August 14th and 15th are celebrated as the days of independence of Pakistan and India from direct British imperialist rule. It is celebrated with great pomp and fervour, prompted by the state and the corporate media. The official historians of the ruling classes both in India and Pakistan have their own interpretations of the struggle for independence, suiting the interests of their bosses. However, this independence came about in the midst of a traumatic partition of the Subcontinent into two truncated states, Pakistan and India, accompanied by a communal holocaust. A frenzy of madness and a ferocious campaign of murder were unleashed on a religious and ethnic basis. More than 750,000 people were slaughtered, hundreds of thousands maimed, and 12 million fled their homes — primarily in caravans of bullock-carts and blood-spattered trains — to seek refuge across the new border in what was the largest exodus in history. The outpouring of sexual savagery left scars that time has failed to cleanse. In Punjab, the atrocities cursing its inhabitants were embellished by an orgy of rape. Tens of thousands of girls and women were seized from crowded trains, refugee caravans and isolated villages in the most sickening spree of abductions in modern times. Here, we are publishing the excerpts from comrade Lal Khan’s masterpiece “PARTITION: can it be undone?” for our readers.
TRAUMA OF PARTITION
A MOVEMENT GONE BERSERK
When the curve of historical development
rises, public thinking becomes more
penetrating, braver and more ingenious.
It grasps facts on the wing,
and on the wing links them
with the thread of generalisation…
When the political curve indicates a drop,
public thinking succumbs to stupidity.
The priceless gift of political generalisation
without leaving even a trace.
Stupidity grows in insolence, and,
baring its teeth, heaps insulting mockery
on every attempt at a serious generalisation.
Feeling that it is in command of the field,
it begins to resort to its own means
Leon Trotsky (1909)
A revolutionary or a pre-revolutionary situation does not last forever. Mass movements and upsurges move in ebbs and flows. Once a movement ebbs, the darker side of society comes to the fore. After the Second World War, massive upheavals occurred across the globe. It was perhaps the largest mobilisation and upheaval of mankind, since the fall of the Roman Empire.
British Imperialism Retreats
The betrayal of the mass movement in India was not unique. In a number of countries, Social Democracy and Stalinist leaders betrayed the post-war revolutionary movements. As the movement ebbed in the subcontinent and the revolution was betrayed, the impoverished masses suffered the consequences.
With the exit of the CPI from the leadership of the national liberation movement, the political representatives of the Indian bourgeoisie took over. Even in the absence of any real opposition, they were unable to keep the struggle united and carry out a peaceful transition. If the truth be told, the Indian bourgeoisie never fought a freedom struggle. They actually negotiated and bargained the struggle of the masses with the British rulers. They wanted direct rule in their own hands. The British could not hold on to power. As the movement surged ahead, mass revolts and desertions occurred in the British armies.
On 14 August 1945, two atom bombs were dropped on Japan… not only to defeat the Japanese but also to bring the war to an abrupt end. The wave of desertions of the soldiers and young officers of the Allied armies made it more and more difficult for the capitalists to continue the war. At the same time, anti-war sentiment in Europe and the United States of America was on the increase. Several anti-war movements were emerging. Winston Churchill and his Conservative Party faced a humiliating defeat in the first post-war elections in Britain; anti-war sentiment had had a strong impact on the electorate. On 26 July 1945, the results of the British national elections were announced. Labour, under the leadership of Clement Attlee, won a sweeping victory, winning 388 seats in the British Parliament. The British government now had no choice but to quit India.
The Labour administration, in spite of its reformist posture, was as committed as the Tories to the continuation of capitalist rule in what would become the former colonies of the Empire. All their efforts were directed towards the goal of continued imperialist exploitation of India in the post-independence period. Attlee’s choice of Lord Mountbatten (a grandson of Queen Victoria) as India’s last Viceroy made it clear that the Labour government would continue with the same policies as its Tory predecessors.
As the movement intensified, frantic efforts were made to undermine the National Independence movement among the British rulers in India, Congress and Muslim League leaders. To substantiate its stance on Partition, the Muslim bourgeoisie hired Jinnah, who was a competent barrister from Lincolns Inn, London, and gave him carte blanche to plead their case for a separate Pakistan. The bourgeoisie showed that their loyalties remained with the British during this pre-Partition period, and on the verge of independence, their behaviour exposed their reactionary character. Partition has been a heated debate ever since.
The actions of Nehru, Gandhi, Patel and other Hindu and Muslim leaders of Congress belied their words. As we will see shortly, their rejection of the British Cabinet’s Mission Plan in 1946, and other acts of subversion, actually paved the way for Partition. The revolutionary tide had peaked, and leadership was now ebbing because of a lack of a clear perspective.
The British Empire and its political representatives had no fixed plan for how to leave India. Like all rulers, on one hand, they were afraid of a revolution, and on the other, they wanted to avoid anarchy. Both outcomes would have hindered and disrupted the profit system and endangered the properties and assets of the ruling elites. They therefore tried to effect a peaceful transition. They sent several missions from Whitehall to develop a feasible plan that would ensure the continuation of the capitalist rule and imperialist plunder. One of these missions was the Cabinet Mission sent to India in 1946.
The Cabinet Mission arrived in India in early May. On 16 May, the Cabinet Mission Plan was published. The central government would be responsible solely for defence, foreign affairs and communications. It divided the subcontinent into three zones: A, B and C. Section B would include Punjab, Sindh, NWFP (North Western Frontier Province) and British Baluchistan. A majority of Muslims would be in this area. In section C, which included Bengal and Assam, the Muslims would have a small majority. The Cabinet Mission thought that this arrangement would give assurance to the Muslim minority and satisfy all the legitimate fears of the Muslim League. At first, Jinnah was opposed completely to the scheme. The Muslim League had gone so far in its demand for a separate independent state that it was difficult for it to retrace its steps. Azad, president of Congress, was in favour of accepting the proposal. The Muslim League council deliberated for three days before coming to a decision. On the final day, Jinnah seemed to favour acceptance of the Cabinet Mission Plan. He told the council that the scheme presented by the Cabinet Mission was the best that they could hope for and, as such, he advised the Muslim League to accept the scheme. The council voted unanimously in its favour. This in reality meant a retreat from Partition. The acceptance of the Cabinet Mission plan both by Congress and the Muslim League was an important event in the history of the liberation movement of India.
Later on, however, a difference of opinion in the inner circles of Congress started to emerge. At the same time, the question of a new president for Congress had to be considered. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad had been the president from 1939 to 1946. His retirement was long overdue. On one hand, Sardar V Patel and his friends were vying for the post; on the other hand, as the factional struggle heated up, it became more and more evident that Jawaharlal Nehru would become president. On 26 April 1946, Azad issued a statement that proposed Nehru’s name for the coveted post and appealed to Congress that they should elect him unanimously. Later in Azad’s memoirs, he called it:
Perhaps the greatest blunder of my political life. It was a mistake which I can describe in Gandhiji’s words as one of Himalayan dimension
Nehru was accepted unanimously The Muslim League Council had accepted the Cabinet Mission plan, as had the Congress working committee; however, needed the approval of the All India Congress Committee (AICC). It was thought that this could be a formal matter, as the AICC always had ratified the decisions of the working committee. Accordingly, a meeting of the AICC was called at Bombay on 7 July 1946. After an intense debate, a vote was taken, and a resolution of acceptance was passed with an overwhelming majority. On 10 July 1946, however, Nehru held a press conference in Bombay in which he made an astonishing statement. Some press representatives asked him whether the passing of the resolution meant the AICC Congress accepted the plan in total, including the composition of the interim Government. Jawaharlal Nehru in reply stated that Congress would enter the constituent assembly: “completely unfettered by agreements and free to meet all situations as they arise”. In reply to another question, Nehru said emphatically that Congress had agreed only to participate in the constituent Assembly and regarded itself free to change or modify the Cabinet Mission plan as it thought best.
The Die is Cast
This change of heart on Nehru’s part made it impossible to avoid Partition on a bourgeois basis forever. This sudden turn by Nehru exposed the narrow-mindedness of the Indian bourgeoisie and the secretive forces that were working behind the scenes bent on partitioning the subcontinent. Obviously those forces were afraid that in an unpartitioned India, the threat of class struggle and revolutionary upheavals against capitalism and imperialist domination would remain very much alive and vibrant. Nehru’s position reflected the majority views of the ruling elite. The extent to which Lord Mountbatten, Lady Edwina and Mount Menon played a role in coaxing Nehru into this remains a secret of history.
The Muslim League had only accepted the Cabinet Mission plan under duress. Naturally, Jinnah was not very happy about it. In his speech to the League council, he had clearly stated that he recommended acceptance only because nothing better could be obtained. His political adversaries started to criticise him by saying that he had failed to deliver his promises. They accused him of having given up the idea of an independent Islamic state. They also taunted him, asking why had Jinnah made so much fuss about an independent state if the League was willing to accept the Cabinet Mission plan that denied the right of the Muslims to form a separate state?
Nehru’s statement had been a complete surprise! Jinnah immediately demanded a complete review of the whole situation and asked Liaquat Ali Khan to call a meeting of the League Council to issue this demand. Now that the Congress president had declared that Congress could change the scheme through its majority in the constituent Assembly, this left the minorities at the mercy of the majority. Jinnah’s felt that Nehru’s declaration meant that Congress had rejected the Cabinet Mission Plan and that, because of this, the Viceroy should call upon the Muslim League, which had accepted the plan to form the government.
Jinnah had always deeply resented Congress leaders. The turning point in his career had come after the 1937 elections when Congress refused to share with him and his Muslim League the spoils of office in the Indian provinces where there was a substantial Muslim minority. Jinnah was a man of towering vanity and he took Congress’s action as a personal rebuke. It convinced him that he and the Muslim League would never get a fair deal from an India run by Congress. The former apostle of Hindu–Muslim unity became the unyielding advocate of Pakistan, the project he had labelled an “impossible dream” barely four years earlier.
A more improbable leader of India’s Muslim masses could hardly be imagined. The only thing Muslim about Mohammed Ali Jinnah was his parents’ religion. He drank, ate pork, religiously
shaved his beard each morning and just as religiously avoided the mosque each Friday. God and the Koran had no place in Jinnah’s vision of the world. His political foe, Gandhi, knew more verses of the Muslim Holy Book than he did. Jinnah had been able to achieve the remarkable feat of securing the allegiance of the vast majority of India’s Muslims without being able to articulate more than a few sentences in their traditional tongue, Urdu.
Jinnah despised India’s masses. He detested the dirt, the heat and the crowds of India. He delighted in touring India’s Muslim cities in princely processions, riding under victory arches on a kind of Rose bowl style float, preceded by silver-harnessed elephants and a band booming out “God save the King” because, Jinnah observed, it was the only tune the crowd knew. Jinnah had only scorn for his Hindu rivals. He labelled Nehru a Peter Pan, a “literary figure” who “should have been an English professor, not a politician”, “an arrogant Brahmin who covers his Hindu trickiness under a veneer of Western education”. Gandhi, to Jinnah, was “a cunning fox”, “a Hindu revivalist.” Jinnah never forgot the sight of the Mahatma in his mansion, stretched out on one of his priceless Persian carpets with his mudpack on his belly.
Congress and Partition
The Muslim League Council met in Bombay on 27 July 1946. Jinnah in his opening speech reiterated the demand for Pakistan as the only course open to the Muslim League. After three days’ discussion, the Council passed the resolution rejecting the Cabinet Mission Plan. It decided to resort to direct action for the achievement of Pakistan.
Azad and several leading members of Congress were perturbed by this new development. They demanded an immediate meeting of the Congress working committee. Nehru reluctantly agreed. The Congress working committee met on 8 August 1946. In the meeting, Azad pointed out that if they wanted to save the situation they must make it clear that the statement of Congress at the Bombay press conference was Nehru’s personal opinion and did not conform to the decisions of Congress. Nehru responded that it would be embarrassing to Congress and to him personally if the working committee passed a resolution maintaining that the statement of the Congress President did not represent the policy of Congress. The working committee was now in a dilemma. Ultimately, it drafted a resolution that made no reference to Nehru’s statement. A paragraph of the resolution read as follows:
…the committee wishes to make it clear that while they did not approve of all the proposals contained in the statement they accepted the scheme in its entirety… The committee hopes that the Muslim League and all other concerned, in the wider interests of the nation as well as of their own, join in this great task.
Jinnah was not taken in by this, however, and, convinced that Nehru’s statement represented the real mind of Congress, he argued that if Congress could change its position so many times while still under British rule, what assurance could the minorities have that Congress would not again change its mind once the British left?
Black Days in the History of India
Commenting on these events, Azad, in his book “India Wins Freedom”, dedicated to “Jawaharlal Nehru, friend and comrade”, attributed the tragedy as follows:
This was one of the greatest tragedies of the Indian History and I have to say with the deepest regret that a large part of the responsibility for this development rests with Jawaharlal. His unfortunate statement that Congress would be free to modify the Cabinet Mission Plan reopened the whole question of political and communal settlement. Mr. Jinnah took full advantage of his [Nehru’s] mistake and withdrew from the League’s early acceptance of the Plan.
In most of the works on Partition, Gandhi is portrayed as the crusader of unity. Azad, his close associate and the former president of Congress, in “India Wins Freedom” said about Gandhi’s position on Partition:
But when I met Gandhiji again, I had the greatest shock of my life to find that he had changed. He was still not openly in favour of Partition but he no longer spoke so vehemently against it. What surprised and shocked me even more was that he began to repeat the arguments which Sardar Patel had already used. For over two hours I pleaded with him, but could make no impression on him.
Sardar Vallahbhai Patel was India’s quintessential politician. He was an oriental Tammany Hall boss who ran the machinery of Congress Party with a firm and ruthless hand. Patel had a well-earned reputation for ruthlessness. In his days as a practicing lawyer, he was passed a cable announcing his wife’s death as he was pacing the floor of a Bombay courtroom summing up his case for the jury. He glanced at it, thrust it into his pocket, and continued his peroration. The incident formed a part of the legend of Vallahbhai Patel and was indicative of the man. Emotion, one of his associates once observed, formed no part of his character. He was probably the most reactionary leader of Congress and was the first man in India to fall for Lord Mountbatten’s idea.
When Lord Mountbatten suggested that Partition might offer a solution to the present difficulty, he found Sardar Patel receptive to this. In fact, Sardar Patel was half in favour of Partition before Lord Mountbatten appeared on the scene. He was convinced that he could not work with the Muslim League. Again, Azad describes the role of Patel in India Wins Freedom: “It would not perhaps be unfair to say that Vallahbhai Patel was the founder of Indian Partition.”
Patel was very amenable to Lord Mountbatten’s charm and the power of his personality. Privately Mountbatten always referred to Patel as a walnut a very hard crust outside but soft pulp once the crust was cracked. Azad continued:
I was surprised when Patel said whether we liked it or not, there were two nations in India. He was now convinced that Muslims and Hindus could not be united into one nation. It was better to have one clean fight and then separate than have bickering everyday. I was surprised that Patel was now an even greater supporter of the two-nation theory than Jinnah. Jinnah may have raised the flag of Partition but now the real flag bearer was Patel.
When Patel was convinced, Lord Mountbatten turned his attention to Nehru. Again according to Azad:
Jawaharlal was not first ready for the idea and reacted violently against the idea of Partition. Lord Mountbatten persisted till Jawaharlal’s opposition was worn down step by step. Within a month of Mountbatten’s arrival in India, Jawaharlal, the firm opponent of Partition had become, if not a supporter at least acquiescent to the idea. I have wondered how Jawaharlal was won over by Lord Mountbatten. He is a man of principle but he is also impulsive and amenable to personal influences. I think one factor responsible for the change was the personality of Lady [Edwina] Mountbatten. She is not only extremely intelligent but has a most attractive and friendly temperament. She admired her husband very greatly and in many cases tried to interpret his thoughts to those who would not at first agree with him.
Azad’s analysis highlights the contradictions between the Indian bourgeois leaders and the British rulers.
The AICC met on 14 June 1947. Congress, which had always fought for the unity and independence of India, was considering an official resolution for dividing the country. It was an abject surrender on the part of Congress. Sardar Patel argued that the resolution for the division did not arise out of weakness or compulsion but was the only true resolution in the context of the existing circumstances. After the first day’s debate, there was very strong feeling against the Working Committee’s resolution. Neither Pundit Pant’s persuasiveness nor Sardar Patel’s eloquence had been able to persuade the people to accept this resolution. It therefore became necessary for Gandhi to intervene in the debate. He appealed to the members to support the Congress Working Committee. Political realism demanded the acceptance of the Mountbatten Plan, and Sardar Patel appealed to members to accept the resolution moved by Pundit Pant. When the resolution was put to the vote, only 29 voted for Partition while 15 voted against. Even Gandhi could not persuade more members to vote for the Partition of the country!
In the meeting of AICC, the members from Sindh vehemently opposed the resolution. They were given all kinds of assurances. In private discussions, they were told that if they suffered any disability or indignity in Pakistan, India would retaliate on the Muslims in India. This implied that both in India and Pakistan, hostages would be held responsible for the security of the minority community in the other State. This was a barbarous idea and could only escalate racial tensions. Acharya Kripalani, who was president of Congress at this time, realised these dangerous implications and understood that once such a feeling was allowed to grow, it could only lead to oppression and the murder of Hindus in Pakistan and Muslims in India. The rivers of blood, which flowed after Partition on both sides of the new frontier, had their origins in this concept of hostage and retaliation.
The British Government had originally fixed a period of fifteen months for completing the transfer of power. Attlee had in fact explicitly stated in February 1947 that it was the definite intention of the British Government to affect the transfer of power to “responsible Indian hands” by a date no later than June 1948. A great deal had happened, however, between 20 February and 3 June. Now that the plan for Partition was accepted, Mountbatten stated that the scheme be brought into effect as quickly as possible. He probably feared that delay might bring up new impediments to his plan. Mountbatten set a deadline of three months for the Partition of India. It was decided that the Indian Dominion would come into existence on 15 August 1947. The Muslim League decided that Pakistan should be constituted a day earlier on 14 August.
On 14 August, Lord Mountbatten went to Karachi to inaugurate the Dominion of Pakistan. He returned the next day and at midnight on 15 August 1947, the Indian Dominion was born. Once again, according to Azad: “If a united India had become free, there was little chance that British could retain her position in the economic and industrial life of India”.
The two new states were born amidst the slaughter and bloodshed that Ghandi wanted to avoid. Thousands of years of religious, ethnic and communal harmony was shattered in a matter of days, as families were uprooted from their ancestral towns and villages and whole trainloads of people killed in the carnage. Partition of the Indian subcontinent was probably one of the most horrific episodes of the twentieth century. The dawn of 14th August 1947 was red not with revolution but with the blood of millions of innocent oppressed people…blood spilled by the reactionary madness of religious bigotry. The magnitude of the carnage stunned even those who had been the main advocates of Partition. The atrocities committed have become horror stories for future generations. The most brutalised regions were Punjab and Bengal. The irony is that the first two papers of the Communist Party of India came out in Punjabi (Kirti (Worker) from Amritsar) and Bengali (Langal (Plough) from Calcutta). Yet the workers and peasants of Bengal and Punjab suffered the biggest massacre of Partition. The stiletto of Partition drenched in the poison of communal hatred had pierced two nationalities right through the heart.
Callousness of British Imperialism
Mountbatten knew one thing that could sour in an instant the “celebratory” atmosphere he was so carefully creating: the “boundary award” that Sir Cyril Radcliff was completing in his green-shuttered bungalow. On no account did Mountbatten want the details revealed before the independence ceremonies were held. He knew that Radcliff’s decision would cause grave complications. India and Pakistan would come into existence without the leaders of either nation being aware of two of the vital components of their nationhood: the number of citizens whose allegiance they commanded and the location of their most important frontiers. Thousands of people in hundreds of villages in the Punjab and Bengal would have to spend 15 August in fear and uncertainty… unable to celebrate because they would not know to which Dominion they were going to belong. In addition, there would be areas without proper administrative and police arrangements. Knowing all this, Mountbatten was still determined to keep the boundary decision a secret until after 15 August. Whatever award Radcliff had decided on, it would, he realised, infuriate both parties. “Let the Indians have the joy of their Independence Day”, he reasoned, “…they face the misery of the situation after”. “I decided,” he advised London, “that somehow we must prevent the leaders from knowing the details of the award until after the August 15th; all our work and hope of good Indo-British relations on the day of the Transfer of Power would risk being destroyed if we did not do this.”
Radcliff’s ICS (Indian Civil Service) aide delivered the report to Viceroy House in two sealed brown manila envelopes on the morning of 13 August. On Mountbatten’s orders, the envelopes were locked inside one of his green leather vice-regal dispatch boxes. The box was set on his desk just before his midday departure for Karachi and the ceremonies marking the birth of Pakistan. For the next 72 hours, while India danced, those envelopes would lie in the viceroy’s dispatch case like the evil spirits in Pandora’s box, waiting the turn of key to deliver their sobering message to a “celebrating” continent.
At the moment when India was about to attain her freedom, 3 million human beings in Calcutta lived in a state of chronic undernourishment, existing on a daily calorie intake inferior to that given the inmates of Hitler’s death camps. Men murdered in Calcutta for mouthfuls of rice. With the savage killings of Direct Action Day in August 1946, that violence took on a new dimension, fed by the religious and racial fanaticism animating its Hindu and Muslim communities. While India waited to celebrate her long-sought freedom, the wretched of Calcutta’s slums stood poised to compound their infinite miseries in a frenzy of communal slaughter and destruction.
Slowly working in bits and pieces, taking the easiest and most evident things first, Radcliff stretched his boundary down the map of India. As he did so, one thought haunted him:
I am going through this terrible job as fast, as well as I can… he told himself, …and it makes no difference because in the end, when I finish, they are all going to start killing each other anyway!”
In the Punjab, they had already started killing each other. The roads and railroads of what had been the best administered province in India were unsafe. Sikh hordes roamed the countryside like bands of Apaches, falling on Muslim villages and Muslim neighbourhoods. A particular savagery characterised their killings. The circumcised penises of their male victims were hacked off and stuffed into the mouths of murdered Muslim women. In Lahore, one evening, a cyclist raced out of an alleyway past the crowded coffee shop where the city’s most notorious Muslim criminals held court. He hurled an enormous, bell-bottomed brass pot used to carry milk at its packed terrace. The pot went clanging through the coffee house, sending its occupants diving for cover. When it failed to explode, a waiter opened it. The pot contained a gift to the Muslim criminals from their Sikh counterparts in crime in Amritsar. Stuffed inside, instantly recognisable, was a supreme provocation: scores of circumcised penises.
In Lahore, murder and arson were so senseless, so chaotic, that to one British police officer it seemed “like a city committing suicide”. The Central Post Office was flooded with thousands of postcards addressed to Hindus and Sikhs. They depicted men and women being raped and slaughtered. On the back was the message: “…this is what has been happening to our Sikhs and Hindu brothers and sisters at the hands of the Muslims when they take over. Flee before these savages do this to you.” These postcards were part of a campaign of psychological warfare being conducted by the Muslim League to create panic among Sikhs and Hindus. Between August and
September 1947, Punjab was a living hell. This was a cataclysm without precedent, unforeseen in magnitude, unordered in pattern and unreasoned in its savagery. For six terrible weeks, like the ravages of a medieval plague, a mania for murder swept across the face of northern India with no sanctuary from its scourge. Half as many Indians would lose their lives in that slaughter as Americans had in four years of combat in the Second World War. Everywhere, the strong assaulted the weak.
Collins and Lapierre relate:
Capt. R. E. Atkins of the 2/8 Ghurkhas gasped in horror at the sight at his feet. A figure of speech he had heard but had never believed had taken on reality under his eyes. The gutters of Lahore were running red with blood. The beautiful Paris of Orient was a visa of desolation and destruction. Whole streets of Hindu homes were ablaze, while Muslim police and troops stood by watching. At night, the sounds of looters ransacking those homes seemed to Atkins like the crunch of termites boring into logs. In nearby Amritsar, broad sections of the city, its Muslim sections, were nothing but heaps of brick and debris, twisting curls of smoke drifting above them into the sky, vultures keeping their vigil on their shattered walls, the pungent aroma of decomposing corpses permeating the ruins. Everywhere the face of the Punjab was disfigured by similar scene. In Layallpur the Muslim workers in a textile factory turned on the Sikhs who shared the misery of their looms and slaughtered every one of them.
Robert Trumbull, a veteran correspondent of the New York Times noted:
I have never been as shaken by anything, even by the piled-up bodies on the beachhead of Tarawa. In India today blood flows oftener than rainfalls. I have seen dead by the hundred and, worst of all, thousands of Indians without eyes, feet or hands. Death by shooting is merciful than to be beaten to death with clubs and stones and left to die, their death agony intensified by heat and flies.
The warring communities seemed to rival each other in their savagery. One British officer of the Punjab Boundary force discovered four Muslim bodies “roasted like piglets spits in a village raided by Sikhs”. Another found a group of Hindu women, their breasts mutilated by Muslim zealots, heading for slaughter.
Horror had no race, and the terrible anguish of those August days in the Punjab was meted out with almost biblical balance… an eye for an eye, massacre for massacre, rape for rape, blind cruelty for blind cruelty. Few were the Punjabi families that did not lose a relative in the senseless slaughter. For years to come, the Punjab would be haunted by memories, each recollection more poignant and harrowing than the next… terrible accounts of a people suddenly uprooted from the lands to which they had been attached for years.
In the late summer of 1947, trains became the only hope for hundreds of thousands of Indians to escape the nightmares that surrounded them. For tens of thousands, however, the trains became rolling coffins. During those terrible days, the appearance of a train in Punjabi stations provoked the same frenzied scenes. Like a ship’s prow cutting through a heavy sea, the train rolled through the mass of scrambling humans choking the platforms, crushing to a pulp of blood and bone the hapless few inevitably pushed across its path. Sometimes passengers would wait for days, often without food and water, under the merciless sun of a summer the monsoon refused to
end. In a concert of tears and shrieks, the crowd would throw itself on the doors and windows of each wagon. They jammed their bodies and the few belongings they carried into each compartment until the flanks of the train seemed to swell visibly from the pressure of the humans inside. Dozens more fought for a handhold at each door, on the steps, on the couplings, until a dense cluster of humans enfolded each car like a horde of flies swarming over a sugar cube. When there were no handholds left, hundreds more scrambled onto the rounded roofs, clinging in precarious uncertainty to the hot metal until each roof was lined with a dense wall of refugees.
Collins and Lapieree graphically relate the scenes of the Punjab in the summer of 1947:
Crushed under that load of misery, the odour of coal smoke overwhelmed by the stench of sweating bodies, their whistles drowned by shouts of the wretches whom they carried, trains rolled off, bearing their pitiful burdens to death or a Promised Land.
As the pace of flight in both directions grew, those trainloads of wretched refugees became the prime targets of assault on both sides of borders. They were ambushed while they stood in stations or in the open country. Tracks were torn up to derail them in front of waiting hordes of assailants. Accomplices smuggled into their compartments forced them to stop at pre-chosen sites by pulling on the emergency cord. Engineers were bribed or cowed into delivering their passengers into an ambush. On both sides of the border a man’s sexual organ became, in the truest sense, his staff of life. In India, Sikhs and Hindus prowled the cars of ambushed trains; slaughtering every male they found who was circumcised. In Pakistan Muslims raced along the trains murdering every man who was not. There were periods of four and five days at a stretch during which not a single train reached Lahore or Amritsar without its complement of dead and wounded.
Along the roads, the refugees plodded dumbly forward, eyes and throats raw with dust, feet bruised by stones or searing asphalt, tortured by hunger and thirst, enrobed in a stench of urine, sweat and defecation. They flowed on in their filthy dhotis, saris and baggy trousers, often barefoot. Elderly women clung to their sons and pregnant women to their husbands. Men carried invalid wives and mothers on their shoulders and women their infants. They had to endure their burden not just for a mile or two but for a hundred, two hundred, miles for days on end, with nothing to nourish their strength but a chapati and a few sips of water.
The crippled, the sick and dying often were hung in slings tied to the middle of a pole, each end of which rested on the shoulder of a son or friend. Strapped to their backs were bundles that surpassed a man’s weight. Balanced on women’s heads were precarious piles of what they had been able to salvage from their homes: perhaps a few cooking utensils, a portrait of Shiva, the guru Nanak or a copy of the Koran. Some men balanced long bamboo staves on their shoulders: an infant in a sack at one end and a shovel, a wooden hoe or a sack of seed grain hanging from the other.
These helpless Indians and Pakistanis were not just making a brief trip to another village. Theirs was the trek of the uprooted… a journey with no return across hundreds of miles, each mile threatening exhaustion, starvation, cholera and attacks against which often there was no defence. These Hindu, Muslims and Sikhs were innocent illiterate peasants whose only life had been the
fields they worked. Most of them did not know who a viceroy was, were indifferent to Congress Party and the Muslim League and had never bothered with issues like Partition or boundary lines… hey were unaware of the freedom in whose name they had been plunged into despair.
Following them from one end of the horizon to the other, compounding their miseries, was the cruel, remorseless sun. Their haggard faces turned to the blazing sky to beg Allah, Shiva, the guru Nanak, for the monsoon that refused to come. Worst of all were the pitiful sights of children left behind to die because their parents no longer had the strength to carry them and the elderly resigned to death, tottering off into the fields in search of the shade of a tree under whose comforting branches they might await their end. The human debris left behind was gruesome. The forty-five miles of roadside from Lahore to Amritsar became a long, open graveyard.
As in every conflict since the dawn of history, the tragedies and atrocities of Partition were accompanied by an outpouring of sexual savagery and rape. Tens of thousands of girls and women were seized from refugee columns, crowded trains and isolated villages in the widest scale kidnapping of modern times. If a women was Sikh or Hindu, her abduction usually was followed by a religious ceremony… a forced conversion to make her worthy of her Muslim captor’s home or harem. The Sikh’s tenth guru specifically instructed his followers against sexual intercourse with Muslim women in an attempt to prevent what happened in the Punjab. The Sikhs ignored the guru’s admonishment and gave free rein to their fantasies, falling upon Muslim women everywhere; this resulted in the legend that Muslim women were capable of particular sexual prowess.
Winston Churchill, who had always opposed Indian freedom, commented on the spectacle of the people: “…who had dwelt in peace for generations under the broad, tolerant and impartial rule of the British Crown, throwing themselves on each other ‘with the ferocity of cannibals’”. It is ironic that Churchill and the British ruling class who had engineered the Partition and were responsible for this holocaust could so callously insult the people of the subcontinent. They were responsible for this tragedy and yet they used it to justify the colonialisation of India. Jinnah, Nehru, Gandhi, Patel, Liaqat Ali Khan, Sir Sayed Ahmed Khan, Nishtar and all those leaders from the Hindu and Muslim ruling elites had glorified the British imperialist Raj in India. The CPI’s leadership had failed to come up to the tasks posed by history: crippled by Stalinism it had lost its way. Margaret Thatcher, the former Prime Minister of Britain during the Common Wealth Conference at Kuala Lumpur in October 1989, said with characteristic bluntness in an interview with Sky television: “Britain is attacked as exploiting the colonies. I sometimes think they were jolly lucky it was us who colonised them and not other people.”
For the millions of victims of Partition, long and painful months of resettlement and reintegration lay ahead. They had paid the price for freedom. An embittered group of refugees starving in a Punjab camp in a cry or rage and frustration shrieked to a British officer: “Bring back the Raj!” In 1995, a demonstration of the East German workers had chanted a slogan, “We want the Wall back”. Neither the Raj can be revived nor the Berlin Wall resurrected. The masses have to move forward and avenge their wounds. Only through a socialist revolution can the atrocities of the past be avenged and a prosperous future be ensured. The blood shed shall not be in vain.
Fighting For Bones
During Partition the rulers of India and Pakistan were more concerned about the division of assets than the agonies of the Hindu, Muslim and the Sikh masses. They wanted to create new states. The tragedy of Partition was compounded by the overwhelming desires of the Indian and Pakistani ruling classes to gain as much as they could of whatever was being left behind by the British. In terms of the distribution of armies, assets and wealth, they exhibited meanness and greed. Days were spent arguing over who would pay the pensions of widows of servicemen. Would Pakistan be expected to pay all Muslim widows wherever they were? Would India pay Hindu widows in Pakistan? Pakistan would windup with 4913 miles of India’s 18 077 miles of roads and 7112 miles of her 26 421 miles of railway tracks. Should the bulldozers, wheelbarrows and shovels of highway department and locomotives, coaches and freight wagons of the railways be divided according to the 80/20 rule or the percentage of the track and road mileage each nation would have?
Some of the bitterest arguments came over the books in India’s libraries. Sets of the Encyclopaedia Britannica were divided up religiously, alternate volumes for each dominion. Dictionaries were ripped in half, with A to K going to India, the rest to Pakistan. Where only one copy of a book was available, the librarians were supposed to decide which dominion would have the greater interest in it. Some of those supposedly intelligent men actually came to blows over which dominion had greater cultural interest in Alice in Wonderland and Wuthering Heights!
Certain things could not be divided. The Home Department noted with some foresight: “…the responsibilities of the existing intelligence bureau are not likely to decrease with the division of the country.” Its officers stubbornly refused to yield up so much as a file or an inkpot to Pakistan. Only one press on the subcontinent was capable of printing two of the indispensable insignias of national identity, postage stamps and currency. The Indians refused to share it with their future neighbours. As a result, thousands of Muslims had to manufacture a provincial currency for their new state by stamping huge piles of Indian rupee notes with a rubberstamp marked “Pakistan”.
The Muslims wanted the Taj Mahal broken up and shipped to Pakistan, because Mughal had built it. Hindu saddhus insisted that the Indus River, which flowed through the heart of Muslim India, should somehow be theirs, because their sacred Vedas had been written on its banks 25 centuries ago.
Each dominion was extremely interested in owning the gaudiest symbols of the imperial power, which had ruled them for so long. The gold and white vice-regal train, whose majestic silhouette had crossed the parched plains of the Deccan, went to India. The private cars of the commander-in-chief of the Indian army and the Governor of the Punjab were assigned to Pakistan. The most remarkable division of all, however, took place in the stable yards of the viceroy’s house. At issue were twelve horse-drawn carriages: with their ornate, hand-wrought gold and silver designs, their glittering harnesses and their scarlet cushions, they embodied all the pretentious pomp and all the majestic disdain that had fascinated and infuriated the Raj’s Indian subjects. Lord Mountbatten’s ADC (Adjacent Cadet), Lieutenant-Commander Peter Howes proposed that this should be settled by the simple flip of coin. India won the toss. Fate had decided that the gold carriages of India’s imperial rules would convey the leaders of a new “socialist India”. Howes then divided up the harnesses, whips, coachmen’s boots, wings and uniforms that went with each set of carriages.
After weeks of arduous negotiation, India and Pakistan finally reached agreement on the division of the last financial and material assets. At Independence, India’s cash reserves had totalled 4 billion rupees. Pakistan had been given an immediate advance of 200 million rupees. Under the agreement, she was to receive as the balance of her share an additional 550 million rupees (about £45 million at that time). India argued that the money would be used to purchase arms to kill Indian soldiers and refused to pay the sum until the Kashmir problem was solved. It has yet to be resolved and under the bourgeois rule in the subcontinent it never will be! This decision put Jinnah into a desperate situation. His new nation was almost bankrupt. Only 20 rupees of the original 200 million rupees remained. Gandhi later persuaded the Indian government to hand over that money to Pakistan.
Partition was a wound inflicted on the living body of one of the oldest civilisations on earth. A civilisation that was rich in art, architecture, music, literature and other forms of human culture… its cultural diversity was its greatest beauty. The pain still remains and has left an indelible scar upon millions of people. Partition was one of the most counter-revolutionary events in recent history. More than half a century later, one question is asked throughout the subcontinent… can Partition be undone?