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Partition Partition Violence Still Haunts South Asians


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
FREMONT -- The founding of India and Pakistan on Aug. 14, 1947, will be celebrated by more than a billion people Sunday and Monday, but for many who lived through it 64 years ago, their pride will be tempered by memories of massacres, abductions and caravans of refugees 20 miles long.

With British forces pulling out of South Asia, and Indian and Pakistani armies still in their infancy, about 14 million people fled, roughly half of whom were Muslims leaving India for Pakistan, and the other half Hindus and Sikhs leaving Pakistan for India -- all easy prey for gangs of religious extremists, hooligans and robbers in the months leading up to and following the partition.

Many experts estimate that between 500,000 and 2 million were killed and more than 100,000 women abducted, although there is little official documentation.

In a decade scarred by well-chronicled atrocities across Europe, the violence that accompanied India's partition has gone largely undocumented -- until now.

A volunteer group started by Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory physicist Guneeta Singh Bhalla, 32, is rushing to collect oral histories of the partition from the last living witnesses.

The 1947 Partition Archive aims to preserve the accounts of Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus, to foster a better understanding about how the partition turned so bloody.
"We're opening an old wound, but it's the best way to prevent something like this from happening again," said Bhalla, who spearheads the effort in her spare time.

Bhalla, a Sikh whose grandparents were forced to flee Pakistan during the partition, said she has been disappointed by how little South Asians know about the violence. After visiting an oral history museum dedicated to the victims of Hiroshima, she was inspired to create a comparable memorial for the partition.

During the past year, Bhalla and several dozen volunteers, with help from historians and archivists at UC Berkeley and Stanford, have videotaped 200 oral histories from survivors living in North America, Britain and South Asia.
Their goal is to collect at least 3,000 stories and raise funds to find a permanent home for the collection.

As British control of South Asia began to crumble, Muslim leaders feared they would be treated unfairly in a single Hindu-majority state so the British carved out a homeland for Muslims.

However, formation of Pakistan in several Muslim majority regions led to a mass migration that quickly turned violent.

As migrants streamed across the new borders, authorities -- and in some cases, mobs -- made room for the new arrivals by forcing Indian Muslims into Pakistan and Pakistani Hindus and Sikhs into India.

Caravans numbering more than 50,000 migrants, carrying all of their possessions to the border, attracted gangs of robbers who had no qualms attacking and plundering people of a different faith, Bhalla said.

Jagjit Singh recalled a train of Sikh and Hindu refugees arriving at a border station in Amritsar, India, filled with the dead.

"They were mostly ladies that had been stripped naked because the mob knew that the ladies kept their valuables under the clothes," he said. The next day, Hindu and Sikh mobs ripped up train tracks at the station and waited for a train full of Muslim refugees bound for Pakistan.
"The mob attacked with such fury," said Singh, an 86-year-old Fremont resident who had volunteered at the Amritsar hospital during partition. "They murdered, they killed, they looted. Girls were carried away. There wasn't a damn thing you could do about it."

Many who made it across safely had to start their lives from scratch.
Kamal Mirchandani's family had been wealthy in the Pakistani state of Sindh before being forced to leave without any possessions, to make way for Muslim refugees, he said. They crossed into the Indian state of Rajasthan, where they were didn't speak the language and struggled to assimilate.
"We lost almost every aspect of our culture and civilization, but instead of being welcomed to India, we were treated as untouchables," said Mirchandani, 71, of Fremont.

Poorly documented
Relatively little has been written or taught about the violence, partly because it runs against South Asian culture for victims to publicize their sufferings, said Priya Satia, a Stanford history professor advising the group about collecting oral histories.

"There is very little moral clarity when it comes to the partition -- who were the good guys, who were the bad guys," she said. "Everyone was complicit in some way, and this has made it hard for it to emerge clearly into public discourse."

Indian and Pakistani governments also downplay the partition's bloodshed, she said, because it would take away from their triumphant narrative of independence.

Satia said a database of oral histories would greatly benefit historians by providing sources outside the records left by British officers and Indian and Pakistani nationalists and intellectuals.

"If there's a common thread, it's that most of the people are not angry," she said. "They're actually nostalgic. People miss their hometowns and Hindu neighbors, Muslim neighbors and Sikh neighbors."



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