review: The Punjab bloodied, cleansed and partitioned Oxford
University Press, Pakistan 2012 —by
Rupa Press India 2011
“That night seemed never to end. Gunshots could be heard all around. We
also heard men and women, even children shrieking in pain and horror”
— a Muslim refugee from Ferozepur relating a night of ordeal during
“You ask me today after 58 years how I feel? You tell me, what would you
feel if you were in my situation? — I still remember the night when
Amarnath volunteered to go to his shop to get the medicine my father
needed, but he was killed by fanatics of his own community. His father and
mother must have been devastated. [As for me] I lost everything” — a
Muslim refugee from Ferozpur relating his ordeal.
“My greatest desire is to visit Multan again before I die.”
Then he broke down and began to cry so I ended the interview — an
interview with a Sikh refugee from Multan.
The above are three short excerpts from the myriads of personal interviews
with people who suffered during partition. If ever an historical treatise
can qualify to be a memorable epic, the above book does. It makes riveting
and mind-boggling reading and once again, the reader is rapt in the
dreadful and tragic events of that time. One cannot undo the injustices
and horrors that our brethren of the soil faced. One cannot stop the Sikh
jattha and Muslim mobs from slaughtering and committing unspeakable
atrocities on helpless villagers; impaling babies on spears, holding the
bodies up and dancing; slaughtering parents before the eyes of their
children; hacking bodies into pieces; parading women naked and then
chopping them into bits. One cannot undo what actually happened, but one
can call it to account and learn a lesson from it.
That was the greatest tragedy that ever befell India and Pakistan.
Probably it is the worst genocide in history, of the greatest number of
people killed in the shortest time (estimates mention 600,000 to 800,000
people killed in three months, from August to December 1947, and about
90,000 women abducted). It is amazing how soon we have forgotten it.
This book is vitally important because no writer compiled any
comprehensive account of this tragedy previously. Immediately after the
event, India compiled two comprehensive studies: one by Sardar Gurbachan
Singh for the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhik Committee (SGPC) Report
(published in 1949 and 1991), which apparently is a very biased account.
The other is by Justice A G Khosla, commissioned by the government of
India (published in 1949 and 1989); the book is called Stern Reckoning,
which is said to be quite balanced. There is also Ian Talbot and
Thandi’s People on the Move. The Pakistan government only published
three short reports in 1948, based on data collected by the CID, on a
purported plan by the Sikhs to massacre all Muslims in East Punjab, on
Sikh atrocities and later, a collection of first person accounts and
reports in 1993 titled Journey to Pakistan. There are a few books by
independent authors about what happened in Amritsar, Jalandhar, and other
numerous moving anecdotes, and of course, there are references to the
tragic time in innumerable books on the subject of partition. Thus, it was
about time someone from Pakistan wrote a comprehensive, unbiased and
accurate account of that dire chapter in our history.
The author deals with the subject in a holistic manner, identifying the
Punjabi ethos and delving into the cultural, historical and economic roots
of communal friction. With meticulous research, and in a very systematic
manner, he traces the historical and political events that gradually built
up and led to this genocide. He covers the tragedy as comprehensively as
possible, presenting the various subjective views of the ones affected and
verifying each major incident with eyewitness accounts. Apart from the
various factors found in most books on the subject, the author
particularly mentions that over one million Sikhs and Muslims, trained in
the use of arms and warfare, were de-mobbed and left jobless after WWII,
and these people provided a seed bed for violence. He also mentions Sayed
Shaheed Barelvi’s movement extolling jihad to elevate the depressed
conditions of Muslims.
Actually, the author is a staunch Punjabi, a typical Lahoria by nature.
Thus in this book, behind his erudition and academic approach, one can
discern a disturbed human being searching for an answer. He cannot
understand how Punjabis, who once enjoyed a pluralistic, tolerant and
extremely affable society; who followed the teachings of the Gorakhnatak
faqirs, Bhagat Kabir, sants, gurus, Bulleh Shah and other Sufi saints; who
were known for their good nature and humanistic values, could suddenly
start slaughtering and committing unspeakable atrocities on one another.
Over the years most of us have either hypocritically consoled ourselves
with a ‘blame game’ or conveniently locked up our consciences and
disillusionment in our minds, and don’t think about what happened.
However, now three generations later, with friendly overtures towards
India, suddenly we are overleaping that dire tragedy and reverting to our
natural feelings for our brethren across the border. Thus, the beauty of
this book is that in an underlying manner, it actually reconciles this
important question in its own way.
It shows how political realisations affected the mass mind; how slogans
and religiosity inflamed mobs or terrified people of other religions; how
politicians and government officials deliberately promoted conflict and
bloodshed. Although in this regard, due credit must be given to some
politicians for actively trying to stop the mayhem, like, inter alia,
Liaquat Ali Khan, Nehru, Mian Iftikharudin, Dr. Zakir Hussain, the
Khaksars and bureaucrats like Saeed Zaman Khan, DC Montgomery (now Sahiwal)
and Agha Abdul Hamid, DC Lyallpur ( now Faisalabad). Of course, the main
violence started after Master Tara Singh waved his sword outside the
assembly building. Violence that in the villages, almost invariably, saw
Sikh elders in East Punjab villages trying to protect their fellow Muslims
and asking them to stay, and conversely, Muslims in West Punjab asking
their fellow Sikhs to stay and offeringd to protect them. It was always
outsiders, jatthas and mobs, comprising of usually thousands of
assailants, who attacked the villages, caravans or trains of refugees and
committed the massacres. These assailants usually comprised of goonda
elements, people who had already suffered similar atrocities, others
specially trained by the ones with vested interests, police, soldiers of
the INA, or the Sikh princely states, the Muslim League National Guard,
the RSS, and often, they would be backed by the local administration.
Thus, basically, the love among the villagers remained unchanged.
The real forte of this book is the innumerable personal accounts. They
read like a cascade of riveting stories by Manto or Krishen Chander,
except they are blandly written without highlighting the dramatic impact.
Here you have the whole panoply of extreme villainy, courage and heroism,
the strange quirks of human nature and amazing examples of the indomitable
will to live, even among children traumatised and parents killed in front
of their eyes. The fascinating realisation is that these are all simple
The reviewer is a freelance contributor
The Daily Times:
March 21, 2012