After the march of Dalits in Gujarat culminating in Una, where four Dalits had been flogged for skinning a dead cow, it is perhaps appropriate to recall the role purity and pollution played in the story of Partition.

The practice of pollution – of which untouchability is the severest expression – operated at two distinct levels.

One, caste Hindus and Sikhs believed dining with Muslims was polluting even though the three communities built an amiable relationship, which was occasionally ruffled by communal discord.

Two, Dalits – then called Harijans or Scheduled Castes – were considered the most polluting. They were exploited as agricultural labourers, either paid pittance or not at all, and compelled to work as sanitation workers.

The oppression of Dalits had some of their leaders in Punjab demand a separate state of Achhutistan – the land of Untouchables – as soon as it became evident that the state was to be partitioned into two – one in which the Hindus and Sikhs dominated and the other in which the Muslims did.

In The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India, author Urvashi Butalia provides a lengthy testimony of Bir Bahadur Singh, a Sikh who as child saw his father slaughter 26 women and children of his extended family before their village, Thoa Khalsa, in Rawalpindi, was assaulted by Muslims in March 1947. His father killed the 26 out of fear that they could be abducted or converted or both – and the honour of the Sikh community would be sullied.

The pollution code

Decades after the Thoa Khalsa episode, Singh was critical of the pollution code determining his community’s interaction with the Muslims. "Such good relations we had that if there was any function that we had, then we used to call Mussalmaans to our homes, they would eat in our houses, but we would not eat in theirs,” he said.

But even when Muslims ate at the houses of Sikhs or Hindus, it was in utensils kept separate for them. “If they would come to our houses, we would have two utensils in one corner of our house,” Singh recalled, “and we would tell them, pick these up and eat in them and they would then wash them and keep them aside and this was such a terrible thing. This was the reason Pakistan was created (emphasis mine).”

However, when Muslims invited Hindus or Sikhs to weddings or other ceremonies, the guests wouldn’t partake of the food prepared by Muslim cooks. They would be given – beforehand – their share of grain and raw meat and chickens.

Singh goes on to conclude: “If I am telling you how badly we treated them, then when a Musalmaan will speak to a Musalmaan (about whether they wanted Pakistan) obviously he will exaggerate a bit and tell him about this in more detail… Why should they (have) stay(ed) with us? Why? By separating they did a good thing.”

The observance of the purity-pollution code was less severe in cities, largely because of the impact of western education and social reforms advocated by the national movement. At times, a Hindu or Sikh violated the caste code even after observing it in his lifetime.

Political scientist Dr Ishtiaq Ahmed in The Punjab: Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed quotes from Som Anand’s book – Lahore: A Lost City – to show how his father’s outlook changed over the years. Anand says, “When he (father) was young, my mother used to recall, he would come back to change his clothes if a Muslim had touched him… ; but during my childhood (Anand’s)…father had several Muslim friends and he considered my mother’s inhibitions a sign of backwardness.”

Nor was the observance of the pollution code subtle or invisible in urban centres. In his testimony to Ahmed, Dina Nath Malhotra, whose father published the controversial Rangeela Rasool that triggered riots in the 1930s, says Hindu volunteers who provided scented water to passersby in Lahore’s scorching summer did so in separate, and palpably, inferior tumblers to Muslims. Malhotra notes, “Under the circumstances, it was inevitable that the exhortation of Jinnah had a telling effect on the mind of the Muslim community.”

Did it, really? Ameer Khan, a resident of rural Rawalpindi, tells Ahmed that there were two wells in his village, one for Hindus and Sikhs and the other for Muslims. “We did not make a fuss about that.”

However, for Haji Muhammad Sharif, of Parial village, Rawalpindi, the caste taboo was a source of heartburn: “The real reason that Pakistan came into being was that the Hindu caste system degraded human beings while Islam stands for equality.” Likewise, pointing to the local halwai in Kunjah, Gujrat district, keeping separate utensils for Muslims, famous Punjabi writer Prof Muhammad Sharif Kunjahi says, “I don’t know how the ordinary Muslims felt about it, but I resented that treatment.”

Despite the practice of pollution reinforcing the separateness among communities, innumerable testimonies vouch for amiable social relationships. Undivided India was changing, however slowly. For instance, to avoid having to take food separately, Prof Kunjahi turned down the invitation to join his Hindu friend’s baraat that was to go to another town. The friend’s mother, however, intervened: “Never mind about these foolish Hindu practices. Both of you will sit together and we will see what happens.”

It is hard to gauge the extent to which the pollution code angered Muslims, or whether it could have been a factor for them to buy into Jinnah’s idea of exclusivist nationalism. It is possible the caste taboos could have been invoked post-facto to rationalise the horrific Partition violence. Also, the economic dominance of Hindus and Sikhs in West Punjab may have had Muslims resent the socio-economic structure, of which the practice of pollution was the most humiliating manifestation.

Our assessment of the past is infinitely complicated because even Hindus and Sikhs blame the practice of pollution for spawning a sense of separateness among the Muslims, which Jinnah exploited. As Anand says, Hindu and Muslim communities “lived like two streams, flowing side by side but never meeting at any point.” When they did indeed meet, it was because of individuals rebelling against the code of social conduct they had inherited.

Dalits during Partition

However, for all the talk of Islam’s emphasis on equality, a large number of Dalits in Sind wanted to leave Pakistan for India. They were lodged in transit camps to await their turn for a place in ships, which were in short supply. It prompted the Pakistan government to fix a quota of Dalits who could leave for India every day.

But there was also a purpose behind controlling the exit of Dalits – Pakistan was apprehensive that in the absence of Dalits, Karachi’s sanitation and cleaning system could collapse. It was, after all, they who ensured the city remained clean. As the condition in the city turned unhygienic, Pakistan enacted the Essential Services Maintenance Act, barring Dalits from leaving Pakistan. It enraged Indian leaders, but it was to no avail.

This isn’t to say the Indians treated the Dalits arriving in East Punjab from Pakistan any better. Dr BR Ambedkar wrote to Jawaharlal Nehru to complain against caste Hindu officials disallowing Dalits to take shelter in refugee camps. And because they were not in the camps they were denied food ration and clothes. Not only this, they were not given land as they were deemed to have been agricultural labourers in Pakistan and, therefore, not entitled to the property the Muslims in India had left behind.

However, it does seem the Dalits largely escaped Partition violence. Butalia quotes PN Rajbhoj, then general secretary of the All India Scheduled Caste Federation, who, after visiting Rawalpindi after the March 1947 violence, said, “During my tour everywhere I learned with gratification that the Scheduled Caste people were little affected by the riots. If at any place any man has suffered, it was because he was mistaken for a caste Hindu. Otherwise, when a man told the rioters he was neither Hindu nor Muslim, he was left untouched.”

It is debatable whether in the frightening ambience of communal violence the Dalits could have spoken to a mob in frenzy. It is more likely that with different social castes living in separate quarters, the assailants perhaps knew beforehand they weren’t caste Hindus or Sikhs, that they were cleaners whom they required and against whom they didn’t have any grouse. They were just too poor to loot. From this perspective, the caste status of Dalits might have insulated them from Partition violence.

But what we certainly know is that the practice of untouchability had the Dalits emphasise their separateness from caste Hindus – as also Muslims and Christians. Thus, even before the eruption of violence in 1947, Beah Lall had established the All India Achhutistan movement in November 1946.

Butalia quotes a statement Lall issued in the same month: “It is foolishness on the part of Mr Jinnah who demands Pakistan only and does not remember Achhutistan.” He reminds that the municipalities compel “Mehtars, sweepers and Chamars” to clean latrines and remove dead animals, making him conclude that Achhutistan is needed in order to ensure that the exploitation of Dalits isn’t perpetuated in a partitioned Punjab.

A Punjab partitioned into just two zones is inimical to Dalits, argued Lall, as it would split the community over two sovereign states. This would make it difficult for them to “maintain their honour, civilisation and culture under pure majorities of other religions in their respective areas.”

Interestingly, this letter spells out the boundary of Achhutistan: “The Scheduled Castes may be given a separate independent state consisting of Jullundur (now Jalandhar) and Ambala Divisions which are mostly inhabited by Scheduled Castes people.” The letter wanted the government to bear the expenses for ferrying the Scheduled Castes from different parts of Punjab to the “independent state” of Achhutistan.

These Partition stories tell you why the Bharatiya Janata Party’s week-long celebration of nationalism, including taking the tricolour yatra, won’t be a salve to the hurt Una has inflicted on Dalits. Hurt can, and does, spawn sentiments of separateness.

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