It is time for Punjabis to atone for the sins of 1947

no one speaks, really, of their own crimes. Seventy-five years on, the ruling political elites of all communities – Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims – and the governments of both nations show a complete unwillingness to acknowledge their own misdeeds..

NB: I salute Amarjit Chandan for fearlessly upholding truth and humanity. Thank you Amarjit sb. Dilip


Renowned poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz wrote a short poem in Punjabi about the Partition of 1947: 

Kise beejiya ae, tusan waddhna ae
kise keetiyan ne, tusan wartana ae
aap wele sir puchhna gichhna si
hun kise theen ki hisab manggo

Someone sowed, and you shall reap.
Someone did, and you deal with it.
You did not probe, and question either when it was time.
From whom you will seek explanations now?

Faiz was right. What the earlier generations did, the later generations have to suffer and endure. The partition of India, and therefore, the partition of Punjab, was carried out by outsiders, without asking the Punjabi people. But history – the public record, or reality – keeps seeking answers from the dead and the living. It is a creature that never shuts up. It sees everything and rubs salt into wounds. It is as the German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht once wrote: “When the wound stops hurting, what hurts is the scar.”

Punjabis often refer to the partitioned regions as “east” or “west” Punjab, not by the names of the nation states these were included in. Many, especially the families of the displaced, do not commemorate the events of 1947 as azadi, or freedom, or Independence. They call it vaddey raule – the big riots, the holocaust.

Punjabi authors, writing in Punjabi, Urdu, Hindi and English, have published hundreds of books mourning it. Academic researchers produced, and continue to produce, stacks of theses on it. Painters paint; and there is no count of films. There are five evildoers in these narratives – the viceroy Louis Mountbatten, Mohandas Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Mohammed Ali Jinnah or the Akali leader “Master” Tara Singh. Every Punjabi chooses a villain and placates themselves by accusing him. The scenes, accounts and records of the tale are always the same: murder, mayhem, rapes, looting, arson. In the end, the author or the director uses these events to deliver grand messages on the importance of humanity, goodwill, and other lofty ideals.

Many historians incriminate mobs belonging to the Muslim League as having started the violence, in March 1947, by setting fire to Tara Singh’s ancestral home and killing his uncle. Patronized by the nawab of the princely state Mamdot, located near present-day Firozepur, Muslim leaguers, local Muslim policemen, ex-soldiers, and village thugs orchestrated more such incidents. In retaliation, to avenge the killing of Hindus and Sikhs in West Punjab, the Hindu and Sikh thugs in East Punjab re-enacted pages from the same playbook, by killing double the number of Muslims. The number of human lives lost during this exodus is commonly considered to be ten lakhs and the number of refugees is told to be one crore or ten million.

Just after the exodus, both sides presented the details of the devastation focussing on the crimes of the other. In 1948, the Pakistan government published a booklet titled The Sikh Plan. In 1950, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbhandhak Committee, the organisation heading Sikh shrines, published a report titled Muslim League Attacks on Sikhs and Hindus in the Punjab 1947.

But no one speaks, really, of their own crimes. Seventy-five years on, the ruling political elites of all communities – Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims – and the governments of both nations show a complete unwillingness to acknowledge their own misdeeds. 

The Guru Granth Sahib includes a verse by the saint-poet Kabir: “Where there is falsehood, there is sin. Where there is greed, there is death. Where there is forgiveness, there is God Himself.” During my long career and frequent visits to both East and West Punjab, I had many conversations with those belonging to these groups. I brought up the idea of remorse and forgiveness in the context of Partition. In response, I received only refusal or reluctance.

The year was 2007, the month September. I had invited about forty people to the offices of an organisation called Lahore Chitrakar in Gulberg, Lahore, in present-day Pakistan, for the screening of Ajay Bhardwaj’s film, Rabba Hun Kee Kariye / Thus Departed Our Neighbours. The film records testimonies of witnesses to attacks on thousands of Muslims by the Hindus and Sikhs in the princely state of Patiala, and the Khanna regions of Ludhiana, in East Punjab. It speaks of how the Sikh rulers of the princely states of Patiala and Faridkot gave their police and military support that allowed them to hunt and kill Muslims. They distributed weapons and vehicles to the ex-soldiers all over eastern Punjab. In one of the final scenes of the film, the professor and activist Karam Singh, who had studied Persian in Lahore, goes to a railway line near Punjab’s Mansa district. He read a kalma—a verse that marks Islamic faith—in memory of Muslims killed in that area during the carnage.

 The film ended. The lights switched on. A death-like silence filled the room. An agitated Punjabi woman, who was then a professor at a university in Lahore, shouted at me: “Why did you show this film?” I told her, “We in East Punjab are looking to seek atonement for our sins in the Partition violence. You should do the same. Someone on your side should also make a film … who were the people who spilt the blood of thousands of Sikhs and Hindus? What harm had they done to them?” 

In March 2012, newspapers in East Punjab were awash with pictures of Mohammed Khursheed Khan, the then deputy attorney general of Pakistan. He could be seen cleaning the shoes of devotees of the Golden Temple in Amritsar to atone for the killings of innocent Sikhs in Peshawar, in present-day Pakistan. It is a tradition among Sikhs that, to atone for their sins, one should sweep the gurudwara, clean the shoes of the devotees, or clean the dishes in the community kitchen. In August, news arrived that his higher-ups had sacked him. 

In September 2017, a small event was held at the Punjabi Bhawan in Ludhiana. The Naib Shahi Imam of Ludhiana read the khatum dua, a prayer for the dead, from the Quran in memory of the victims of Partition. Barely thirty people attended the event.

The 2018 book Sann Santali, which I edited, is an anthology of poems written in Punjabi, Urdu, Hindi and English about the partition of Punjab. It includes over fifty Punjabi poets. The only Muslim poets in the anthology, who lamented the division, were Ustad Daman, Ahmed Rahi, and Shareef Kunjahi. Poet Mazhar Tirmazi told me: “The Pakistani state claimed the partition violence as qurbani, or ritual sacrifice, so that no one can raise a finger on the Two-Nation Theory. In the newly formed nation, even the writers began beating the drum of qurbani as it was beneficiary for them, and this includes both Urdu and Punjabi writers. Only Ustad Daman kept lamenting the sorrow of Partition.”

Punjabi qissas, though one-sided, were a tad closer to social reality than the work of stage-performer poets. Qissas, or tales, contained unfettered accounts of violence against the Hindu-Sikh combine by Muslims. Their narrative is a specimen of local history but eventually worked as propaganda, presenting only the crimes of one side. More than ten such qissas were published in East Punjab between 1948 and 1950.

In the same period, Charaghdin Junei-ke-wala published his qissa Khoon Deeyan Nadian Yaani Zulm di Hadd—Rivers of Blood and the Extremity of Oppression—in Lahore, which discussed the violence against Muslims. He gave detailed accounts of brutal killings by the Akal Sena—a group of religious Sikh fighters under Tara Singh—and Hindu fanatics of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh against Muslims in the Patiala and Ferozepur regions, in the Qadian region of Gurdaspur district, in Valtoha and Kotli Pathana near Ajnala in Amristar district and in Mohalla Sharifpura of Amritsar city. Many such writings have been published in periodicals and book form. No academic research has cared to scrutinise them too much.

Tara Singh’s younger brother Niranjan Singh was a follower of Gandhi. He taught Chemistry at Khalsa College in Amritsar for many years. Then, he founded the Sikh National College in Lahore, in 1940. In his autobiography Jeevan Vikas, written in Punjabi, he recounted about his brother’s misdeeds.

In the leadership of [the Muslim] League, Muslim thugs went to such an extreme that there is no such example of barbarity in human history. The Hindus and Sikhs arose as well. They formed a committee and deemed Master Tara Singh as their leader. Master Tara Singh was a brave man of vicious disposition. Akalis were quite organized and Master Tara Singh was their sole leader. Then it became a fight between equals. The Muslims would kill 10 Hindus or Sikhs there. Master Tara Singh got 10 Muslims killed here. 1000 refugees crossed over from there. Master Tara Singh expelled 1000 Muslims from here. There, the women were dishonoured. The same treatment for women here. Both sides committed innumerable atrocities. Around 70 lakh Hindu-Sikhs would have come here and the same number of Muslims would have been sent to Pakistan.

Master Tara Singh saved the Sikhs but gave up Sikhi. The Sikh religion is not about persecuting the poor and the destitute. Sikhi is about sacrificing like martyrs Bhai Mani Singh and Bhai Taru Singh...

According to multiple accounts, communists in Punjab worked to shield Muslims from Hindu and Sikh mobs. The Akal Sena murdered thousands of Muslims. In the Amritsar district, it was also after the activist leader Saifuddin Kitchlew. In 1919, Kitchlew had gathered Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs to unite in protest against the Rowlatt Act. His arrest had inspired the protest gathering at Jallianwala Bagh in April that year, where British officials then opened fire, killing hundreds. During Partition violence, the communist leader Teja Singh Sutantar’s men evacuated Kitchlew from Amritsar and took him safely to Delhi. Sikh and Hindu communists formed peace committees to safeguard Muslims in many places. These events are detailed in Anfolia Varka—Unopened Pagesa biography of the communist leader Inder Singh Murari published in 1979.

In Bleeding Punjab Warns, a report on Partition violence compiled by the communist leader Dhanwantri, it is reported that in the villages close to Bhakna, the native village of Ghadar Party’s founding president Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna, the communists hoisted red flags to demarcate safe spaces to protect Muslims and distributed food. The Ghadar Party was founded in the early twentieth century, to overthrow the British government using violent means. 

But according to the historian Ali Raza’s book Revolutionary Pasts, in stark contrast, in the villages of the Akali leader Udham Singh Nagoke, Akal Sena mobs massacred Muslims. In his autobiography, renowned writer Gurbakhsh Singh, who founded and edited the literary magazine Preetlarhi, recounted how he protected Muslims in the area around Preet Nagar—a community-living town that he had built, located near Amritsar and Lahore. Its residents “Preet Sainiks,” or soldiers of love, helped Muslims cross safely over the newly formed international border.

The Akal Sena leader Jiwan Singh Umranangal’s conscience awoke after thirteen years. In 1960, he presented himself at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, to pray for forgiveness. He cleaned the shoes of devotees to atone for his role in killing Muslims. It was this remorse that made him oppose the Khalistani separatists in the 1980s.  

The Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes claimed that one of the difficulties of dealing with evil is the absence of tragedy. “Tragedy in the past could establish the relationship between good and evil,” Fuentes told The Guardian in a 1987 interview. Referring to the Greek tragedy play Antigone, Fuentes said, “Greek tragedy is able to see that both sides may be right, that Creon the tyrant is right to hold the primacy of the state’s laws, and Antigone is right to uphold the rights of the individual. But when you have a society that believes in the possibility of creating paradise on earth, tragedy disappears. Crime replaces tragedy and the crimes of the 20th century are without parallel.”

The partition of Punjab, too, was a crime. Punjabis have spent 75 years justifying this collective wrongdoing of 1947 by citing subjective sources. The Punjabi peoples’ minds still carry the weight of these evil acts. It is rare individuals, like Karam Singh, from Bharadwaj’s film, and Pakistan’s Mohammed Khursheed, who act on the voice of their conscience. A museum on the partition of Punjab has opened in Amritsar. It will not open in Lahore, where Pakistan’s narrative of qurbani still holds fort. 

Often, it is leaders of communities or nations who atone for the sins of their people. In 1997, Britain sought forgiveness from the people of Ireland for the Irish potato famine in the nineteenth century and from Kenya for injustices carried out during the Mau Mau rebel uprising under British rule. In 2010, the Russian government admitted its culpability in the Katyn massacre in the Second World War, in which thousands lost their lives on Stalin’s orders. In 2016, the Canadian government sought forgiveness for the Komagata Maru incident of 1914, where it turned away Indian immigrants, many of whom lost their lives when the British police opened fire on them upon their arrival back in India. In 2019, Reverend Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Church of England, went to Jallianwala Bagh to plead forgiveness for the 1919 massacre. He said it was a “deeply humbling” experience and provoked “feelings of profound shame.”

These examples of our times do not suit the leaders of East or West Punjab. The irony for the leaders of East Punjab in particular is that, were it not for the violence of Partition, the Sikhs could never have maintained a hold on political power in Punjab, as they have done since 1966. The Akali-led Punjabi Suba movement, which led to the formation of Punjab state in India that year, is a de-facto Sikh state.

The burden on the Punjabi consciousness can only be lifted by pleading guilty to our crimes, taking collective responsibility for these actions and seeking atonement and forgiveness. But they have no platform to meet and talk. There is no Punjabi leader; there is no conscience keeper of the Punjabi community; there is no central moral authority that can reconcile the Punjabis devastated by history. Punjab is not a united nation. We do not have a collective consciousness. What is there, on both sides of the Wagah border, the ruling elite has made it ugly like themselves. They do not represent the histories and ideologies of Punjab, from the words of the Sufi saints to the Sikh gurus.

It is unlikely that many Punjabis, especially the political class and public intellectuals, will themselves buy the idea of apology and forgiveness. When I shared the original Punjabi version of this article with Tarlochan Singh, a former member of the Rajya Sabha and the former chairman of the National Commission for Minorities, he at first said that such a debate would be futile. “Who should apologise and from whom?” he asked. When I responded that we Punjabis needed to apologise to each other, he did not agree. He blamed the Muslim League for the violence and said that Tara Singh was blamed “for no fault of his.” In a later exchange, Tarlochan appeared to have changed his mind. He now said that he thought an apology was a good idea. He blamed the British rulers for their haste in carrying out the partition. “Apology from the nation can come if the  houses of Parliament of both sides come forward for such resolution,” he said.

But even if Punjabis do want to come forward to seek forgiveness, then who from the Muslim League will come forward? Who from the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS, and who from the Akalis? Where will they sit together? Where is that place? The Sikh historian Mohinder Singh, the director of the National Institute of Panjab Studies, in Delhi, wrote to me that he did not think any of these representatives would come forward. He felt that “there would be support from individuals and not organisations.” Mohinder Singh lamented that the idea of resolution for the crimes of Partition had been reduced to performative acts, such as the ceremonies at the Wagah border. He said, “How disgusting and how helpless one feels.”

An earlier version of this article appeared in November 2020 in the literary magazine Preet Lahri, in Punjabi. It has been translated to English by the author and the writer Jasdeep Singh

AMARJIT CHANDAN is a writer and activist who has lived in London since 1980. He co-edits Baramah, an annual magazine in Punjabi in the Farsi script, published in Lahore

Dilip Simeon: A White line and a Mosque

Archival document of the CPI from 1947: ‘Bleeding Punjab Warns’ by Dhanwantri & P.C. Joshi

NB – The outstanding feature of this report is that is written not from a communal standpoint, as in Hindu, Muslim or Sikh; but solely from the standpoint of common humanity: DS 

Scanned copy of Communist Party of India’s pamphlet by Dhanwantri & PC Joshi: (File CPI/108 – 1947). The document is part of the PC Joshi Archive in JNU, New Delhi 

Download Bleeding Punjab Warns: Dhanwantri & P.C. Joshi; September 1947

By way of an introduction to this important archival resource, here are some extracts from my essay The Law of killing: a brief history of Indian fascism

In September 1947, the Communist Party of India published a report entitled Bleeding Punjab Warns. This began as follows: What happened in the Punjab cannot be called a riot. It was a regular war of extermination of the minorities, of the Sikhs and Hindus in Western Punjab and of Muslims in East Punjab. It cannot be compared to Calcutta or Noakhali, Bihar, or even to Rawalpindi for in all these cases it was mobs of one community that took leading part in killing, looting and burning the minority in the area, their communal passions being roused to a pitch of frenzy and savagery.. In the Punjab, however, in the recent biggest killing ever seen, it was the trained bands equipped with firearms and modern weapons that were the main killers, looters and rapers. These were the storm troops of various communal parties such as National Guards of the Muslim League in the Western Punjab, and the Shahidi Dal of the Akalis and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh of the Mahasabha in the Eastern Punjab. They were actively aided and often actually led by the police and the military in committing the worst atrocities.. in violence and in brutality, in the numbers killed (which Syt Shri Prakasha, India’s Ambassador to Pakistan places at 1 ½ lakhs) in the use of plenty of modern deadly weapons, in the devastation spread over 14 districts of the Punjab and in the way in which the police, the military and the entire administration was geared not to stop the riots but to spread it – the Punjab tragedy is without parallel..

The report describes numerous instances of atrocities carried out by the militias of various parties, as well as the extensive material support (including rifles, hand grenades, sten-guns, mortars and jeeps) given to them by the Hindu, Muslim and Sikh princely states of Punjab, including Patiala, Jhind, Nabha, Faridkot, Malakotla, Bahawalpur and Kapurthala. It describes these states as ‘the hotbeds…of cold deadly preparations for a war of extermination.’ Whereas the Congress ‘became more and more tongue-tied as it moved nearer and nearer acceptance of division,’ it reported the RSS as having taken over the towns, ‘and roused the spirit of retaliation on the communal slogan of Akhand Hindustan by force’.. 

The activity of armed militias during this period shows the extent to which communal fantasies acquired substance during the violence. Slogans of ‘Hindu Rashtra’, ‘Akhand Hindustan’ and ‘Khalistan’ were raised and Pakistan visualised as the new Madina. Dhanwantri’s Report mentions frantic efforts by the Sikhs in western Punjab to get the Akali leaders like Master Tara Singh to stop violence against Muslims in East Punjab. ‘But the Akali leadership was following a policy not based on the interests of the Sikh people but which expressed the expansionist aims of the Sikh princes. The Akali leaders ignored the entreaties of their own people.. and kept on giving the boastful slogan of re-establishing the empire of Ranjit Singh.’ They issued leaflets in the name of the Government of Khalistan, one of which declared: ‘Khalistan is the Empire of Khalsa as left by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the Sher-i-Punjab. Every Khalsa must pledge himself to this and nothing else.’ Meanwhile the RSS was denouncing Gandhi and Nehru, and there was talk of Nehru meeting the fate of the Burmese left-nationalist leader Aung San, who had just been assassinated in July 1947. The RSS-Mahasabha press called for their own leaders to be appointed to the positions of Governor and Premier of East Punjab.

The criminalisation of the polity

A significant aspect of the situation as reported by Dhanwantri and P. C. Joshi (both members of the Communist Party of India, the former a leading Punjab Communist), was the collapse of state institutions, primarily the police and military. Their report makes visible the impact of communal ideology on the ordinary personnel of these armed bodies of the state; and the gruesome consequences of the realisation that their officers were no longer neutral. The state was now transforming itself into the instrument of the nation, which meant the community. The situation had begun deteriorating in March 1947, with the resignation of the Unionist-Congress-Akali coalition government, and the outbreak of mass rioting in Rawalpindi. As Governor Jenkins wrote to the viceroy in April 1947, ‘We feel now that we are dealing with people who are out to destroy themselves and that in the absence of some reasonable agreement between them the average official will have to spend his life in a communal civil war. The Punjab is not in a constitutional situation but in a revolutionary situation’. 

As the date of the Radcliffe Award (demarcating the boundary) came closer, uncertainty gripped the entire Punjabi population, not least the armed units of the colonial state. Policemen caught in areas expected to go ‘the other way’ were asked to disarm and proceed across the (as yet) imaginary lines demarcating Pakistan and India. With this implosion the chain of authority and legitimacy collapsed. Moreover, as new recruits were being absorbed into the police force to fill vacancies formed due to the migration of Muslims to Western Punjab, ‘the RSS and the Akali bands are burrowing into these services. The RSS wants its own men to hold dominating positions in the east Punjab government.’

The communal militias were now free to indulge their most bloody fantasies. The events are a case study in fascist violence. Children were butchered, women raped and dismembered, people were murdered in the most hateful ways possible by ‘armed bands, fully drunk with liquor and with the lust for blood.. roaming and falling on the poor victims actively assisted by the Hindu and Sikh police and units of the Boundary Force. Similar scenes were enacted in Lahore.’

Dhanwantri and Joshi give details of police and military involvement in massacres, manifesting the seamless connection between formal and informal armed formations during a time when state power melted away. The militias were aided by volunteers from the princely states as well as ex-servicemen. The deadliest danger to villagers was from attacks engineered by forces and militias from outside their villages. The Report states as ‘a fact that everyone who was in Lahore and Amritsar during the months of April to August would testify that the biggest arson was committed during curfew hours with the police actively assisting or passively looking on. Respectable citizens or shop-keepers who came out to put out the fire were shot down by the police, not the gangs who went about committing arson’. 

It speaks scathingly about Mountbatten’s Boundary Force that was meant to keep the peace in August. ‘Unchecked devastation’ went on in 14 districts, in an area ‘wholly under the Boundary Force’. On 13-14 August between 3000 and 4000 Hindu and Sikh refugees were shot down by men of the Baluchi regiment in the Lahore railway station, ‘or they looked on while the Muslim National Guards massacred these refugees…In the same station the Dogra regiment also of the Boundary Force was shooting down Muslim refugees from Amritsar who were arriving in Lahore thinking it would be safe.’ ‘The fact is’, said the Report, ‘if the Boundary Force had not been sent to the Punjab at all, probably we would have had less people killed and less devastation. As it was it acted as the greatest single force that spread the destruction.’

The Report went on to say ‘the young TU movement lies shattered’, for despite many workers refusing to submit to communal animus, they were selectively dismissed by factory owners. It reports railway officials trying to foment violence amongst railway workers. One communist worker named Siri Chand, a leader of the North Western Railway Workers Trade Union, worked tirelessly for peace and to shelter refugees during the riots in Lahore. Not only did the police refuse assistance, but he was arrested, and upon release, was shot dead outside the police station along with members of his family by two constables…