Rarely do accounts on the Partition of India weave together narratives of victims as well as the persecutors, offering insight not just into the suffering of those who were displaced or lost their loved ones in the violence of 1947 but also into what drove thousands towards such brutality.
One such attempt was made by Dr Ishtiaq Ahmed, Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University. For his book, The Punjab: Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed (2012), Ahmed interviewed more than 350 Partition survivors and perpetrators of violence and quotes 259 of them extensively.
The book seamlessly combines the tragic tales of those who fled Pakistan and India, the revolting confessions of men who killed in cold blood, the games the British played, and the machinations of politicians and princes.
Speaking to Scroll.in from Stockholm over the phone, Dr Ahmed offers a peek into the mindsets of violent men and their victims. He also shares sensational evidence on Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s advocacy of violence as a political tool and the indifference of Muhammad Ali Jinnah to Muslims pouring into Pakistan from India. Excerpts:
You interviewed people who participated in Partition violence – they secured weapons, made bombs, and even killed people. How did they rationalise the acts of violence they had committed?
I will give you two examples of people who confessed to their involvement in Partition violence. One was Mujahid Taj Din of Temple Road, Lahore, where he used to sell naan and kulcha. He spearheaded the attack on a local gurudwara, which was ultimately reduced to ashes [in the arson]. Taj Din said he had been motivated by local police officers, who convinced him that his activities were in defence of Muslims.
In 1968, he went for the Urs [death anniversary] of Hazrat Khwaja Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi. At the Wagah border, Sikh soldiers gave him two oranges and an apple as a welcome present. In Delhi, he met a Hindu from the Anarkali area of Lahore.
The Hindu recognised him and offered his services during his stay in India. Taj Din said he was deeply touched. He said his experience in India made him feel guilty about his role in Partition violence and he asked God for forgiveness [for the crimes he had committed].
However, another gentleman from the same locality told me that Taj Din had not narrated the entire story of his involvement in Partition violence. Taj Din was also involved in an incident on August 14-August 15, 1947, when a busload of Hindu and Sikh prisoners were being taken to the Civil Lines Police Station, Lahore, for an exchange with Muslim prisoners from India.
When they reached near Temple Road, the driver pretended that the bus had broken down. All the passengers were killed. Taj Din is said to have led the attack. Therefore, it is hard to tell whether his remorse was heartfelt or that he thought it was the correct thing to say to me.
Didn’t you have any Indian confessing to having killed people during the Partition riots?There was a Sikh named Ranjit Singh alias Ajit Singh, of Nathu Majra [Sangrur district], who confessed to killing at least 3,000 Muslims.
He considered killing another human being a paap, or sin, but he justified his actions saying that he did it for his dharam and community. He said Muslims had first killed Sikhs in West Punjab, and that he had merely taken revenge.
Then there was Haji Abdul Rehman Gill, who confessed to lighting a fire that engulfed shops and houses in Lahore’s Shahalmi area. Haji had a completely different theory – though he too considered killing another human being bad, he said that had Hindus not been attacked in Lahore (and evicted from there), Muslims would not have had the chance to rise economically! He had no regrets.
Did the violence they perpetrated haunt any of them?
Taj Din did say it haunted him. His confession is partially reliable, as he concealed his role in another incident of violence, about which I have already told you.
Maybe Taj Din concealed his role out of guilt.
My sense is that those who participated in the violence did or do feel terrible about it now. But they have to justify it now for themselves. Otherwise, it could create psychological problems for them.
How did people who live around these three gentlemen look upon them?
They are local heroes. Their reputation is that they fought for their respective communities.
Your book has several tragic stories that your interviewees tell you. Did you find them still hating the communities (Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims) whose members attacked and expelled them from what used to be their homes?
Well, it depends. When it was pointed out to them that in their own stories, they spoke of other communities as being helpful and amiable, they would revise their positions. I will give you an example. I interviewed Chaudhri Roshan Din, who came to Pakistan from Adampur village in Patiala.
He said that he would feel hatred whenever he saw Sikhs visiting Pakistan. I reminded him that he had himself testified to Hindus and Sikhs helping him escape to Pakistan. He became silent.
Of course, people who suffered in Partition will feel deeply hurt. But you have to show them that it is not necessarily the only way to look at what happened during those days. They may then reflect over the past.
Also, most of them said that those days of Partition violence were very strange times, and that relationships between communities were amiable till then, though not necessarily warm. Many Muslims did feel hurt about the Hindu caste system (and its principles of purity and pollution).
Did the caste system play a big role in the divide between Hindus-Sikhs and Muslims? This fact occurs even in the narratives of some of the Partition survivors whom Indian feminist Urvashi Butalia interviewed for her book, The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India.
This was very well explained by one Som Anand whom I interviewed. He said that as long as these limits (caste taboos) were thought to have been created by god, there was no problem. But when Muslims took to going to schools and universities and acquired modern knowledge, they developed resentment against the caste practices – which were openly discriminatory.
Your book also has some inspiring tales of Muslim neighbours and friends sheltering Hindus and Sikhs and helping them leave Pakistan, and Hindus and Sikhs doing the same for Muslims in India. Did you try to analyse how and why they were able to preserve their humanity and sanity amidst the horrific bloodbath?
Partition violence was managed by politicians. They would organise the underworld, to begin with. Then you would have the local police and administration conniving in the violence that the underworld orchestrated.
Did this happen both in India and Pakistan?
Absolutely. But people [belonging to different religious communities] lived in the same mohalla, went to the same schools and colleges, and played together in the same colony. This too was a fact of social life. So even in the worst of circumstance during Partition violence, good neighbourly relationship prevailed. Even under the Nazis, there were Germans who saved many Jews.
Why was it that people were not able to build a counter-narrative to the hatred which was preached before and during Partition?
My theory is that once the Quit India movement began, and Gandhi, Nehru and the entire Congress were imprisoned, the Muslim League had a free hand to preach its idea of Pakistan. There was nobody around to counter that. And by the time they were released (in 1945-1946), it was already too late. Pakistan had become a part of the Muslim psyche.
Your book has several Hindus and Sikhs speak glowingly about the salutary role of Khaksars during Partition riots. Who were they? What made them behave so different from others?
The Khaksar was founded in 1931-1932 by Inayatullah Khan Mashriqi. He was originally from Amritsar. He was a brilliant student and studied at Cambridge University. He was also impressed by the Nazis, and was attracted to fascist kind of organisations.
When he returned to India, he joined the education department for a few years. Thereafter, he resigned and began to organise Muslims for his own party – the Khaksars. They were ambivalent about the method to be pursued to drive out the British from India. At times, they supported the Congress, but they were mostly opposed to the Muslim League. They believed the Congress represented a broad anti-British front. They looked upon the Muslim League as a group of toadies.
I met two Sikhs – Madan Lal Singh and Arjun Singh – for my book, and they testified that when Partition violence was underway, the Khaksars did what they could to save Hindus and Sikhs.
Their deeds were confirmed to me in Rawalpindi as well. This was because of their leader, Ashraf Khan, who was committed to the idea of communal amity. On the other hand, Taj Din was also a Khaksar and he participated in Partition violence. I think the Khaksar movement of Rawalpindi had this [non-communal] character.
Your book also praises the communists for the very positive role during Partition violence in east and west Punjab.
Yes. There was Bawa Ghansham who saved hundreds of Muslims. When I went to Amritsar, I found he was a legend, as he is also among Amritsari Pathans who moved to Lahore.
In fact, once the violence began, the only political party engaged in saving lives, both in Pakistan and India, was the Communist Party. Apart from the Khaksars and the communists, the only other group which was engaged in saving people was the Ahrar in Gujranwala and Sheikhpura [in Lahore Division].
Your book depicts the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Muslim League National Guards, and Akali leaders playing an active role in perpetrating violence. Was it their ideology which determined their behaviour?
Absolutely, the ideologies of all these three organisations propounded exclusivist religious nationalism. These groups, as such, are more prone to using violence and justifying it. This is because their ideologies demonise others. You have to first demonise people before you dehumanise and kill them.
Did you interview activists of these three organisations?
I did talk to some National Guards. They were willing to speak but did want to go on record. I, therefore, did not interview them. I did include an interview of a dear friend who was once a federal minister. His interview was regarding an attack on a train that was ordered by the Prime Minister’s Office – that is, Liaqat Ali Khan’s office. He gave an account that involved the slaughter of a train full of people.
Are you referring to the Kamoki train assault? Your friend couldn’t have participated in the attack, could he?
Oh no, he was just a kid then. His father was a member of the Pakistani team negotiating with the Indian team in Delhi. His father felt threatened and decided to bring his family to Pakistan. When they were on their way to Rawalpindi, where my friend’s father was to resume his duty, they saw the slaughter at Kamoki.
Did you get in touch with the RSS?
No, I didn’t. Had I gone to the RSS people, my project would have been exposed and I would have got into problems. You see, I didn’t have a research visa to come to India. I used to come to India on a tourist visa.
What about the Akalis?
I did interview a number of them.
Your book shows that the royal family of Patiala played a big role in killing and chasing Muslims out of India. Could you define the extent of Patiala’s role?
I have given ample evidence in the book. The evidence I present is based on Ian Copland’s work. He is an Australian professor whose work is path-breaking. He shows that the main players who conspired to drive out Muslims from East Punjab were Master Tara Singh and the Maharaja of Patiala. [Ishtiaq Ahmad’s book provides ample eyewitness accounts to uphold Copland’s claims.]
Your book also incriminates India’s Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in Partition violence.
I can cite evidence from three people who spoke of Sardar Patel’s involvement in Partition riots.
There is the testimony of Giani Mahinder Singh, who was a fairly senior Akali leader. I met him at his home in Amritsar. He gave me a paper recording his testimony.
It said that on August 12, 1947, because it was becoming difficult for Sikhs to live in Lahore, Giani Mahinder and others went to Delhi to talk to Baldev Singh, who was a member of the interim government.
Baldev Singh took Giani Mahinder to Patel, who was lying on a couch. Patel told them, “Qatal kar do, qatal kar do [murder them],” to which Giani Mahinder responded: “Sardarji, what advice is this? You are living in a make-believe world. It is we who are being driven out.”
Then you have Muhammad Ayub Khan’s account of the violence at Jalandhar. In his book, Khan said that sometime around August 15, Zakir Hussain (subsequently India’s third President) came to Jalandhar. He was informed that thousands of Muslims had taken refuge at the railway station. Hussain, according to Khan, threatened to sit in protest unless Congress workers and the district administration took the Muslims to refugee camps. They were indeed taken there.
On August 24, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru visited Jalandhar and at a public meeting told Hindus and Sikhs that their attack on Muslims was reprehensible. Khan said he also instructed the administration to ensure the return of Muslims to their homes. The attacks on Muslims reduced considerably. Mind you, Nehru is praised by a man who candidly admits he is anti-Hindu.
A week later, Patel came. According to Khan, Patel met Congress workers and administrative officials. As soon as he left, curfew was imposed – and the intensity of attacks increased considerably. (From this, Khan concluded that Patel simply reversed Nehru’s orders.)
You said there was also a third testimony.
The testimony is of Ripudamman Singh, whom I met in Amritsar. As a young boy, he saw the slaughter of Muslims. He was so traumatised that he left the Congress and joined the Communist Party. He said his elders had told him that bomb factories in Amritsar were established through secret funding by Sardar Patel.
All these three testimonies are recorded in my book.
Apart from Patel, did you come across other Congress leaders fomenting violence?
Once the news came that Hindus and Sikhs were being attacked in West Punjab, the Congress cadres joined in attacking Muslims. Obviously, not everyone in Congress did it. Mahatma Gandhi saved many Muslim lives in Delhi and Nehru did the same in Batala, Punjab.
In contrast, Jinnah never set foot in Punjab during this period. After Partition, he would often come to Lahore, but he never visited any of the refugee camps set up for Muslims pouring into Pakistan from India. The first time he visited a refugee camp was as late as November 6, 1947.
One thing I find bewildering about your book is that you mention Gandhi just four or five times. Is it because your book is on Punjab and Gandhi didn’t play a significant role there?
One thing the Punjabi Hindus hold against Gandhi was that he never to came to their assistance when they were being attacked, whereas he went to places where Muslims suffered.
I spoke to Gandhi’s grandson, Rajmohan, about why his grandfather did not get too engaged in Punjab. Rajmohan said Gandhi would go only to places where people supported his initiative. In Punjab, Gandhi did not receive any such backing.
Gandhi did come to Lahore on August 6 and he told the Hindus there that they should not leave the city, that it is theirs as well and that they should die with dignity rather than kill. The Hindus, apparently, thought the old man was talking nonsense. Filmmaker Ramanand Sagar told me that the Congress and Gandhi misled them by asking Hindus not to leave Lahore. One reason for this could be that Congress leaders were hopeful that Lahore would be given to them. [The Radcliff Line demarcating the boundaries of Pakistan and India was established on August 17, 1947.]
You interviewed several prominent personalities for your book, including Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral, Sunil Dutt, BR Chopra, etc.. How did their narrative of Partition differ from that of ordinary people?
They were better informed and would say that they were all pawns in the hands of British, whom they regarded as the mastermind of Partition. I suppose they did perhaps think Jinnah and the Muslim League were responsible for Partition, but because they were talking to a Muslim, they perhaps thought it was not a wise or civil way of putting things.
What about ordinary people?
I think if you were to talk to an ordinary Pakistani, he would begin by saying that Partition was the right thing to do as Muslims were given the freedom to prosper economically. That was because the Hindus dominated all the important centres of economy.
On the other hand, when you talk to Indian Punjabis, they say the division of India was a great tragedy, and that Muslims wanted their property. These are two stereotypical narratives.
However, when Pakistanis recall the pre-Partition days, stories about the warm relationship between Hindus and Muslims surface. As a result, the current national narrative tends to critique Partition.
To what extent were the British culpable in post-Partition violence?
I do think that if the British had taken a strong position that India was not to be divided, and that it was in their interest to have an undivided India, Partition would not have happened.
Till May 1946, they were of the opinion that an undivided India served their interests. But their position changed subsequently. They felt Pakistan would be a better ally than India under Nehru, whom they regarded with suspicion because of his anti-imperialism position. Ultimately, Partition was a British decision.
Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid.