Unacknowledged Victims Of Partition

Unacknowledged Victims Of Partition
My memory of the communal riots in 1947 begins with the hurried closure on a late morning of the Central Model School in Lahore. I had proudly gained admission in the 9th grade only a few weeks earlier. It was about a half hour walk through or around the walled city, crossing both Hindu, Sikh as well as Muslim neighborhoods.

On that day, the headmaster went around to all the classes, announcing the closure of the school and advising students to wait for their parents to arrange for their safe pick-up or go together in groups if they lived near each other, avoiding rumored areas of communal violence. It must have been early March, probably the 4th, which I gather from Ishtiaq Ahmed’s book, ‘The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed’, was the day when communal riots started in Lahore. The news of killings in Lahore echoed across the international press, such as in the New York Times on March 7, 1947.

A friend of my father was the drawing master at the school and lived near us. He gathered his son, two other boys from our area and myself, hiring a passing tonga to take us to Mochi Gate. It was then a Muslim neighborhood from where we could safely walk to our homes. The tonga trip was scary. We had to go by the Lohari and Shahalmi gates, where some stabbings had taken place earlier. The road was deserted. Our tonga raced along the circular road stopping for neither traffic cops’ signals, nor for any individual. The driver himself was scared. He was heading home. Thus began almost six months of school closure and one of the most fearful and tumultuous periods of my life.

My family, and many other Muslim families in Lahore, had to leave their homes and live with relatives until Pakistan came into being. We were refugees in our own city. And there were many others like us, who were displaced and victimized at home. Their sufferings have not been acknowledged in mainstream Partition narratives. Among them were Hindus and Sikhs in today’s Indian Punjab and Haryana, and Muslims who lived in areas that came to be part of Pakistan. They did not have to migrate, but suffered like refugees during the March-August 1947 period of communal riots. My family’s odyssey is an example of those displaced at home.

Communal riots and Muslim victims in Lahore

Communal tensions had been building up in Lahore from mid-1946, as plans for Indian independence were being negotiated in Delhi, among the British Governor General, Jinnah of the Muslim League and Gandhi and Nehru of the Congress Party. Nisid Hajari, in his book ‘Midnight’s Furies’ provides a vivid account of the distrust that had grown between Muslim, Hindu and Sikh leaders and the paralysis of the Interim Indian Ministry of mixed representation.

In Lahore, volunteer organizations had started organizing and preparing for communal confrontations.  From 1945, the Muslim National Guard was organized as a volunteer force and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) had long existed as the Hindus’ agitational organization. Sikhs had the backing of the Patiala and Faridcourt states’ militias and access to their armaments. Generally, the evidence is that the Muslims were relatively ill-prepared. Yet, when the communal violence started, Muslim neighborhood goondas proved to be the vanguard of the community’s defense.

Lahore’s communal riots largely took the form of attacks on enclaves of one community lodged within a large concentration of other communities. They were complemented by killing of individual Muslims, Sikhs or Hindus found passing through or living amidst other communities. An attack on a Muslim village, Rajgarh on May 18th 1947 near Sham Nagar and Krishan Nagar was the first mass scale slaughter of Muslims in Lahore, though the stabbing of passers-by had started from early March. A few Muslims were stabbed near our home in the bazaar, leading off Rang Mahal towards Shahalam gate

Lahore and Amritsar bounced off each other in communal attacks. News of attacks on a Muslim crowd in Chowk Pragdas in Amritsar ignited a retaliatory attack on Singhpura in Lahore for example. A flare-up of riots in one city was followed by increased violence in the other. Hindus and Sikhs had more firearms, which they used frequently. Muslim fighters honed the skill of torching homes and arson turned out to be their major weapon.

Throughout the months of April and May 1947, the communal confrontations were also loudly proclaimed in the nightly collective sloganeering from rooftops against each other. I vividly remember the mixed emotions of fear and bravado that l felt when people in our neighborhood used to gather on roofs and in unison shout Allah-O-Akbar, to be countered by Hindus with Hur Hur Mahadev from Shahalmi gate at night.

Our displacement from home

Our home was in a large Muslim area, radiating eastward from Rang Mahal. Wedged within this neighborhood was a Hindu street of about a 100 houses close to the Sikh Baoli Gurdwara, behind Suneri (Golden) Mosque. Our house’s front was in a courtyard of 9 houses opening into a bazaar of entirely Muslim inhabitants. But it backed on the Hindus’ street, Kucha Wanwattan, which was both a residential area and a market for ropes and webbing for beds (charpayis). And our ground floor was rented out as a warehouse to a Hindu merchant.

Initially, when the communal tensions started, the Muslim elders of our area met with Hindu residents and assured them of their safety. A peace was maintained for March and April, but tensions continued to mount. Hindu residents silently moved out, locking their homes and the rope market almost closed down. There were some attacks on isolated Muslims homes in the Shahalmi gate area. A fear of a mob attack from Hindu neighborhoods and Sikh Gurdwara pervaded our neighborhoods. Our courtyard residents pooled money and installed an iron gate at the entrance.

The arrival in our area of Rajgarh’s victims further inflamed communal passions. From May 16th, sporadic fires in the neighborhoods of all three communities in the walled city were reported by newspapers (Ishtiaq Ahmed, pp.226). Most likely on May 18th, Kucha Wanwattan was torched. Quickly, the flames were licking the back walls of our home. We left the house in a hurry and moved across to our uncle’s house.

Our neighbors and Muslims from nearby areas came to our rescue. They formed a line, passing buckets of water to keep our back wall wet and protected from fire. Later, a fire engine arrived to contain the fire. This continued until the houses towards the back of ours collapsed into mounds of fallen walls and roofs, burying the fires. Much of our furniture and beddings were soaked and damaged. Thus began the four months of our displacement from our own house. We did not return to our home until after August 14, when Lahore decisively became a part of Pakistan. Even then, our troubles did not end.

Our house was exposed, as the shared walls with our Hindu and Sikh neighbors collapsed. We were apprehensive about an attack or thieves coming from that side. We had young friends and relatives staying in our house to keep watch. This went on well into October, when we raised the walls to block access from the mounds of fallen houses.

The warehouse on our ground floor became a burden. It attracted the attention of unemployed men and others who had been adversely affected by riots. They pressed my father to let them loot the stock, but he resisted, despite some veiled threats from those eyeing the Hindu’s goods. Finally, he managed to contact the tenant, who came with police and took away the stock.

Administrative partisanship and communal violence

On the national level, as well as in the Punjab province, events were moving at a fast pace. The British government of the Labor Party announced on February 20th, 1947 its plan to give India independence by the middle of 1948. It appointed Lord Mountbatten as the new Governor General to oversee the transfer of powers. In the Punjab, the Muslim League’s agitation brought down Khizr Tiwana’s Ministry on March 2, resulting in the imposition of the Governor’s rule. The partition of India loomed on the horizon. Now, uncertainty loomed about the fate of Lahore. Will the boundary between India and Pakistan assign Lahore to India or to Pakistan. The apprehension was palpable.

With the acceptance of the idea dividing India into Muslim-Hindu majority areas, the partitioning of Punjab and Bengal on the same basis became almost inevitable. Lord Mountbatten formed a boundary commission to divide and demarcate the boundary between the majority Hindu-Sikh and Muslim areas of the two provinces. He also sped up the process of handing over the reins of government to India and Pakistan, setting the date of August 1947. This hurried deadline resulted in the breakdown of British administration in the Punjab.

Muslim and Hindu-Sikh public officials became, by and large, partisans of their respective communities. Many of them assisted in the communal fights. The Punjab Governor wrote repeatedly of the split within the administration into communal factions. One seminal event of the partisanship of the police and magistracy was the burning down of the Shahalmi gate area, which was the largest Hindu neighborhood and spice market in the walled city. Almost hundreds, maybe thousands, of houses and shops were put to fire, ostensibly with the support of a Muslim magistrate and police inspector. The Shahalmi fire burnt for days, and its flames and smoke could be seen in the outer suburbs as far as Model Town. This proved to be a turning point for Hindus and Sikhs in the communal fight. Most of them moved out of the walled city and the more resourceful ones started leaving Lahore itself.

Sometime in June 1947, a police inspector showed up in our neighborhood with a list of Muslims suspected of  having instigated the fire in Kucha Wanwattan. Paradoxically, my father’s name came up. He had to pay a bribe to the police investigator to clear his name, despite his own house being impacted by the fire.

Ours was not an isolated case, but an illustrative example. There were other Muslim households displaced by the fire in our neighborhood. In other parts of the city, many Muslims were killed, injured and displaced from their homes.

Governor Jenkins reported that in three months of the summer 1947, 116 Muslim properties in Lahore were burned either partially or fully.

It is not that Hindus and Sikhs did not suffer. But this narrative is about those victims of Partition in Pakistan who remain unacknowledged; therefore, the focus is on Muslims who remained in the city, but suffered losses of all kinds. And there were many of this fate in Rawalpindi, Multan, Sheikhupura, and Lyallpur (now Faisalabad). Many Hindus and Sikhs lost lives and properties similarly in Amritsar, Jullundur and other cities in East Punjab.

Like my family, there are many others who suffered like refugees in the cities where they continued to live. Their travails remain unacknowledged in the narratives about Partition. Their losses were not entitled for compensation from evacuated properties, like those of refugees coming from India.

Mohammad Qadeer’s book, Lahore In The 21st Century, will be released by Routledge in May this year.