Friday 23 rd October 2015

The Partition of India

The partition of the British Indian Empire that led to the creation of the sovereign states of the Dominion of Pakistan (it later split into Pakistan and Bangladesh) and the Union of India (later Republic of India) was initiated with the announcement of Prime Minister Clement Atlee on 20 th February 1947 that: ‘The British Government would grant full self-government to British India by June 1948 at the latest, and that the future of the Princely States would be decided after the date when the final transfer is decided.’ On 14 th / 15 th August 1947, the partition of India began.

The subject of CIFN’s presentation, undertaken by the speakers: Dr Mohammed Ashraf, Mr.John Hopcroft and Dr. Mohinder Gallowalia provided some considerable food for thought.

In introducing the event, Iyad Daoud CIFN Chair, welcomed all present and explained that the purpose of the evening was to listen to those who witnessed the circumstances of this historic moment. He asked for a period of silence and proposed that those present should pray or reflect in silence.

Ash Soni provided some health and safety notices.

Each speaker was asked to recollect details relevant to the subject; either from their own or of those reported; first hand experiences.

Dr. Mohammed Ashraf began by indicating on a map of the Punjab, the geographical location of the place of his birth. He implied that prior to the partition, people of that region, whether Hindu, Muslim or Sikh, mostly lived relatively peaceably. He told of the upheaval caused to him and his family when they were forced by the circumstances of the recharting of that part of the country, to move from India to Pakistan. This brought double trouble to the family; as only a year before, when he was about twelve years old, the roof of the family house had collapsed. The rest of the building was painstakingly dismantled by his father and reconstructed, using all of the family’s expendable resources. They had only just been able to move into the new accommodation when they were forced to make the journey west.

In the turmoil, his father was unable to travel with the rest of his family, who had transport. He had become separated and was forced to join the caravan of his brother’s family and had to walk with them a distance of approximately 14 miles which took three days and nights, moving slowly because they had to cope with a number of children but also in an effort to avoid attack from marauding bands whose vengeance had been sparked off at the hands of other sectarian groups. This experience was common to many who moved to Pakistan. They had limited access to food supplies and were obliged to eat raw rice, pulses and for some, even the leaves on the trees. Eventually, all of Dr. Mohammed Ashraf’s family were able to cross the border at Kasur in safety and were reunited. His older sisters, who had travelled separately, were located only after several weeks; unlike the teenaged girl from another branch of the family, who was actually kidnapped by unnamed adversaries and never traced despite searches in India by her elder brother.

A regular subject of discussion that arose in their household, throughout the following six months, was the possibility of the family’s return to their former home in Ferozepur. Dr. Mohammed Ashraf’s Mother particularly, was convinced that sooner or later the political crisis would end and their homeland would be restored to them. Her misery was patent when she was firmly told that no such eventuality would ever arise as it was not an option.

As an example of the enduring consequences of these days of chaos during his childhood he lamented that for most of his life he has had to make do with an approximate date of birth, calculated by the Head Master of his school in Pakistan. This, due to the fact that records or certification of his birth were lost or destroyed during his evacuation. He was sure that this must have happened to many others. Identity, nationality, faith and many other personal assurances that people depend upon for self-determination, were lost to them.

Because of the awful things he saw and heard, Dr. Mohammed Ashraf felt that he had been deprived of his adolescence. At such an impressionable age, he had to act like an adult and bear adult responsibility, for his own sake and for the rest of his family. He was convincing in his conclusion when he suggested that the atrocities and upheaval he was exposed to, have been and still are repeated in other parts of the World today.

Speaking next, Mr. John Hopcroft explained that he was 22 years old in 1947 and lived in New Delhi. Other members of his family had influential occupations whilst he was a cadet at the Indian Military Academy. The Partition followed two World Wars, military unrest and political agitation from those groups who considered the time was right for India to seek independence. However there did not appear to be any decisive action on the part of the British Government. Eventually after much procrastination the date for independence was foreshortened. Cyril Radcliffe was given the chairmanship of the two boundary committees set up with the passing of the Indian Independence Act. He was faced with the daunting task of drawing the borders for the new nations of Pakistan and India in a way that would leave as many Hindus and Sikhs in India and Muslims in Pakistan as possible. Radcliffe submitted his partition map on 9 August 1947. The new boundaries were formally announced on 14 August 1947—the day of Pakistan’s independence and the day before India became independent.

John Hopcroft and his colleagues in training were given the task of policing the movement of peoples that ensued as soon as the announcement was made. Those Moslems who were living in India desired to seek safety in the newly established state of Pakistan, whilst those Sikhs and Hindus in Pakistan were determined to move into India as soon as possible. It was almost inevitable that enmity between the religious groups caused ill feeling and heightened tension led to atrocities that were reciprocated. The limited training that the cadets had received did not prepare them for dealing with the horrendous implications of the debacle.

He narrated the circumstances of a Hindu woman whose Muslim friends were unable to leave Shimla immediately to go to Pakistan, when the partition was announced. A vengeful crowd warned that if they were still living in the community the next day, the Muslim friends would be massacred. She hid them in a cave outside of the village and fed them secretly, until a protected convoy travelling to Pakistan was able to transport them to safety. Such circumstances were commonplace during the transition to new independence of both states.

Dr. Mohinder Gallowalia hails from East Punjab, he considers that his experience of events was slightly different to those who came from other parts. He demonstrated with the use of a PowerPoint presentation some of the significant demographic statistics concerning the Indian subcontinent in the 1940s, especially with regard to the Hindu, Sikh and Muslim communities. In a slide which plotted the line of the partition, he showed the limited logic that divided the country. In particular, Nankana is a town in Pakistan revered by Sikhs as the birth place of Guru Nanak. It is situated in the northern part of Punjab, east of the river Ravi, which at the partition became Muslim territory. The independence of India should have been the cause of joy and celebration, instead many Sikhs who lived in this region were heartbroken at the loss of their place of pilgrimage and worship.

Not only that, but as a result of the conflict they experienced at the hands of neighbouring religious communities, when India became divided, many were killed and others injured before deciding to leave. Dr.Mohinder Gallowalia explained the desperation and fear that existed among the Sikh communities: rather than allow members of their families to be dishonoured, men supervised the suicides of their daughters and wives. Some stories are told about the way in which people survived because they were hidden as young children among the dead bodies of those who were slaughtered in the rivalry that developed. He spoke from his own experience at the age of 9 years and reported the witness of Giani Darshan Singh, Mrs Kuldip Kaur Gallowalia, and Gurdev Singh Ghundale aged 17 years; 10 years and 4 years respectively at the time. They still had clear memories of similar events. Especially the carnage after rampaging groups had attacked defenceless Sikh villages. He gave further examples, supported by photographic images: in their efforts to leave the western sector of the Punjab in trains full of passengers journeying to safety – they were attacked. When the train pulled into the station of its destination, no one was alive to recount the details of what had occurred. Others who joined caravans and thought they were secure in journeying to their newly allocated land with compatriots, had many terrifying moments – which are well documented.

Dr. Mohinder Gallowalia captured the sentiment of those present and indeed people who were affected at the time by including the words of a poem by Amrita Pitram :

Ajj aakhaan Waris Shah nu

Today, I call Waris Shah,

“Speak from your grave,”
And turn to the next page in your book of love,
Once, a daughter of Punjab cried and you wrote an entire saga,
Today, a million daughters cry out to you, Waris Shah,
Rise! O’ narrator of the grieving! Look at your Punjab,
Today, fields are lined with corpses, and blood fills the Chenab.

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In the riots which preceded the partition in the Punjab region, between 200,000 and 500,000 people were killed in the retributive genocide between the religions. UNHCR estimates 14 million Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims were displaced during the partition; it was the largest mass migration in human history.

The last part of the evening was devoted to questions and discussion. Mostly this was centred on expressions of incredulity that such awful effects should be allowed to arise from a British governmental policy; of an established nation that claimed to be peace loving. At best the process was seen to be indifferent to the obvious vital needs of the various religious communities of people living in the subcontinent at the time. At worst it was a blatant and negligent disregard for life. As one contributor at the event suggested – ‘The whole thing was a mess from start to finish and the worst thing is that people are still suffering as a result of the Partition today.’

Iyad Daoud thanked all for coming and especially those who had presented: Dr. Mohammed Ashraf, Mr.John Hopcroft and Dr. Mohinder Gallowalia. Also those who were responsible for organising and arranging the event.

Steve Innes gave the details concerning the forthcoming CIFN annual general meeting :

Friday 20 th November 2015 7. 00 p.m. – 9. 00 p.m.

St. Bernadette’s Church, Tilgate Way , CRAWLEY RH10 5BS

Katharina Smith-Muller, Interreligious Adviser to the R.C  Bishop’s Conference of England and Wales will offer a presentation  : ‘A GUIDE TO INTER FAITH – Building bridges, the practice and spirituality of Inter Faith Dialogue.’

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Report by Steve Innes 16.11.2015

Some of the evening’s speakers and attendees can be seen below.