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SOUND BYTE: ‘Partition had many stories to tell’

SOUND BYTE: ‘Partition had many stories to tell’

Dr Ishtiaq Ahmed is the Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the Stockholm University in Sweden. His 2012 book The Punjab: Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed featured firsthand accounts of Indians and Pakistanis who lived through partition. Dawn spoke to Dr Ahmed this Independence Day, about the experience of partition in the Rawalpindi area of Punjab.

Q: Your book features firsthand accounts of partition, from victims and perpetrators of violence, as well as interviews with people who sheltered each other from violence. What do you think drove ordinary people to such violence, and conversely, to help and protect each other from it as well?

A: If I had an easy answer to that, I would be celebrated as a social scientist because that is the ultimate question. How do the same circumstances make some act magnificently and others horribly? No one knows. Ultimately, it is the individual who make the choices, irrespective of how they are brought up, how they are trained, so on and so forth. Of course, grooming makes a difference but it is not protection against bad behaviour – that differs individual to individual.

Some people did act in a very gracious manner and helped Hindus and Sikhs and Muslims while others were hell upon innocent people. It is easier to kill and maim people you do not know. So, if someone is motivated to kill, they may go to another neighbourhood. You share a lot of social capital with those you have played with or interacted with and you do not have these constraints with people you do not know.

On the other hand, there are also stories of those who helped strangers, so there is no one explanation. That’s the beauty of the factual history of partition – you cannot stereotype or generalise. You can say what the probability is but there is no guarantee who will do what.

Q: Are there any cases from the Rawalpindi area that stand out?

A: Rawalpindi is covered in detail [in my book]. I interviewed people in Tamali, a village about 30 or 40 kilometres from Rawalpindi city, and another few villages. That was the basis for learning how collective violence takes place and how some people turn to helping others in the worst circumstances.

One such case is from Choa Khalsa, another village near Rawalpindi City where the nazim of the union council in 2004, Raja Mohammad Riasat, talked about Thakur Das Puri, the headmaster of their school. Locals said Puri was a very saintly character. However, he was attacked by people during partition and was almost killed. Another school teacher, Master Sher Zaman, saved him and saw to it that he travelled to India safely.

Q: What role did Rawalpindi’s local leadership play in either perpetuating or protecting people from violence?

A: [Some local Muslim League] leaders were behind the riots of March 1947 and some people I interviewed brought up the name of [a famous politician from Wah who was] also involved in Amritsar. Also, General Tikka Khan’s father was part of the negotiating team which promised safe passage to Hindus and I think that promise was not kept.

A Pakistani brigadier I talked to said that as the British rule was still very much in place in March 1947 and most of those involved in the organised attacks on Sikh villages were retirees, demobilised from the Indian Army, and had just come back from different wars; they were scared to death of risking their pensions. They would not have organised these killings if not given a green light from somewhere.

What happened in March required clearance from somewhere. Khawaja Masood, who was then a lecturer at Gordon College Rawalpindi, said during the March riots, an American principal of the college went to the British deputy commissioner asking for army or police officials to be posted at the hostel as it housed Muslim and Hindu students. His request was refused. There were some local conspiracies in which the British were also involved. Rawalpindi is very, very interesting.

Q: What role did the local leaders of the Khaksar movement play in the area?

A: The Khaksars were a militant organisation in the 30s and 40s with quite a large following in Punjab and northern India. They were a rightwing, anti-British, Islamist party with some influence of the fascist idea of strong military organisations. I’m not saying they were fascist, but they looked at Islam as a militant ideology which they wanted to direct against British rule.

They found the Muslim League’s relationship with the British to be too comfortable, while Congress opposed the British more consistently. So while they were ambivalent towards both parties, they were less hostile towards Congress and more hostile to Muslim League.

The local Khaksar leader Ashraf Khan saw to it that Hindus and Sikhs from Rawalpindi – as far as he could manage – left Rawalpindi safely. That is what I heard all over India when I talked to people from Rawalpindi.

Published in Dawn, August 15th, 2016

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