Ethnic cleansing and genocidal massacres 65 years ago by Ishtiaq Ahmed

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.

Map of Punjab 1941

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: