Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Great Partition: A Tragedy and A Festering Wound.

Of the many comments I received in response to my previous blog on Nehru the most shocking was "even Ambedkar suggested complete population exchange so that minorities in both countries will live in peace". I've read that Ambedkar's views about Muslims were controversial. He did indeed suggest 'population exchange' because he subscribed to Jinnah's 'two nation theory' and felt Hindus and Muslims, incompatible at the root, cannot live together. When he suggested that the horrors of Partition were yet to unfold. A human tragedy of biblical proportions was yet to consume the subcontinent. The person who left that comment on my blog blissfully refused to learn from the horrors. The words 'population exchange' are used with no idea of how it actually tore apart a subcontinent of one-fifth of humanity. People think such exchanges would have happened peacefully as if millions would pack their bags like going for a picnic, board a train, go some place they have not been to in generations, restart life, get new jobs etc. Yasmin Khan's well researched book "The Great Partition: The making of India and Pakistan" is a compelling read that will help us understand how close India came to exploding into chaos and anarchy. Khan traces how the subcontinent descended into bloodletting that was unprecedented in human history barring the holocaust.

Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre in an otherwise well written book "Freedom midnight" fawned over Mountbatten and made him appear as the knight in shining armor. Mountbatten and the colonial regime should be indicted for gross incompetence and shameful abandonment.

Stafford Cripps's cabinet mission floundered on a compromise of a loose federal structure. To the Muslim league it appeared as negation of the promise of 'Pakistan' the country. Let it also be noted that Patel and Ambedkar were not in favor of any loose federation but strongly pushed for a powerful center. That in turn raised the shackles of the Muslim league which feared that Muslim majority states will be under the thumb of Hindu ruled Delhi. Jinnah issued a call for 'direct action' to get Pakistan.

Jinnah's call for 'Direct action' between 16th-18th August 1946 plunged West Bengal into an orgy of violence. Khan quotes the Muslim Mayor, "Oh Kafir! Your doom is not far and the greater massacre will come". Suhrawardy, like Modi in 2000, did not incite personally but gave the distinct impression that the murderous gangs, Khan says, "could act with impunity".

Noakhali followed soon in October. The scale of violence unleashed by Muslims needed '1800 armed police and royal air force planes' to quell the mobs. Into this mayhem of blood lust Gandhi walked in. He would remain at Naokhali for 6 months till March 1947. It is strange that Hindutva people only cite Gandhi's fasts in Calcutta to protect Muslims but ignore that Gandhi stayed in Naokhali at great personal peril for 6 months to be with Hindus. Gandhi stayed in a burnt down hut and trekked miles every day. Collins and Lapierre record that Gandhi's path will be intuitionally soiled with human excreta but Gandhi would patiently wipe away each with a leaf and walk on. The chapter is suitably titled 'penitents progress'. Nirmal Bose in 'My days with Gandhi' records that Gandhi would spend the nights groaning 'kya karoon' (what can I do) trying to find light amidst an enveloping madness. It is easy to ask "well what good did it serve". Let's remember that there were few options available.

Later in November 1946 in Garmuhkteswar Hindu gangs murdered hundreds of Muslims. Khan quotes a Congress minister, an eye witness, "the RSS had carefully laid the plot, marked all Muslim shops which after dusk were burnt according to a plan without doing the least injury to the neighboring shops". When Nehru toured Bihar he was appalled to see Hindu homes painted with slogans like "Hindus, beware of Muslims".

The word 'insane' is often applied in the context of  what looked like mindless killing. Khan disagrees and dispels that myth. She says that the violence was not a random act but "designed purposefully to influence and shape its (constitutional decision making) outcome by enforcing a mono religious state and purging the land of the other'. Khan notes that Partition violence was made worse by modern technology. The press was factionalized and played a role in fanning the flames. Telegrams pleading for help exaggerated atrocities and couched the pleas in offending words of the perpetrators. Once information about a refugee train departing for Pakistan was announced on All India Radio. Information about such trains had to be kept top secret but they always leaked. 'Rations dealers were accused of copying their lists (of customers) and helping rioters to identify occupants of houses'

Clement Attlee presiding over a war weary Britain wanted to wash his hands of this mayhem. He shocked Indian by declaring on February 20th that India will be freed no later than June 1948. the flamboyant and arrogant new Viceroy Mountbatten announced the plan to partition India on 3rd June 1947. Collins and Lapierre have documented how Mountbatten pulled the date of liberation, Aug 15th, out of nowhere. In less than three months a large subcontinent was to be vivisected. Yet no one, not a single soul other than Gandhi, could even have a foreboding of the events to unfold. And, this is the Himalayan failure on all sides. Nobody predicted mass migration. What is worse nobody even foresaw the violence that would accompany any migration. A cursory googling of Margaret Bourke White's pictures of the horrors will send a chill down our spines even today. Khan's book has a picture of tens of vultures literally feasting on an entire street strewn with corpses.

                                                 Vultures waiting to swoop down on corpses. (courtesy

                                  A dying man and grand children - Margaret Bourke White records how pained she was just taking this photograph (Courtesy For more pictures visit

The British in a naked effort to cut their losses took back British soldiers from Indian army at a critical juncture. In an ill advised move, supported by Nehru and Jinnah, the Indian army was divided on communal lines and partitioned. Maulana Azad ruefully records the fatality of such a decision in his autobiography. The one institution that would have been of great support in restoring order was torn apart. Nobody had dissented except Azad. Even intelligence services, a crucial organ, was cut.

When Congress and Muslim League agreed to partition they thought that the minorities in each nation would stay put and a few thousand would migrate. By 1950 nearly 12 million had migrated with a million dead.

A professor wrote to Jinnah about which cities should be included in Pakistan with a 'back of the envelop calculation'. Khan bristled 'the logic of this was t o reduce individuals and communities to crass ratios and statistics which stripped bare the inner complexities of friendship, community and life itself'. The muslim professor and Ambedkar gave little thought to what it meant to rip apart people from societies they were embedded into for centuries. Imagine the horrors of a Muslim exodus from central and South India.

The partition happened just after the world war had ended. The newly minted super powers and erstwhile empires had no concern of this unfolding tragedy. There was no world body to lend help. Even the Red Cross expressed inability to be of any help. Pakistan and India, two nascent countries with fledgling economies, had to deal with this tragedy of a scale unprecedented in human history.

The economic impact, in my opinion, has not even been analyzed in any depth. Khan devotes a few paragraphs. It was the rich and the upper crust of politician in each party that desired for partition more than anybody. The common man was just a tool. G.DBirla favored partition and yearned for a strong center (not a feeble loose federation) that would launch economic schemes. Birla moved all his property out of Pakistan expecting riots and losses. 'Unharvested crops, closure of banks and shops disruption to trade' cost both governments in millions. A refugee tax, in force till 1950s, was enacted. Pakitsan levied a refugee surcharge on train tickets."This was not simply an 'exchange of population or straightforward swap". "Pakistan lost its bankers, merchants, shopkeepers, entrepreneurs and clerks - the wheels came off the machinery of the state". Seeing economic collapse due to fleeing Hindus Jinnah pleaded that 'knifing a Sikh is like knifing Pakistan in the back'. India lost "Muslim railway men, severs, craftsmen, agriculturists and administrators, brought gridlock to production". The  refugees destabilized the labor market in a seismic manner.

Jinnah told a packed audience "make it a matter of our prestige and honor to safeguard the lives of the minority communities". One wonders about the possibilities of Jinnah living longer. A blessing for India was Nehru's longevity, a factor in Gadnhi's decision to make Nehru the PM. Nehru wrote to his chief ministers "we have a Muslim minority who are so large in numbers that they cannot, even if they want to, go anywhere else".

Added to the boiling religious tension strikes were crippling the country. "In 1946 there were 1629 industrial disputes involving almost two million workers and a loss of over twelve million man-days". In Delhi and Bihar the police mutinied. Telangana erupted in peasant led riots covering 'three to four thousand villages' stretching well into 1951.

 Hindutva people love to lament on how Gandi, when he undertook his last fast unto death, included in his agenda giving Pakistan the money that was owed to it. Rich Hindus who promoted the idea of partition had bled Pakistan of much needed capital anyway. Refusing to pay Pakistan what was owed to it would only have pushed India into a war. Muslim smiths or craftsmen closed down their shops because Hindu lenders would refuse to lend any more money fearing that the debtors would flee to Pakistan anyway. Yet again, imagine the economic collapse of a thorough 'population exchange' across all of India.

Fearing reprisals and an outbreak of violence Mountbatten did not release the details of how Radcliffe had sliced and diced India until August 17th. Radcliffe, with no familiarity of India, completed his assigned task in just a few weeks. The objective of the secrecy became counterproductive as riots broke out to ensure the outcome was the desired result of the perpetrators. In Lahore Satish Gujral learned that  his city will be in Pakistan through posters on walls, not from radio or the government.

A perpetual grouse of the Hindutva loony bin is "why did not Nehru just accept every Hindu from East Bengal? It would have prevented the wholesale massacre of Hindus in 1971". Managing influx of refugees is an intractable socio-economic problem till today. Refugees gravitate to only cities. The population of Delhi almost doubled. Bombay government tried to refuse any further influx of refugees. Nehru had to tell them it was not an option. Welfare schemes for refugees raised the ire of local population. "The UP state government steadfastly resisted the arrival of refugees in 1947 and attempted to seal the border". The chief minister of Assam threatened 'separatism' if any more refugees from Bengal came into Assam. Add to all the above an acute shortage of food thanks to a devastating war.

In a compelling paragraph that sounds true of US's Iraq imbroglio and partition Khan writes "the idea of partitioning ancient home lands was barely contemplated or understood. as the power of the state to deliver law and order visibly collapsed, other regional aspirations came bubbling to the surface and all sorts of groups made violent bids for their own portion of the land and their own community's sovereignty". Khan quotes historian K.M.Panikkar who said "Hindustan is the elephant..and Pakistan the two ears. The elephant can live without ears". A Hindu school teacher said ""whatever our choice of words, the culture of this part of India could not be otherwise predominantly Hindu". 'Demagogue P.D.Tandon told the youth to arm and take back the lands sliced away'. Later Patel would, just to snub Nehru, make Tandon the president of congress over the objections of Nehru.

Coming to a very late realization that migration is a reality both governments reconciled to facilitating the migration. Ambedkar's 'population exchange' idea was now given sanction albeit limited to the border states. This acceptance of migration and attempt to facilitate fleeing populations inevitably led to 'ethnic cleansing'. "Local administrators now had the chance-either accidentally or explicitly- to help with ethnic cleansing agenda". Penderel Moon was 'shocked to hear that government officials were pushing Muslim out of East Punjab...acting under orders".

Even the idea of a 'passport' was alien to the people of both countries. Neither administration had given a thought of identifying a 'citizen'. But then the very definition of who is a 'citizen' itself was a very contentious one. Gandhi declared that he will walk to Lahore without a passport. Migrant populations did not even understand the need for 'permits'. When families separated many did not envisage that one day they may not even be able to visit the family on the 'other side'. A horror that Berlin will endure nearly two decades later. Pimps and pedophilies prowled refugee camps. In this context we can only imagine the law and order problems.

The only two people who come off looking decent in Khan's analysis are Nehru and Gandhi, the perpetual butt of Hindutva hatred. Nehru and Gandhi, Khan writes, strove to prevent 'the mass ejection of Muslims' from India. Patel was, in Maulana Azad's words, less than willing to be secular. Ambedkar has written extensively on Pakistan and framing a thesis that pretty much makes the same case as that of Hindutva brigade. Ambedkar rejects Golwalkar's solution of a Hindu state with Muslim minority living 'under them as nation within nation'. But Ambedkar accepts Golwalkar's premise that the Hindu and the Mussalman cannot live together as one nation. Yes India continues to have problems but given that India has a historically unique situation of accommodating diverse cultures and many religions, by and large, it has done well by all. Sure there is a long road to go before there is equality. Sure there are mistakes committed in the name of secularism. But India should continue the path of secularism as it is the moral thing to do.

Now, there are few more questions worth answering. Why did Ambedkar subscribe to two nation theory and argue in favor of homogeneity? Ambedkar forgot that in the eyes of many Hindus he and his people were seen pretty much how he saw the Mussalman, 'violent' and 'incompatible'. Secularism is not just a moral thing but a socio-economic necessity. Diversity benefits a society. Above all the biggest beef for Hindutva brigade is 'why should we behave any better than Pakistan'. Could India behave like Pakistan does towards its minorities? The word 'minority' is a misnomer when applied to 170 million people. Thats half of US population today. Strategically India cannot afford to be Pakistan. Nor should it. Thats immoral. The Khilafat agitation, Moplah (or Mapilla) revolt are the most cited controversies when it comes to discussing partition. Both have layers of myths about them. A Dalit like Ambedkar did not understand the economic dimensions behind the Moplah rebellion in which hundreds of Hindus were massacred. Khilafat agitation was not just Muslim appeasement. All of the above need to be studied separately and I shall write about them separately in the days to come.


1. This blog is written almost exclusively based on Yasmin Khan's impressive and compact book 'The Great Partition:The Making of India and Pakistan'. It is a compelling must read.
2. "India wins freedom" by Maulana Azad 


Anonymous said...

Are you a Christian? Are there FCs among Christians too?

Anonymous said...

I just posted a comment on your post about Khobragade....Yasmeen Khan's book is sitting on my shelf for the past two years unread....but I's curious to know about your background....not many people esp. desi immigrants have such interests.

Anonymous said...

How does the author's background matter here? Why cant Desi Immigrants have interests about their own nation?

Very nice article. Please write another article on how immigrants know as much or even more about the happenings in their countries and how much they care.