alwar cabinet and instituted an inquiry against its ruler. The inquiry cleared Tej Singh of complicity with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the assassination of Gandhi. Instead, it put the blame on the Meos for playing “an aggressive and militant role”. The inquiry report concluded that Meos “fomented serious communal disturbances in the latter part of 1946 and 47. Retaliation followed, and the conflict took on the form of a communal feud.”
In this cover up, the princes seem to have had strong backers. Copland says that in the Alwar state inquiry, Deputy Prime Minister Vallabhbhai Patel, who held the states portfolio, persuaded the national cabinet to pass over the issue of genocide of Muslims in the state and “to focus on the maharaja’s RSS connection, leaving the issue of their complicity in the murder of Muslims to emerge incidentally”.
Patel characterised the Meos as “communalistic Muslim Leaguers who had forfeited the government’s consideration by engaging in a rebellion against lawful authority”. The Alwar state army officer that Mayaram interviewed, claimed that the orders for clearing Meos came from Patel, who “spoke to HH [His Highness] on the hot line. The killings of Hindus in Noakhali and Punjab had to be avenged.”
In March 1948, the national government in Delhi prevailed on the rulers of Alwar and Bharatpur, along with neighbouring Jat states of Dholpur and Karauli, to form the Matsya Union. In May 1949, after the rulers had acceded to Indian Union, they, along with other princely states in Rajputana, and Ajmer province, were gathered into the state of Rajasthan. As with the rest of the princely states, the deposed rulers were allowed to continue to use their royal titles and awarded generous lifelong, tax-free pension, for themselves and their successors. These privileges would only be abolished in 1971, after much contestation.
In independent India, none of the actors faced any consequences. Brijendra Singh, ruler of Bharatpur, and his brother, Giriraj Singh – commander of the state’s army and police, often recorded himself leading militia attacks against Meos – successfully contested parliamentary elections, as did their children later on. The Alwar ruling family too followed suit, reinventing themselves as politicians, to continue to retain their ancestral interests.
Khare, the prime minister of Alwar, also went on to be elected to the Parliament in 1952, before becoming president of the Hindu Mahasabha. In Jammu and Kashmir, rather than being investigated, Hari Singh continued to remain the titular ruler of the state until 1952. Today he has acquired the status of an icon among Hindus in Jammu.
Truth, justice, reconciliation?
In the meantime, the world forgot about the massacres.
But forgetting does not remove the problem. There is anti-minority mobilisation in constant play in areas surrounding Mewat today, in Haryana and Rajasthan, resulting often in spectacular violence, including public lynchings, deaths by burning, and other incidents of mass violence episodes.
These point to the strength in the region of “institutionalised riot systems”, in Paul Brass’s words, of Hindu nationalist organisations and actors and a repertoire for the production of violence on a regular basis. Long-lasting impunity nourishes and sustains them.
As with the Partition violence more broadly – where many communities were victims as they were perpetrators – suppressing an honest reckoning with questions of truth, justice, reparations and guarantees of non-recurrence has condemned us to repeat the cycles of violence.
Horrors were repeated soon enough in Hyderabad in 1949, during the Police Action. They have become the norm since. In the meantime, the silence has been filled by the manufactured narratives of victimhood by the very actors that have been complicit in so much of the violence.
Sajjad Hassan studies drivers and dynamics of conflicts, in the hope of finding solutions for justice, peace and diversity.
This is the second in a two-part series on violence in princely states after Independence. Read the first part here.