Punjab 1947: Bloodied and Partitioned by Competing Nationalisms

A rare contemporary report reveals how the Muslim League, Akalis, RSS and Hindu Mahasabha used armed bands to exterminate minorities in targeted areas in their ongoing power struggle – aided by an administration geared not to stop the riots but to spread them.  

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In August 1947, as India gained independence in an atmosphere rife with communalism, Punjab witnessed the bloodletting of Partition on a scale never seen before. Around one million people were killed and over ten million crossed the border – Muslims from East Punjab (in India) to West Punjab (in Pakistan), and Hindus and Sikhs from West Pakistan to East Pakistan. Such was the level of communal savagery that there was a near-total cleansing of minorities on both sides of divided Punjab.

There are various views on the partition of Punjab, one of them being that it was clashes among adherents of different religions that led to the division of Punjab.

Sugata Bose
The Nation as Mother and Other Visions of Nationhood
Penguin Random House, 2017

However, the situation in Punjab was more complex. As eminent historian Sugata Bose points out in his book, The Nation as Mother and Other Visions of Nationhood, the “British colonial scheme of enumeration of religious communities in India and the privileging of religious distinction in defining majorities and minorities for political representation triggered acrid communitarian discourses among those seeking the state’s differential patronage. Punjab with competitive religious landscape was worse affected in the 19th century as it gave rise to politics of communitarian bigotry”. Most Indians simply refer to it as the British policy of ‘divide and rule’.

The scheme of enumeration, or census, made the Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs in Punjab evaluate their community’s relative strengths and the differences that set them apart from the others. The political actors of each community accentuated those differences to build up their respective ‘nationalisms’.

They readily played their cards of communitarian nationalism while forming their own armed bands and unleashing violence on the minority community that they were ranged against, to force them to flee targeted areas. These armed bands, comprising criminals, ex-soldiers and trained mercenaries, were let loose in urban and rural areas to kill, loot, rape and abduct women.

The organised savagery of Muslim bands was met with equally brutal retaliation by Hindu-Sikh armed bands in their respective areas of domination. The Punjab Governor Evan Jenkins described the bloodletting as an outcome of the ongoing “power struggle”.

Partition triggered the largest mass migration in human history. Photo: Photo Division, Government of India

Be it the Hindus and Sikhs or the Muslims, all of them attempted to establish control over as many of the 29 Punjab districts as was possible in the period between June 3, 1947, when Mountbatten announced the Partition Plan, till the handing over of power to the East and West Punjab governments in mid-August 1947. According to the 1941 census, Punjab’s population, including the princely states, was around 340 million – Muslims were in a majority (53.2%), followed by Hindus (29.1 % including 6.4 % Dalits), Sikhs (14.9 %) and Christians (1.9 %).

Also read: Love in the Time of Partition

Such were the times that even the Punjab Boundary Force (PBF), formed under Major-General Rees to maintain peace in August 1947 when the violence was at its peak, could not escape getting communalised.  The Baloch, Dogra, and Sikh regiments not only provoked violence but also got actively involved in the killings and looting.

Similarly, the civil and police administration was openly divided along religious lines and failed miserably to protect millions of innocent Punjabis who were desperately seeking to keep their families safe.

The killing of thousands of menial workers, labourers, landless and homeless poor on both sides of the border went completely unnoticed. Urvashi Butalia, in her book Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India, writes that the massacre of such people has faded into oblivion.

L: Urvashi Butalia
Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India
Penguin Random House, 2017
R: Rajmohan Gandhi
Punjab: A History from Aurangzeb to Mountbatten
Aleph Book Company, 2013

Rajmohan Gandhi, the author of Punjab: A History from Aurangzeb to Mountbatten, also rues the fact that the names of such marginalised people now stand erased from the collective memory of Punjabis. The fact is that neither India nor Pakistan kept any record of such victims as their names did not figure in the revenue registers of both the countries. Both countries did not bother to prepare a reliable survey of the dead either.

Various estimates of the number of people killed in Partition violence in West and East Punjab have been put forward – as mentioned earlier in this article, several researchers have estimated that at least one million people were killed and nine million people were uprooted and fled across the border on both sides.

Also read: How Can We Understand India’s Fractured Independence?

Ishtiaq Ahmed
The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed
Rupa, 2011

Ishtiaq Ahmed, the author of the well-researched book The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed, puts the death toll between six to eight lakh people. But he also refers to Pakistan’s census of 1951, which showed that 14 million Punjabis moved across the frontline – eight million Muslims from East Punjab and six million Hindus and Sikhs from West Punjab.

The other searing figure captures the plight of women on both sides – nearly three lakh women were abducted. To prevent that from happening at that juncture, many young women were killed by their parents or they jumped into wells, canals, and ponds to end their lives in the name of family honour.

Comrade Dhanwantri’s contemporary account on Partition violence

Among the reliable commentaries of that time on the causes and the extent of Partition violence is a report by Comrade Dhanwantri, who was a comrade-in-arms of Shaheed Bhagat Singh. A rare copy of that report is available in the Jawaharlal Nehru University library.

As a fellow fighter and organiser of the Naujawan Bharat Sabha, Dhanwantri was jailed in the Andamans for seven years. On his release in 1939, he was elected president of the Lahore District Congress Committee. He witnessed the beginning of violence in March 1947 in Lahore which soon engulfed central and eastern Punjab. His 20-page report, along with the 10-page report of PC Joshi, veteran leader of the Communist Party of India, was published as a booklet in September 1947, titled Bleeding Punjab Warns.

In the last week of August 1947, Dhanwantri and Gadar Party leader Baba Gurmukh Singh met Nehru in Delhi to apprise him of the causes and extent of the violence.

The report states, “In Punjab, it was a regular war of extermination [against] minorities, of Sikhs and Hindus in Western Punjab and of Muslims in Eastern Punjab. The trained bands equipped with firearms and modern weapons were the main killers, looters, and rapists. These were the storm troops of various communal parties such as the National Guards of the Muslim League in Muslim-dominated West Punjab and the Shaheedi Dal (Martyrs’ Battalion) of Akalis (representing Sikhs) and Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and Hindu Mahasabha (a combine) in Eastern Punjab.

“They were actively aided and often actually led by police and the military in committing the worst atrocities. The entire administration was geared not to stop the riots but to spread it—the Punjab tragedy is without a parallel.”

A riot scene in Punjab visited by Mountbatten. Photo: eBay, May 2010

Tracing the political developments, the report says, “The provocative Attlee (British Prime Minister) Declaration of February 20, 1947, had laid the basis for the division of India” and fast political developments took place in Punjab. Premier Khizar Hyat resigned on March 2, causing a political and constitutional crisis.

“The next day, Akali leader Master Tara Singh, waving his kirpan (sword), denounced the demand of Pakistan at a public meeting, leading to violent clashes between Hindu-Sikhs and Muslim opponents in Lahore. Overnight the atmosphere in the whole of Punjab became charged, with communal poison spreading to Multan, Rawalpindi, Amritsar and Julundhur [now Jalandhar].”

Preparation for retaliation

Chronicling this aspect, the report states, “Retaliation was roused in Central and East Punjab by RSS among the Hindus and by the Akalis among the Sikhs.”  Also, “In towns, RSS was rapidly gaining ground. The Congress in Punjab has always been weak, being based mainly among traders and professionals and grew further weaker after it allied with Unionist Party to form a government under Khizar Hyat in Punjab.

“Thus, the RSS took leadership in towns to rouse retaliation on the communal slogan of [establishing) ‘Akhand Bharat’ by force. The RSS in Punjab took to arming its members with daggers, swords, soon to get revolvers and other firearms [sic]. They also set about preparing bombs for attacking Muslims. In the biggest single action, RSS used rifles, bombs, and revolvers in April during an attack on Rajgarh, a Muslim suburb of Lahore, and several Muslims were killed.”

Also read: We Best Remember Partition When We Connect the Dots from 1947 to 1984 and 2002

Rajmohan Gandhi writes in his book that on the eve of Partition, RSS had around 53,000 volunteers located in the urban areas of Punjab.

As for the Akalis, the report states, “Akalis formed each Shaheedi Dal of 16 volunteers, of whom six were armed with rifles and the rest with swords and spears. They also formed bands of horsemen and soon jeeps and motor trucks [were] brought in for use by their armed force.”

“On the other side, in Lahore and in West Punjab, the Muslim National Guards were similarly armed with the help of [the princely state of] Bahawalpur and from the Frontier Province. They had the backing of big landlords of whom Feroz Khan Noon was the most active.”

The role of the princely states

The Sikh princely states like Patiala, Jind, Nabha, Faridkot and Kapurthala extended “all-out help to bands [sponsored by the Akali leadership] and [made] use of refugees [migrating in distress from West Punjab originally] to rouse the spirit of retaliation among the villagers and to win their popular support.

A refugee camp in Punjab, 1947. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

“The Maharaja of Patiala opened refugee camps, therefrom tales of atrocities by Muslims fast spread in East Punjab. The princely ruler of Faridkot supplied a number of jeeps to the Akali bands.”

The report also notes that “Bahawalpur supplied arms to Muslim National Guards and the [prince of] Kapurthala opened a training camp for RSS bands in his areas.”

Dhanwantri’s report makes a special mention of an attack planned by the Akalis’ Shaheedi Dal on a Pakistan Special, a passenger train carrying senior Muslim bureaucrats and their families that left Delhi on August 10, 1947, for Karachi. A special band from Patiala was despatched for an act of sabotage which, however, was pre-empted following an information leak.

Interestingly, Nisid Hajari, an American writer, editor and foreign affairs commentator, mentions in his acclaimed book Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of Indian Partition that a plan was hatched by a Sikh band to kill Jinnah in August 1947. That, too, was thwarted following an alert intelligence input.  Lord Mountbatten specially called a British CID officer from Lahore to Delhi to reveal the plan in the presence of Nehru, Patel, and Jinnah. On learning about the design to kill him, a furious Jinnah insisted on registering a police case against Akali supremo Master Tara Singh.

The political aim of the Akalis

Throwing light on the intent of the Akalis, Joshi writes in his report that “the Akali leadership ruled the day through armed bands. Their political aim [was] to get a dominant hold over the East Punjab government. They distributed leaflets for establishing ‘Khalistan’….. an Empire of Khalsa as left by Maharaja Ranjit Singh.”

He points out, “In fact, what they (Akalis) are planning [is] a confederation of the Sikh states, and the Sikh central districts of Punjab around Patiala (princely state) as the base.”

Ahmed and G.D. Khosla (in The Partition Omnibus) also talk about the ‘Sikh Plan’ and ‘Muslim Plan’, which led to what Dhanwantri terms a “systematic campaign of mass extermination of minorities”.

The bestiality of the times

The genocide of minorities went hand in hand with the use of places of religious worship for storing arms and sheltering killers.

Dhanwantri writes that “Muslim women were stripped naked and made to parade in the streets of Amritsar. There was even public raping of women. Women’s breasts [were] cut off and Muslim children’s heads have been displayed on spearheads. [In retaliation], in the streets of Sialkot, Sikh and Hindu women were paraded naked in public and mass raping took place the same as was in Amritsar. The same [atrocities] were repeated in Sheikhupura, Pakistan.”

Passenger trains overloaded with refugees were attacked on both sides of the border.

Trains overflowing with refugees, Punjab 1947. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Role of the Communist Party and the red flag

Another aspect of Partition was that industrial units in Lahore, Amritsar, Sialkot and other cities lay shattered, with lakhs of workers migrating from East to West Punjab and vice versa. Dhanwantri notes, “From the very beginning the Communist Party, the trade union and kisan movements under [the] Red Flag saw the rising menace and tried to fight against it. In the towns, we tied to keep the unity of Muslim, Sikh and Hindu workers. This unity could not easily be broken from within. The bureaucrats and the communal bands could not set worker against worker.”

But industrial workers were rarely involved in communal killings; rather, they helped co-workers of other religions to reach safe places, writes Dhanwantri. In the process, several trade union leaders were killed either by bands or even by communalised police.

A glaring example was that of Siri Chand, a leader of the Railway Workers Union. He and his family members were shot dead by Muslim constables who had called them to the police station in Lahore. Similarly, CPI leaders like Gahal Singh Chhajalwadhi, Megh Singh and Suba Singh from Kot Dharamchand in Amritsar were shot dead by armed members of the Shaheedi Dal for protecting Muslim refugees.

Despite all this, writes Rajmohan Gandhi, a sense of humanity, sympathy and cultural affinity among Punjabis outpaced the communal hate and frenzy – those who saved their fellow Punjabis outnumbered the killers and looters. That is why, he asserts, 44 lakh Muslims from East Punjab and 36 lakh Hindus and Sikhs from West Punjab safely crossed the border during the worst time of civil strife.

The tussle between RSS and Akali leadership

Dhanwantri throws light on the activities of the RSS and Akali leadership as well: “Entire administration of East Punjab collapsed [in August], when Punjab was partitioned] and new recruits were being taken to [fill] the vacancies caused by Muslims who were sent to West Punjab. The RSS and Akali bands were burrowing into these services. The RSS want Bakshi Tek Chand to be Governor and Rai Bahadur Badri Das as Premier. Akalis want their nominee to be the Governor”.

The bands were disarmed after Nehru rushed to Amritsar and stayed there for two days — August 18 and 19 — immediately after the Independence Day celebrations.  But that Hindu and Sikh communitarian tussle laid the foundation of what the media termed the “Punjab problem”, later manifested in the tragic flashpoints of Operation Blue Star in June 1984 and the November 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom, followed by a decade-long period of bloodshed in Punjab.

In the 75th year of Independence, and Partition, it might be a good thing to recall the India Independence Bill debate of 74 years ago As the UK Parliament debated the Independence Bill, MPs like Colonel Alan Duncan argued that “it is clear that no actual division on the ground will ever solve the Sikh problems unless there is [a] united Punjab.”  MP Godfrey Nicholson of Farnham said, “ I think that the division of the Punjab is nothing less than a tragic (happening)… I believe Punjab will be reunited within a few years.”

Concluding the debate preceding the passage of the Act that accorded statehood to both India and Pakistan, Prime Minister Attlee had said, “I earnestly hope that this severance may not endure and that the two new dominions, may in course of time, come together again.”

The partition of Punjab not only gave rise to the knotty Punjab problem; it also created two inimical nations that have fought three wars against each other and show no signs of arriving anywhere close to being on the same page to start a meaningful dialogue.

Jaspal Singh Sidhu, a writer and independent journalist, retired as special correspondent from UNI, Delhi. He can be reached at jaspal.sdh@gmail.com.