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The Partition of India - A story of love and hate

Book review of ’The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed: Unravelling the 1947 Tragedy through Secret British Reports and First-Person Accounts By Ishtiaq Ahmed’

15 October 2012

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Dawn - books and authors

Reviewed by Ali Raza

Alok Bhalla, in his introduction to the multi-volume Stories About the Partition of India, writes that “there is a single common note which informs nearly all the stories written about the Partition and the horror it unleashed … a note of utter bewilderment.” Bhalla of course, was mostly referring to the vast corpus of literary writing on Partition. Yet, one can also detect this sense of “utter bewilderment” in the first hand testimonies of survivors and witnesses. Testimonies that have been collected and presented in fine detail by Ishtiaq Ahmed in The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed.

One could also argue that it is the state of bewilderment which drives historians, writers, and artists, among others, to make sense of Partition. Ahmed, it seems, is no different. Currently a professor of political science at Stockholm University and born in the fateful year of 1947 in the fateful city of Lahore, Ahmed writes movingly about growing up in an absence; an absence which spoke in its silence of people that were no longer there. And yet, there were visible reminders as well. Reminders such as Chacha Churanji Lal, also known as Lal Din or Lal Mohammad, a refugee from East Punjab who was said to have gone half mad after his only child was killed in front of him.

Both the visible and invisible signifiers spoke of millions of sufferers who were mercilessly slaughtered, forcibly displaced, grievously wounded, and eternally scarred by the loss, pain and trauma of Partition. For the most part, their only fault lay in belonging to the wrong community on the wrong side of the line dividing India and Pakistan.

Ishtiaq Ahmed brings these stories out in stark detail. In compiling this book, to which he devoted more then a decade, he conducted hundreds of interviews, of witnesses, victims and perpetrators, on both sides of the Punjab and beyond. These stories speak for themselves. Their eloquence renders the historian’s intervention unnecessary. And in this respect, Ahmed has done a commendable job in allowing his interlocutors to dominate the narrative.

But he has done more then that. He uses his interviews to weave together a broader narrative that is sensitive to detail, chronology and context. He supplements those with official sources, memoirs, literary works, and newspapers. Personal accounts, along with a superb analysis of the political and social specificities of particular localities, are deftly woven together with the “high politics” of Partition. Without doubt, this is where the book is at its best. What emerges is an incredibly variegated and complex portrayal of Partition, and taken together, this is a compelling way of telling a story.

Yet, for all its complexity, Ahmed attempts to explain it all under a broad theoretical framework of ‘ethnic cleansing’. This is a brave attempt and one that perhaps reflects his training as a political scientist. Full blooded historians might be forgiven for being a bit sceptical. For one, his framework might have been more convincing had he contrasted the Punjabi experience with that of, say, Bengal. Ahmed, though, seems fully convinced about the explanatory power of his framework and his book in general. As he puts it, this book “is the first holistic, comprehensive and detailed case study of the Punjab partition”. That is a bold claim, and one that many a historian would love to challenge.

To be sure though, there are many aspects which make this work somewhat unique. For starters, Ishtiaq Ahmed, as a Swedish citizen, was able to visit both Punjabs. That is a luxury that researchers on either side can only dream of. As a result, Ahmed, for arguably the first time, brings forth detailed narratives from “both sides”. To my mind though, what is more important is how he systematically sets out the degree of official complicity in ethnic cleansing on both sides of the Punjab. Most Partition accounts are silent on the active role played by politicians, government officials, and administrative and military personnel in organising and orchestrating Partition violence. Ahmed brings this aspect out in minute detail. He notes, for instance, how M.G. Cheema, the city magistrate of Lahore, masterminded a massive arson attack on Shah Alami gate, a predominantly Hindu locality. As Ahmed says, this attack “broke the will of the Hindus and Sikhs to hold onto [Lahore]”. Also important in this respect was the role of organised paramilitary outfits like the Muslim League National Guards, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and the Akal Fauj. It would have been wonderful though, had Ahmed dwelled more on how these groups had been actively preparing for civil war since at least the mid-1940s.

Given its wealth of detail, it is hardly surprising that this book has already received rave reviews in India, Pakistan and beyond. And for the most part, it’s easy to go along with the general consensus. The book though, is certainly not a page-turner (in the literal sense of the term). Rather, each story, each narration, demands attention and invites introspection. Its appeal lies in the heart-rending testimonies of witnesses that stand as a mournful eulogy to a world that was suddenly torn asunder.

The testimonies presented by Ahmed are striking in a number of respects. For one, they underscore how little ordinary people knew about Partition and what it potentially meant for them. This is where the state of “bewilderment” is most acute. The Muslim community in Amritsar, for instance, was convinced that their city would go to Pakistan until almost the very eve of Partition. Those in Gurdaspur found out only a few days after independence that their district had, in fact, gone to India. Criminal in this respect was the role of the British themselves, who botched the whole process from start to finish. Also striking is how the victims of violence were also often its perpetrators. Survivors and refugees for instance, were often at the forefront of “revenge attacks”. At times, it seems that all are victims and all are perpetrators. Perhaps an untainted victimhood can only truly be claimed by the iconic figure of a hapless and ravaged woman, whose body became the site where notions of community and honour were inscribed and fought over.

Yet, alongside stories of hate, violence and dispossession are moving accounts of love, compassion, heroism and unrequited generosity. Of people who risked their lives to save their neighbours from rampaging mobs. Of men who bridged the communal divide and escorted their fellow villagers to either India or Pakistan. This, as Ashis Nandy points out, is the other part of the story, and one that is not emphasised as much it should be in writings on Partition. As he argues, for every story of death and dispossession there is also one that gratefully recounts the assistance rendered by someone “on the other side”. Often, as in many of Ahmed’s accounts, one finds both themes in a single testimony.

In this sense, Partition is about hate and about love. It is as much about cruelty as it is about compassion. It is a testimony to the death as well as the triumph of the human spirit. It’s a story of contradictions. In short, it’s a story of “utter bewilderment”.

And so we have come full circle. Our conclusion has turned out to be the state we started with. There will no doubt be many who will continue to try and comprehend the incomprehensible. Ishtiaq Ahmed has tried his hand at it and he has succeeded to a significant extent. This is, without doubt, a comprehensive work that deserves to be read and reread. For the moment though, Ahmed has passed on the torch and the onus is now on others to carry this work forward.

The reviewer has a PhD in South Asian history from Oxford University

The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed: Unravelling the 1947 Tragedy through Secret British Reports and First-Person Accounts

By Ishtiaq Ahmed
Oxford University Press, Karachi
ISBN 9780199064700
640pp. Rs 2,100


The above article from Dawn is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use