Manto keeps haunting the reader when one is uneasily reading the macabre details of either Sheikhupura massacre when 15000 Hindus/Sikhs were gunned down Jalianwala-style or the public gang-rape of Muslims girls at Amritsar’s Hall Bazar
One rarely comes across a well-researched scholarly work that reads like an epic, a thriller but encyclopedic in scope, scientific and theoretical in its approach yet---unlike routine scholarly works--- stylistically articulated in an accessible idiom.
But to appreciate Ishtiaq Ahmed’s magnum opus Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed (Oxford University Press), one must realize the difficulties involved in this research-based masterwork. Firstly, the partition of the Punjab is apparently too familiar to be researched. At the same time, there is an utter lack of scholarly works and a near-absence of research on the topic. Only with such problematic in mind one can appreciate the uniqueness of the research methodology applied by Ishtiaq Ahmed.
A Lahori-Punjabi by birth, Swedish by nationality and a true internationalist by virtue of his commitment to universal humanistic values, Ishtiaq Ahmed is a familiar name not merely in the academic circles internationally [as often is the case with Third World academics working in the West] but he commands a large newspaper-readership in Pakistan too owing to his regular columns in mainstream Pakistani dailies. Now a days, he is contributing a regular weekly column for the Daily Times. Even a brief introduction to catalogue his scholarly engagements will require a separate essay, this author therefore will presently return to Ishtiaq Ahmed’s latest work mentioned above by acknowledging the fact that this author has the privilege of enjoying Ishtiaq Ahmed’s company and guidance as a friend and comrade. He was generous and kind enough to mention this author’s name even if it did not deserve at all.
One may think that such an association might colour the present review. However, without any pretentions of objectivity, this familiarity with the author will instead be employed to point out certain facts that otherwise would remain concealed from readers and critics.
For Ishtiaq Ahmed, Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed is not merely a research project. It is labour of his life-time love: Punjab and Lahore. Though he was facilitated for three years to conduct his research, he went on working on his own for another few years. Those who witnessed him during the time he was researching would never forget his obsession with accuracy, details, and more information. Yet to fully appreciate his work under review, it does not suffice to describe his passion for professional values. That he grew up reading Sahir Ludhianvi, his favourite poet, and Krishan Chander, his favourite writer, in spite of its highly academic approach Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed is informed by a poetic, a literary humanism attributed to Sahir and Krishan Chandar [Ishtiaq named one of his two sons after Sahir].
However, it is Sadaat Hasan Manto who keeps haunting the reader when one is uneasily reading the macabre details of either Sheikhupura massacre when perhaps 15000 Hindus/Sikhs were gunned down Jalianwala-style or the public gang-rape of Muslims girls, herded en mass to from their hostel to Amritsar’s Hall Bazar. They were paraded naked before they were brutalized and put to death on August 15, 1947 (p 297).
Even though Ishtiaq Ahmed’s interviewees are mainly men owing to cultural barriers involved, his sensitive documentation of women’s sufferings during the bloody partition deserves special mention. In many cases, especially Sikhs, beheaded or burnt alive women and girls as young as 13 before they could be kidnapped by Muslims.
However, in the case of Kathiala Virkan, in Sheikhupura, honour-killings of Sikh women has a concluding twist attributed to Manto’s short stories [incidentally, 2012 is Manto’s birth centenary]. Sikh residents of Kathiala Virkan killed on August 25, 1947 their women as the rumour spread about the dreaded arrival of Baluch regiment [consisting of Punjabi soldiery] that was instigating violence and executing Hindus/Sikhs.
‘The tragic irony is that it turned out that it was a unit of Indian troops and not the Baluch regiment that came to the village. Had the Sikhs not killed their women, some of them perhaps would be alive even today,’ remarks Ishtiaq Ahmed (p 347).
The Manto in Ishtiaq Ahmed is at its best when he describes the Shahalmi fire (237-244) or gutting down of Sikh temple Chhevin Padshahi (290-292) in Lahore.
He digs out Abdul Rehman Gill, one of the handful miscreants and perhaps the only surviving member of the team that set Shahalmi neighbourhood on fire in Lahore’s centuries old walled city. But the Shahalmi fire was planned by Magistrate Muhammad Ghani Cheema. Magistrate Cheema and Shahalmi fire are concomitant. It was Shahalmi fire that broke the will of Lahore’s Hindu/Sikh community to resist their cleansing.
While Mr. Gill does not betray any sign of remorse, the architect of Chhevin Padshahi inferno in Lahore’s Morang area, Mujahid Tajo Din, regrets murdering Sikhs not merely at the temple but in another carnage he does not confess in his interview. ‘It happens quite so often that I pray to God to grant me mafi (pardon) for the murder of those Sikhs and Hindus,’ he says. But he is not merely repentant. He is bitter too. ‘We were told that Pakistan would be an Islamic State where the Nizam (system) established by Allah and his prophet would again be revived…However, we never got our Islamic state…Pakistan is a very corrupt society. If all this were to happen, then why were we asked to do what we did?’
Ironically, Ishtiaq Ahmed who staunchly believes in strict secularist separation of state and religion lets his interviewees---whether Muslims, Hindus or Sikhs--- express themselves. He does not apply the censorship scissors. Not merely because he is a committed practitioner of professional integrity but also because it helps describe the madness that gripped Punjabis of three major faiths practiced in Punjab. And here lies the particularity of the Punjab partition. While Punjab partitioned cannot be visualized without contextualizing it in the larger framework of the Indian partition [a Muslim-Hindu dichotomy], in the case of Punjab we have an equally important element of Sikh population. The triangulated complexity---involving uneasy alliances and bitter animosities between Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs--- on the one hand reduces the chances of peaceful settlement of Punjab partition while on the other hand it lends a particular ferocity to communal violence.
Could the Punjab partition be less bloody had it been mere a Sikh vs. Muslim, Hindus vs. Sikh or Muslim vs. Hindu situation? Ishtiaq Ahmed does not engage in any such hair-splitting. He rather points out the role of Radcliffe Award. Had it been announced before the partition, he argues, instead of August 17 the situation would have been different. Instead of ascribing this delay to any conspiracy theory as is the norm in Pakistani intellectual circles, he coins a convincing theory not merely for this delay but also the marking of boundary between East and West Punjab. This is, in fact, the strength of his work. He debunks host of myths, clichés, and widespread conspiracy theories about the role of Radcliffe, Mountbatten and Nehru. This would not have been possible without a rigorous research and a unique research methodology. He collects eye-witness testimonies and counterchecks through archival records. But he does not stop at that. The primary sources are weighed against secondary sources of information before drawing a conclusion. Thus for future researchers, this is not merely a foundational work in view of its contribution to information on the partition, it also offers an innovative research methodology to any researcher.
It is here Ishtiaq Ahmed becomes a professional surgeon who is operating upon a beloved blood relation. Emotions give way to professional practice. But the surgeon is not merely committed to his professional practice; he is striving equally hard to uphold the professional values.
Thus, having deconstructed the madness that surrounded the Punjab partition in a rational way, he propounds a theory on genocides and ethnic scales of horrendous magnitude and absurd nature, like the one in the Punjab. The absurdity of the Punjabi partition tragedy is brilliantly captured in this book by Ishtiaq Ahmed when he quotes a Punjabi peasant stating the below during Nehru’s visit after Hindu/Sikh massacre of August 25/26 August .
‘This country has seen many changes of rulers. They have come and gone. But this is the first time that with a change of rulers the riyaya (subjects) are also being forced to change’ (p 343-4) the peasant told Nehru.
This absurd tragedy is not Punjab specific though. It plays out equally brutally and absurdly everywhere a genocide, an ethnic cleansing [to draw a line between the two is difficult, argues Ishtiaq], or a Partition occurs. The importance of genocide studies lies in the fact that they equip us with the knowledge necessary to off-set any future tragedies. Ishtiaq Ahmed’s surprising theory is that even if contested ‘past’ is invoked and re-imagined during an ethnic cleansing/genocidal process yet it is fear of the future that triggers the bloody process.
Farooq Sulehria is currently pursuing his media studies. Previously, he has worked with Stockholm-based Weekly Internationalen. In Pakistan, he has worked with The Nation, The Frontier Post, The News, and the Pakistan. He has MA in Mass Communication from the University of Punjab, Lahore. He also contributes for Znet and various left publications internationally.