It had only been two years since the atrocities of the holocaust had been committed and the world was to see yet another round of barbarism, slaughter and bloodshed. This was the partition of India in 1947. Though a significant event in world history, causing the deaths of up to two million people and the largest mass migration in human history, it is rare that we as students hear about the atrocities committed or the causes behind them. In fact, it seems to me that they are largely ignored.
Colonial India had existed for around three centuries under British rule and the East India Company and despite the British colonization the two main religions in India, Hinduism and Islam had existed somewhat peacefully for centuries. However it would be inaccurate to say there was not occasional dispute and violence between the two religious groups or a culture clash. Having been forced to live under British rule for no other reason than to unwillingly quench Britain’s thirst for imperialism, it is no wonder that India craved independence, craved to be shaken free of the title “jewel in the crown” of the British Empire. This independence, after many riots and protests, both violent and non-violent was finally achieved in August 1947. Perhaps ‘achieved’ is the wrong choice of word, for the aftermath of the exit of Britain from India was nothing short of a calamity.
Britain had ruled India for three centuries but two years after World War II with heavy losses sustained and the debt caused, Britain could no longer fund its ever growing and perhaps over built empire. It was this debt that was later the cause of mayhem and misery throughout India. The result was a sudden withdrawal of power, untimely and poorly judged. Although the initial agreement was to split colonial India into two separate states, one with a Muslim majority Pakistan and one with a Hindu majority India, the border between the new states was not announced until the 17th August 1947. Pakistan celebrated independence on the 14th and India on the 15th.
These borders were hastily drawn up by a lawyer, Cyril Radcliffe, unlearned in Indian geography using out of date maps and inaccurate census data. Perhaps the hurried border plans were due to leaders, both Western and Indian, wanting to establish some semblance of security before the country descended into chaos. The power it seemed, was slipping out of their hands because after all, no lone leader no matter how powerful can control the concrete will of a thousand angry men.
Either way, new borders drawn saw families, farms and land split apart and hence began the largest forced mass migration in human history. Muslims migrated to West Pakistan and East Pakistan (now called Bangladesh) and Hindus migrated out of those places into what had been newly established as India. It would have been enough of an atrocity for up to eighteen million Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims to be displaced from their homes but the situation escalated into the realms of tragedy because of the genocide, slaughter and rape that followed, on a massive scale.
Those who have not only witnessed, but survived the partition and are alive today are few in number, but willing I am sure to share their stories. It would be a great sin on our behalf to not listen and narrate these untold stories of struggle and violence because perhaps, through our words, we may bring a little justice to the forgotten victims of which there are so many.
My grandfather was a child of eight years when he found himself entangled in these events and thus carries with him a hidden story which I will share with you, and all those willing to listen. All quotations below are my grandfather’s own harrowing narrations.
In 1945 Lord Mountbatten, the British representative leading negotiations, withdrew all British forces and sent them back to England. As a result of this there remained very few military personnel to control and maintain peace. Perhaps this wouldn’t have changed matters had they stayed as British soldiers were ordered not to intervene unless a British life was at risk. It was partly due to this racist regulation that so many people were slaughtered both by those who murdered them and by those who stood by and watched.
“Things were getting worse when Britain decided to quit India. Frictions between Muslims and non-Muslims were growing. Things started getting out of control. The Muslim League leader, Muhammad Ali Jinnah vigorously protested that the army should not withdraw otherwise there would be slaughter.” Lord Mountbatten however, ignored this urgent request. “The Congress leaders were happy that the British army had left India but Jinnah knew that the Muslims would be slaughtered in large numbers.
“My father took us from our village in the Patiala state to Pakistan by train three days before the partition was announced. My father worked at the railway station. We reached Lahore at a very big railway junction, a busy station. I could see signs of violence, human bodies on platforms. It was a dreadful scene for an eight-year-old child to see dead bodies on the ground.”
14th August 1947:
“All of a sudden from comfortable middle-class we became poor because we lost everything, land and property. Pakistan was agricultural land; there was no industry, no jobs. We had nothing to survive there. My dad didn’t get his wages for four months because newly formed Pakistan had no money. It was still controlled by the central bank of India who wasn’t ready to release money.
“I was eight years old at that time. I witnessed what true hunger was. I was hungry most of the time; bare feet, no shoes, not properly dressed. It took us a couple of years to resettle but sometimes when I think ‘1947’ I feel a shivering current in my body because of what I went through at that time. I couldn’t understand why people were killing each other and burning each other’s land and property but now I understand that this hatred, was orchastrated by local leaders and fanatics, and that is why after I left Pakistan I never went back. I will never go back. I will never go back.
“Here, I educated myself, went to universities and studied for three degrees. I worked in respectable jobs and earned a moderate pension. That is my story. A sad one isn’t it?”
I reply, “yes”.