‘The secularists and liberals have not done their homework and just relied on Jinnah’s 11 August 1947 speech and some other statements against theocracy. That’s not enough to understand how Pakistan was won’
‘The Muslims in northern Punjab, the Sikhs in eastern Punjab and princely states and the RSS all over Punjab had a field day when violence became endemic to the Punjab conflict’, says Ishtiaq Ahmed.
In an interview with Viewpoint, he discusses his latest book Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed (Oxford University Press). Read on:
Congratulations on the raving reviews your latest book Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed has deservedly received. Punjab, in particular Lahore, remains a recurring theme in your writings. Is it a scholarly curiosity or nostalgia?
Thanks for your kind words about my book. It is a labour of love and I wrote it with a pen dipped into the tears and blood of those who lost their lives or survived to narrate those traumatic ordeals of 1947 which have become very much a part of their person, never leaving them alone really. Punjab, Lahore – indeed are a nostalgia that we exiles always carry with us wherever we go. It was also an intellectual and academic challenge to find out what actually happened 65 years ago in those familiar and yet now faraway places physically but not in our minds.
One gathers from your book that Punjab partition has not widely drawn the attention of researchers and scholars. Don’t you think Punjabi scholars and researchers are themselves to blame as well?
You have made a very incisive observation. I have often wondered why researchers and scholars have been silent on the events in Punjab during partition. This is especially true of Punjabis. My guess is that the task was too difficult, emotionally taxing and controversial and people just shied away. Urvashi Butalia as well as Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin together did write on the suffering of women highlighting only one aspect of a much larger and complex phenomenon. Butalia’s book which caught the eye is about her family’s story. She did some interviews of other women as well but the task was simple, methodologically uncomplicated and within reach of her home in Delhi. She did travel to Pakistan to talk to her uncle who had converted to Islam but did not use that opportunity to talk to Muslim women in Pakistani Punjab. It was therefore an easily manageable task with a very narrow data and no theory. Yet, it touched and moved us all. Ian Talbot and some others in the UK have done interesting studies, but of a city or a district. Mine is the only work of its kind which covers the whole of united Punjab. It is also theoretically and empirically a very distinctive study, because it seeks to solve the Punjab partition puzzle as part of a general phenomenon that has taken place elsewhere too. The source material I have used it also qualitatively different and far more extensive than has been hitherto collected and analysed.
Though the Punjab partition is a consequence of a larger partition yet division of Punjab, it seems, has a particular element as you point out, “…the basic logic of the partition with regard to the Punjab was encapsulated in a simple but explosive formula: if the Muslims get a separate state through the division of India, then the Sikhs would get the same”(p 527). Do you think this particularity contributed a special ferocity to communal violence?
Absolutely, this logic was fraught with great dangers. The British governors as well as the chief secretaries who from 1945-47 were Indians were warning that Punjab would explode into unprecedented violence if it was partitioned and the pleaded for a power-sharing formula that could prevent its division. No division of Punjab would have been a satisfactory one the three main communities – Punjabi Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. They were fully aware of the fact that without the partition of India there would be no partition of Punjab. The Sikhs were an armed group and from 1945 they were preparing for a showdown with the Muslims if the Punjab was partitioned in a way that their holy places and properties were left behind in Pakistan. The Two-Nation Theory was based on the impossibility of people with different religions being part of the same nation. The March 1947 riots in northern Punjab, but also earlier in December 1946 in the nearby Hazara district of NWFP had exposed the savagery that Muslim hordes inflicted upon mainly Sikhs but also Hindus. Therefore within the Sikh leadership those who were opposed to a compromise with the Muslim League were weakened after that outrage.
Now, the Muslims of northern Punjab were also armed. About 1 million armed personnel had returned home to their villages in Punjab after the Second World War and some of them had carried their weapons and even ammunition with them. All these got a chance to display their skills as the partition rioting escalated. The Muslims in northern Punjab, the Sikhs in eastern Punjab and princely states and the RSS all over Punjab had a field day when violence became endemic to the Punjab conflict.
Identity of Pakistan remains a contested notion between country’s liberals/progressives and conservatives/reactionaries. Secularists claim that Pakistan was not meant to be a theocratic state. It was meant to secure economic rights of Indian Muslims. However, throughout your book the interviewees [for instance Mujahid Taj Din who killed Sikhs thinking it was Jihad] refer to Jihad, Shariat, Islamic state etc. Even when Ram Parkash Kapur speaks to you (p 329-32), one realizes that sections of Hindus and Sikhs viewed proposed Pakistan as an Islamic project. Your comments?
I think the great success of the Muslim League was not to spell out what exactly Pakistan would be. Jinnah did not want a theocratic state this we must grant him. He used Islam to get Pakistan and believed he could put it aside once Pakistan came into being. Historically that grave miscalculation has been done many times. Indira Gandhi nurtured Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindrawale to curb the Akalis in East Punjab. Bhindrawale developed his own agenda which ended up in terrorism that claimed thousands of lives and also Indira Gandhi’s live. The Americans created the Jihadists to drive the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan but out of that pool Al-Qaida came into being that carried out the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. Jinnah’s Pakistan was achieved through the bloodshed of more than a million innocent human beings and they were killed because of their religion. To believe that a religiously fired campaign for Pakistan would lose its importance once Pakistan had come into being was a major miscalculation of Jinnah. Invocation of ‘Islam in danger’ and other such slogans, including, Pakistan ka nara kiya? La Illaha Illillah, and so on gave a very difficult signal to the people. Especially the ulema who were mobilized for the campaign believed they were fighting for an Islamic state. Therefore another aspect of my theoretical contribution is to distinguish between intended and unintended consequences. One may do something with one intention but it may have such unintended consequences that the original purpose or objective is negated.
In the theoretical section I make an important point that ideas, once they become a public force and consciousness cannot be wished away. The secularists and liberals have not done their homework and just relied on Jinnah’s 11 August 1947 speech and some other statements against theocracy. That’s not enough to understand how Pakistan was won and achieved and why it was trapped into Islamism –step-by-step.
Horrible crimes have been documented in your book. For instance, a girls’ hostel in Amritsar was attacked by Sikhs, girls were paraded naked, gang- raped and killed. Or Hindu and Sikh residents of Sheikhupura were gathered at a courtyard and gunned down. However, from Attock to Hoshiarpur, one comes across peaceniks. From Babay Doctorny in Amritsar to Inspector Ghouri, heroic sacrifices to save lives of fellow human beings have been documented. Why this stress on peaceniks?
I would not call it a stress in my research, but as evidence of equal value and dignity. An argument of the book is that mob or group behaviour is often different from individual behaviour and even in killer mobs people can go against the lynching mind-set that permeates them. Thus for example an elderly Sikh in one incident in Kapurthala State left the Sikh Jatha he was part of and stood next to another Sikh, Santa Singh, who was protecting a Muslim family. He said he was now with the protector. Similarly a Muslim mother urged her sons to protect the Sikhs of their village in Chakwal. A Muslim helped save the family of the Bombay megastar Sunil Dutt. A Hindu Brahmin family helped Muslims escape sure massacre in Patiala. Perhaps the most interesting case is that of Chaudhri Roshan Din of Adampur village of Patiala State. He and his brother survived a massacre and then for several days were about to be killed but then also saved by people. I wanted to debunk all stereotyping and show the great variation in human behaviour in such situations. Therefore the evidence goes beyond Manto’s stark realism as well as Krishan Chander’s idealism. Instead it documents the shifting attitudes in the same group and even in the same person. Such evidence proves that life is stranger than fiction. All this is fully documented and I have the cassette tapes with me.
A number of Marxist activists and leaders have been interviewed for this book. One finds it contradictory that on the one hand they are trying to save lives [like Sardar Shaukat Ali and Comrade Bhullar] but on the other hand they have joined the Muslim League that is conniving, if not organizing, at mass murders. Your comments?
This is a very interesting question. The Communist Party of India passed a resolution, known as the Adhikari thesis of 1944, which describes the demand for Pakistan as a legitimate demand of the Muslims to national self-determination because of their poverty and exploitation by moneylenders. There are many theories why this happened. In one sense to describe a nation in religious terms was a negation of both Lenin and Stalin’s take on the national question. I am not sure if Trotsky had a different view. At that time, a Left line had been taken by Stalin on India who believed that Gandhi’s non-violence was an obstacle to armed struggle. Once the CPI decided to support the Pakistan demand ‘Muslim Communists’ were told to join the Muslim League and give the Pakistan campaign a class-struggle character. However, when the actual partition riots took place the Communists did everything to help save lives. They were not there with a communal agenda or mind-set. They acted as men of conscience on that occasion.
Khaksars and Ahrars also emerge as peaceniks, save the case of Mujahid Taj. It seems the religion can be invoked as a liberation theology as well as politicized for genocide. While the Muslim League, Sikh parties, Hindu Mahasaba invoked religion to justify violence, Ahrar and Khaksars were saving lives in the name of religion. Your comments?
I am very pleased you took up this issue. To my very great surprise I found out that pre-partition Punjab did not have a fanatical religious culture. Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and others were religious in a personal sense and their religion was peaceful. This has been the remarkable achievement of hundreds of years of Sufi, Bhakhti and Sikh Gurus’ teachings. Thus traditional religion or folk Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism were spiritual and moral, ethical codes and not calls for religious warfare. It was the politicization of religion by leaders and ethnic activists who manipulated religion to create hatred. The communal parties did it as part of their ideology of course. The Ahrar and Khaksar were religious parties but they were not communal in the negative sense when it came to the future of India.
I do agree religion can at times serve as an ideology of liberation against tyranny and oppression. Mahatma Gandhi’s greatest contribution was to attack the worst features of Hinduism – untouchability, while claiming to be a believing Hindu. Dalit leader Dr Ambedkar was critical of this approach of Gandhi but I think to put upper caste Hindus on the defensive on untouchability it was necessary for someone from among them to start the process. Gandhi’s convoluted approach created the space for Ambedkar to attack the caste system more comprehensively. In Latin America, liberation theology has been a good counterweight to the official Catholic Church’s complicity in supporting dictatorship of the worst kind.
There is a debate in your book on genocide and ethnic cleansing. It seems drawing a line between the two is difficult. At certain point the dividing line blurs. How would you describe the Punjab partition in particular but the Partition in general, was it a genocide, an ethnic cleansing or both?
Here, I think my contribution is quite original. I have argued that there are two ways of dealing with this problem. One, that one tries to establish the intentions of those involved in such activities; two, we look at the outcome. The way I distinguish between the two, genocide is when a group is targeted with the intention of physically destroying it while ethnic cleansing is removing an unwanted people from a given territory. This is a question of intention. One can look at the speeches and statements of leaders and activists to find out what was the intention. It is never easy because such crimes are done in secrecy or let’s say silently. Yet, clues can be found. I have on such a basis argued that it was ethnic cleansing that was the intention on both sides of Punjab. The Rawalpindi attacks on Sikhs were genocidal but they created an outflow of Sikhs in the thousands. Among those Sikhs the foundation of a resistance to Pakistan and revenge for the crimes of March 1947 was laid.
However, we are talking only of Punjab here. On both sides ethnic cleansing took place, the exception was the tiny Malerkotla State where Muslims were not attacked. With regard to the partition of India, while ethnic cleansing took place in West Pakistan, except in Sindh, in the case of India most Muslims were not forced to flee. Only in East Punjab it was ethnic cleansing. In Bengal too mass forced migration did mean millions of people moving but on both sides large minorities stayed put. Outside of Indian East Punjab and Indian West Bengal most Muslims who left did it partly out of free choice but in some cases also after attacks on them took place. In another book of mine, State, Nation and Ethnicity (1996; 1998) I have shown that only 3.5 per cent Muslims from the rest of India migrated to Pakitan.
As regards genocide, well 500,000 to 800,000 Punjabis were killed out of a population of 33 million: it is small portion even when the numbers are big. Had there been no escape routes more would have been killed and that could have then been called a case of genocide. On the other hand, genocidal massacres took place on both sides though one would still argue that on both sides ethnic cleansing in Punjab is the description nearer the truth both in terms of intentions and outcomes. With regard to the partition of India it referred to something that affected 400 million people. Current estimates range between 1-2 million. That is good enough to be classified as genocide in one sense but with regard to the total population of the subcontinent it can also be described as a bloodbath or unprecedented massacre. On the whole, what is ethnic cleansing or genocide can only be determined after a careful scrutiny of evidence and even then sometimes one may not have a clear-cut case of either.
While your book has received excellent reviews both in India and Pakistan, one critic Mr. Yasser Latif Hamdani, has accused you of bias. He thinks you are prejudiced in the case of Jinnah and always glorify Mr. Nehru. At least in this book Nehru has been criticized both by you [for not sharing the secret with others that Partition date has been brought forward] as well as some interviewees. What do you say about Mr. Hamdani’s criticism?
Mr. Yasser Latif Hamdani has very little to say about what is in my book. He has focused on issues peripheral to my book such as the Cabinet Mission Plan. I have in my rejoinders shown that he is wide off the mark even when it refers to the Cabinet Mission Plan. My three rejoinders can be accessed on the following:
With regard to Jinnah, the only place where I do point out his mistake is when he did not issue any statement condemning the carnage of Sikhs in the Rawalpindi, Attock and Jhelum districts. Afterwards he did try to woo the Sikhs but it was too late. The Sikhs feared persecution in a state founded on a religious ideology.
On the other hand, I point out his sagacity and foresightedness when after the Bihar massacre of Muslims in 1946 he proposed a transfer of populations to prevent something similar happening again. Even the Sikhs at one stage suggested population transfers but the British were in a hurry to leave and they had neither the means nor the foresight to anticipate what was going to happen. That is why the Punjab partition was bloody in the worst senses of the word.
Why do you think it is important to document, discuss and debate horrible crimes against humanity like the one the Punjab went through at the time of its partition?
This is a philosophical and moral question. I think all crimes against humanity have to be brought out in the public. This is the least we can do as human beings for those from our species who have been treated so badly. There is also a belief that when honest and impartial research is conducted and the facts are unearthed they become information and knowledge that can be useful to educate people against fanaticism. Some people think that human beings do not learn but I am not sure if that is true.
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.