Competing narratives of Partition violence

Published: June 1, 2012
The writer edits a quarterly Urdu literary journal Aaj from Karachi, runs a bookshop and City Press, a small publishing house

The writer edits a quarterly Urdu literary journal Aaj from Karachi, runs a bookshop and City Press, a small publishing house

In one of the endnotes to his outstanding essay titled The partition of India and retributive genocide in the Punjab, 1946–47: Means, methods, and purposes Paul R Brass, Professor Emeritus of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle, and the author of a number of important books and articles on ethnic politics and collective violence in South Asia, remarks: “The absence until very recently — and even now the very meagre presence — of serious research on what happened during the partition is regrettable… It has meant that the partition exists as a disastrous (for the Indian side) disjuncture in the arrival of the Indian state on the world scene and, on the Pakistan side, as a regrettable but necessary catastrophe that made possible the creation of the Pakistan state. But the sharpness and horrific character of the partition has made it appear as a kind of terrible accident that cannot be fit into the perceptions of the people of India and Pakistan concerning their past and future.”

The return to this highly revealing academic essay was occasioned by the recent publication of an interesting newspaper article “Manto and Sindh” (Dawn, May 27) by Mr Haider Nizamani. The writer correctly points out the marked difference between the ways Sindh and Punjab (the two provinces of present-day Pakistan as well as the two multi-ethnic, multi-religious larger communities on either sides of the border) experienced collective violence and mass migration at the time of Partition. As such, Nizamani justly complicates and questions what is taken as the dominant ‘national’ narrative of the 1946-47 violence that needs to be seen exclusively belonging to Punjab based on its unique experience, during and after Partition.

Sindh, clearly, did not undergo the kind of “retributive genocide” and the consequent total ethnic cleansing that the partitioned Punjab suffered. Nizamani argues that the experience of Punjab at the time of Partition should not be generalised as that of other parts of the present federation that do not share in full measure the high level of anti-non-Muslim rhetoric and fascination with the so-called ‘Pakistan ideology’ and its resultant militarism.

Nizamani expresses satisfaction on the fact that “Sindh has no equivalent of Saadat Hasan Manto as a chronicler of Partition. And the absence of a Manto-like figure in Sindhi literature on that count is good news. It shows the resilience of Sindh’s tolerant culture at a time when Punjab had slipped into fratricidal mayhem”. However, it was Manto who made a point similar to the one put forward by Brass and which we can benefit from even today, when the compulsions of domestic identity politics have created at least three competing historical narratives held by Punjabis, Sindhis and the Urdu-speaking Mohajirs of Sindh respectively.

Manto says: “Both Hindus and Muslims were being massacred. Why were they being massacred? There were different answers to the question; the Indian answer, the Pakistani answer, the British answer. Every question had an answer, but when you tried to unravel the truth, you were left groping.”

Let us begin with the ‘Mohajirs’ in Sindh — the community that I happen to belong to — who are as diverse a lot as any other in our country. As a result of a series of political decisions of inclusion and exclusion, they define themselves as the people (and their descendants) who migrated into Sindh mainly from UP/MP, Bihar, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Hyderabad, although the first category seems to dominate the rest culturally and politically.

It is interesting to note that those who came from East Punjab even to Sindh are excluded from the list; the popular community narrative nevertheless takes exclusive ‘credit’ for the ‘sacrifices’ made as a result of the Partition massacres that uniquely took place in the East and West Punjab! The ‘Mohajir’ narrative — as well as the current demand for ethnic division of Sindh being raised by a minority among them — is, therefore, more easily dismantled and shown to be wanting than the other two competing ones.

The current Sindhi narrative of the Partition events is not so seamless and impregnable either, as it is no less shaped by the event that occurred afterwards. True, the kind of violence that shook the two parts of Punjab was not experienced by Sindh as it decided to join Pakistan and a large part of its Hindu population left without being massacred. But the period in question was no less traumatic for the Sindhi Hindus who were made homeless.

Mohan Kalpana, the renowned Sindhi fiction writer, notes in his autobiography, “India’s freedom brought me no joy and in the last 35 years I have never once offered salutes to the Indian flag. I always found this freedom lacking and I never participated in the Independence Day celebrations. It reminds me that on this day we were dispossessed of our country.”

Nizamani goes on to present a rather uncomplicated explanation: “The violence against Sindhi Hindus and their mass migration to India was a tragic loss scripted, orchestrated and implemented by non-Sindhis in Sindh.” However, there are historical references that seem to question this view.

One such reference is a quote from Mohammad Ayub Khuhro, when he held the portfolio of Public Works in the Sindh ministry after the 1946 elections. He is quoted by Parsram V Tahilramani in his 1947 book Why the Exodus from Sind: Being a Brief Resume of Conditions Responsible for Exodus of Hindus, Sikhs and Harijans from Sind as saying: “Let the Hindus of Sind leave Sind and go elsewhere. Let them go while the going is good and possible; else I warn them that a time is fast coming when in their flight from Sind, they may not be able to get a horse or an ass or a gari or any other means of transport.”

Tahilramani is clearly of the view that their exodus was the result of a concerted campaign conducted by the leaders of the Sindh Muslim League during and after the 1946 elections.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 2nd, 2012. 

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Reader Comments (39)

  • Babloo
    Jun 2, 2012 - 12:08AM

    As per historical records, given by India and Pakistan , 7 million of India’s 55 million Muslims in 1947, left India for Pakistan.
    Almost same number, 7 million Hindus and Sikhs, out of a total of 9 million Hindus and Sikhs in West Pakistan, left for India.
    That is 85% of hindus and sikhs of today’s pakistan , were expelled or left for India.

    Compare 13% to 85% and you would see a himalayan difference of how overwhelming majority of muslims 85% and more continued to live in India and over whelming majority of hindus and sikhs , 85% were displaced and left Pakistan. The remaining 15% have dwindled down even further over last 65 years and only a very insignificant minority of hindus and sikhs is left in Pakistan.


  • ashar
    Jun 2, 2012 - 12:22AM

    Why dont you write a corrected history of partition of India? All those who want to regret the past would be grateful to you.


  • Max
    Jun 2, 2012 - 12:34AM

    Professor Paul Brass’ work certainly stands out in many ways and if I am correct it was published in the Journal of Genocide in the earlier part of last decade. Since then there is an enormous amount of very fine scholarly work on partition that has come out. Here are just a few examples:
    Ishtiaq Ahmed, Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned, and Cleansed
    Neeti Nair, Changing Homelands, Hindu Politics and Partition of India
    Yasmin Khan, The Great Partition
    Stanley Wolpert, Shameful Flight
    Jaswant Singh, Jinnah, India Partition
    Mr. Singh talks of flight of Hindu population from the Sindh, but we need to keep in mind that Punjab had to bear the largest blunt of partition and that is the reason that there is too much scholarly work on Punjab. Professor Brass also emphasizes that point in his well written analytical article in the Journal of Genocide. I come from a place where Radcliffe Line was drawn quite ambiguously (Gurdaspur), and also make my living by teaching and researching, so know the story of partition quite well.


  • Ali tanoli
    Jun 2, 2012 - 12:42AM

    punjabis gives lives and Urdu speakers called Muhajirs did not get it??


  • Cynical
    Jun 2, 2012 - 1:25AM

    @Ajmal Kamal

    Thanks.Every article of yours is a lesson in history of this subcontinent, both political and cultural.
    Wish you all the best.


  • Ashok usa
    Jun 2, 2012 - 2:26AM

    the exodus never stopped did it, since the persecution only changed shapes, whilst the end goal remained same. Meanwhile, the muslim population in India swelled, they prospered along with compatriot hindus, they are even getting preferential treatment by getting block reservations in educatiional institutions and govt job sector now. Haj subsidy even.The partition was a big blow to hindus on either side of the border. We dont see pak hindus in foreign lands as professional or busineemen or even students. Sad. (sorry for repeat, corrected post)


  • Sunil
    Jun 2, 2012 - 3:27AM

    Dont understand wot we got by Partition ..over six decades of destruction and still both countries are not finished with this madness …high time people of both nations should come forward and quash the borders ..if Berlin wall can be destroyed than y cant wagah border be brought to the ground


  • Mohajir
    Jun 2, 2012 - 3:29AM

    It brings tears to my eyes when people tell about the event which made Ummah would have been better if we could have stayed there and try to make ‘them’ pure and peaceful by conversion to deen.


  • Babloo
    Jun 2, 2012 - 4:56AM

    One important point to consider regarding partition and uprooting people who had lived thousands of years in their lands is that while about 15% of Indian Muslims had to leave India, about 85-90% of Hindus of Pakistan ( W Pakistan then ) , had to leave Pakistan.
    The 50 million Muslims, who continued to live in India, now number 150 million, almost equal to population of Pakistan.
    Just in Delhi, 2-3 million muslims live which is equal to the total population of Hindus and Sikhs in entire Pakistan.
    The numbers reveal the story more than a 1000 books on the subject can.


  • Jun 2, 2012 - 5:16AM

    @ Ajmal Kamal

    A very good and informative article. The leaders of Sindh Muslim League wanted the dominant and affluent class of Sindhi Hindus to migrate to India, leaving the field open for Sindhi muslim politicians. However, this move of theirs had permanently changed the culture and identity of this historical region “Sindh”. As a result of Partition Sindh’s native population turned into a minority, a situation which no other region of Pakistan has to undergo.


  • Max
    Jun 2, 2012 - 5:30AM

    Correction: on the eleventh line the word blunt may please be read as brunt. “Punjab had to bear the largest brunt.”
    Thank you


  • Krish
    Jun 2, 2012 - 7:41AM

    @Ajmal Kamal : If you are so studing hard about ethnicity, languages, culture why don’t you write an article on pakistani constitution which has maximum impact on this? Also write something how nonmuslim including ahmadies restricted by not allowing any top post of any institution in pakistan. concept of second class citizen in islamic countries which we don’t find secular countries whether west or India.


  • Maria
    Jun 2, 2012 - 9:46AM

    @Mohajir: If you are so concerned about the cause of Muslims in India, you should move to India and help them. I would prefer to help Pakistani people first and help Muslim nations improve first.


  • Arijit Sharma
    Jun 2, 2012 - 10:15AM

    @Mohajir: ” … .it would have been better if we could have stayed there and try to make ‘them’ pure and peaceful by conversion to deen. … “

    You created Pakistan, go for Mohajir Sooba now.


  • Arijit Sharma
    Jun 2, 2012 - 10:47AM

    @Maria: ” … If you are so concerned about the cause of Muslims in India, … “

    I have always believed that Pakistanis have not reconciled to the partition of British India.


  • jagjit sidhoo
    Jun 2, 2012 - 11:44AM

    @Mohajir: Why are you so obsessed with conversion . Can you not think that we are also on a path that leads to God leave us alone we are quite at peace with our religious beliefs. Have a open mind think about it maybe the path you are following is wrong , have you studied other religions before deciding that they are impure.


  • Zillur Rahman
    Jun 2, 2012 - 12:30PM

    Punjab was the “recruitment area” of soldiers for the British Empire – particularly the area between Jhelum and Sutlej. The British created the myth of “martial races” and encouraged a feeling of entitlement in the “recruitment area”. These soldiers and their families felt that if the British withdrew, it was its duty to transfer back power to the inheritors of the Mughal legacy, namely, the “martial races”. “Haske liya Pakistan, ladke lenge Hindustan” was their battle cry. It is they who encouraged the massacres of 1947. They went on to perpetrate an even greater massacre in 1971 in the erstwhile province of East Pakistan.


  • Jun 2, 2012 - 12:48PM

    i think there r contradictions in this piece. just compare what nizamani said in Dawn article and what Kalpana said in his piece from her autobiography. at the one hand nizamani ji is claiming non existence of religious violence while on the other hand a Sindhi non Muslim is not ready to accept partition. there r many incidents against Sindhi Hindus and Sikhs during partition days especially after the entry of muhajirs in Karachi, Hyderabad. for those who want to inquire should read interview of Comrade Dr Eric raheem published in the Punjab Number. Dr Raheem was there in Karachi at January 1948 and he recorded many incidents. its link is
    Manto wrote about many things and partition is one of them. he is great not because he wrote about partition alone but he is great because he had courage and art to explain his ideas without any social, cultural, linguistic, religious or sectarian prejudice. if Sindh has no manto then it is not a pride itself but by adopting manto they can rich there literature. in an interview tasneem sadiquee himself told me that we Urdu speaking were not ready to learn sindhi so we set up new schools so that we could save our kids from sindhiasation. sindhis were among the worst victim of partition, they lost there big cities, they lost there continuity and they lost there fellows non Muslim sindhies. it is not a joke. in the end author tries to fix the blame on sindh Muslim league leadership yet he does not mention what new comers did in Karachi, interesting.


  • salma
    Jun 2, 2012 - 2:20PM

    “On the morning of January 6, 1948, a party of Sikhs, numbering between two and three hundred, including women and children, arrived in Karachi… A mob of Punjab Muslims saw the Sikhs arrive on the railway station and immediately showed signs of great agitation… News of the arrival of these Sikhs spread throughout the city and, within a very short time, a large crowd of Sindhi and Punjabi Muslims armed with hatchets, swords, knives, crowbars and lathis arrived in front of the Gurdwara and began to stone it. The Sikhs had locked themselves inside the Gurdwara but some of the crowed scaled the walls and entered the Gurdwara compound. They, however, found further progress barred. The Muslim neighbours on seeing this began to throw bags of live coal into the Gurdwara and soon the entire building was on fire. Many of the Sikhs were burnt alive.” G.D.Khosla, Stern Reckoning.


  • politically incorrect
    Jun 2, 2012 - 4:27PM

    @Zillur Rahman

    What has happened with patriotism? How can you say this on a public forum?


  • Ali tanoli
    Jun 2, 2012 - 4:46PM

    @Babloo Bhai,
    I agreed that millions of native peoples migrated by force on both sides of present borders but figures little uncorrect seems??
    Deobad school was anti sepration and reason was we can live with native other faiths peoples
    which we were doing for centuries but U.P bhia log never agreed on that no wonder why they
    are asking for partition of SINDH too now….


  • Ali tanoli
    Jun 2, 2012 - 5:00PM

    I used to have friend from south india state kerala A Latheef Palathinkal he told me once that
    once upon a time in india Hindu peoples were so great to see some Muslims families lives in there Villages but now after partition hate is heat up and reason is they think why seprated we lived centuries together why cant now in this global village now even harder to live seprate??????? i guess Mr palathinkal was right…


  • observer
    Jun 2, 2012 - 5:01PM

    @Ajmal Kamal

    Of the areas that went to Pakistan, most of the exchange of population took place in three, namely Punjab, Sindh and East Pakistan.

    Of the three Punjab saw the greatest bloodshed. In my earlier post I had suggested that may be some ethnic issues were involved here.

    Moderator ET is his wisdom scrapped it. But after reading Zillur Rahman’s post, I wonder, Was something wrong with my post or is it just my name?

    There is another issue begging further research. Was the expulsion of Hindus from Sindh, in any way, connected to the ‘History Began with Bin Qasim’ project.
    I mean this theory would have looked extremely ridiculous with a thriving Hindu population in the land conquered by the Great Founder Bin Quasim himself.

    Hoping to catch Moderator ET napping.


  • Feroz
    Jun 2, 2012 - 5:09PM

    The non Muslim Sindhi who fled Pakistan at the time of Partition left a hole difficult to fill. While all may have initially moved to India, many moved on to different corners of the World. They were an excellent trader class with strong mercantile instincts and contributed greatly wherever they went. Pakistan is the poorer and India the richer beneficiary because of this migration.
    Babloo has also pointed out the asymmetry of the migration process that has escaped many. While over 80% of the non Muslims fled Pakistan at Partition, only around 15% of Indian Muslims relocated to Pakistan. Events proved that both made wise decisions because non Muslims in Pakistan are almost wiped out while Muslim population of India has swelled not just in numbers but as a %age of the overall population too.
    While propaganda can spin many narratives, facts will always speak for themselves.


  • secular inside and out
    Jun 2, 2012 - 5:28PM

    My grandfather would recount stories of what they did to the Hindus and Sikhs during partition. Many times when I heard the stories being told the audience agreed that the Hindus deserved it for being Kuffars.
    However, I sometimes though rarely I heard some liberal people argue that the Hindus were a stabilizing force and their removal helped radicalize society.
    Given my agnostic and free thinking beliefs I too wish the hindus had remained. I would have been able to live in a open way and less afraid to voice what I really think.


  • Anonymous
    Jun 2, 2012 - 5:59PM

    Dear Author,
    Since u started to write I have not missed your article.
    I read Mr Nizamani regularly not because he is very good but he says some thing different that national media offers and says . I think This was his best article.

    What I think he is saying that relative to Punjab Sindh experienced less atrocities in Sindh. Sindh or any other land population follow the bell- shaped curve principle. Which means that at one hand you have extremely bad people and at other hand you have extremely good people and majority fall in between. So bad things must have happened and Sindhi Muslims must have participated. But that happened late and was orchestrated by Urdu speakings population from India.
    If you look at demography, Hindus live in significant numbers in area where Urdu speaking population is insignificant or none, like Jacobabad, daharki, kohistan , thaparkar and all rural areas.what u see in cities all have relocated from other area.
    When we meet some punjabi friends from Punjab, and they find that Hindus still live in Sindh, one can see obvious facial grimacing and nose twitch of disbelief!!


  • Syed
    Jun 2, 2012 - 8:05PM

    Can somebody give a single reference of communal violence in northern Indian provinces now in Pakistan, before 1947 episode. Throughout the British Raj, Pakistani provinces enjoyed extreme harmony among various religious factions. There is, however, a long history of Hindu-Muslim tensions in UP/MP and adjoining area. Be it Hindi-Urdu conflict or religious issues, UP/MP always remained an epicenter of ethnic troubles. Unlike northern Muslims, UP Muslims were ambitious in their economic and social goals. These troubles originated the idea of a separate state for Muslims. That is why Aligarh University was the hub of Muslim League’s activities. Pakistani Provinces took the idea of separate Muslim state during the later years since Muslims were the majority faction in northern states, they had no trouble with non Muslims.


  • Syed
    Jun 2, 2012 - 8:06PM

    Can somebody give a single reference of communal violence in northern Indian provinces now in Pakistan, before 1947 episode. Throughout the British Raj, Pakistani provinces enjoyed extreme harmony among various religious factions. There is, however, a long history of Hindu-Muslim tensions in UP/MP and adjoining area. Be it Hindi-Urdu conflict or religious issues, UP/MP always remained an epicenter of ethnic troubles. Unlike northern Muslims, UP Muslims were ambitious in their economic and social goals. These troubles originated the idea of a separate state for Muslims. That is why Aligarh University was the hub of Muslim League’s activities. Pakistani Provinces took the idea of separate Muslim state during the later years since Muslims were the majority faction in northern states, they had no trouble with non Muslims.Recommend

  • Babloo
    Jun 2, 2012 - 8:56PM

    The paradox and irony of partition is that Muslims, who wanted partition, 85%-90% of them continued to live in India and did not chose to migrate or felt compelled to migrate to Pakistan.
    However, ironically, Hindus, who did not favour partition, where over whelmingly 85-90%, uprooted from W Pakistan.


  • Ali tanoli
    Jun 2, 2012 - 11:58PM

    The paradox and irony of partition is that most of peoples dont wanna leave there Janam bhoomi and all childhood memories unless some were forced to to do on both sides. period and please stop crying now for god sake.


  • muneer
    Jun 3, 2012 - 10:51AM

    Oh please, get over this immature railing and whining of the Partition! Blood was shed and lives were lost on both sides of the border. If only the people had the sense to practice their religion and their caste system in the privacy of their homes, both India and Pakistan would have much more civilized populations than what they have now. But no, we are still beating the same drums and going to wars over the same futile issues. We should have learned from our mistakes yet we are harping over the same things.India and Pakistan still have infighting between their provinces/states. The problem lies not across the borders, it lies within the 2 countries. Recommend

  • alicia
    Jun 3, 2012 - 10:54AM

    All I can say is that the stories of partition scarred me when I was a child.
    They were not even in the text books but in the Kids magazines like Taleem-o-Tarbiat and Bachoon ki duniya which are very popular amongst kids in Pak. Every year on 14 August they would publish extremely graphic narratives of Partition.

    I remember one of my class fellows told me that she went on a trip to Peshawar and went to a shop owned by some sikhs. She was so scared that she ran out of the shop. Just because she read stories on how sikhs had kidnapped muslim women and killed muslim men when the were coming to Pakistan.


  • jagjit sidhoo
    Jun 3, 2012 - 10:57AM

    @Ali tanoli: What happened 64yrs ago was a very shameful event in our history but let us forgive and forget and move on. It has clouded our thinking to such a extent that we have fought several wars and have been in a arms race which we can ill afford .I am 63yrs old and i am sure most of the readers were not even born at that time and were not involved in those shameful events . In our inheritance there is a lot of hate but can we allow it to consume our nations.


  • Cynical
    Jun 3, 2012 - 7:19PM


    So partition stories (obviously telling one side of it) was appearing in popular kids magazine.If it didn’t appear in the text books(as you claim), it’s because the purpose has already been served.
    No wonder how and why hate has become institutionalised and the society consumed by it.


  • Ali tanoli
    Jun 3, 2012 - 10:28PM

    @Jagjit sidhoo baba ji
    i agreed baba ji. and we just heard from some old peoples or read it in books written by some migrate


  • Jun 4, 2012 - 8:12PM

    partition was accepted and effected as a constitutional solution to the political impasse because the leadership could not resolve the problems they had contributed to buildup.
    pakistan has already been dismembered once and again the same forces are pushing balochistan to the brink. the instability that is the order of the day could only e overcome through arriving at a political solution that can not be dictated by fire power of the state as it is the unjust state machinery that is responsible for creating distrust.
    it is most infantile perception that in the present pakistan there is no insurmountable logistic problem as existed
    in 1971 between the two wings.


  • Raja Islam
    Jun 5, 2012 - 1:27AM

    At the end of the day Hindus who had to leave their homes are unhappy. The Bhayyas (Mohajirs) who left India claim to have lost everything and claim discrimination are unhappy, The Sindhis who are treated as second class citizens in their own province and live in fear of their lives are unhappy. Punjabis on both sides of the border saw bloodshed and are unhappy.

    So who gained from the partition of India?


  • Vijay K
    Jun 5, 2012 - 7:04PM

    @Raja Islam:
    The British gained. We still buy weapons from them and support their economy, while destroying the future of our children.


  • Cynical
    Jun 6, 2012 - 4:55PM

    @Raja Islam

    I think I know who gained.I even send my post but unfortunately it didn’t pass ET moderator’s scrutiny.
    We in the subcontinent are not famous for accomodating alternate views or controversial truths.We have too many holy cows in our closets.


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