The Partition left a tragic legacy of bitterness, mistrust and hatred, especially among Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus and between India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. It dealt a deadly blow to the centuries-old composite, hybridic cultural tradition that had been nurtured in the subcontinent. The ghost of this legacy continues to cast its sinister shadow over the subcontinent.
The events that took place before and after the Partition had a particularly gruesome character in the Punjab province. The Boundary Commission, led by Sir Cyril Radcliff, awarded 62% of undivided Punjab’s land and 55% of its people to Pakistan and the remainder to India. The award led to massive killings and forced migrations of hundreds of thousands of people on either side of the border. It is impossible to calculate the economic, social, human and psychological costs of this monumental tragedy.
Malerkotla: An Oasis of Peace
Malerkotla, in Sangrur district in the state of Punjab, was a Muslim state founded in 1600 and ruled by a Pathan Muslim dynasty. During the turbulent days of the Partition, when the entire state was engulfed by the flames of communal violence, Malerkotla remained a haven of peace and safety. The city’s Muslim community remained unaffected by the communal frenzy that raged in the surrounding towns and villages. This unusual occurrence should be seen against the backdrop of an incident in 1705, when Wazir Khan, the governor of Sirhind, sent orders for the capture and execution of the 10th Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh’s two young sons. Sher Mohammad Khan, Nawab of Malerkotla, who was presented in the court, strongly protested against this barbaric order and pointed out that it was contrary to Islamic principles. But the governor paid no heed to his protests and told his soldiers to carry out the orders. The Nawab walked out of the court in protest. He then wrote a letter to the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb and requested him to spare the lives of Guru Gobind Singh’s sons. Wazir Khan had the children buried alive.
When Guru Gobind Singh learnt of the incident and the Nawab’s protests, he profusely thanked him and extended his blessings to him. The Nawab’s intervention was deeply appreciated by the Sikh community and remained etched in the collective consciousness of the community. Even at the height of the communal carnage in the state, Malerkotla’s Muslim community was not harmed. Furthermore, it served as a safe haven for thousands of Muslims from the neighbouring villages and towns who took shelter in the city. Today Malerkotla is the only city in Punjab where Muslims are in a majority (55%).
The Muslims in present-day Punjab, who constituted about half of the province’s population before 1947, now form about 1.5% of the population. Most of them are poor labourers and petty traders from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. There are some Gujjar Muslim families from the state of Jammu and Kashmir which have settled in Punjab. By and large, they are living in an atmosphere of peaceful coexistence and harmony with their Sikh and Hindu neighbours.
The ethos of tolerance, peaceful coexistence and accommodation has deep roots in the Indian tradition. Millions of people, especially those living in the country’s villages and small towns, continue to participate in common social and cultural spaces and to nurture shared, syncretic identities. This was vividly brought out in a recent incident in a small village in Punjab. Like scores of mosques in the province, the local mosque in Sarwarpur village, about 10 kilometres from Samrala town (where the well-known Urdu writer, Saadat Hasan Manto, was born), was destroyed during the communal frenzy that overtook the state during the Partition.
Sometime ago, the local Sikh community decided to reconstruct the mosque with its own resources. Sajjan Singh Ghuman, an NRI Sikh living in the UK, took the initiative in this matter. According to a report in The Milli Gazette (14 June 2010), the keys of the rebuilt mosque were handed over to the local Muslim community on 22 May 2010. The function to mark the event was attended by Jathedar Kirpal Singh Khernian, a key representative of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, local MLA Jagjivan Singh and members of the local Sikh and Muslim communities. The Shahi Imam of Punjab, Maulana Habibur-Rahman Sani Ludhianvi, was invited as a special guest for the occasion and was requested by the Sikh community to hand over the keys of the mosque to Dada Muhammad Tufail, the eldest Muslim in the village, who had witnessed the horrifying spectre of violence and destruction in the village more than six decades ago.
Maulana Habibur-Rahman then led the prayers in the mosque—after a gap of 63 years—symbolizing the revival of inter-community amity and goodwill which was a distinctive feature of undivided Punjab. The Shahi Imam complimented the Sikh community on this noble and large-hearted gesture. 2
A similar gesture was made by the Sikh community in Gurdaspur district in May 2010, when one of the mosques that was destroyed during the Partition was rebuilt by the Sikh community and handed over to the local Muslims. A few years ago, the Sikh community in Chahar Mazra village in the Ropar district of Punjab had built a mosque for the local Muslim community—comprising 15 households—who were too poor to build a mosque on their own.
According to a report in the Outlook magazine, during the last 10 years, about 200 mosques across Punjab have been repaired, reconstructed or built afresh, with the active participation and involvement of local Sikh and Hindu communities. In most cases, this has been an outcome of local, village-level initiative. 3
A mosque in Ajitwal village near Moga was vandalized during the Partition after its Muslim residents fled in terror. In the course of time the site where the mosque stood became the village dumping ground. One day, a group of students and other youngsters decided to clear the garbage and to reconstruct the mosque. Within days the entire village, consisting of Hindus and Sikhs, joined hands and began contributing to the mosque project. Since there were no Muslim families left in the village, Muslim migrant workers and petty traders from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar began praying there. A maulvi from a neighbouring village now comes to conduct the Friday prayers.
In Diwa Gundwan village in Fatehgarh Saheb, where only 17 Muslim families now live, the local Sikh community extended a helping hand in the reconstruction of a local mosque that had been demolished during the Partition. The local Sikh landlords helped in filling up the low-lying area by bring earth in their tractor trollies. The first brick of the mosque was laid by a Sikh priest from Fatehgarh Saheb, who also offered some donation for the reconstruction of the mosque.
The efforts that are being made across Punjab to rebuild mosques that were vandalized or demolished during the Partition, in which local Sikh and Hindu communities are actively involved, symbolizes a combination of factors, including the deep-seated sense of guilt and remorse felt by Sikhs and Hindus over the massacre of innocent Muslims living in the state’s village for centuries, the reassertion of Punjab’s centuries-old heritage of inter-community harmony and shared cultural ethos, and the attempt, on the part of the younger generation to forge a new, humane and accommodative identity. A few years before his death, Gurcharan Singh Tohra, long-time president of the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee, had confessed to the killing of a Muslim during the Partition holocaust, which had haunted him for the rest of his life. He sought to atone for the act by building a mosque in his native village and by laying the first brick.
This refreshing, heart-warming scenario in Punjab suggests that old hatreds and animosities can be buried, that sentiments of kindness, tolerance and harmonious coexistence can be rekindled, that ‘forgetting’ can play a vital role in healing the wounds of the past, that exclusive, closed and ethnocentric identities can be replaced by inclusive, accommodative and hybrid ones.
1. Gyanendra Pandey: Remembering Partition, Cambridge University Press, 2001, pp. 68, 89-90; Seminar (Partition Number), August 1994; Mushirul Hasan, ed. India Partitioned: The Other Side of Freedom, Delhi, 1995)
2. Zafarul Islam Khan, ‘Sikhs rebuild mosque demolished in 1947’ The Milli Gazette (14 June 2010)
3. www.outlookindia.com (5 July 2010)