May 17, 2020
Home  »  Magazine  »  National  » Essays  » The In-Betweens »  They Too Wrote Our History

They Too Wrote Our History

They were not Partition's arbiters, but lesser known figures left to grapple with its aftermath. Most remained its helpless victims, others fell to villainy.

They Too Wrote Our History
They Too Wrote Our History
There are two kinds of histories of Partition; those which deal with the big and powerful, and those which focus instead on the unnamed and the powerless. The first speak of the motives and actions of Jinnah, Nehru, Mountbatten, Patel—the men who decided when and how the subcontinent was to be divided. The second speak of the impact these decisions had on social life in general; through the riots they sparked, the exodus they impelled, the horrific violence they unleashed on ordinary men, children and, above all, women.

Both kinds of histories are entirely legitimate. However, in the vast literature they have produced, one misses the voices of Partition's 'in-betweens', of those who, unlike Partition's victims, were not completely unknown, yet, unlike Partition's arbiters, were not in a position to shape their own destiny.

Among the most tragic of these in-between figures were politicians who did not want Pakistan but, when Pakistan came, found themselves its unwilling citizens. Consider the fate of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, towering in physical frame as well as moral courage. To his trigger-happy Pathans, he brought the culture of non-violence—and successfully. A Gandhian to the core, deeply committed to communal harmony, he found his people and his province abandoned when the big boys in Delhi decided to carve up the remains once the British left. For, the North-West Frontier Province was allotted to Pakistan, after a referendum held against the wishes of the majority of its people (who boycotted it). By so hastily agreeing to Partition, said Ghaffar Khan, the Congress had "surrendered the Pakhtoons to the enemies in helpless condition".

After Pakistan came into being, Ghaffar Khan started a movement, non-violent of course, for greater rights for his people. The new Pakistani state, he said, was as repressive as the old colonial Raj. The men in power answered by jailing him. Altogether, he spent more than a decade in the prisons of a country he never wished to be part of. Indomitable to the last, he predicted that "the rulers of Pakistan will vanish one day like the British".

In the Punjab, those who lost most by the creation of Pakistan were the supporters of the Unionist Party. Established in 1923, the Unionists were a bunch of landlords, mostly Muslim, but with a fair sprinkling of Hindus and Sikhs as well. They ran the province for a full decade after the elections of 1937. Then, in March 1947, the rising communal temperature compelled their coalition government to resign. The Unionists had somehow kept the peace, but after they went, the Muslim League on the one side, and the Akalis and the RSS on the other, battled it out on the streets of every town in the Punjab, and pretty nearly every village, too. In the files of the India Office Library, in London, I found a letter written on the very day of independence and division, August 15, 1947, by the veteran Unionist politician, Malik Khizar Hayat Tiwana. Addressed to a British friend, it spoke of how the writer wished he "could do anything to save the unity of the Punjab.... It is heartbreaking to see what is happening.... It is all due to the policy of liquidating and quitting before any real agreement has been arrived at.... The fixing of a date for transference of power ruled out any adjustment and vivisection was the only course left.... We will have to start afresh (but) there is hardly any hope of building things on old lines as communal hatred and mutual destruction are now uppermost in everybody's mind".

In that blazing summer of 1947, the man in the hottest of seats was the Governor of the Punjab, Sir Ewan Jenkins. Like Khizar Hayat, he could see the trouble coming.Unlike him, Jenkins thought he could perhaps stop or at least stem it.I n early May, the governor wrote to the viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, urging him to "reconsider the terms of any early announcement embodying a solution of the Indian political problem. In the Punjab we are going to be faced with a complete refusal of the communities to cooperate on any basis at all. It would clearly be futile to announce a partition of the Punjab which no community would accept". The decision was made regardless, and Jenkins and his men were left with the task of maintaining law and order while the Punjab was divided. On July 30, he wrote to Mountbatten of how the prospect of Independence with Partition evoked anger rather than enthusiasm. The Muslims had hoped for the whole of the Punjab, whereas the Sikhs and Hindus were fearful that they would lose Lahore. "It would be difficult enough," archly commented the governor, "to partition within six weeks a country of 30 million people which has been governed as a unit for 98 years, even if all concerned were friendly and anxious to make progress."

Other men who knew the province well, such as the veteran ICS men G.E.B. Abell and Penderel Moon, had also warned the viceroy that the Punjab was where the violence would be at its most intense. They urged him to post the better trained units there, and the governor too several times asked Mountbatten for more troops and for a 'Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron'. But these were not forthcoming, one reason being that in the (mistaken) view of the viceroy and his advisors, troops were needed to protect the British civilians. They believed that when Independence came, the white man, and more particularly the white woman, would be the target of vengeful ire. In fact, in the summer of 1947, the paler your skin, the safer you were. One kind of Indians was looking out for another kind—neither was interested in butchering the British at all.

The idea behind Partition, and Pakistan, was that it was required to safeguard Muslims from Hindu domination. Several million Muslims migrated across the borders to East and West Pakistan; yet three times as many remained in India. The creation of a new Muslim state had not solved the problems of the Muslims who stayed behind—to the contrary, it made them more vulnerable still. Seeing this, two men who had played critical roles in the creation of Pakistan began to have desperate second thoughts. These were the Bengali Muslim Leaguer H.S. Suhrawardy and his United Provinces counterpart Chaudhary Khaliquzzaman. On September 10, 1947—less than a month after Independence and Partition—Suhrawardy wrote to Khaliquzzaman in horror that "the Muslims in the Indian Union have been left high and dry". The antagonism caused by the coming into being of Pakistan had been heightened by the flight into India of Hindu and Sikh refugees. Suhrawardy now feared that "there may be a general conflagration which can well destroy the Muslim minority in the Indian Union". To protect their interests—and their lives—he drafted "a declaration of cooperation and mutual assistance between the two Dominions", committing both to protecting their minorities and to not making provocative statements against each other. Suhrawardy got Gandhi to endorse the declaration, but failed to get Jinnah's consent, despite begging him to do so, "for the sake of the helpless and hapless Muslims of the Indian Union...."

In Khaliquzzaman's view, "the two-nation theory which we had used in the fight for Pakistan had created not only bad blood against the Muslims of the minority provinces but also an ideological wedge between them and the Hindus of India...." No sooner was Pakistan created that this key player in its making realised that "the partition of India (had) proved positively injurious to the Muslims of India, and on a long-term basis for Muslims everywhere".

Among the in-between figures of Partition there are many who are essentially tragic, and a handful who must be considered truly heroic.In the latter category falls the name of Sardar Tarlok Singh, of all the people mentioned here the only one still alive, living in quiet retirement in New Delhi. After Partition became an accomplished fact, Tarlok Singh was placed in charge of rehabilitation in the Punjab. His job was to allot, to Hindu and Sikh refugees from West Punjab, land vacated by Muslims fleeing in the other direction. He had both the intellectual equipment (a degree from the London School of Economics) as well as the strength of character to do this quickly and do it fairly.

Working with a team of equally committed officials, Tarlok Singh made 2,50,000 allocations in two years. Very few were challenged. For the most part, the displaced peasants took charge of their new land, and set it to work. Twenty years down the line, the Punjab became the bread-basket of India. The farmers and their new technologies generally get to take the credit—in truth, at least some should be shared with the officials in charge of rehabilitating them.

Tarlok Singh and his team notwithstanding, the heroes were probably outnumbered by the heroines. Perhaps the most exemplary figures of Partition were the women social workers who laboured in riot-torn villages and gloomy refugee camps, seeking to restore communities and reunite families. Many were inspired by Gandhi, as for example Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, Rameshwari Nehru, Mridula Sarabhai and Anees Kidwai. Kamaladevi directed the building of new townships, Mridula and Rameshwari directed the recovery of abducted women, Anees brought succour and hope to victimised refugees. Their life and work has been sensitively portrayed by feminist historians. One heroine who awaits a modern rediscovery is Bibi Amtus Salam, whose extraordinary fast to restore communal harmony in Noakhali is recounted in Pyarelal's 1956 book, Mahatma Gandhi: The Last Phase.

Perhaps the most intriguing woman on the other side was Mohammed Ali Jinnah's sister, Fatima. Educated as a dentist, she ran a successful clinic in Bombay in the 1920s, a feat which alone must mark her out as being most unusual for her time and place. However, on the death of Jinnah's wife Ruttie, Fatima closed her clinic and joined her brother, thereafter serving as his housekeeper, companion, and political confidant. In photographs and cinema reels of the time we see her hovering around the Qaid-e-Azam, clad always in a sari, a dress that has since regrettably gone out of fashion in Pakistan itself.

Fatima was devoted to Jinnah while he lived, and devoted to his memory thereafter, seeking to control what was said or written about him in their country as well as in the world at large. Yet she does not even rate an index entry in Ayesha Jalal's The Sole Spokesman , this a mark of how comprehensively she has been ignored by historians of Partition and Pakistan.A truer indication of her importance lies in the fact that she was chosen as the combined Opposition candidate to stand against Field Marshal Ayub Khan in the Presidential elections of 1965.Fatima Jinnah gave Ayub a close fight, in the end losing because the Field Marshal had more money, controlled the administration and the election machinery, and got some influential mullahs to issue fatwas to the effect that Islam did not permit of a woman serving as head of state.

Apart from the leaders and the masses, the story of Partition thus features a whole range of middle-level figures, some of whom we may admire, others feel sorry for, and still others simply wish to know more about. There were also a few who were very nearly villainous. As for instance, a man named Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar.In 1947, he had served for almost a decade as sarsanghchalak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Bearded, with long hair and hooded eyes, originally from Maharashtra but more lately a post-graduate of the Benaras Hindu University, the RSS supremo was a man of much intelligence and motivation, this not always directed into the most productive channels. His name peeps in and out of records I have recently been studying, which are of the Delhi Police for the autumn and winter of 1947, that is, the weeks and months immediately following Independence and Partition. These records make for very chilling reading indeed.

In August 1947, Delhi had a large Muslim population, but a wave of bloody riots had led to thousands fleeing into refugee camps. Gandhi (and Nehru) were concerned; for if the minorities were not safe in the capital, how then could India claim to be a secular state? The RSS, on the other hand, wanted to complete the process of ethnic cleansing. So said a sub-inspector of the Delhi Police named Bhagwan Das Jain. A mole inside the RSS, Jain reported on October 24 that the Sangh saw in the unsettled conditions the chance to take a bold step towards the establishment of Hindu rule in India. As he wrote, "according to the Sangh volunteers, the Muslims would quit India only when another movement for their total extermination similar to the one which was started in Delhi sometime back would take place". The RSS men, he continued, "were waiting for the departure of Mahatma Gandhi from Delhi as they believed that so long as the Mahatma is in Delhi, they would not be able to precipitate their designs into action".

By early November, Golwalkar himself was camped in Delhi, planning for future action. In a speech in Ramjas College, he noted with satisfaction that the RSS membership had increased by 2,500 in a single month. He told his audience to be prepared for the fight ahead. On December 6, Golwalkar convened a meeting of RSS workers in Govardhan, near Delhi. The police report on this meeting remarks that "the (RSS) workers are alleged to have discussed the ways and means of capturing the seats in the government.... It is also alleged that one of its (the RSS's) programme(s) would be to assassinate the leading persons of the terrorise the public and to get their hold over them".

Millions of Indians saw Partition as a tragedy. But for M.S. Golwalkar, Partition was an opportunity, an event which, if properly taken advantage of, might increase his influence and reach manifold. On December 8, 1947, Golwalkar addressed a crowd of several thousand RSS volunteers at the Rohtak Road camp in Delhi. Also in attendance was a police inspector named Kartar Singh. His report of the sarsanghchalak's speech deserves to be quoted in extenso . The policeman reported that Golwalkar told his followers that "the time for mere playing has gone.Our volunteers should enrol new volunteers in every house, and should instil in them the essence of Hinduism. Referring to the government, he said that law could not meet force.... The Sangh will not rest content until it had finished Pakistan. If anyone stood in our way we will have to finish them too, whether it was Nehru government or any other government.... Referring to Muslims, he said that no power on earth could keep them in Hindustan. They should have to quit this country....If they were made to stay here the responsibility would be the government's and the Hindu community would not be responsible. Mahatma Gandhi could not mislead them any longer. We have the means whereby (our) opponents could be immediately silenced".

This last sentence, when read with the last sentence of the previous paragraph, suggests that though it was one particular ex-RSS man who pulled that fateful trigger on January 30, 1948, there were other, still-serving RSS men, their sarsanghchalak included, who would have wished for those bullets to find their mark.

Periyar Opposed to north Indian domination, he spent a lifetime fighting for a separate Dravidian state

There is an important book waiting to be written about the kinds of people I have touched upon here: politicians not quite as powerful as Nehru and Jinnah, colonial officials not nearly as glamorous as the viceroy, social workers nowhere near as famous as Mahatma Gandhi. These are individuals whose life and work illuminates the history of Partition in new and quite unexpected ways. And our interest in them should not be wholly academic. For these are figures who, as example or warning, remain quite relevant to the practice of politics and the conduct of social life in India today. Although Partition lies 58 years in the past, its scars and wounds remain. Now, as in 1947, Indians can deal with them in one of two ways. The first is to try and heal these wounds, following the example of (among others) Tarlok Singh and Amtus Salam. The other is to make them septic, in the manner of M.S. Golwalkar and his RSS.

(Ram Guha's books include Savaging the Civilised: Verrier Elwin, His Tribals, and India and An Anthropologist Among the Marxists and Other Essays. He is now completing a social and political history of Independent India.)
Next Story >>
Google + Linkedin Whatsapp

The Latest Issue

Outlook Videos