Book Review: A Pakistani Perspective on the Partition of the Punjab

by Reginald MasseyApocalypse 1947

Over the past seven decades many books have been written about the creation of Pakistan, the independence of India and the traumas of Partition. The tragedies of the pillage, the massacres, the rapes and the movement of vast populations uprooted from their homes and hearths has been well documented. Unfortunately very often a blame game is at play with communities accusing each other for the bloodshed and carnage. Now a slim volume paperback titled Apocalypse 1947 (ISBN 978-1-4809-8434-9) has been published by Dorrance of Pittsburgh USA. Khalid Chowdhry, the author of this work, was born in Delhi and witnessed the blood-drenched division of the Punjab. I was born in Lahore, now the capital of the Pakistani Punjab, and was also a witness and can vouch for his accuracy. The lengthened shadow of a man is history, and even today the heavy shadows of four men still dominate the subcontinent. Three Indians, Gandhi, Jinnah and Nehru, were London trained barristers and the fourth was Mountbatten, a naval officer of German ancestry who was related to the British royal family. Gandhi was born into a Gujarati Hindu shopkeeping caste and was the first to give his politics a spiritual dimension.

Many Hindus detested him since they thought he was too pro-Muslim. The Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, both far right bodies, believed that since the Muslims had got Pakistan they must all leave India and go to the new Muslim state. Gandhi on the other hand was happy that millions of Muslims had decided to stay in India. Moreover, he insisted that India must, on moral grounds, immediately release the money that was Pakistan’s rightful share of the assets at the time of partition. That was the last straw. On January 30, 1948 he was assassinated by a Hindu hardliner.

Jinnah, a Gujarati Ismaili Muslim, was a self made man of integrity who gained his fame and fortune by sheer hard work. He was not a practising Muslim and, as is well known, he did not observe Islamic prohibitions in matters of food and drink. He started his political life under the mentorship of Gopal Krishna Gokhale who was a liberal social reformer and president of the Indian National Congress. It was Gokhale who declared that Jinnah had ‘true stuff in him, and that freedom from all sectarian prejudice which will make him the best ambassador of Hindu – Muslim Unity.’

Jinnah was also most probably the only Indian who was not impressed by Mountbatten. His early death was a tragedy for Pakistan. He summed up his vision of the country he had created in the following words: ‘You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan….You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the State.’

Nehru, a charismatic Kashmiri Brahmin, was an anglicised intellectual and an agnostic who professed socialism. As India’s first Prime Minister he made mistakes but it was he who set India on the path to industrialization by Soviet style Five Year Plans. None of these leaders wanted the terrible turmoil, but what they were all guilty of was their failure to prepare for the partition. None of them realized that millions would be uprooted; Muslims fleeing to Pakistan and Hindus and Sikhs seeking sanctuary in India. Chowdhry is justified in his observations; non-Muslims lost more in terms of property and valuables, but more Muslims lost their lives. Moreover, to make matters worse, the line of partition was drawn in a haphazard and hurried manner by a London lawyer named Cyril Radcliffe who had never been to India before. He had to rely on outdated population figures and dusty old maps and there is evidence that Mountbatten got him to make some adjustments in favour of India. India was thus given an access to Kashmir and the headworks of a canal that irrigated the Hindu state of Bikaner. Radcliffe at the time was mentally and physically an exhausted man. India’s water and weather did not suit him and he was cursed with dysentery, also known as ‘the Delhi belly’. The poet Auden described Radcliffe’s sorry state in his well known poem titled Partition. As soon as he had submitted his award Radcliffe returned to London and, it must be recorded, waived the fees that were due to him.

I am happy that Chowdhry writes about individual cases of friendship and heroism, such as when a Hindu neighbour of his family sheltered them in his home in Delhi. And I know of Muslims in Lahore who risked their lives to save their Hindu friends. The flame of humanity often flickered, but it survived. It was not extinguished.

Chowdhry dedicates this book to his sons who he says do not understand his obsession with the upheaval of the Indian subcontinent’s partition. I do not blame them. They belong to a different generation and a different world and it is we who must try to understand them. Moreover, the younger generation must think about the future and the harsh realities that face them. How long will India and Pakistan exist as enemies? Both are armed with nuclear weapons and if there is another war the whole of South Asia will be reduced to ashes.