As India readies to celebrate its 70th Independence Day, it will, as always, gloss over the dark side of this historic moment – the violence surrounding the Partition of the country that killed lakhs. However, it might serve the country well to remember the role the administration played in widening the chasm between religious communities even after the ferocity of Partition violence had abated by late 1947.

This is important because religious prejudice still haunts the administration, as seen in the role it played during the massacre of Sikhs in 1984 and the violence against Muslims in Gujarat. This is also why the recent vigilantism of self-styled cow protection groups has become increasingly frightening, regardless of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent criticism of them.

Forced to leave

In 1947-1948, the Delhi administration conspired to either convert Muslims to Hinduism or evict them from villages in and around the national capital, besides tacitly encouraging them to leave for Pakistan. Among its tactics was to tell Muslims that the Indian government did not want them around.

This is detailed in Anis Kidwai’s autobiographical account of the months she worked in camps at the Purana Qila (or Old Fort) and Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi, which housed Muslims who had been displaced because of Partition violence. Kidwai’s In Freedom’s Shade, written with searing poignancy, provides deep insights into the trauma of Partition victims and the communal virus afflicting the Delhi administration.

It is almost certain the Delhi administration was acting on the orders of then Home Minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. In one instance at least, no less than Mahatma Gandhi found out that Patel had consented to the administration’s illegal and fraudulent action.

Kidwai was heartbroken and grieving the death of her husband, who had been killed in October 1947 after he refused to flee the town of Mussoorie, adamant on performing his duty as the town’s municipal administrator. She came down to Delhi and met Mahatma Gandhi. “To serve others is a good thing,” he said, after listening to her story. “There is no need for tears. Go, live a life of service and be happy.” Gandhi sent Kidwai to the camps set up in Delhi.

In December 1947, months after the initial fury of Partition violence had ebbed, Kidwai and Subhadra Joshi – who worked tirelessly to rehabilitate refugees from both sides of the border and was a Member of Parliament for four terms – were stunned to see a convoy of 5,000 people from Delhi’s Tihar village make its way to Humayun’s Tomb. The convoy did not convey the grim picture of people uprooted from their hearths.

Indeed, Kidwai and Joshi’s inquiry revealed that they hadn’t been attacked. They had come to Humayun’s Tomb because of a deal struck between Deputy Commissioner of Police MS Randhawa, and one Badre Alam of Tihar. Alam had handed over 13,000 bighas of land he owned in Tihar to Randhawa, his relatives and their friends, who claimed to have been deprived of the 40,000 bighas in Multan and Sindh that were now in Pakistan.

Alam was supposed to get in Pakistan the same measure of land he owned in Pakistan. The 5,000 Muslims and 2,000 Harijans (now referred to as Dalits) who lived and worked on his land were consequently ordered out, their homes and land allocated to Hindu refugees who had fled from Pakistan.

This exchange was patently illegal, as neither India nor Pakistan had agreed to land and property exchange. Both Joshi and Kidwai rushed to Mahatma Gandhi for clarification. Kidwai writes: “He [Mahatma Gandhi] said he’d find out from the administration how this exchange had been allowed. He found that the official had permission from Sardar (Vallabhbhai) Patel, the Home Minister (emphasis mine).

Unwilling to stay

Kidwai’s account indicates that there was indeed a sustained campaign by the administration to evict Muslims, as also Dalits, from Tihar.

In the weeks before they wended their way to Humayun’s tomb, Mahatma Gandhi visited Tihar to assure Muslims of their safety, as had a young Indira Gandhi. On Mahatma Gandhi’s suggestion, Joshi had even lived there for a few nights.

However, parallel to their efforts, administrative officers had visited Tihar on three different occasions in October 1947, to tell Muslims their situation was perilous. A socio-economic boycott of the community was also organised, Kidwai says in her book. Confident of having scared them, a “senior province officer” despatched a truck in December to ferry Muslims to the refugee camps. Then the news came that 2,000 Dalits too had been evicted from Tihar.

A livid Joshi asked Kidwai to drive her to Tihar. On their way, they saw a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh camp busy preparing for a massive rally in Delhi later that month. Kidwai notes that the “Maharaja of Patiala (whose principality had seen the most barbarous slaughter) was to preside. (We later learnt that Sardar Patel graced the gathering and blessed the gathered heroes.)” Kidwai said the progressives were astounded that an RSS rally had been allowed, despite Mahatma Gandhi being in Delhi and a Congress government.

Nevertheless, they reached Tihar to find Dalits languishing outside the earmarked area, which was being spruced up for its new owners under the supervision of a police inspector. The inspector informed them that he was here on the orders of his superiors and that an agricultural college was also proposed on this plot.

Shocked, Joshi went to meet Mahatma Gandhi and Kidwai to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Gandhi’s response, Kidwai said, was: “It appears that I must die now!” Nehru too was distraught, said Kidwai. “He asked, ‘But why did the villagers leave at all? My daughter and I had visited them and asked them to stay,’” she wrote. “How was he to know that his officials didn’t share his convictions? Two parallel administrations were in existence….”

Their intervention, however, led to the Dalits returning to their homes in Tihar. But not the Muslims, who refused to budge from Humayun’s Tomb. They said that since earlier assurances of safety did not deter government officials from ordering them out of Tihar, there was no guarantee that they would not be evicted again. They were frightened also because their licensed arms had been seized.

While fear and despair stalked them at the camps, a retired army lieutenant, one Hameed, a friend of Randhawa, symbolised hope. He went around the camps claiming he could organise permits for Muslims wishing to migrate to Pakistan.

As a last-ditch effort to prevent them from leaving India, a meeting was organised between Tihar villagers and Gandhi. However, a day before the meeting, Randhawa visited the camp.

Kidwai quotes him as saying to the Muslims there: “If I speak to you as a government officer, I’ll have to ask you to return to your homes. However, if I speak to you as a friend, then I can’t advise a return with confidence – conditions are far from secure.” This persuaded the Muslims that going to Pakistan was their best bet for safety, which is what they did a few months later.

All across the city

As In Freedom’s Shade tells us, what happened in Tihar was hardly an exception. For instance, Ehsan, the nambardar (village landlord assigned government functions, including policing) of Jaitpur village approached Kidwai bemoaning his clan’s fate. He said they had not done anything to deserve eviction, and asked her to confirm it from the ziledar (a village official senior to the nambardar) of Mandanpur, less than a mile away from Jaitpur.

Kidwai, along with two activists, visited ziledar Trikha Ram who said he had no animus against Jaitpur’s Muslims as they belonged to his caste and gotra (clan). Kidwai records Ram telling her: “When the government announced that no Muslim was to live in India, we told our Muslim brothers, ‘Now that it has been decided that only Hindus can live in India, why don’t you all become Hindus, so we don’t lose each other.’” Unwilling to convert, Jaitpur’s Muslims trooped out to Humayun’s Tomb after being given a teary farewell on the village outskirts.

When told the government had not made any announcement that India was for Hindus alone, Ram said he was willing to get them back. However, Ehsan turned down the offer. Kidwai notes, “Whether deriving from mistaken beliefs or a lack of trust or the possibility of a forced conversion, he (Ehsan) refused to return.”

But forced conversions did take place. In Delhi’s Mauja Ali, for instance, Muslims converted to Hinduism but also sent an SOS to a Muslim outfit pleading to be rescued. Kidwai and others visited the village. The nambardar, a Hindu, was livid, saying his community had saved Muslims even as riots had raged all around.

To this, an old Muslim retorted: “You save us?’ and burst into tears. “To keep us here, you made us eat pig!” A heated argument ensued. Mauja Ali’s Hindus asked for three days to decide whether Muslims could stay there without converting – which was eventually agreed upon.

Deepening the divide

Kidwai’s account tells us that whenever government officials managed to reach a village before activists did, the chasm between communities only widened. For instance, in two villages of Delhi’s Najafgarh, 1,100 Muslims were converted and asked to vandalise a local mosque – perhaps as proof that they would not go back to Islam. However, they wrote to the Pakistan office in Delhi, expressing their wish to migrate from India.

This truth was unearthed by Kidwai and others after a few days of sleuthing. A reconciliation process was set in motion. Kidwai beseeched Muslims to stay in the villages until the visit of freedom-fighter Vinoba Bhave.

But even before Bhave could visit Najafgarh, a Pakistani truck made repeated trips there, ferrying Muslims who wished to go to Pakistan. “Who gave the orders to press this truck into service? Kidwai asks. “The Pakistani government couldn’t have imposed its will on Delhi’s provincial government. I was so disgusted that I didn’t even bother to find out.”

There are many such examples that Kidwai narrates from the villages in and around Delhi. When she would ask Muslims in this villages who ordered them to leave their homes, they would invariably answer: the government. And when she asked Hindus why they converted Muslims, or why the latter agreed to convert, the most common refrain was: the government wanted it.

Kidwai’s stories from Partition tell us that Modi, in his customary August 15 speech, should explain to government officials why they should not allow their religion to influence their conduct. For starters, they should go beyond denouncing vigilantism in the name of cow protection and should actively crack down on the so-called gau rakshaks. But perhaps, that is asking for too much on India’s 70th Independence Day.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid.