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Partition - August 1947

At midnight, on August 15, 1947, India and Pakistan strode to freedom. The British could have set a deadline for the accession of all princely states before 14 August 1947 but for some odd reasons they opted to avoid setting of such a date. The division of the Indian subcontinent involved the partition of two large provinces of Punjab and Bengal. Nobody expected the kind of population exchange that took place once London signaled its intention to leave its Indian Empire in the hands of the two successor states. What followed was "ethnic cleansing" - a term that was to gain currency later in the 20th century.

The holding up of trains and the massacre of all those from the opposite community of the gangs that held them up became the virtual hallmark of partition violence. By 15 August the rail service in the Punjab was seriously disturbed following killings in Lahore station. On 24 August, railtravel was officially declared unsafe throughout east and west Punjab. Guarding refugee trains imposed an additional burdenon the Boundary Force, for, it must be remembered, no transfer of populations was intended to occur. However, 11 Brigade at Jullundur found it necessary by mid-August to allocateone of its six under-strength battalions to fulltime railway guardduty. Moreover, by the end of the month, 70 per cent of the attacks on trains had taken place in areas - including princely states - outside the Boundary Force's authority.

The Sikh political leaders made it clear that, though they had demanded partition, they would not tolerate a division of the Punjab that went against the interests of their community. But there was in fact no possible division of the Punjab that could prevent the division of the Sikhs, and the loss of their rich agricultural land and of numerous shrines they considered sacred. The Sikh leaders made it clear, that they anticipated an exchange of population on both sides of the border between the West and Wast Punjab. Nor did the Sikh leaders hide the fact that they intended to bring this about by violent means. This area of India had provided a substantial and heavily Sikh component to the British armed forces in World War II. Violent attacks on the Muslim population in East Punjab would force them to migrate west, so that the Sikh population in West Punjab would migrate east to replace them and take their lands and property in exchange for what they would lose in the west.

The Sikhs, their leading political organization, the Akali Dal, and its leaders, particularly Master Tara Singh and Giani Kartar Singh, have come in for a very great share of the blame for the mass migrations and violence that occurred in the Punjab. The Sikh started systematic attacks on Muslims in various parts of Punjab. In Eastern Punjab and the adjoining Sikh princely states (particularly Patiala) the violence was marked by the prominent role of Sikh jathas (bands of 20 to 600 men); the police and the army remained rather passive. The rulers of some states of Punjab (Patiala, Kapurthala and others) not only allowed the marauding Sikh bands to use their territories as sanctuaries but also beefed up their strength by encouraging their own state troops to join in the killing sprees.

Sikh groups were far from alone in engaging in acts of violence, massacre, rape, and abduction to force the migration of peoples from one side of the new border to the other. Such acts were carried out extensively also by Muslim groups and gangs in West Punjab who attacked Hindus and Sikhs and, though much less is known about it, by Hindu groups and gangs in East Punjab who, like the Sikh gangs, attacked the Muslim population in East Punjab to compel its movement west.

Partition unleashed untold misery and loss of lives and property as millions of Hindu and Muslim refugees fled either Pakistan or India. The violence in 1947 was exceptionally brutal and large in scale; but the underlying attitudes had long been in the making. Families were torn apart in a population exchange that uprooted more than 14 million people during the months after independence. By one account, over 8 million refugees poured across borders to regions completely foreign to them, whith other accounts state that about 7 million people migrated to Pakistan from India and vice-versa. By another estimate, Partition resulted in the forced movement of 20 million people (Hindus and Sikhs to India and Muslims to Pakistan). Most estimates of the numbers of people who crossed the boundaries between India and Pakistan in 1947 range between 10 and 12 million.

The migrations and the violence were regionally confined. They were not all-India phenomena. Partition brought, by one estimate, five million refugees from east Punjab to west Punjab after the British decided to leave their Indian empire in the hands of the successor states of India and Pakistan. While 5 million people left India for Pakistan, about the same number of people moved in the other direction. By another estimate, 4 million Hindus and Sikhs moved from West to East Punjab and 5 to 6 million Muslims moved from East to West Punjab. In the late 1940s, more than one-quarter of Punjab's population of about 19 million was made up of refugees. Sikhs, caught in the middle of Punjab's new "line," suffered the highest percentage of casualties. Most Sikhs finally settled in India's much-diminished border state of Punjab. Some though the Punjab disturbances were the direct result of Mountbatten's unwisdom in accelerating the date of partition, and that if Punjab had been given time, the terrible massacre of August, September and October could have been avoided.

The death toll of this terrible episode remains very much contested. Hundreds of thousands of people died, as Hindus and Sikhs fled to India, Muslims to Pakistan, and many others were caught up in a chaotic transition. A consensus figure of 500,000 is often used, but the sources closer to the truth give figures that range between 200,000 and 360,000 dead. By other estimates, Partition resulted in as many as 1.5 million deaths. The word genocide did not come to the minds of observers at the time, though there were genocidal aspects to what finally developed.

There has been surprisingly little detailed reporting and accounting of precisely what happened: how the migrations and violence associated with partition did in fact happen. Though some guns and bombs were available, the predominant methods used were cutting and axing of people to bits or burning them alive. The rape and abduction of women constituted a dishonoring of the male members of the community and of the community as a whole. Untold numbers of women and children were "saved" by being slaughtered by their own fathers and brothers to prevent their capture, abduction, rape, and conversion during these raids. One Mangal Singh, for example, during an attack upon his village cut off the heads of 17 women and children in his own family one by one in full view of all members of the family, though he and his son ultimately escaped, reached safety in India, and fostered new families.

The political game played by the leaders and authorities was to insist that the actions of persons from one's own community were spontaneous, while those from the other side were pre-planned. But there can be no massacre by the populace without both planning and enthusiasm. Massacres by the authorities require only planning, but popular participation requires enthusiasm. The testimony of the villagers who cut off the heads of their children or consigned them to the flames and killed their women or the latter's suicides is that they acted to save their honor, the reputation of their families and that of their villages, and to prevent forced conversion of their children to another religion.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:28:05 ZULU