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The Great Divide and the Brutal Migration

August 12, 2017


By: Saman Siddiqui

As the 14th day of August nears this year, the preparations for 70th Independence Day are in full swing. We can never forget the event of partition of the subcontinent. It has been regarded as the central historical event in 20th century South Asia. About 15 million people were displaced, according to UNHCR’s estimate. This could have easily made millions of stories which were never reported.

My grandfather was in the government service before partition; he migrated to Lahore in 1948. And resumed his services for Pakistan Printing Press, later turned into a corporation. As he passed away when I was very young, couldn’t take the advantage to listen how he migrated, he was writing his biography which includes memoires from post partition era. Unfortunately he couldn’t finish on later accounts. He used to live in Delhi, Karol Bagh. In the wake of partition violence erupted across Delhi. The worst affected areas were Sadar Bazar, Sabzi Mandi, Paharganj and Karol Bagh.

It was in the Punjab, that Radcliff’s division proposal, map making sparked the most deadly conflagrations. As the Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs on either side of the newly constructed border over night found themselves reduced to minorities, strangers in their own neighborhoods. Radcliffe, just before his death in 1977, told a journalist, “I suspect they’d shoot me out of hand-both sides.” He never returned to India.

Since the announcement of the division, the preceding months escalated into the deadliest violence history has ever witnessed. This by every passing day became graver and exploded into ethnic cleansing. The great migration drew to close by 1948, more than 15million people were uprooted and the death toll also remains in more or less million. The dead or assumed dead never returned to tell what became of them.

Trains crammed with refugees left for Pakistan from the border city of Amritsar in 1947. Although all the trains travelled on confidential routes with armed guards, they were brutally attacked. After one such attack, Margaret Bourke White when arrived at Amritsar station, she found men from the militant Alkali sect sitting crossed legged calmly on the platform with swords in their hands waiting for the next train to arrive. Trains carrying nothing but corpses through desolate countryside became the most agonizing account of the savagery of partition.

Most of the photographs which surface on the internet today were taken by Margaret Bourke White, an American photographer and journalist. She documented the great migration though her camera. Today it provides just a glimpse of what was taking place in history. How she ended up reporting this event for an American magazine is another story worth knowing. It gave me literally goose bumps, while I gathered a few images for this blog. She also have had witnessed the opening of the gates of a Nazi concentration camp a year earlier, has written that the streets Calcutta looked like Buchenwald. After Punjab the worst partition riots took place in Bengal.

In his new narrative history of partition and its aftermath ”Midnight’s Furies” , Nisid Hajari,  writes , “Gangs of killers set whole villages aflame, hacking to death men and children and the aged while carrying off young women to be raped. Some British soldiers and journalists who had witnessed the Nazi death camps claimed Partition’s brutalities were worse: pregnant women had their breasts cut off and babies hacked out of their bellies; infants were found literally roasted on spits”.

The whole of the partition misery could have been avoided if the British Raj has given it a heed.  British soldiers were only confined to their barracks and were to save only British lives, ordered by Lord Mountbatten. The imperial retreat was no more than an act of moral negligence. Paul Scott writes in his “The Raj Quartet,” the epic of imperial exhaustion and disillusion, India in 1947 was where the empire’s high idea of itself collapsed and “the British came to the end of themselves as they were.”

The British Empire passed away as quickly as she could, trying to avoid humility which was faced by its French and Dutch counterparts. But still after decades the vicious politics of partition still seem to define Pakistan and Indian politics. Millions of the Muslims who made the choice to stay in Indian state never ceased to be hostages of Hindu extremism. In 2002 Hindu nationalists massacred in Gujarat. The dispute over Kashmir remains as the biggest unfinished business of partition. It has committed both the countries with a population mostly poor and illiterate into nuclear arms race and nourished hatred. In Indian occupied Kashmir, police and soldiers on routine basis, execute and torture Kashmiri civilians in the name of insurgents.

Our country’s independence came at a very heavy cost, let us never forget that. Long live Pakistan.


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