Punjab, partition and Pakistan


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THE recent bonhomie between India and Pakistan, whether out of pressure from below or above, from within or without, is often lightheartedly referred to as the opening up between two Punjabs and not between two otherwise hostile neighbouring states whose competitive and often conflicting relationship has disallowed any fresh and friendly politics of good-neighbourliness. Thus, predominantly Sikh visitors to Lahore occupying posh hotels and strolling down the Anarkali, or pilgrims in Nankana Sahib and Punja Sahib moving among other Pakistani Punjabis, exude a natural sense of belonging that one finds only in a person who has come home after a long, unexplained absence. A similar attitude is often seen among Pakistani Punjabis visiting Amritsar, Jullundhar, Ludhiana, and Chandigarh or while transiting to other cities such as Delhi and Ajmer.

It is worth noting that notwithstanding lingual and historical commonalities, one does not find similar patterns among the Sindhis, despite the fact that partition caused far less violence on both sides of the southern borders and the migrations here were also comparatively peaceful. The partition here appears quite real though some urban Sindhis on both sides have tried to retain limited contact. Evidently Sindhi identity, despite its shared spatial and territorial basis, was more fractured on class and communal lines than was Punjabiat, where despite faithbased fissures communities could still mount some common alliances as seen in the case of the Ghadrites and the Punjab National Unionist Party.


No matter how uneasy one may be with the Unionist preoccupation with rural interests, yet their success in keeping the three main communities together for a sustained period was a feat of no mean significance. One needs to credit leaders like Sir Fazl-i-Husain, Sikandar Hayat and Sir Chhotu Ram for anchoring this cross-communal politics in the interwar years, which for quite some time resisted the internal (micro) as well as the external (macro) challenges.

Our discussion of a major transformation among South Asian societies during the closing years of the British control is clearly linked with the question of the evolution of Pakistan, both as a product of partition and as a culmination point for divergent forces in India. Pakistan is the handiwork of reformers who themselves were the products of modernity and used it to project Pakistan, at least in the 1940s, as a cultural utopia where Muslim political and economic interests would be safeguarded.


Their form of Muslim nationalism was akin to German volksgeist and not necessarily nostalgia for the lost Muslim glory of a pre-1757 era. They could be identified as a broad category of culturalists or modernists who were energetically challenged by Islamists of the variety of the Jamiat-i-Ulama-i-Hind (JUH), the Majlis-i-Ahrar-i-Islam (MAI) and several other such doctrinal constellations for whom Islamic ethos had to be rehabilitated within a unitary and independent India. Thus, Pakistan and Hindustan were two ideological trajectories contested by these two main sections of culturalist-modernists and Islamist-nationalists and pre-1947 Punjab served as a battleground for this intra-Muslim dissension.

Another group of the contemporary Muslim elite, rejecting both the modernists and the Islamists, sought regional solutions to the Indian imbroglio and defined themselves as Punjabis, Bengalis, Sindhis and so on. To them, India was more like a continent and its provincial territory-based demarcations guaranteed by independence could allow a peaceful transfer of power without assuming any frightening communalist mutations.

The architects of modern South Asia, who largely caused the dissolution of the empire by replacing it with a Westphalian state system, were humanists par excellence and had never imagined the relationship among the post-colonial states to be based on hatred and violence. Gandhi’s last fast was to help Muslims in India, besides putting pressure on the Nehru government to release funds and assets due to Pakistan. Jinnah not only wished India well even amidst the communal mayhem but also left most of his personal assets for educational institutions in India, not to mention the fact that a few months earlier he had purchased a new accommodation therein as well. From amongst several queries, there may be three questions that one can debate in the context of the history of Punjab, and to which one may attempt some partial answers that remain major intellectual challenges for an inquisitive mind. First, beginning with the articulation of parallel or even competing identities since the Rebellion of 1857, why is it that Punjabi consciousness took separate ways, branching into politicised or even communalised Hindu, Muslim and Sikh collectivities instead of building up a combined platform overriding such parallel delineations?

Second, why is it that Punjab suffered the most during the partition? Is this tradition unique to this region, or is such an exceptionalism ahistorical while looking at other case studies? Third, unlike its Indian counterpart, how is it that the Punjab in Pakistan came to assume a larger-than-life role for the new state – a position that, in most cases, earned negative criticism and few plaudits? The following discussion is devoted to briefly reflect upon these three concerns.


One Punjab or Several! Historically speaking, Punjabis, like others in similar situations, had multiple identities which both coalesced as well as conflicted but still remained quite localised and thus did not assume any macro or trans-regional proportions. The rural nature of the population controlled through local intermediaries, and a total dependence on agriculture alongside some soldiery, was characteristic of the Punjabi ethos. Towns and cities existed but without turning into battlegrounds among competing interests, and the rulers – the Mughals and the Sikhs – usually retained a confederal arrangement without drastically interfering with local mores and subsystems. The advent of the Raj, while keeping a distance from the societal norms, unleashed significant economic, political and managerial forces which transformed both the rural and urban cosmos. The canalisation and settlement of new colonies coincided with the introduction of new communication networks along with a new educational system which, within a generation, transformed the socio-political patterns in the province. The dependence on Punjabis for military and police recruitment was part of a holistic system that aimed at creating totally new yet state-dependent intermediaries. As PMH van Dungen argues, the Punjab system of governance displayed coercive paternalism plus innovation; equally it showed a confident Victorian Raj determined to transform Punjab into a great experiment.


Such governance was not only anchored in an uncritiqued modernity, it also ensured the primacy of the geopolitical imperatives of the colonial state, especially in view of the Great Game. The self-sufficiency of the Indus Valley owing to an ecological system and its location as the bridgehead across the regions of Hindustan, Persia, Afghanistan and Turkistan could not be overlooked by any keen imperialist – from the Lawrence Brothers to Olaf Caroe. The gigantic projects harnessed the Indus water systems even as they gradually sidelined the primacy of the Indus river itself as the main artery of communication in favour of the railway line connecting Punjab with Karachi and the Middle East.

The induction of English, western education, printing press, canals and a complex revenue and taxation system, reorganisation of private property, missionary work leading to the evolution of a fourth (Christian) community among the Punjabis and the focus on Punjab within the milieu of the theory of martial races certainly offered newer opportunities as well as created apprehensions among the concerned Punjabis. Mobility through education, jobs such as soldiery or commerce, and through population transfer in the newer colonies was soon to result in newer configurations, which initially emerged only as cultural paradigms. Here language and religion undergirded the culturalist definition of a community, affirming once again that Punjabis were on the way to something totally different from that encountered in their previous history.


The displacement of Persian by English and the bifurcation of print capital into western and vernacular brought in trans-regional competitors such as Urdu and Hindi, which were soon to coalesce with Islam and Hinduism respectively. The colonial textbooks, while offering instruction on England – the Mother Country – sought to posit India as a land of multiple, segmentary and primitive identities, all dishing out a somewhat religion-based and chaotic view of traditional Indian societies. The codification of identities on the basis of religion, caste and even class in the census reports and district gazetteers further solidified this Orientalist redefinition of collectivist identities where Hindu, Muslim, European/Christian and Sikh emerged as the re-emphasised catechisms. This is not to suggest that this entire process was pernicious and only dependent upon modernity, yet the speed and extent underlying the concurrent quest was unprecedented.

Like the architects of the Bengal renaissance and the Muslim traditional elite articulating revivalist (Deobandi and Barelvi) and modernist (Aligarh) responses, within urban Punjab itself, the Arya Samajis, Probhandak Committees and Muslim Anjumans came to formulate and project these cultural identities. Being Punjabi, though certainly understood, was not the only identification to be cherished; nor was the caste or biradari-based affinity sufficient. So larger life identity markers – Muslim, Hindu and Sikh – began to subsume these other counterparts.


Coming from major cities such as Lahore, Amritsar and Gujranwala – a comparatively smaller area – the sense of competition began to grow until it assumed several political programmes. In other words, the march from cultural redefinition to political nationalism happened within one generation. This is not to suggest that all the three major communities had unified, singular and consensual political programmes to pursue; they simultaneously contended and conflicted among themselves as well but within these newly enlarged and overarching paradigms. It is interesting that Lahore, in particular, became the forerunner of such literary, educational and intellectual activity including Anjuman-i-Islamia, Anjuman-i-Himayat-i-Islam and the renaissance of Urdu literature. From here, it was a short jump to political articulation with the All-India Muslim League, the Unionist Party, Khaksars and Ahrars following one another to earnestly spearhead their respective political programmes. Eventually, however, the League stole a march over all other regionalist rivals.

Another possible explanation of the three parallel communitarian articulations instead of a single, even loosely defined, consensual Punjabiat can be sought in the regionalisation of these population groups. For instance, Muslims were concentrated in the western regions, with Hindus and Sikhs mainly in the eastern regions. A further division was of Muslims and Sikhs as predominantly rural while the Hindus were more or less urban or engaged in non-agricultural professions. Several Sikh and Muslim families from the eastern districts settled in the canal colonies were still developing their roots when the events of 1947 overtook their third generation and forced them to move.


The Land Alienation Act of 1901 had not only allowed an uninterrupted official bias in support of rural Punjab, it also widened the gulf between the Muslim peasants and Hindu/Khatri sahukar. The induction of modern civic institutions such as the railways and schools only enlarged the cultural divisions among the Punjabis on the basis of their creed and caste which, in line with the popular dictum of Hindu Pani, Muslim Pani, further regimented the erstwhile processes of segregation. By default, modernisation only exacerbated divisions instead of playing the role of a leveller and in the process these classifications only turned more acute.

Imran Ali and several commentators would instead seek the regimentation of localism and segmentary politics in the very evolution of a rural-based ‘hydraulic society’ that came to be more dependent upon the state. The localist and conservative political attitudes duly helped the Raj and local landholders through a politics of mutual dependence augmented by patronage. Imran Ali sees in the modernisation of Punjab the very seeds of longevity of a ruralised and even statist politicking which seriously hampered the evolution of a widely shared political consciousness. Such a thesis not only fails to see a gradual assertion of urban and small-town activism, it equally disallows any autonomy of space and action to rural settlements by making the state into an all-powerful and the sole political vehicle in Punjab. Such a view, despite its merits, raises serious questions as well.


Violence: Punjabi Exceptionalism! In response to the second major question regarding the suffering of the Punjabis during 1947, one needs to avoid essentialising both the populist hypotheses of an enduring tradition of syncretism and coexistence or the paradigm of eternal conflicts. The truth lies somewhere between these two reductionist opinions. Without looking for a conspiracy, a persuasive explanation of the breakdown of pluralism in Punjab can be traced to the dissolution of the administration which, given the advanced date for partition, communal riots at several places, exaggerated rumours of bloodbaths and, certainly the non-imposition of martial law in the border regions, made for a free-for-all situation.

However, other than this instrumentalist explanation for ‘the organised chaos’, one could also apportion responsibility to the Indian and Punjabi leaders for their inability to forge common strategies on any possible population transfers – voluntary or enforced. The absence of any serious and sustained discussion on ‘the how’ and ‘the day-after’ of independence was not only an abysmal feature of the colonial disposition, it was equally apparent in the nonchalance shown by South Asian leaders.

Third, the demands for partition were not new in Punjab as even otherwise responsible leaders such as Lala Lajpat Rai and Har Dayal had been espousing the communal division of the province during the 1920s. The Muslim and Sikh leaders likewise talked of their utopias based on separatism which here meant joining up with their counterparts elsewhere to form larger units. Thus, the Punjabi elite during the 1940s only focused on parallel paths without building bridges across the given lines.

Fourth, a breakdown of the local networks, especially in towns and cities, meant that there were no mechanisms to protect the refugee caravans. In their own localities, the displaced people had at least some semblance of protection from their neighbours and friends. Yet once in the open and away from their native regions, they were simply the other. Similar patterns were noticed in the former Yugoslavia where communities sharing the same language, schools, secularist ethos, neighbourhoods and even a significant proportion of matrimonial alliances were crisscrossed by more assertive boundaries and once having left the native abodes, fell victim to xenophobia.


The breakdown of a common political ethos within the backdrop of a failed or failing state hastened the processes of ethnic cleansing and vendetta, and that is why Punjab in 1947 does not look so unique in the history of modern decolonisation, where partition as a process and population transfers as an accompanying reality occurred at several places. However, there still may be questions about Punjab as an exceptional case in communal violence or Punjabis being totally different from their Sindhi and Bengali counterparts in terms of their identity formation.

It is true that both Bengal and Sindh in the pre-1947 era were more similar to each other than the degree of their affinity with the contemporary Punjab. The picture is, however, not clear cut. Of course, there was more cultural and lingual unity in Bengal and Sindh and until quite late in the British era, Sindhis and Bengalis, despite their religious and even class-based differences, shared some consensual identity. However, class and creed soon took over as the decisive identity markers in these provinces and one detected a propensity towards a parting of ways.


As Sarah Ansari explains, Sindhis had for a long time resented being seen as an extension of a larger Bombay Presidency and sought their own separation through the demand for a Sindhi sooba (province). Both the urban and rural elite – Hindu and Muslim together – converged in seeking a common political goal and with the growing importance of Karachi following the construction of the railway lines and of the large-scale barrages on the Indus, commonly resented the influx of Punjabis into Sindh. Both the urban Bombayites and the rural Punjabis were posited as common foes to the extent that the rural Muslim landholding elite almost papered over their distrust of the Hindu Amils and Baniyas, who ran businesses, credit and other services owing to a higher level of education, mobility and resourcefulness. Both the Amils and the Baniyas belonged to the Lohana caste – more like Khatris in Pothowari Punjab or Sethis in Peshawar – and some of them were involved in extra-regional commercial enterprises, as has been recorded in recent research by Claude Markovits.

Following the separation of Sindh from Bombay, the erstwhile consensus broke down to give way to new configurations where an emerging Muslim bourgeoisie built up alliances with the pirs and waderas, while the Hindu moneyed classes sought to seek out extra regional alliances. It is not surprising that Sindh was the first province to support the demand for Pakistan through its provincial assembly in 1943, where feudal and urban nationalists including Ghulam Mustafa Syed passed a resolution in favour of a separate Muslim state.


In the case of Bengal, despite cultural and lingual unity, the economic tensions between the bhadralok and ashraaf gathered momentum in their mutual contestations, especially in seeking economic, political and administrative influence for their respective communities. While the Bengal renaissance, more like a Muslim-dominated Lahore renaissance, re-energised the Hindu elite, the contemporary nawabi and moffusil Muslim elements, by harnessing modernity, tried to invigorate a homogenous sense of Bengali Muslim identity through tabligh and pothi tracts.

More like Punjab, where 80 per cent of its Muslims lived in rural areas and those too mainly in the western regions, Muslims in Bengal were predominantly concentrated in eastern regions. Similar to the situation in Sindh, the partition of Bengal in 1905 happened at a time when a strong sense of Muslim cultural identity as investigated by Rafiuddin Ahmad had already been germinated at the grassroots. Curzon’s new arrangements, though annulled six years later, had opened up significant prospects for Bengali Muslims. While similar to the Bombay-based moneyed elite vis-à-vis the rural Sindhis, they concurrently curtailed the outreach enjoyed by the bhadralok. The annulment of the partition following an intense Swadeshi movement certainly made Indian political sections aware of the efficacy of modernist mechanisms and even the possibility of a success of a pacifist yet persistent civil disobedience, whereas for Bengali Muslims it was a dampner.

It is not surprising that amidst an economic disenchantment now further exacerbated by the political situation arising out of annulment, both the Indian National Congress and the Communist Party of India failed to gain any foothold in the peasantry and bourgeoisie. When the Muslim League led by Abul Hashim and Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, began addressing the economic disparities faced by Bengali Muslims, to the latter Pakistan appeared as ‘a peasant utopia’, which also promised a cultural assertion.


While historians may continue to debate the inevitability of Pakistan given the regionalist nature of responses and the strong opposition by Muslim groups such as the JUH, Ahrar, Shia Momin Conference and the Red Shirts, in all likelihood Pakistan appeared as a promised land where cultural and economic interests of the landless and of the emerging Muslim intermediate groups might be realised. Thus, Islam, Urdu, economic empowerment and political assertion all combined to offer inducements to various Muslim strata seeking their own respective heavens.

The question is why these apparently disparate groups, divided into a maze of regional and ethnic identities, would unite to demand something which looked chimerical even as late as 1946. There are two explanations for that: regional solutions such as independence of these provinces (also called balkanisation of India) would not offer any tangible alternative in gaining cultural, political and economic aspirations and thus meant simply the retention of the status quo. Second, the emerging Muslim elite, though called salariat with a rather exaggerated weightage added to them by Hamza Alvi, were too divided and weak to mount alternatives on their own. They needed extra-regional alliances and the demand for Pakistan, despite its ambiguities, certainly offered them their best possible chance.


In addition, a centralised and unitary India, as envisioned by the INC and the Raj, would mean both to the provincialists and Muslim intermediate classes that not only would the stalemate persist, it might assume worse communal (majority-minority) dimensions. Thus, for their respective reasons, a single and fortified central arrangement was not acceptable and once again Pakistan appeared as a third option. No wonder, with the passage of time, regional groupings such as the Unionist Party, Red Shirts and Krishak Proja began to face desertion in their ranks as some of the stalwarts shifted their loyalties to the AIML (All India Muslim League). Here the groups of culturalists and regionalists held a common belief which obviated the effectiveness of the nationalists and Pan-Islamists closely aligned with the INC.

Of course, certain elements from among these latter two groups had also joined the AIML in the closing days of the Raj and thus Pakistan began to mean different things to varied groups. In this context, the dissolution of the Raj and emergence of two major states as significant in world history cannot be seen only in the perspective of ‘high history’, where either the colonial state operated as an architect of these new political configurations, or just half a dozen leaders took upon themselves the historical burden of being the only spokesmen for millions as if the latter lacked even an iota of worldly wisdom and allowed themselves to be driven by a few grey men.

More like the regionalists and culturalists in Punjab, Bengal and Sindh too were to experience population transfers to and from, but these were characterised by a noticeable low level of violence. The nature of demography in Punjab was such that all the communities, except in some areas, were scattered across the province. Sindh and Bengal had Hindus in urban areas while Muslims were predominantly in the rural regions and that too on a comparatively smaller landscape given the size of the province itself. In the spatial sense, Punjab’s volume of population transfer was bigger than the other two as it became the crossroads for migrations on a mass scale given a sizeable number of refugees coming in from the NWFP on their way to India and, in the same way, most of the refugees heading for Pakistan – Punjabi Muslims and other millions from all across India – had to traverse though the expanse of eastern Punjab.


Sindh certainly received millions of refugees other than sending its own, but not many refugees came from Balochistan on the way to India. Besides, better air and sea links allowed many refugees safer passage both ways across the southern Indus Valley. On the other hand, horizontal population transfers in Punjab were all land-based and that too from the populous areas where acts of collective violence were easy to mount to cause greater havoc. While the boundary for Sindh was to a great extent demarcated, and Bengal had some experience of the earlier division dating from 1905, the boundary line within the Punjab remained unclear and highly contentious until long after the Radcliffe Award. In particular, the future of certain specific tehsils in the districts of Ferozepur and Gurdaspur was quite unnerving for their inhabitants and equally controversial from a Pakistani viewpoint especially with the evolution of the Indo-Pakistani discord over Jammu and Kashmir.


Punjabisation of Pakistan! Soon after independence, Punjabis were blamed for monopolising the new country’s resources and powerful administrative echelons often on their own or in collaboration with the Urdu speaking Muhajireen. Several Punjabis and their descendants have all along felt that this has been an exaggerated and unfair allegation since their province had suffered the worst and offered the most during and after partition. In addition, some Punjabis, especially from the central regions, even brushed aside such accusations and honorifically accepted being the powerhouse in Pakistan as akin to England for the United Kingdom.

Despite its numerical majority and concentration of many important national institutions, including the defence establishment and the new national capital located within Punjab, the unchallenged system of a centralised and often undemocratic polity certainly justifies such criticism, though many Punjabi intellectuals perceive it as sheer ‘Punjabi bashing’. On the contrary, several Punjabis believe that by assuming the role of the country’s flagship, Punjab has foregone its own lingual and cultural distinctness – an undefined but still vital Punjabiat. To them, Punjabis have far too often inflicted self-immolation on themselves, viz their disowning of Punjabiat has not only distanced them from the rest but even from one another.

Even at present, the role of Punjab in terms of its hold on the military and civil positions, a larger concentration of political power and a visible and often unassailable position within the body politic of Pakistan, are often seen not just in terms of centralisation or militarization of the country but are known as Punjabisation of Pakistan. Unlike the painful march towards a Punjabi Suba and the separation of Haryana and Himachal in India, Punjab in Pakistan has enjoyed a larger-than-life role, unleashing ambitions as well as retorts. This transformation can certainly be traced to the politics before 1947 when Punjabi Muslims opted for extra-regional alliances of a cultural and political variety. Punjab’s co-option by the AIML in its demand for Pakistan was certainly a turning point and despite its partition, Punjab, contrasted with other provinces, found itself endowed with significant human and institutional resources allowing it to obtain centre-stage in the new state of Pakistan.


The division of Bengal had given birth to East Pakistan, but like the physical distance itself, Bengalis lacked the unique institutional and strategic wherewithal that permitted Punjabi bureaucrats, commanders and ambitious business entrepreneurs a pivotal role within the national framework. After the creation of Bangladesh, Punjab’s pre-eminence has become even more salient and contentious, which often allows Sindh and Balochistan to react intensely against this Punjabi domination, though a newer axis of power since the 1980s has allowed the Pushtuns to join the Punjabis as new partners in running the country and reap multiple benefits in the process.

Given the closer Pushtun alliance with the Punjabis and the former’s expansion as an economic reality across the country, the turbulent Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion did not cause any secessionist tremors in the NWFP or even in Balochistan. On the other hand, the Urdu speakers felt a greater sense of marginalisation and the Muhajir Qaumi Movement (MQM) formed in the heady days of the 1980s, ensured its street politics was directed against Islamabad and other ethnic groups in Karachi. Altaf Hussain, more like Bal Thackeray, led an urban backlash against the rest in the name of ethnic and cultural marginalisation of his community, who though mostly born in Pakistan, still opted to call themselves Muhajireen (immigrants). With General Pervez Musharraf and Shaukat Aziz – both native Urdu speakers – the MQM has softened its stance and is once again a partner with the Punjabi Chaudharis and their counterparts from the NWFP, who since the Raj have preferred a politics of loyalty to those who wield power.


While there are clear reasons, even an urgency, to revisit the role of various regional/territorial and cultural trajectories in this emerging identity politics, it is certainly instructive to counsel for dialogue, democratisation and decentralisation so as to allow Punjab in Pakistan to locate the parameters of its own collective identity. In much the same vein, newer consensual traditions are required in all the South Asian nations so as to obviate the continued hold of a unitary nationalism and it is here that an equitable and harmonious interface is also needed among their constituents. Cooperation and an interdependent relationship will ease communal and ethnic tensions in the regions besides allowing more space to build bridges across the sundered collectivities. The solution is not turning the clock back, as state dissolution might lead to newer and even more horrendous mayhems, but seeking a closer regionalisation among all the nations.