One of the completest cases of ethnic cleansing – that entailed the murder of 500,000-800,000 Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs – took place in 1947 in the Punjab Province of British India. Until now very little research had been conducted on it though in Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi literature the horrors of the partition have figured extensively, mostly in short stories but also in novels and poetry. The trauma of a gory and shattering destruction of the demographic structure and culture in Punjab has never been absent from the public conscience although the generation that went through it is now on the way out. However, once the Punjab was partitioned it was impossible for an Indian citizen to visit the Pakistani Punjab and do research and likewise a Pakistani scholar stood no chance of doing the same in the Indian Punjab. International research on the Punjab partition had also been limited – confined to some cities and districts.
As a Swedish national of Pakistani origin, I did manage to visit both Punjabs and do extensive field research. Therefore now for the first time after 65 years a holistic, detailed and penetrating research on the events of 1947 have been published under the title, The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed: Unravelling the 1947 Tragedy through Secret British Reports and First-Person Accounts (Oxford University Press, Karachi, 2012, ISBN 9780199064700, pages 640). It is theoretically and empirically a very distinctive study, because it seeks to solve the Punjab partition puzzle as part of a general phenomenon that has appeared elsewhere in the world as well. More than 250 interviews were conducted over a period of 15 years, though the most intense period was 2003-2005 when a very generous research grant from the Swedish Research Council (Vetenskaprådet) enabled me to do field research in both the Indian and Pakistani Punjabs. In some cases I traced people from both sides of the divided Punjab after 50 and more years to check the same incident.
Punjab was partitioned in mid-1947 as part of the overall partition of British India into two independent nations of India and Pakistan. The main party of Indian Muslims, the All-India Muslim League, had argued that the Muslim minority (roughly one-fourth) constituted a separate nation from other communities of India. Therefore they were entitled to a separate state in areas where they were in a majority. This was reluctantly agreed to by the Indian National Congress, the main secular-nationalist party, which was dominated by Hindus. The British, who had decided to withdraw from India by June 1948, also agreed to the partition of India. However, the partition of India was also to include the partition of two Muslim-majority provinces, Bengal and Punjab.
The total population of undivided Punjab was nearly 34 million living in 357,692 sq. km. Of it more than 28 million lived in territories directly administered by the British and its territorial expanse was 256,640 sq. km. The Muslims constituted a slight majority of 53.2%, while Hindus and Sikhs together formed a very large minority. Less than 2% belonged to other religions. In the directly administered British territories the Muslim percentage was slightly higher, 57.1%. The Sikhs, who were a minority of around 14%, were essentially a Punjabi people – their religion and history and most of their community was located in Punjab. On the other hand, Punjabi Hindus and Muslims could link up with their communities in all nooks and corners of India.
The Sikhs were insistent that if India is partitioned on a religious basis then Punjab should also be divided on the same basis. They feared persecution under Muslim rule based on a religious notion of nationhood. The problem was that the Sikhs were not in a majority anywhere in Punjab. They were, however, an important community because they were disproportionately overrepresented in the British Indian Army and were also a propertied community with regard to agricultural land and even business and commerce. When it became clear that India could not remain united because the Muslim League and the Congress would not agree on a mutually acceptable formula the latter threw its full weight behind the Sikh demand for the partition of Punjab. While the western regions had a clear Muslim majority and eastern regions of Punjab a Hindu-Sikh majority the central areas, even though mostly comprising Muslim majority, had substantial Hindu-Sikh minorities and in some districts even majorities.
The book argues that if India had not been partitioned Punjab would also not have been partitioned. However, that did not mean that if India were partitioned then Punjab must also be partitioned. Had the Muslim League and the Sikh leaders agreed to keep Punjab united even if the Punjabi Hindus did not they would have made up such a large majority that Punjab could have remained united. Why could not the Punjabi Muslims and Sikhs agree to that? That is the main puzzle I have tried to solve. No division of Punjab would have been a satisfactory to all three main communities – Punjabi Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. Moreover, any partition of Punjab would have inevitably divided the Sikhs into the two states. 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 pleaded for a power-sharing formula that could prevent its division.
Historically Punjab had excellent record of inter-communal relations as Sufi Islam, the Bhakti Movement of Hindus opposed to the caste system and the early Sikh Gurus (spiritual leaders) had over the centuries preached communal harmony. In the 20th century religious revivals took place, which instead of bringing Punjabis closer drove them away from each other on the basis of religious purity as compared to the folky forms of Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism. Yet, from 1923 onwards when the Punjab Unionist Party, headed by Muslim leaders and supported by Hindus and Sikhs, was founded on shared Punjabi values and interests the three communities had managed to live in peace and harmony. Both the Muslim League and the Congress had no major following in Punjab before the 1940s.
Trouble started in Punjab during the 1945-46 election campaign. The Muslim League had to wrest Punjab away from the Punjab Unionist Party and that necessitated portraying it as an agent of anti-Islam forces. Consequently, ‘Islam in danger’ was launched as the battle cry, the Muslim League was projected as the saviour and Pakistan as the utopia where no exploitation would exist, moneylending would be abolished and a model Muslim society based on Islamic law would come into being. Pages 81-106 of my book The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed provide the details. Islamic slogans, of which the most famous, Pakistan ka nara kiya? La Illaha Illillah (What is the slogan of Pakistan? It is that there is no god but God), were used profusely. The pirs (custodians of Sufi shrines) and ulema (Muslim clerics) told the Muslims that voting for the Muslim League would be voting for the Prophet Muhammad; those Muslims who did not do so, their marriages would be annulled, they would be refused an Islamic burial, and so on. The Hindus and Sikhs were told that they would be tried under Islamic law and they would have to bring their cases to mosques. Governor Sir Bertrand Glancy noted on September 13, 1945, “Muslim Leaguers are doing what they can in the way of propaganda conducted on fanatical lines; religious leaders and religious buildings are being used freely in several places for advocating Pakistan and vilifying any who hold opposite view. Communal feel is, I fear, definitely deteriorating. Sikhs are getting definitely nervous about Pakistan, and I think there is no doubt that they will forcibly resist any attempt to include them in a Muslim Raj” (page 84).
He noted on February 2, just days before the elections, “there seems little doubt that the Muslim League, thanks to the ruthless methods by which they have pursued their campaign of ‘Islam in danger’ will considerably increase the number of their seats and unionist representatives will correspondingly decrease” (page 88). The Muslim League swept the reserved Muslim seats. It won 73 seats (later increased to 75) out of 86. Its tally, however, fell short by at least 10 to form the government in the 175-member Punjab Assembly. The Congress swept the general vote getting 50 seats, and the Sikh Panthic parties secured 23 reserved for the Sikhs. The Unionists were reduced to a rump of 18. The rest were reserved seats for the scheduled castes, Christians and Anglo-Indians. A coalition government comprising the Punjab Unionist Party, the Punjab Congress and the Panthic Parties was formed with Khizr Hayat Tiwana as premier. The Muslim League felt deprived of the chance to form the government but it could not produce evidence that it enjoyed a majority in the Punjab Assembly.
Meanwhile, violence elsewhere in India increased sharply in 1946. The Muslim League ordered ‘Direct Action’ or mass agitation in Calcutta in August 1946. It resulted in thousands of deaths. The violence was unleashed by Muslim groups but later the Hindus and Sikhs struck back with equal savagery. Thousands of people were killed. Violence then spread to Bihar where the provincial Congress government was involved in a butchery of Muslims.
Punjab too was heading towards a confrontation and Chief Secretary Akhtar Hussain reported that “private communal armies” were being recruited. In December 1946, the Sikhs and Hindus of Hazara district, NWFP, were subjected to unprecedented savagery of Muslim mobs. Thousands fled to Punjab, some got refuge in Rawalpindi, but most went eastwards where Sikhs were in substantial numbers. On January 24, Tiwana ordered police raids on the headquarters of the Punjab Muslim League and the RSS. Muslim League leaders who resisted were arrested. It triggered a mass movement of defiance of authority by Muslim League agitators. Every day Muslims courted arrest and the jails were filled with them. Slogan mongering against Tiwana was conducted in the filthiest of Punjabi abuses and taunts. The agitation also became increasingly violent. Glancy’s successor, Governor Sir Evan Jenkins noted in his report dated February 28, “The Sikhs have been profoundly moved by the obvious desire of the Muslims to seize Punjab for themselves and would not permit them to do so. The agitation has shown Pakistan in all its nakedness and was a fair example of the kind of treatment that the minorities, including the Sikhs, might expect from Muslim extremists”(Page 124). Chief Secretary Akhtar Hussain wrote on March 4, 1947, when direct action was over and an uneasy peace had been established, “Muslims in their stupidity disgraced Sikhs, singled out Sikh policemen for their attacks and brutally murdered a Sikh constable. The effect of this was grave in the extreme and, as has been stated, communal strife between Sikhs and Muslims was almost inevitable if the League movement of defiance had continued” (page 125).
On February 20, 1947, the British government had announced the transfer of power to Indians by June 1948. Although the Muslim League agitation ended on February 26 and all Muslim League detainees released, Premier Tiwana had lost heart because British rule would soon end. He therefore resigned on March 2, 1947, precipitating an acute political crisis. On March 3, Master Tara Singh famously flashed his kirpan (sword) outside the Punjab Assembly, calling for the destruction of the Pakistan idea. That evening, Hindu and Sikh leaders gathered in Lahore and made even more extremist speeches (pages 128-135).
Next day Hindu-Sikh protestors and Muslims clashed in Lahore, the capital of undivided Punjab. The same day in the evening, Sikhs and Muslims clashed in nearby Amritsar. On March 5, violence spread to Multan in south-western Punjab and Rawalpindi in north-western. The same day, Governor Jenkins imposed governor’s rule. Punjab remained under governor’s rule until power was transferred to Indian and Pakistani Punjab administrations on August 15, 1947.
In Multan, the fight was uneven from the first day. There were very few Sikhs and the Hindu minority was also heavily outnumbered. Almost all casualties were those of Hindus and a few Sikhs. The gruesome murder of Seth Kalyan Das, a highly respected gentleman, whom all communities respected, is narrated by old-timer Ataullah Malik (pages 160-161).
In Rawalpindi, Hindu-Sikhs and Muslims clashed on March 5. In the evening of March 6, Muslim mobs in the thousands headed towards Sikh villages in Rawalpindi, Attock and Jhelum districts. Until March 13, they had a free hand to kill, burn, rape, and forcibly convert mainly Sikhs but also Hindus. I have given eyewitness testimony of Muslims, and a Sikh survivor from Thamali, interviewing him in Kapurthala city in the Indian East Punjab (pages 165-193). The pictures of the interviewees are also given.
According to British sources, some 2,000 people were killed in the carnage in the three rural districts. The Sikhs claim 7,000 dead. Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League and founder of Pakistan, committed a major blunder when he did not issue any condemnation of those atrocities. An exodus of Sikhs took place in the thousands to the eastern districts and Sikh princely states from Rawalpindi, where they narrated their woes, and set up the nucleus of a revenge movement.
The Sikh leaders had been working on some Sikh princes to convince them to try establishing a Sikh State. If India could be partitioned for two nations based on religion, then why could it not into three for the Sikh nation as well? To achieve that, a compact Sikh majority was needed and that could be achieved only by expelling nearly six million Muslims from East Punjab. However, 1947 was too early for such a bid; it emerged in the 1980s as the Khalistan movement.
By May 1947, it dawned upon Jinnah that the Sikhs were not going to join Pakistan. For a while he argued that Punjabis and Bengalis shared a common culture and identity. However, since it contradicted his basic stand that Hindus and Muslims were separate nations who did not share any national character, the discovery that Punjabis (Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs) and Bengalis (Hindus and Muslims) shared the same culture was the weakest argument in his brief for the Two-Nation Theory. He then demanded that a corridor should be provided through more than 1,000 miles of Indian territory to connect East and West Pakistan!
Nevertheless, Viceroy Mountbatten brokered talks between Jinnah and the Sikhs during May 14-16 with a view to keeping the Punjab united. Jinnah offered very generous terms. Hardit Singh Malik who acted as spokesperson of the Sikhs reported the following concluding remarks:
“This put us in an awkward position. We were determined not to accept Pakistan under any circumstances and here was a Muslim leader offering us everything. What to do? Then I had an inspiration and I said, ‘Mr Jinnah, you are being very generous. But, supposing, God forbid, you are no longer there when the time comes to implement your promises?’ His reply was astounding…He said, ‘My friend, my word in Pakistan will be like the word of God. No one will go back on it.’ There was nothing to be said after this and the meeting ended” (page 213).
Meanwhile, the British military had on May 12, 1947 come round to the view that if Pakistan was created it would be good for their interests in South Asia and the Persian Gulf. On page 209, I have quoted verbatim the memorandum the British heads of the three branches of the armed forces and Field Marshal Montgomery prepared in support of the creation of Pakistan.
In any event, on June 3, 1947, the British government announced the Partition Plan. It brought forward the transfer of power date to India and Pakistan to mid-August 1947. On June 23, the Punjab Assembly voted in favour of partitioning Punjab. It was followed by the deliberations of the Punjab Boundary Commission, which culminated in the Radcliffe Award of August 13, which was made public on August 17. In June, the Hindu-Sikh locality of Shahalmi in Lahore was set ablaze. I traced one of the culprits whose confession is given in detail on pages 237-243. Until July, the East Punjab Muslims were not attacked. On August 17, when the Radcliffe Award became public, all hell broke loose on the East Punjab Muslims. In India, scores of studies exist on the suffering of Hindus and Sikhs in what became West Punjab. The fact is that more Muslims were killed in East Punjab than Hindus and Sikhs combined in West Punjab. 500,000-800,000 Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs lost their lives altogether. The macabre dance of death that took place in western Punjab until June 1947 was now played out in East Punjab more pitilessly and on a much grander scale.
The evidence is based on heart-wrenching interviews I conducted over a period of 15 years with many Muslims. Pages 411-525 highlight the slaughter of Muslims. The book also documents cases of extreme magnificence as Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs saved lives across the communal divide, sometimes of complete strangers and at great risk to their own lives. Humanity was debased in 1947 but not without outstanding examples of sublimation as well.
At the end of the day, 10 million Punjabis had been driven away from their ancestral abodes: it is the greatest forced migration in modern history. Except for the tiny Malerkotla State, Indian East Punjab was emptied of all Muslims; equally, from the Pakistani West Punjab, Hindus and Sikhs were driven out to the last man almost.
I have developed a theory of ethnic cleansing, which is tested in the Punjab case. It has also served as the theoretical framework to explain and analyse the events that transpired in Punjab in 1947. The theory can be usefully employed to analyse the events of ex-Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Iran and other such cases. Each case has its unique characteristics but they also share some essential common features. Among them the main are the end of a particular type of state system without a power-sharing formula being agreed among apprehensive communities suffering from great anxiety about an uncertain future. When state functionaries assume partisan roles ethnic cleansing and genocide can take place as organized force and terror can be used against the enemy groups.
by Ishtiaq Ahmed
The writer has a PhD from Stockholm University. He is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University. He is also Honorary Senior Fellow of the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. His latest publication is: The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed: Unravelling the 1947 Tragedy through Secret British Reports and First-Person Accounts (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2012; New Delhi: Rupa Books, 2011). He can be reached at: email@example.com
Rohingya: Rohingya is an ethnic minority with dark skin, Muslim beliefs and, for the most part, no citizenship anywhere. Some groups live as sea nomads. Others live as illegal immigrants in Thailand, India or Bangladesh. Some live in refugee camps different places. Most live in poverty and most live in Burma.
Nobody likes the Rohingya here, though:
Since the group was collectively stripped of citizenship in the 80s by Burmese strongman, Ne Win, they have been systematically persecuted by authorities, and denial of basic human rights, humiliation, slander and ethnically motivated violence are existing circumstances in the life the Rohingya. This does not differ them from a range of other minorities, especially not in Burma, where the government frequently is at war with rogue militias representing repressed ethnic groups in the country.
But the scale of it does. The above is the preexisting condition. This is the current situation:
In May this year, a young Buddhist girl was raped by three Muslim. It happened in the Northern province of Arakan and that is an absolute disaster. It is horrible to that girl and her family.
But the retaliation… The retaliation for the incident was brutal and frightening:
A mob of Buddhist Burmese attacked a busload of Rohingya people, killing 10 of them. Fighting erupted and spread, and this is what happened over the next few weeks:
The already overwhelmingly larger group of Buddhists was aided in carrying out organized attacks on several Rohingya villages by the military. The attackers rounded up the villagers, put them in vans and took them to concentration camps. Several girls were raped, houses were burned down, people were beaten and tortured. 650 Rohingya is confirmed dead, 50,000 have been displaced and an unknown number is simply: missing.
The main reason why this was frightening was not the violence itself though, although that is certainly frightening enough.
The main reason was that these attacks are largely supported by the Buddhist people of Burma.
Yup. That´s the same dudes that marched so beautifully peaceful in their orange robes in 2008, and for the first time really gave the Burmese people the international focus it needed to make changes. It is the same people who through 20 years waited quietly and took abuse from a self installed government, only to turn out by the thousands at the house of Ang San Suu Kyi to see her released.
Those are the people, who, when asked, cannot see anything particularly wrong with ridding Burma of Rohingya all together. Burmese bloggers have deemed them “thieves, dogs, terrorists and black monsters.” Burmese historians have challenged their “burmeseness” due to their aforementioned black skin, dialect and religion.
Even The Lady is hesitant to denounce the violence, knowing that by doing so she will estrange a large part of her followers.
So congratulations, Burma, on all the positive changes you have achieved in the past year or so. Hooray for brave monks, for the Saffron Revolution, for the free Lady and for finally starting to move towards democracy. That is fantastic, no one in their right mind will argue otherwise.
By the way, the definition of Genocide, as per the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide is:
“any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
Freelance journalist and NIAS Associate, Bangkok
by Gerhard Hoffstaedter, School of Social Science at the University of Queensland
Aung San Suu Kyi has just left Myanmar (Burma) for the first time in 24 years visiting Thailand and Europe and calling for more foreign investment in Myanmar. Meanwhile, ethnic tensions in Myanmar continue to erupt to the surface in a country that is slowly shaking off its pariah status in international affairs.
The recent by-elections in Myanmar, in which Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy claimed 43 of the 45 seats available, have awakened hope and a flurry of activity around the world to weaken if not dissolve the Western sanctions regime against the ruling military junta.
For now, Suu Kyi will take her seat in a parliament that remains firmly in the hands of the military-backed ruling party.
The by-election follows extensive market reforms, the release from house arrest of Suu Kyi, the re-registration of her party that allowed her to contest the election, the freeing of political prisoners, and the relaxation of media censorship controls.
It seems like Myanmar is coming in from the cold. More than that, Myanmar is open for business and everyone is lining up to enter a large domestic market of 60 million untapped consumers and a largely un- or underdeveloped natural resources sector.
Thailand has a long trading history with Myanmar, dominated by logging and the import of natural gas among other natural resources. It is, however, the access to cheap labour in Myanmar that is seen as a great drawcard for manufacturing industries. Already Thailand is profiting from the cheap labour of Myanmarese refugees in Thailand who work illegally in the agriculture and manufacturing sectors, most often on an itinerant basis.
Long the preserve of Thai business interests and cross-border trade, Myanmar is of great geo-strategic importance to the region as a whole, and its other neighbours are entering the fray. Two global players are increasingly overtaking the Thai special relationship: China and India.
At the forefront of this regional engagement is the Dawei Deep Seaport currently under construction in Myanmar’s south. It will offer an alternative entrée into the Indian north-east and Chinese southern markets. It will also be the country’s first special economic zone as well as the entire region’s largest combined port and economic zone.
Thailand stands to gain most from this endeavour. Firstly, as its closest neighbour, long-time investor and main trading partner, Thailand will have direct access to cheap labour, resource abundance and offer itself as a transit point for goods to Cambodia and Vietnam. Already, a Thai construction company is the main contractor for the first phase of the project and further investments in the energy and manufacturing sectors are in the offing. The figures are staggering. The first phase alone of the $US58 billion project is worth $US8.6 billion.
Secondly, Thailand still houses millions of irregular migrants in its borders, most of whom have fled or left Myanmar for Thailand. This massive scheme offers a way to resettle and offer opportunities to, especially, the economic migrants.
Indeed, some have begun to trickle back to Myanmar, including political exiles. The government is wooing them back for their expertise and capacity to support the burgeoning economy.
However, the Myanmar government has its work cut out to capitalise on these opportunities. On the one hand, China, in particular, will require order and stability in Myanmar to provide safe transport links for their products as a viable alternative to the South China Sea. On the other, the West and some ASEAN members will require Myanmar’s rulers to, at least, offer some vestiges of democratic governance (as we are seeing at the moment) and a durable solution to the refugee crisis along the Myanmar/Thai border and wider ethnic tensions.
Some of these tensions have resulted in all-out wars with intermittent ceasefires. The situation in the uplands and ethnic held areas continues to be tense, and despite the recent political changes in the capital, the situation for ethnic minorities has not changed significantly.
Thousands are still fighting insurgencies and vast stretches of the country remain off limits to government troops. These conflicts continue to elicit a steady stream of refugees and asylum seekers fleeing the fighting to Thailand, Malaysia, Bangladesh, India and beyond. The diaspora networks of these refugee populations span the globe with small minorities settling in Europe, the US, Canada and Australia.
Since last June, for example, the army has been in a protracted war in Kachin state, again displacing thousands of civilians. While some ethnic conflicts have calmed and ceasefires have been in place, the Kachin conflict is again causing destruction in the poorest, remotest and most disadvantaged areas of Myanmar.
Asked about the tens of thousands of refugees living in Malaysia recently, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi said that it was too early to return to Myanmar as, “They have got to have something to return to.”
Indeed, but the situation for them in refugee camps in the region or living as illegal immigrants in places like Malaysia, which does not recognise refugees, is no solution either. Late last year, Malaysia introduced a new registration program for illegal migrants, called the 6P program.
The program was designed to find out how many undocumented workers are currently in Malaysia and whether they can be retrenched into specific sectors that are in need of labour, or repatriated.
The program has been aided by the mass mobilisation of the army, police force, immigration department, and RELA, an auxiliary police force that is undertrained and poorly resourced but ideologically driven.
In addition, the Malaysian home minister proposed an immigration detainee swap program last year, no doubt inspired by the so-called Malaysia-swap agreement between Australia and Malaysia. The deal would see Myanmar nationals detained in Malaysia ‘swapped’ for Malaysian nationals detained in Myanmar.
The Malaysian government’s attempt to systematically register illegal immigrants living and working in Malaysia is aimed at enabling better law enforcement. However, the final part of the program is ‘repatriation’, i.e. deportation of those not needed in the Malaysian economy and those deemed unsuitable, e.g. those with criminal convictions. Caught in the midst of all this are the thousands of asylum seekers, political exiles and refugees who have fled Myanmar’s enduring conflicts.
It is they who fear ‘repatriation’ most, as they have no homeland to return to, much less interest in doing so.
Author’s note: The people I work with, mostly ethnic refugees from Myanmar, call the country Myanmar because calling it Burma invokes the notion that the country belongs to the Burmese Bamar, the dominant ethnic group. Most Western governments refer to the country as Burma.
Gerhard Hoffstaedter is a lecturer in anthropology in the School of Social Science at the University of Queensland. His first book Modern Muslim Identities: Negotiating Religion and Ethnicity in Malaysia is published by NIAS Press.
This article was first published by the ABC Drum.