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Updated: July 19, 2011 12:51 IST

Punjabi Hindus and Partition

J. Sri Raman
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Ford Madox Ford, English novelist-cum-editor of the early 20th century, had a rule of thumb for the buyer and the reviewer of a book: “Open the book to page ninety-nine, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.” This reviewer is not going to apply the rule. But, as it turns out, the author of Changing Homelands, Neeti Nair, did.

In a blog, Neeti Nair asked herself if the rule worked for this volume. Her answer: “Well, true and false.” (This self-interrogation does not figure in the book.) The relevant page spoke of “a crucial moment in April 1919 when a rather complex actor named Swami Shraddhanand has the attention of tens of thousands of Hindus and Muslims in Delhi.” Addressing a gathering of mourners for those killed in a police firing, he said: “This day is a blessed one, on which an unbreakable tie of union has been established between the Hindus and Muhammadans ... What advantage can be greater than a union between the Hindus and Muhammadans?”

Shraddhanand was one of the Hindu leaders of Punjab who prized people's unity in the fight against alien rule. His was a period in which the distinction was mostly blurred between communal consciousness and anti-colonial awareness. This, however, is not the main theme of the book. As Nair says, “the reader will need to read before and after to make sense of this tantalizing moment in India's history.”

A separate strand

The author recognises communalism (of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, for example) as a separate strand in the politics of Punjab over four decades that culminated in Partition in 1947. In fact, she refers to several attempts, post-Independence, by the practitioners of communal politics to draw mileage from either partial or warped memories of Partition.

She cites a pamphlet circulated in Gujarat ahead of the 2002 pogrom in which the pamphleteer said: “I am not talking about thousands of years ago — just 53 years. In 1947 ... they attacked Hindu bungalows and killed about 15 lakh Hindus cruelly and without any pity. This is a historic fact and can be repeated today. Then how safe are you and I in our own homes?”

Nair comments: “In this sweeping indictment of all Muslims, there is no recognition that some Hindus and Sikhs demanded the partition of Punjab or that some Hindus and Sikhs attacked some Muslims and Muslim property, particularly in East Punjab and Delhi.”

The book analyses the political role and responses of the Hindus of Punjab in the specific historical context. Hindus, who were in a minority in Punjab, identified themselves with the majority in India as a whole. In this respect, they were comparable with the Hindus of Kashmir. But then, Punjab was always a part of mainstream India and its anti-colonial movement.

The study, probably the first to focus on this minority with a difference, throws up some findings that are at sharp variance with common perceptions. For example, it says Partition, the very idea of it, came as a surprise to a majority of the Hindus in Punjab. And this, regardless of the politics of legislative representation and the related rhetoric that raged as the colonial rulers as well as India prepared for the trauma-filled transfer of power.

Responsible

Arguing that Punjabi Muslims were not the only people responsible for Partition, Nair records the role of Hindus as well as of the departing colonial masters. She mentions several anti-colonial movements that saw Hindus in general joining forces with Muslims and Sikhs. This was before parleys on the place of the majority and the minorities in the post-Independence scheme of things reached a stage where ‘unity' came under intense pressure.

In Punjab, as elsewhere, Hindu consciousness, or communalism, was an important component of anti-colonialism in its early years. As an illustration of the complexity of the phenomenon, Nair cites the role of the legendary Punjabi anti-colonial leader, Lajpat Rai, and points out that in 1911 he decided in favour of creating political space for “Hindu” progress. Despite his own early training in Urdu, he talked of Hindi promotion in the context of “political solidarity” and set up the Hindu Elementary Education League in Lahore for that purpose.

In 1915, however, he wrote: “The Hindus have come to realise that after all the Mohemmedan rule ... was not so bad or tyrannical or oppressive as they were told it was by interested historians...”

Standing out in the array of leaders figuring in the book is Bhagat Singh, the anti-communal anti-colonialist. Nair draws pointed attention to the fact that Singh, “widely revered today as India's best-known revolutionary test,” wholeheartedly embraced (while in Lahore prison during 1929-31) non-violent hunger-strike, and goes on to argue that his “incredible popularity stemmed from his tactics as a satyagrahi, not [as] a terrorist.”

The well-researched study, providing a wealth of information drawn from a wide variety of sources, serves more than a purely academic purpose. It gives the lay reader a clearer understanding of the subcontinent's history in its crucial phase, the part of history that continues to be distorted by diverse groups of holy crusaders.

Keywords: PunjabHinduPartition

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