Professor Ishtiaq Ahmed: The ‘bloody’ Punjab partition (part 7 of a series)

The Muslim League had to wrest Punjab away from the Punjab Unionist Party and that necessitated portraying it as an agent of anti-Islam forces

The biggest deception that Pakistani Marxists and liberals have been indulging in is that the ulema as a whole opposed the creation of Pakistan. Maududi did oppose, but he was an outsider who shifted to Pathankot, Punjab, where in 1941 he founded the Jamaat-e-Islami. It had no significant following in Punjab in 1945-46. The Deobandi Jamiat-i-Ulema-e-Hind, also opposed the Pakistan idea. It was essentially a northern Indian party without roots in Punjab. Nevertheless, a breakaway faction of the Deobandis led by Maulana Shabbir Ahmed Usmani wholeheartedly supported the Pakistan demand.

Punjab was the stronghold of pirs and Barelvi ulema. It is they who campaigned for an Islamic state and turned the tables in favour of the Muslim League. The Muslim League had to wrest Punjab away from the Punjab Unionist Party and that necessitated portraying it as an agent of anti-Islam forces. 
Consequently, ‘Islam in danger’ was launched as the battle cry, the Muslim League was projected as the saviour and Pakistan as the utopia where no exploitation would exist, moneylending would be abolished and a model Muslim society based on Islamic law would come into being. Pages 81-106 of my book The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed (Oxford, 2012) provide the details. Islamic slogans, of which the most famous, Pakistan ka nara kiya? La Illaha Illillah (What is the slogan of Pakistan? It is that there is no god but God), were used profusely. The pirs and ulema told the Muslims that voting for the Muslim League would be voting for the Holy Prophet (PBUH); those Muslims who did not do so, their marriages would be annulled, they would be refused an Islamic burial, and so on. 

The Hindus and Sikhs were told that they would be tried under Islamic law and they would have to bring their cases to mosques. Governor Sir Bertrand Glancy noted on September 13, 1945, “Muslim Leaguers are doing what they can in the way of propaganda conducted on fanatical lines; religious leaders and religious buildings are being used freely in several places for advocating Pakistan and vilifying any who hold opposite view. Communal feel is, I fear, definitely deteriorating. Sikhs are getting definitely nervous about Pakistan, and I think there is no doubt that they will forcibly resist any attempt to include them in a Muslim Raj” (P.84).

Tiwana tried to counter such propaganda by deploying the Majlis-e-Ahrar, a group he despised previously. The Ahrar orators fired their arsenal of anti-Muslim League invective, calling it a party of British stooges and they cast doubt on Jinnah’s Islamic credentials and so on, but they were no match. David Gillmartin has famously recorded that a desperate Unionist worker from Multan sent a telegram to his party headquarters requesting, “Send more maulvis” (page 86). But there were no maulvis to be sent, because the landlords and pirs were now solidly behind the Muslim League and they had resources in abundance at their disposal. The Ahrar hailed mostly from the urban petty middle class and even poorer sections of society.

Governor Glancy noted just days before the elections on February 2, “there seems little doubt that the Muslim League, thanks to the ruthless methods by which they have pursued their campaign of ‘Islam in danger’ will considerably increase the number of their seats and unionist representatives will correspondingly decrease” (Page 88). The Muslim League swept the reserved Muslim seats. It won 73 seats (later increased to 75) out of 86. Its tally, however, fell short by at least 10 to form the government in the 175-member Punjab Assembly. The Congress swept the general vote getting 50 seats, and the Sikh Panthic parties secured 23 reserved for the Sikhs. The Unionists were reduced to a rump of 18. The rest were reserved seats for the scheduled castes, Christians and Anglo-Indians.

A coalition government comprising the Unionist Party, the Punjab Congress and the Panthic Parties was formed with Khizr Hayat Tiwana as premier. The Muslim League felt deprived of the chance to form the government but it could not produce evidence that it enjoyed a majority in the Punjab Assembly. Meanwhile, Direct Action in Calcutta in August 1946 resulted in thousands of deaths. The violence was unleashed by Muslim groups but later the Hindus and Sikhs struck back with equal savagery. Thousands of people were killed. Violence then spread to Bihar where the provincial Congress government was involved in a butchery of Muslims.

Punjab was heading towards a confrontation and Chief Secretary Akhtar Hussain reported that “private communal armies” were being recruited. In December 1946, the Sikhs and Hindus of Hazara district, NWFP, were subjected to unprecedented savagery of Muslim mobs. Thousands fled to Punjab, some got refuge in Rawalpindi, but most went eastwards where Sikhs were in substantial numbers. On January 24, Tiwana ordered police raids on the headquarters of the Punjab Muslim League and the RSS. Muslim League leaders who resisted were arrested. It triggered a mass movement of defiance of authority by Muslim League agitators. Every day Muslims courted arrest and the jails were filled with them. Slogan mongering against Tiwana was conducted in the filthiest of Punjabi abuses and taunts. 

The agitation also became increasingly violent. Glancy’s successor, Governor Sir Evan Jenkins noted in his report dated February 28, “The Sikhs have been profoundly moved by the obvious desire of the Muslims to seize Punjab for themselves and would not permit them to do so. The agitation has shown Pakistan in all its nakedness and was a fair example of the kind of treatment that the minorities, including the Sikhs, might expect from Muslim extremists” (P. 124). Chief Secretary Akhtar Husain wrote on March 4, 1947, when direct action was over and an uneasy peace had been established, “Muslims in their stupidity disgraced Sikhs, singled out Sikh policemen for their attacks and brutally murdered a Sikh constable. The effect of this was grave in the extreme and, as has been stated, communal strife between Sikhs and Muslims was almost inevitable if the League movement of defiance had continued” (p 125).

(The writer is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University; and Honorary Senior Fellow of the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. His latest publication is The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed: Unravelling the 1947 Tragedy through Secret British Reports and First-Person Accounts (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2012; New Delhi: Rupa Books, 2011)


Also see: Armies of the Pure: the question of Indian fascism

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