The Lies of the Land

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Dense chronicle Professor Ishtiaq Ahmed

ISHTIAQ AHMED’S involvement with Partition began, like many, with recalling stories of death, destruction and division that had floated around him all his life. For many Punjabis — and perhaps for others too, but it’s difficult to generalise — once questions about Partition have entered their blood, it’s difficult to do away with them. So also with Ahmed, professor of political science at Stockholm University. The result is this massive tome.

For many years Ahmed ran an e-mail service with subscribers from India, Pakistan and many other places that carried discussions, debates, stories and personal accounts about Partition — perhaps he still does, although I’ve been off the list for a while.

This book, in some ways, mirrors that list, although it’s based on a much wider list of sources, both primary and secondary, textual and oral. After three introductory chapters, Ahmed describes the process of how undivided Punjab was first bloodied with the killings of thousands and then partitioned and then cleansed (of those perceived to be ‘the other’).

More importantly, this book contains detailed accounts of particular incidents and areas, with information from classified reports written by the Punjab governor and other officials to the viceroy, and from the Transfer of Power documents. Subsequent records and documents, as the author notes, have unfortunately not yet been made available.

The punjab: Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed

Ahmed takes the March 1947 Rawalpindi violence as a starting point for the partition of the Punjab, then moves to other areas to detail what happened in the different divisions (Lahore, Amritsar, Jalandhar, Ambala, Delhi) and then looks at the princely states in east Punjab. Each account includes new information, some statistical data and oral accounts. It is these, to my mind, that are the signal contribution of this book, especially because the author has been able to look at both sides of the border, an advantage many scholars don’t have — and this will make it useful as source material for scholars.

I’m reminded of a similar assembling of materials that document the experiences of minorities and their role in maintaining peace in eastern Punjab by Ahmed Salim (under the auspices of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in Islamabad), once again a valuable document that fills the gaps our official documents have left simply by virtue of their non-availability. Ahmed’s book is a valuable addition. Scholars may differ with his analysis, and certainly I don’t find myself in agreement with some of his arguments, in particular whether there was a Muslim plan to wipe out Hindus and Sikhs from the Punjab or a Sikh plan to wipe out Muslims. But there is no denying that there’s a wea lth of material here that opens up new ground and sh – ows how much we could still learn about this major moment in our history.

Butalia’s books include The Other Side of Silence.

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