Slicing a Nation – Part II – The Greatest Mass Migration in History


Similar to Bengal, where a great number of Hindus and Muslims lived together, Punjab had a large Muslim population as well. Unlike the Bengal case here in Punjab, the Sikhs also lived in a great number. Down the histories time line Punjab in fact had smelt only the air of peace almost all time. No major riot or crisis was reported ever, so to say, on a notable larger scale. But the idea of partition was equally unpleasant to them. The Sikhs in particular weren’t willing to give away to the partition, for they thought they could do away with it. They imagined the situation could be tackled.


2 Nations born


If the Muslims had the All India Muslim League as their political wind, guided by more determined Jinnah, the primary advocate for partition of the nation. Like Muslims, the Sikhs had their own political party Akali Dal. It was relatively less vigor in its approach compared its Muslim counterpart.


The Bengal and the Punjab Moods On Partition

While we just stick on to the communal point of view, we might think that the only motive behind the idea of partition was religion. In fact, it is. But there were other socio-economical factors that were behind the scenes. In Bengal the idea of partition was welcomed by the Bengali middle class, for they wished to stick around Calcutta. Besides among whom- Hindu professionals and the landlords- favored partition a sizable had their concern not in communal issues, but was more concerned to holding the properties on which they had invested, mostly around Calcutta. The process of shifting the investments towards West Bengal had been there for quite some time and it’s no wonder why they sought partition.

The case was entirely different in Punjab. Punjabis had mostly agrarian livelihoods. Amid their social setup, among the landlords and moneylenders, a good number of them Hindus, had healthy professional relationships with Muslims and Sikhs alike. They were unwilling to shift. Since they had maintained good ties with others in the locality, they even imagined that somehow Punjab will not let itself into the partition, and it might be avoided.

Sikhs were too in a similar mood, unwilling to give into partition. Yet their reasons were different from that of the Hindus. Their reasons were geographical tied up with their religion. The Sikhs had their ‘Holy city‘Amritsar lying to their east and equally important Nankana Saheb ( the Birth place of Guru Nanak, the founder of their religion) lay in the west. Not a Sikh would be willing to lose either one.


Fleeing Caravans of Refugees


Unlike the Muslims who under Jinnah had strong views on partition, pressing it politically in a vigorous swing, the Sikhs had not polarized to the idea of a separate state for them. Though there was a call for ‘Khalistan’ , a separate state for Sikhs, pressed by a group from the Sikh side, it lacked the vigor and unanimity that the Muslims had. But none took their call seriously- neither the British, nor the Muslims or the Hindus back home. They were incubating this anger within.

The Punjab Riots

The chain of violence finally began to engulf the peace of Punjab, even more ferociously. Villages after villages, mobs were on the streets taking lives of each others. The reports on the deaths amid violence in the last few months indicate that, though violence visited Punjab relatively late, its appetite for blood was intense there. Scores of commoners died on both sides.


Sir Cyril Radcliffe

Sir Cyril Radcliffe


The responsibility of partitioning of Bengal and Punjab was entrusted to one Sir Cyril Radcliffe, a British judge. Having no idea of anything that’s happened in India, all he was offered was just five weeks to decide upon the borders of partition in both states.  The clear idea he had at the moment was just plain practicality. He knew for sure his decisions are to be bitterly hated by everyone back in these regions, no matter what he decides upon partition. And he was absolutely correct about his feelings. Only while the partition was finally announced, did the Sikhs came faced the truth that patition had finally come and that which can’t be thwarted any more. The Sikhs were the unhappiest among the lots. The bitterness that none of them had considered them and even more was the very thought about their own leaderships who had failed them at last had added fuel to their anger.

The violence that followed was the bloodiest. In the words of noted Indian Historian Ramachandra Guha, (whose wonderful  ‘India After Gandhi’ serves as the source material for these pieces written on Indian Partition) “West Punjab was being cleansed of Hindus and Sikhs, East Punjab was emptied of Muslims. It should be reminded that not all the Muslims wanted to leave India, and so is the case on the other side. But the unputdownable violence on either sides had forced them to migrate as refugees towards the other sides.




If trains from Pakistan reached India with piles of Hindu and Sikh corpses, as if an act of revenge it was seen that trains leaving India being only left with a load Muslim corpses, drenched in blood thoroughly. Historians observe that the killings were equally barbaric on both the sides. Even among historians the toll of the chain of violence had taken for the figures vary widely.

Khushwant Singh’s ‘Train to Pakistan’, even after decades stands as the literary testimony of the pains of partition. Being a victim himself, forced to flee from Lahore amid the riots in 1947, Train to Pakistan bring the horrors of those dark days in vivid details. This novel saw its film adaptation in the late 90s, which could even now be viewed in Youtube.

Pamela Rook’s ‘Train to Pakistan’ (1999)

From both sides caravans of refugees were seen fleeing for their lives to the other side, hoping for safe heavens. The caravans were miles long, with women and children and the old. Even the refugee caravans were hunted down on their way by mobs. It is said the Nehru had ordered for demolition of a road in a town so as to avoid the caravans moving in opposite directions from meeting each other. Beyond doubt this is the greatest mass migration in history, even to date. We call it the greatest, not for the sheer number of the counts, but for the relatively short duration in which this migration happened. The dark history of migration during the partition of India gives us a reason to mourn. It inevitably surfaces whenever we think of the joyous moments of Independence.  History ironically gives us reasons to celebrate and reasons to bow our heads down simultaneously.



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