Many Indians and Pakistanis, especially those from the Punjab, associate independence and partition with forced migrations, loss of property and death. This legacy is one of the reasons why the two nations have maintained a bitter distrust of one another in the years since 1947. Some 11.5. million people migrated between India and the two wings of Pakistan in 1946, 1947 and 1948, and of those, 10 million were from Punjab. The pattern was for Muslims to depart for Pakistan and for Hindus and Sikhs to leave the newly designated territories of Pakistan for India. The process was far from peaceful and estimates of those killed range from 200,000 to over a million. Sometimes the scenes of killing in these partition riots were so horrific that even hardened military men and war correspondents were stunned. New York Times reporter Robert Trumbull wrote: I have never been as shaken by anything, even by the piled-up bodies on the beachhead at Tarawa [a bloody World War II battle]. In India today blood flows oftener than the rain falls. Women and children were not spared and were sometimes killed by family members wanting to save their loved ones from defilement.
India’s religious diversity had periodically inspired violence in the subcontinent’s history, although incidents were usually small in scale and localized. Aside from overt periods of oppression, such as the late 1600s, when Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, a devout Muslim, directly targeted Hindu and Sikh practices and customs, the general pattern was for Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs to live side by side reasonably comfortably, especially in small villages. There, communities often had to share resources and abilities because survival depended on it.
The communal violence that attended partition can be traced to certain aspects of Indian history and village culture, as well as the circumstances of partition itself. First, Great Britain had used a policy of divide and rule in its Indian possessions. After the so-called mutiny of 1857, when Hindu and Muslim soldiers in Britain’s Indian armies revolted against their officers, and British rule in principle, the British purposefully encouraged separation among Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. Leaders believed that by dividing the communities, order could be maintained and, more important, another large-scale rebellion could be prevented.
Knowingly or not, Indian independence leaders picked up on the practice of divide and rule. Mahatma Gandhi’s actions and sentiments were based in Hinduism despite his belief in the truth and equality of all religions, and many Indian Muslims scoffed at his argument that they did not constitute a true nation but were mostly Hindus who had converted and were therefore fundamentally Indian. Ironically, Gandhi also displeased Hindu fundamentalists. They found him far too open minded with regard not only to Islam but also caste restrictions and the status of untouchables. After the government reforms of 1937, meanwhile, Hindu Congress members who found themselves in important positions often gave precedence to Hindus over Muslims. Muslim League leader Mohammad Ali Jinnah, for his part, stirred up Muslim communal feeling after 1937 with his claims that the British Raj would be replaced by a Hindu one.
The other trend was a shift in everyday relations among Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs from 1942 on. The imminence of partition and the encouraging of communal conflict by leaders brought to the surface tensions often ignored or tolerated in the past. In villages, for instance, Muslims were often indebted to moneylenders for seed, fertilizer and other resources. Since Muslims were forbidden by their religion to engage in money lending, their creditors were invariably Hindus. After the borders were announced in August 1947, Muslim farmers suddenly found it possible to free themselves from debt by forcing the moneylenders to flee to India or by simply killing them. Sikhs, meanwhile, remembered that it was Muslims who had targeted many of their seventeenth-century founders and plotted revenge for these long-ago acts, even though in earlier years few had worried overtly about such distant matters. On an even more trivial level, aspects of life and religion that in other times were little more than objects of curiosity or discussion—dietary prohibitions, dress, festivals—now became reasons to think of others as dangerous and threatening.
Greed also played a part in the partition riots. On both sides of the border, people saw opportunities to seize the property of those leaving. To encourage quick departures, looters and thieves threatened or carried out violent acts. Meanwhile refugees themselves could be targeted by thieves in search of gold, jewelry, cash, and other portable valuables. Often, robbery turned into rape and murder. In some instances, attacks were carried out by organized bands, such as the Sikh jathas, often made up of former soldiers who had been recently demobilized. The Sikhs, especially were afraid that their very way of life was being threatened and were stirred up by radical leaders such as Tara Singh.
The cycle of violence spun out of control, and neither British, Indian, nor Pakistani authorities were able to do much about it until the riots had burned themselves out. Attacks inspired other attacks, as Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs vowed revenge for atrocities committed by their enemies. Many found violence an outlet for their frustration and despair over having to leave homelands that, in many cases, their ancestors had lived in and cultivated for centuries.
There had already been small incidents, but the violence of partition truly began on August 16, 1946, the Muslim League’s Direct-Action Day. For that day Jinnah and the central working committee of the League had called for a “universal Muslim hartal” in response to what they saw as British duplicity and an egregious power grab by Congress in setting up an interim government the previous month. A hartal was a distinctly Indian form of protest, used often by the independence movement. It called for a complete stoppage of work, school and other everyday activities. Hartals were supposed to be non violent and, in most of India, this one too. The major exception was Calcutta, India’s most violent city and a place called the city of the dreadful night by Rudyard Kipling, the British imperialist author. There from August 16 to August 19, communal rioting left about 5,000 people dead and 15,000 more injured. Tens of thousands more were turned into exiles or refugees. Officials gradually restored order, but the poorer quarters of Calcutta remained in constant state of tension and insecurity.
The Great Calcutta Killings started a pattern that was to be repeated for many months. Calcutta Muslims had used the occasion of the hartal to target local Hindus and Sikhs. The latter groups then sought retaliation against Muslims. When on September 2, the Congress dominated interim government took office, a new wave of riots broke out in Bombay and other cities as Muslim activists turned the day into one of mourning. Attacks in Calcutta continued, and they indicate clearly the back-and-forth nature of the communal killings. During September, 162 Muslims and 158 Hindus were killed there.
The British viceroy, Lord Wavell, feared complete collapse in public order and grew increasingly pessimistic about India’s future. He seemed to take to heart Gandhi’s warning that if India wants her blood bath she shall have it. Muslim League representatives were eventually brought into the interim government, which quelled the violence for a while, but Wavell was not reassured. He told the British Cabinet towards the end of the year that he did not believe that the colonial government or its armed forces could hold India for another 18 months as Prime Minister Attlee hoped. He had also been drawing up plans for the evacuation of British personnel in the event of a large-scale outbreak of violence. Wavell’s attitude left Indian leaders in a troublesome position; it seemed the British could do little about the spread of violence but, because the Indians did not control the country yet, they could do little, either.
The next large-scale outbreak of violence occurred in the Noakhali and Tippera districts of eastern Bengal. It was a region with a long history of communal tension because of the large gap in wealth between the Muslims peasant farmers and Hindu landlords and professionals. In a wave of attacks orchestrated, apparently, by a powerful Muslim League official who used both hired thugs and elements of the League’s paramilitary wing, the Muslim National Guard, Noakhali erupted in a series of thefts, rapes, forced conversions and murders. Thousands of Hindu refugees fled westwards to Calcutta and the province of Bihar, a bit farther west, bringing with them their stories of horror.
In a continuation of the increasingly familiar pattern, Hindus responded to Noakhali with attacks on Bihari Muslims, and the violence even spread to Uttar Pradesh, the province to the west. In the Bihari case, the radical Hindu paramilitary group, the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or National Personal Service Society), sometimes took part. In the last weeks of 1946, Hindu groups killed about 7,000 Bihari Muslims, an estimated 75% of whom were women and children. A horrified Jawaharlal Nehru, the head of the interim government, nearly resigned in despair at the news of Noakhali and Bihar.
Mahatma Gandhi, unhappy with India’s partition and distressed by the turn to violence, adopted the restoration of peaceful Hindu-Muslim relations as a personal crusade. He travelled to Noakhali in the aftermath of the violence there, and walked from village to village, visiting hundreds of Hindu and Muslim families and often asking them something to eat and a place to sleep. Along the way, he begged these ordinary people to end any support for radical activists, and he tried to convince community leaders to sit down with one another and make their peace. He later visited Bihar, where he announced that the sins of Noakhali Muslims and of the Bihar Hindus are of the same magnitude and are equally condemnable. Although Gandhi was usually received peacefully by villagers, he suffered occasional abuse from Muslims and from Hindu radicals.
Vast outbreaks of rioting in the Punjab formed part of the context in which the Congress Party, the Muslim League, and British leaders devised their partition plan in the spring of 1947. By the time Lord Louis Mountbatten arrived to replace Wavell as viceroy and use his personal drive and charisma to move the process forward, the Punjab had erupted. The coalition government in the province, representing Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims not affiliated with the Muslim League was dissolved in March. This created an opening for radical Sikh separatists who, led by Tara Singh, hoped to carve out their own independent state out of the Punjab. With Tara Singh calling for blood, Sikh activists attacked Muslim League representatives in Lahore, Amritsar and other Punjab cities and towns. Muslims reacted in kind, and the riots, murders, robberies and rapes spread from the towns to the countryside. Hindus were inevitably caught up in the violence. An incident there illustrates how small problems became the inspiration for large-scale communal violence.
Soon after Mountbatten took office, he received a message from the British governor of the Punjab citing a small, domestic spat outside of the city of Rawalpindi: A Muslim’s water buffalo had wandered on the property of his Sikh neighbour. When its owner sought to reclaim it, a fight, then a riot, erupted. Two hours later, a hundred human beings lay in the surrounding fields, hacked to death with scythes and knives because of the vagrant humours of a water buffalo.
Mahatma Gandhi: A One-Man Boundary Force
As the Punjab exploded into violence in the months before and after partition, many feared that the city of Calcutta would erupt as well. India’s most violent city, Calcutta had been the centre of the first major outbreak of partition riots, the “Great Calcutta Killings” of August 1946, which had left about 5,000 people dead.
In 1947, however, Calcutta remained mostly peaceful. The main reason was the presence of Mahatma Gandhi, the spiritual leader of India’s independence movement and a man willing to risk his own life to preserve peace in India, In the decades following the World War I era (1914-1918), Gandhi had staged actions ranging from mass marches to hunger strikes to daily prayer meetings to move India towards independence. Also, an advocate of non-violence, he was horrified at the partition riots. In a manner keeping with his patterns of public action, he went to Calcutta in August 1947 to stage a hunger strike to keep the peace. On the tensest day, August 15, the day of independence, he was joined by Shaheed Suhrawardy, the Leander of Calcutta’s Muslims and the sort of corrupt politician whom Gandhi disliked. That day, peace held in Calcutta and the two gave up their hunger strike. Lord Mountbatten, Britain’s last leader of India, called Gandhi a one-man boundary force. It was a reference to the other, official boundary force, a unit of 55,000 troops that was, even then, failing to maintain order in the Punjab.
Over the following weeks, as the Punjab jab erupted even more violently, Gandhi stayed in Calcutta, which remained peaceful. Every day, hundreds of thousands of Calcuttans- Hindus, Muslims and Sikh-gathered in the city’s central open space, the Maidan, to try to catch a glimpse of the Mahatma as he went to his daily prayer meetings. By September, several incidents and misunderstandings had brought communal violence to Calcutta. To stop it, Gandhi now proclaimed a fast unto death. After more than three days of eating nothing, the Mahatma received a pledge from Calcutta’s Hindus, Muslims and Sikh leaders promising to stop any further communal violence. He ended his fast, and the communal leaders were true to their word Calcutta’s peace held.
At the end of July 1947, Mountbatten took steps to form a Punjab Boundary Force to try to restore order to the region. It was to be led by a British officer but be mostly composed of Indian troops, many of them Nepali Buddhist Gurkhas, rather than Hindus, Muslims or Sikhs. Numbering 55,000 altogether, the force would be advised by both Indian and Pakistani authorities both before and after the independence. Although the force hastily took the field, it could do little. There were simply not enough troops to cover the territory, a problem that was compounded by the fact that most of the violence was taking place in the countryside rather than the cities. In addition, the force could count on little local cooperation. Even the police, who generally came from the regions they patrolled, often took part in or ignored the communal violence.
The Punjab was still in flames when independence arrived. One British official wrote: The Punjab is an absolute inferno and it is still going strong. Thousands have been murdered and tens and hundreds of thousands of refugees are streaming about. There has been a lot of arson. It will take generations of work to put things straight.
Mountbatten remembered looking down in despair from his airplane at the fires burning in towns and villages as he returned from the independence celebrations at Karachi to those in Delhi on August 15. On August 14, Nehru heard from associates that in Lahore, a city he loved, fires were burning, and women and children seeking water were cut down by Muslim mobs. He said, how am I going to talk tonight? How am I going to pretend there’s joy in my heart for India’s independence when I know Lahore, our beautiful Lahore, is burning?”
A British soldier at the scene spoke much more directly. He remembered that in parts of Lahore,
Corpses lay in the gutter. Nearby a posse of Muslim police chatted unconcerned. A British major. . . had also arrived. He and his driver were collecting the bodies. Some were dead. Some were dying. All were horribly mutilated. They were Sikhs. Their long hair and beards were matted with blood. An old man, not so bad as the rest, asked me where we were taking them. “To hospital,” I replied, adding to hearten him, “You’re not going to die.”
“I shall,” he said, “if there is a Muslim doctor.”
The violence in the Punjab was at its worst that August and September when, with the borders known, the great migrations began. Millions set out, carrying whatever they could. There were caravans of refugees miles long, with one containing an estimated 800,000 people leaving West Punjab for India. The numbers could provide protection against attackers, but not from shortages of food and water, nor from disease, and refugees suffered greatly.
Amongst the grimmest episodes of violence were those on the trains that traversed the region especially those that travelled the short distance between Lahore and Amritsar. For refugees, trains were far quicker than walking, especially given the heat and the shortages of fresh food and water, but each train was overcrowded. For attackers, however, it was easy to judge who was on the trains simply by the direction they were travelling. They learned to stop the trains, sometimes with as simple a measure as placing a cow on the tracks. Then they would rob, rape, and murder with impunity. It was common for trains full of corpses to reach the station in Lahore and Amritsar, as well those of smaller towns. During these deadly weeks, there were periods of four or five days at a stretch during which not a single train reached Lahore or Amritsar without its complement of dead and wounded.
An Indian army officer, K.P. Candeth recalled, I remember seeing a train come in from Pakistan and there wasn’t a single live person on it; there were just bodies, dead and butchered. Now, that train entered India and the people saw it. And the next Pakistan-bound train that came, they set upon it, and the slaughter was terrible. These ghost trains in the words of novelist Khushwant Singh in his story of the period, Train to Pakistan, have become part of the common memory of the era of partition.
As fall turned to winter, the violence wound down, even in the Punjab and in Delhi itself, now a city crowded with angry and hungry refugees. Nehru and Home Minister Vallabhbhai Patel convinced Mountbatten, now serving as India’s Governor-General, to head an emergency committee designed to restore order in the Punjab, while Indian leaders undertook the same effort in Delhi. Edwina Mountbatten took a leading role in refugee relief efforts and, as peace returned, some emphasized the blessing that, outside of the Punjab, both India and Pakistan had remained mostly peaceful.
The violence of partition had mostly burned itself out when, in early January 1948, Mahatma Gandhi settled in at Birla House in Delhi, the home of a wealthy industrialist who contributed much to the Mahatma’s causes. He started another hunger strike there on January 12, demanding not only the end of communal violence but complete peace between India and Pakistan. This fast brought him near death, but he ended it when a settlement was negotiated between India and Pakistan; its main feature was an agreement by the Indian government to pay Pakistan forty million pounds that the Pakistanis claimed was theirs by right from the partition settlement.
On January 30, on the grounds of Birla House, Gandhi was on his way to his daily prayer meeting when he was assassinated by a Hindu fundamentalist named Nathuram Godse. Alerted Mountbatten quickly reached the scene. Like all other leaders, he was afraid that the event would spark a new and even more brutal wave of violence, especially if a Muslim had pulled the trigger. As he entered the grounds of Birla House, and in response to a voice claiming that a Muslim had shot Gandhi, Mountbatten shouted, without knowing whether it was true: You fool! Don’t you know it was a Hindu?
Gandhi’s death was a turning point. According to journalist Mark Tully and Zareer Masani, more than other event, Gandhi’s death purged the country of communal hatred. Nevertheless, memories of the violence were long lasting and bitter, and they further separated two nations already divided by artificial borders. In future years, the two nations were to carve out separate and often conflicting paths.