Oct. 26, 2022

The Partition of India – Part 4: Unholy Rush

The Partition of India – Part 4: Unholy Rush

As Partition finally becomes reality in August 1947, the new boundary sparks a mass migration in the Punjab and Bengal. Atrocity and ethnic cleansing soon follow. The Sikhs, a long-ignored but well-armed religious minority, mobilize to stake their claim. Edwina Mountbatten and Jawaharlal Nehru plunge into the fray, desperate to assuage a refugee crisis in the city of Delhi.

As Partition finally becomes reality in August 1947, the new boundary sparks a mass migration in the Punjab and Bengal. Atrocity and ethnic cleansing soon follow. The Sikhs, a long-ignored but well-armed religious minority, mobilize to stake their claim. Edwina Mountbatten and Jawaharlal Nehru plunge into the fray, desperate to assuage a refugee crisis in the city of Delhi. 



Akbar, M.J. Tinderbox: The Past and Future of Pakistan. 2011.

Tharoor, Shashi. Nehru: The Invention of India. 2003.

Tharoor, Shashi. Inglorious Empire: What The British Did To India. 2017.

Khan, Yasmin. The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan. 2007.

Guha, Ramachandra. Gandhi: The Years That Changed The World. 2018.

Sarila, Narendra Singh. The Shadow of the Great Game. 2005.

Charles Rivers Editors. The Punjab. 2018.

Charles Rivers Editors. British India. 2017.

Puri, Kavita. Partition Voices: Untold British Stories. 2019.

Malhotra, Aanchal. Remnants of Partition: 21 Objects From A Continent Divided. 2017.

Von Tunzelmann, Alex. Indian Summer. 2007.

Zakaria, Anam. The Footprints of Partition. 2015.

Ahmed Akbar. Jinnah, Pakistan and Islamic Identity. 1997.

Urvashi, Butalia. The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India. 1998.

White-Spunner, Barney. Partition. 2017.

Lawrence, James. Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India. 1997.

Hamdani, Yasser Latif. Jinnah: A Life. 2020.

Fischer, Louis. Gandhi. 1950. 


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---- ---INTRO -- ---- -----


Hello and welcome to Conflicted, the history podcast where we talk about the struggles that shaped us, the tough questions that they pose, and why we should care about any of it.


Conflicted is a member of the Evergreen Podcast Network; and as always, I’m your host, Zach Cornwell.


You are listening to Part 4 of a multi-part series on the Partition of India.


As you may have guessed by now, this is a long series. In fact, it’ll probably end up being the longest one I’ve ever done. Up until now, that distinction belonged to our four-part exploration of the Soviet-Afghan War. But this Partition series will have one, maybe two, more installments. The end is certainly near, but there’s a lot more story left to tell. This is one of those topics that, if you’re going to do it, you’ve gotta take the time to do it right.


Before we jump into the next chapter of the story, let’s take a moment to recap what happened last time. I’ll do my best to keep It brief, because we have quite a bit of ground to cover today.


In Part 3: A Tryst With Destiny, we chronicled the turbulent spring and summer months of 1947 that preceded the Partition of August 15th, 1947.


It began with British Prime Minister Clement Attlee’s decision to officially grant independence to the Indian subcontinent, with an initial deadline of June 1948. It was a long time coming. The Raj had been the ropes for years, and with bigger headaches back home, the British were desperate to abandon ship. As Declan Walsh writes:


World War II had beggared Britain and shattered the mystique of empire. Saddled with enormous debts, London scrambled to quit its colonies, first among them British India – a sprawling mini-continent once prized as ‘The Jewel in the Crown’, now a burdensome and querulous possession of some 400 million people.”


To guide the British Empire across this treacherous historical Rubicon, the UK sent one of its best, if not brightest, representatives: Lord Louis Mountbatten, aka “Dickie”.  In March of 1947, the last Viceroy of India arrived in Delhi to lay the Raj to rest. As one historian put it:


Mountbatten’s historic mission was to transfer power to the Indians as peacefully and swiftly as possible. The British could then say with pride that they had ruled India for a full century and had been able to hand back India honorably and efficiently.


Easier said than done. To get the British out of India, the Viceroy would have to leap and sprint across a minefield of competing interests, communal tensions, and political tripwires. Mountbatten quickly realized he’d been given what his predecessor called a “impossible task”.


The two political factions in India – the Muslim League and the Congress Party - had failed time and time and time again to reconcile their visions for South Asia. A united India was just not in the cards, and a messy divorce seemed to be the only way forward. No one really wanted Partition, yet there were few practical alternatives. As Mountbatten reflected in a tortured letter to London:


“The more I look at the problem in India the more I realize that all this partition business is sheer madness and is going to reduce the economic efficiency of the whole country immeasurably. No-one would ever induce me to agree to it were it not for this fantastic communal madness that has seized everybody and leaves no other course open. The most we can hope to do, as I have said before, is to put the responsibility for any of these mad decisions fairly and squarely on the Indian shoulders in the eyes of the world, for one day they will bitterly regret the decision they are about to make.”


After a long summer of herding cats and sweating bullets, the beleaguered Viceroy managed to hammer out a deal between the Muslim League and Congress - between Muhammed Ali Jinnah and Jawaharlal Nehru. It satisfied no one, of course - but the deal gave everyone at least a fragment of what they wanted. Jinnah would get his Pakistan. Nehru would get his centralized Indian government. It was a bitter compromise, but a compromise nonetheless.


But just as the machinery began to purr, Mountbatten threw a wrench in the gears. On June 3rd, he announced that he was accelerating the timeline for the transfer of power. India and Pakistan would gain independence a full *ten months* sooner than originally planned. Clearly, the Viceroy was eager to sign the divorce papers, wash his hands, and never look back. As Shashi Tharoor writes:


“London wanted to cut and run, and if the British could not leave behind a united India, they were prepared to “cut” the country quite literally before running.”


As the future leaders of India and Pakistan scrambled to prepare for the fast-approaching deadline, London sent a 48-year-old judge named Lord Cyril Radcliffe to pore over the maps and decide where exactly the borders of the new countries would fall. Lord Radcliffe’s most pressing mandate was dividing the hotly-contested regions of Punjab and Bengal between Pakistan and India.


Somehow, he had to draw a boundary that would keep as many Hindus & Sikhs in India and as many Muslims in Pakistan as possible. But in a region as mixed as the Punjab, that was a bit like asking someone to un-bake a cake, as Alex Von Tunzelmann writes:


Religiously speaking, the populations in those central tracts were far too integrated and too complex for a straight partition of their land. The economic case was labyrinthine. There would be conflicting interests over the divisions of holy shrines, railways, defensive frontiers and water supplies.


With less than two months to complete his work, Radcliffe had been set up to fail. He had never been to India before in his life – and it showed. His pencil became a scalpel, and the result of his blind slashing was a mangled, botched operation that trampled over complex demographic concentrations and geographic realities. As Yasmin Khan writes:


“The line zigzagged precariously across agricultural land, cut off communities from their sacred pilgrimage sites, paid no heed to railway lines or the integrity of forests, divorced industrial plants from the agricultural hinterlands where raw materials […] were grown.”


The Pakistani writer Ahmed Akbar described one small, but striking example of the Boundary Commission’s failure:


“In East Pakistan the platform of a railway station fell in one country, the ticket office in another.”


It was a job that should’ve taken years, not weeks. Maybe it never could have succeeded at all. As one historian observed:


“No amount of creative penmanship could achieve a complete separation of the communities.”


Lord Cyril Radcliffe returned to his comfy estate in England that very summer. For him, India was little more than a bad dream; an uncomfortable and inconvenient business trip. It would be the Indians and Pakistanis who would have to live with the consequences of the hack job he’d left behind.


But Radcliffe’s border bombshell was on a delayed fuse.


Even though Radcliffe had submitted his conclusions on August 13th - 48 hours before Independence – Lord Mountbatten had chosen to withhold the information from the public until *after* the Independence Day celebrations. His motivation was obvious, and cynical, and self-serving. As he confided in a report back to London: “The later we postponed publication, the less would the inevitable odium react upon the British.”


For millions of people in the Punjab and Bengal, it would mean celebrating independence from the British Empire without knowing for sure which country they were actually living in. And that uncertainty, inflamed by religious tensions and communal hatred, sparked a refugee crisis that displaced some 12 million people. As Yasmin Khan writes:


Everywhere minorities were feeling deeply insecure about their physical safety and their citizenship rights. It was these fears that drove people from their homes and started one of the greatest mass migrations in history.


All summer long, big men with big titles had sat in comfortable drawing rooms, fiddling over maps and bickering over borders. Not just British men, but Indian politicians as well. And now, the human cost was going to be paid. For many average Indians and Pakistanis, all the high-minded talk of Independence was cold comfort as they packed up and fled their homes.


As the Punjabi poet Prabhjot Kaur remarked:


‘And what was the rush to divide us, I ask, to separate us from our land and loved ones? And if we were going to be divided anyway, then there should have been a better compromise. It was an unholy rush. Mountbatten and Edwina and Nehru and Jinnah, they were all responsible for the crumbling of India.’


And so, in today’s episode, we will confront, at long last, the true horror of Partition. What it meant for everyday people on the ground. The things that happened in those months following August 1947 have left scars that span generations. According to one historian:


“As the curtain began to fall on British India, Indians fell upon one another, and a thousand years of simmering antipathy exploded in an orgy of communal violence.”


In time, the memory of that violence became an heirloom – a corrosive inheritance - passed down from those who had seen the worst in each other. As a common slogan in Pakistan went: “What is our relationship with India, but that of hatred and revenge?”


One Pakistani writer recalled: “I was often told by my schoolteachers and even my own grandmother that Hindus were treacherous and mischievous people.” An Indian man named Som Amand recalled: “My mother didn’t allow Muslims to enter her kitchen.”


Another Pakistani writer Anam Zakaria said of her countrymen:


“For many of them, to contemplate being friends or even writing a letter to an Indian was nothing less than a sin. Indians had murdered Muslims, tortured their ancestors and snatched away their homes. What need was there to talk to such an enemy? They detested the Indians their own grandparents had grown up amongst; there was no room for dialogue, no need to cross over.”


But despite all the antipathy, blame could be found on all sides. As the writer Malhotra Aanchal writes: “We cannot say with certainty that it was the Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs or even the British who were responsible, for ultimately everyone suffered, in one way or another.”


Welcome to The Partition of India – Part 4: Unholy Rush.


---- ----- BEGIN------ ---- ----


It’s August 14th, 1947.


We’re about 5,000 feet in the air – in a private airplane soaring over Northern India.


Sinking into her seat, Lady Edwina Mountbatten stares out the window, thinking about the very long day she just had. After five months in India, the Vicereine was no stranger to long days. Her short time in the subcontinent had been an exhausting whirlwind of 18-hour working sessions, armed bodyguards, and multiple dinner parties a week.


And while she smiled and chatted and put on a friendly face, on the inside… she was screaming. The symptoms of her menopause had been grinding her down. She couldn’t sleep, she was anxious all the time, her fights with Dickie were getting worse and worse. Edwina was a social butterfly with lead wings.


Her only respite – the one oasis in the endless desert - had been Jawaharlal.


Nehru had started as a friend, as most lovers do. He was funny and kind, intelligent and introspective; he could unlock that part of her she didn’t often show to other people. In their time together, Edwina and Nehru had quickly developed what one historian called a “extraordinary intimacy”. Many a long day had been tempered by the soft touch and sharp wit of Jawaharlal Nehru.  


But still, India was not England. As Edwina told her daughter Pamela:


”It’s a great adventure, which it is, and I love the work and my Indians and a lot of the interest, but how I long for lovely Broadlands and sweet little Chester Street and the cozy and simple life.’


Edwina was tired, and she wanted to go home. Thankfully, home seemed closer than ever on August 14th, 1947.


Her husband Dickie had been sent to India as the last Viceroy of the British Raj. His mission had been to hand power back to the Indians, and he had achieved that goal with remarkable - some would say “ruthless” - speed. As Declan Walsh wrote, Mountbattens was “a ship-breaker’s charter: to dismember the property and dispose of it within fifteen months. He did it in five.”


The resulting independence would be, as the photographer Margaret Bourke-White put it: “an extremely rare event in the history of nations, the birth of twins”. The subcontinent would be fractured into two new states: India & Pakistan.


And it was no small thing. As Alex von Tunzelmann writes: “By the morning of 15 August, India was by population the second largest country in the world. On its eastern and western edges, the two chunks of Pakistan comprised the sixth largest country in the world.”


Pakistan would be delivered first. Its Independence Day was August 14th. India would follow the next day, on August 15th.


When you are closing up shop on a 300-year-old empire, part of your job description is attending every farewell party, even with people you don’t like very much. And so, on the 13th, 48 hours before Partition, the Mountbattens flew to Karachi, the new capital of Pakistan, to attend the state banquet marking the occasion.


Their host would be Mountbatten’s favorite frenemy – the one, the only, Muhammed Ali Jinnah. The Quaid-e-Azam had been a thorn in Mountbatten’s side all summer, an insufferable stumbling block, making things difficult as only a lawyer could. As Dickie vented to the King of England himself: “The only adviser that Jinnah listens to is Jinnah.”


But eventually a deal had been struck. Jinnah got his Pakistan, diminished though it was. And Mountbatten could claim to be the greatest negotiator in the esteemed history of the British Empire. Here, in Karachi, it was time for both men to say goodbye, and good riddance.


The depth of Jinnah’s feeling toward the Viceroy had been encapsulated in exchange he’d had with an army officer earlier that summer – at a party the Mountbattens had thrown in Delhi to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. Jinnah had shown up 30 minutes late, and when asked about it in private by the army officer, Jinnah had smirked:


“My boy, do you think I would come to this damn man’s party on time? I purposely came late to show him I despise him.”


But now the tables were turned. August 14th, 1947 was Jinnah’s party. Pakistan’s party. And the Viceroy had to dutifully show up like the guest he was. The banquet itself was uneventful. Speeches and applause, soft drinks and ice cream, fake smiles and forced photo ops. After gritting their teeth for hours, Jinnah and Mountbatten could finally be rid of each other forever.


But Edwina couldn’t help but notice how sick Jinnah looked. The Quaid-e-Azam had always been thin – emaciated, even. But there was a strength to him, an edge. He was “a spear of ice” with “hypnotic, smoldering eyes” as one contemporary phrased it. But on Independence Day, Jinnah was beginning to looking like the dying man he was. As a journalist Mildred Talbot recalled in a haunting report:


“His appearance so shocked me that little else registered on my mind during the evening. […] He looked like a walking, talking corpse. The nightmare I had that night was directly attributable to that vivid impression.”


But whatever the state of Jinnah’s health, the new country of Pakistan was very much alive & kicking. The next day, the Mountbattens boarded their plane to fly back to the Viceroy’s House in Delhi.


A large leg of their flight path would cross over the Punjab, one of the regions that had been callously carved up by Radcliffe. Home to 33 million people – Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims – the Punjab was an ancient place, brimming with religious significance. It was also beautiful, a “great sweep of plain, laced with rivers” as Alex von Tunzelmann put it.


But as Edwina Mountbatten looked out the window on their flight back to Delhi, she noticed something odd about the countryside below. She could see dark shapes, twisting and bending like rivers through the landscape. It took a few seconds to register, but Edwina realized the shapes were…. people. Thousands upon thousands of people, marching in long refugee columns. And all around them, were huge fires. Villages ablaze, sending dark pillars of smoke into the air.  


The horrors of Partition were already starting.


For months, fear had been rising. It began with small things - little things. In the city of Lahore, a 16-year-old Hindu girl named Nirmal remembered her Muslim classmate, Ashraf, raising a clenched fist in the air and saying: “We’re going to get rid of all of you … Lahore will be in Pakistan.’


There had always been religious tensions in the Punjab, but under the Raj those sharp edges had been sanded down by a shared sense culture – a Punjabi culture. As one woman remembered:


“Before the Partition, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim … how did it matter?’ Everyone mixed with each other and visited the mandir, gurudwara and masjid [temples] without any problems. Those were our values.”


One man named Mohindra Dhall explained:


“You see, the culture, the language, the food, the habits, even the rituals, for example weddings, are all common. If you see a Muslim wedding or a Hindu wedding, there are loads of rituals which I can tell you are all common. It has nothing to do with religion … because they belong to that particular land, the particular place that you come from.”


In theory, the goal of Indian independence should have been a uniting force. And for some, it was. According to a woman named Kurshid Sultana:


There was nothing like Pakistan or India in the beginning. We wanted independence … India. There was nothing like partition or [being] separate. All Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Christian, everybody – we used to be altogether, we used to all say we want independence – India is ours, India is ours.’


But not everyone had such a rosy outlook. One man named Nazeer Adhami, who was about 16 years old at the time and a passionate member of the Muslim League recalled:


“Our diet, our prayers, our clothes, our language. Everything was different. Even though we considered ourselves equal to the Hindus in every way, there was no denying the inherent differences. Though Muslims had been a dominant power in India for centuries, and were the only people apart from the British who ever gave India a semblance of unity, that was all in the past. We were certain, given the way the political situation was unfolding, that with the dissipation of the Raj and the dawn of Independence, there would be no intention to give equal rights and representation to both communities.”


The more strain was placed on the British, the more the bonds of fellowship between the religions seemed to buckle – to snap like ropes. As a Muslim man named Nazmuddin Khan described:


We were like brothers, Hindu–Muslim bhai-bhai. But then we began to hear talk on the street of the British finally leaving India, of complete Independence, and these were followed by rumors of a possible partition: Hindus on one side, Muslims on the other.”


The fears and anxieties that had been bubbling for years crystallized with Mountbatten’s announcement. Overnight, a switch seemed to flip. Decades of steady political polarization, combined with the sobering reality of a hard deadline, pushed things over a cliff. A man named Haroon Ahmed, who was 11-years-old and living in Delhi at the time observed:


‘Now they were enemies. [they, meaning Hindus] It wasn’t that gradually we became less friendly or moved away from people, nothing like that. It was so sudden.”


But for some, this bifurcation was a long time coming – inevitable even. As a Sikh man named Aridaman Singh Dhillon observed: “Distrust was already there. It had been there for centuries.”


In places like the Punjab, things were getting worse with every passing day. The right-wing militias and fanatical paramilitary groups that had been simmering on the sidelines for years, became louder, bolder, and more violent. A Sikh woman named Prabhjot [Prob-jote] Kaur recalled:


On one side, we would hear cries of “Allahu Akbar” and from the other chants of “Bole so nihal” [bolay so nihal] resounding in the air all day and night, like battle cries. Lahore, a city that had once been the nucleus of culture and amity, became the site of bloodbath in the months leading up to Independence. Our hearts would sink with fear. We would lock our houses and climb up to the roofs with bricks and stones in case there were riots in the neighborhood. If we ever left the gurudwara vicinity, on our person we always had a [dagger] and a small bag with ID papers and some money. Most girls carried mirchi [chili] powder or poison, just in case – of death. Or something worse.”


The encroaching Partition date that Dickie Mountbatten had set transformed cities like Lahore and Amritsar into literal bonfires. For people like Professor Sat Pal Kholi in Lahore, the worst part was the fact that the violence and intimidation was coming from people he’d known all his life:


“Our house was the first to be looted, and it shocks me to say this but it was the neighbors. Mob mentality—there is no justifiable explanation for it. The violence that unfurled after the announcement of the Partition was terrifying, and Lahore burnt in its wake. Gone was the beautiful city of my childhood and what remained was a city entirely unrecognizable, coated in fire, blood and destruction. The relationships that had been fostered over years, a life, were forgotten. I speak proudly of kinship, but even that was not enough to keep the peace.’


And then, on August 15th, Independence finally came. In Delhi and Karachi, soaring speeches were given, flags were hoisted, and constitutions were enshrined. Jawaharlal Nehru spoke about trysts with destiny. Muhammed Ali Jinnah promised peace, love and harmony within the borders of Pakistan. For millions, it was a happy moment. As Yasmin Khan writes:


Euphoria, an unprecedented collective feeling, marks many of the recollections of those who stood in the vast crowds, dazzled by the fireworks and illuminated buildings, not only in New Delhi, but in the major cities throughout South Asia.”


After all the long years of activism, it brought closure, if nothing else. As one government admitted:


“We were so tired and fed up with the to-ing and fro-ing, that we were grateful some decision had been taken at last. We thought, here’s a solution finally, and now we can relax.”


But for millions more, especially in the freshly-partitioned areas of Punjab and Bengal, Independence didn’t bring euphoria at all. It brought confusion, anger, fear, and resentment.

And when the boundary was finally revealed on the 16th of August, a grim realization came crashing down on their heads: They were not in the right country.


They were on the “wrong” side of the border, surrounded by people who wanted them out – or dead, whichever was easiest. The Sikh poet Prabhjot Kaur remembered:


“Independence had been declared, but we felt anything but free. Rather, we became strangers to the city we called home.”


For the people on the “right” side of the border, it meant a sudden recruitment into nationalist causes. As the Punjabi journalist Amjad Husain remembered:


‘On Independence day, when the announcement came on the radio, ‘father took the Holy Qur’an in hand and made all family members take an oath of loyalty to Pakistan. I still remember that every family member took an oath.’


Across the subcontinent, Fires were burning. Mobs were chanting. Gunshots were cracking. Hindus living in Pakistan and Muslims living in India were faced with choice: Leave now – right now…or risk it all. You’re your chances on the road, or gamble on the hospitality of the majority populations. Many people decided that it was time to leave – and leave fast. As a Partition survivor named Nazmuddin Khan told a journalist years later:


‘One after another, great cities fell to a vast and violent tragedy. The unthinkable. The unimaginable. And then we saw a great exodus. Hindus arriving on unfamiliar soil, and Muslims leaving in vast numbers for the “promised land” that was Pakistan. We saw them leave their homes, their belongings, their lives…’ -


For the Hindu Professor Sat Pal Kholi in Lahore, the flight was sudden, disorienting, and panicked:


‘Before we left that night, my mother went around the house packing up her jewelry and collecting items of value—things that had been mortgaged with us. There was no time to pack clothes or other belongings, the streets were burning, the slogans could be heard in the distance. “Only items of value,” she told me, and so, one by one, we picked those things—small and discreet enough to be put in a small baksa, a box that we brought with us, and still valuable enough to be sold later.


Another Muslim man, the aforementioned Nazmuddin Khan, remembered leaving Delhi:


“We realized it might actually be unsafe for us to continue living in Delhi, and so we ran away as fast as we could. I knew we had no choice, but it was a heartbreaking move, nonetheless. That day we fled from our own home in a way that felt so cowardly. Yes, we had no choice, but the weight of that action bore down on us all.”


Others took precautions to cover their escape. One journalist told a story about a particularly cautious refugee:


“She told me that one night she lit the kerosene lamp that usually illuminated the rooms and left the coal stove burning so that the chimney would keep emitting smoke and make it seem as though someone was still in the house and food was still being cooked. Then, in the middle of the night, the couple fled their hometown by bullock cart


But while millions fled their homes and communities for fear of being persecuted as a minority, some maintained hope that they might return. In her book, Remnants of Partition, the writer Aanchal Malhotra tells a story about a woman who was:


“So convinced that they would return to their home in Lyallpur, now in Pakistan, that before leaving for Ludhiana she locked every single cupboard and every single room, including the kitchen, making sure the house was secure and safe. Fifty-one locks for fifty-one keys. In fact, she even made arrangements with a local woman to make sure the house would be cleaned before they returned.”


But that woman, like millions of others, never returned to the home she had left.


Leaving your home forever is never an easy thing. And it wasn’t easy for a 15-year-old boy named Raj Daswani.


Raj was a Hindu living in the city of Karachi. Prior to Partition, that wasn’t a problem. Karachi was a Muslim majority city with a small population of Hindus that lived peacefully. Everyone co-existed just fine. More than fine, actually. Because Raj was in love with the Muslim girl next door, named Yasmin.


Raj and Yasmin lived in the same apartment block, and they would meet at night to hold hands and whisper to each other by the light of a small candle. Like most teenagers in love they made grand plans for the future. They talked about getting married, having children. Marriages between Hindu boys and Muslim girls were frowned upon, but they didn’t care. As Raj recalled:


‘We used to talk about it and be very hopeful that since we are in real love we will definitely be able to come through and cross that bridge of religious difference.’


And then, Partition happened. Muslim refugees flooded into Karachi, and they brought with them terrible stories of atrocity, murder and rape at the hands of Hindus….Hindus just like Raj. Raj realized it was not safe for him in Karachi anymore, and he had to leave. His Muslim neighbors begged him not to go, according to Raj: ‘They told us you are safe here, we’ll safeguard you, don’t leave.’


But Raj’s grandparents decided that they and their 15-year-old charge could not stay. On the day he left, Raj said goodbye to Yasmin and promised to return: ‘That parting of each other was most unbearable. She was crying. I was crying. We held hands again with each other. And slowly, slowly, slowly, slowly, slowly we left each other …”


Like the old woman with the 51 keys, Raj thought he might come back to his home and marry Yasmin one day: “Every Hindu was expecting this partition to be very, very temporary.’


But Raj never saw Yasmin again. He did return to Karachi many decades later, in 1992. He looked up Yasmin in the directory, found the place where she lived. He walked to building, stood in front of the door....and stopped. He was unable to work up the courage to knock on that door. Too much had happened, too much had changed. He walked away from the neighborhood – preserving Yasmin as a teenage memory, rather than face the reality of what time had wrought.


Raj and Yasmin were just two of millions of people whose lives were irrevocably altered by Partition. And believe it or not, they were some of the lucky ones. Many more did not survive the ordeal.


In the summer of 1947, all across Northern India, people were leaving their homes and running for their lives. And that sense of loss and anguish, is beautifully captured in a poem from a woman named Veena Dhillon Wilks. She called it “The Night Before The Flight:


The night before the flight

From ancestral home

We lay face to face

Under the blue dome

And drank from the moon

Its milky moonlight

In it we watched

Many stars twinkling in our eyes

Yours and mine

We watched and watched

All night with such a delight

Unslept the whole night

Crack of dawn the message arrived

‘Be ready, we are going’ Going? Where? Why?

Questions … nobody answered!

Hush on lips Anxiety in mind

Breakfast? Packing? Nobody bothered ‘Hurry, hurry, quick

Trucks are moving – no time

For leaving message for the left behind’

Nears and dears Mothers, fathers

Trucks were moving, military trucks

Evacuating, dwellers of stately homes,

Women and children and some men Their guardians



Leaving home was hard enough, but that was only the beginning. The millions of refugees pouring into the countryside that summer had a bigger problem than homelessness.


They were being hunted.


---- MUSIC BREAK ----


It’s August 9th, 1947.  


About a week before Partition.


We’re on a train, traveling west across India toward the city of Karachi - the future capital of Pakistan.


When the train had pulled out of the station in Delhi earlier that day, cheers had gone up from every compartment. “Pakistan Zindabad” they yelled – Long live Pakistan. Every passenger on board was a Muslim – and they were traveling to a home that technically did not exist yet. As Hajari Nisid writes:


“The men, and some of the women, were clerks and officials who had been laboring in the British-run government of India in New Delhi. With them were their families and their ribbon-tied files; their photo albums, toys, china, and prayer rugs; the gold jewelry that represented much of their savings and the equally prized bottles of illicit whiskey many drank despite the strictures of their religion. On 9 August 1947 they were moving en masse to Karachi, 800 miles away, to take part in a great experiment. In six days, the sweltering city on the shores of the Arabian Sea would become the capital of the world’s first modern Muslim nation and its fifth largest overall—Pakistan.”


As the train rumbled out of Delhi and disappeared into the countryside, it belched a trail of oily smoke into the air. The passengers settled in for a long journey – all 800 miles of it – and eventually the excitement faded into a kind of bored contentment; people stared to doze off, or read, or quietly chat. As the train crossed into the Punjab, the sun dipped beneath the horizon. That night, many passengers were enjoying the gentle, rhythmic rocking of the train.


And that’s when the bomb exploded.


As the train engine passed over a lonely stretch of rail, blasting charges on the tracks detonated in an ear-splitting explosion. When the carefully-placed explosives were triggered, they twisted 7 feet of rail into a charred helix. The lead train car flipped on its side, sending sparks into the air as metal grinded against metal. The two passenger compartments behind it were turned over as well, sending people flying from their seats, smashing heads and arms and limbs into hard surfaces. The four carriages behind those violently jumped the track, and the train slid to a stop in a cloud of dust.


For a moment there was a silence. Then the screaming started. The armed guards and train conductors stumbled out of the wreckage to see a handful of silhouettes crouching in the tall grass. This was not an accident; it had been an attack. The guards popped off a few shots at the mysterious assailants, but the saboteurs vanished like smoke and roared off into the night in a jeep.


A quick inspection of the passenger cars gave some small relief. Many were injured and bleeding, but only two people were dead - a woman and a child. It could’ve been much, much worse. They’d gotten lucky.


Some passengers wanted to know: who had attacked them? Who would dare? But many already knew. The guards couldn’t make out the faces of the men in the tall grass, but the turbans they wore were a telltale sign. The train had been attacked by Sikhs.




Up until this point in the story, we haven’t spent much time with the Sikhs at all. In fact, it would not be unfair to say that we’ve all but ignored them. I’ve included a few isolated anecdotes, peppered in a couple of first-hand accounts, but as a political force, the Sikhs have been mostly absent from our story.


And in some ways that narrative decision makes sense, as a kind of meta commentary. Because that’s very much how the Sikhs felt in 1947: Overlooked. Ignored. Neglected. Unseen.


While Jinnah and Nehru dueled over the destiny of the subcontinent, while Dickie Mountbatten threw garden parties and wooed politicians, while Cyril Radcliffe dragged his pencil like a scalpel over the face of the Punjab – The Sikhs had been forgotten; sidelined and forced to watch their future being decided by other people.


But “who are the Sikhs, exactly?” You might be asking.


If the religions of India were siblings – brothers - Hinduism was the oldest, stretching back about 4,000 of years. Islam was the middle brother, having only come on the scene in the 7th century. Sikhism was the baby brother. The youngest by far at only about 400 years old.


But they didn’t come from nowhere. The very first Sikhs had been Hindus, disenchanted with the caste system and Hinduism’s sprawling pantheon of gods. Beginning in the 16th century or so, Sikhism blossomed its own unique belief system under a series of gurus – or religious leaders. But unlike Islam, which had followers all over the world, and Hinduism, which had followers all over India, Sikhism was narrowly confined to the Punjab region.


It was the only home they had ever known.


And although Sikhism valued humanism, compassion, and truth – it was not a pacifist faith. Over the years, the religion developed a distinct martial tradition; a heavy focus on combat ability and military prowess. Saints were soldiers, and soldiers were saints. In time, the Sikhs became famous as fierce and cunning warriors. But that was not enough to save them when the East India Company came calling, and eventually the Sikhs found themselves on the wrong end of British bayonets, just like everyone else.


But the English always had an eye for talent in their native subjects, and they realized that this proud pocket of soldier-saints living in the Northwest might come in handy during, say, a World War. Recruited into the British Army, Sikh soldiers fought the enemies of the Empire in places as far away as Italy, North Africa, and France. They received weapons training, drill practice and invaluable combat experience. By the early 20th century, Sikhs made up more than 20 percent of the British Indian Army, even though they comprised only 2-3% of India’s population.


But despite that disproportionate level of service to the Raj, when the Independence movement started to gain traction and the negotiations for Partition were underway, the Sikhs were left out in the cold.


Everyone seemed to be getting their own country. The Muslims would get Pakistan. The Hindus would get India. Didn’t it stand to reason that the Sikhs should get their own nation as well? But no one really took the Sikhs seriously; they were an inconvenience, at best. Muhammed Ali Jinnah himself sniffed that the Sikhs: “unfortunately lacked leadership of a high order and while they were successful in small ways of business, seldom produced outstanding men in law, science or politics.”


As the fate of India was being decided, the Sikhs never got a real seat at the table. And they resented being dismissed as pawns in a post-colonial auction house. For decades they had fought and bled for the Empire – weren’t they owed a homeland of their own? Jinnah was getting his Pakistan, why couldn’t they have a Sikhistan? As Ahmed Akbar writes:


For the Sikhs the Punjab was the only home they ever had. The Sikh sense of nationalism and identity was linked to the Punjab. They had once ruled this area, however briefly, and their holy places were in it. Their sacred book had been formed here and their great capital had been Lahore. All this would be lost to them if the Punjab were to be divided.”


One Lahore newspaper put it more colorfully at the time:


‘To Sikh solidarity the Mountbatten scheme will be what a knife is to a cheese piece. It will cut through it easily and definitely.”


For many Sikhs, the nightmare scenario was falling on the Pakistan side of the Partition boundary. Muslims and Sikhs had a lot of historical baggage, dating all the way back to the founding days of the faith. As Hajari Nisid writes:


“History remained a potent force among Sikhs, who adhered to a martial faith. Many of their founding myths centered on the astoundingly nasty tortures suffered by their founding “gurus” at the hands of Muslims.”


And in 1947, history seemed to be repeating.


Back in March, just before the last Viceroy had arrived to negotiate the transfer of power, Muslim mobs had massacred Sikh villagers in the northern areas of Punjab. Terrible - and true - stories of murder, mass suicide, and gang rape spread like wildfire through Sikh communities. According to Hajari Nisid:


“Incendiary images from the riots seared themselves into Sikh minds. In the village of Thoa Khalsa, dozens of Sikh women had hurled themselves into a well to save themselves from being captured and raped by a Muslim mob—a dishonor to their minds worse than death.”


Elsewhere, Muslim attackers left terrible totems for the survivors to find. As one man recalled:


“I saw scores of corpses hanging from trees by their hair.”


The result was terror and outrage. Many Sikhs were asking themselves, is this what we can expect living under majority-Muslim rule in Pakistan? As Hajari Nisid writes:


“A terrified and isolated Sikh peasant had to assume this was what “Pakistan” meant—a thousand-strong rabble, pounding drums and howling, their forest of spear tips glinting in the torchlight.”


For Sikhs, the outcome of Partition appeared to be life or death. A prominent Sikh activist named Tara Singh warned: “If the Muslim League wants to establish Pakistan they will have to pass through an ocean of Sikh blood.’


It was not a bluff. A British intelligence report summed up the situation: “History suggests that the Sikhs to a man would fight literally to the  death rather than submit to Muslim domination.”


The Sikh leadership told Mountbatten that exact same thing when he met with them in the Spring, as Dickie reported: “In the Punjab all parties are seriously preparing for civil war, and of these by far the most business like are the Sikhs. […] [They] made it quite clear that they would fight to the last man if put under Muslim domination.”


The Sikhs were scared and angry, and their need to prepare was hardening into a thirst for revenge. As one British official commented: “a readiness for defense too easily passes into a desire to attack’. Hajari Nisid describes a particularly vivid anecdote in his book, Midnight Furies:


“The ranks of Sikh militants had swelled from a few thousand at the beginning of the summer to nearly twenty thousand by the end of July. Many of the fighters were ex-military—well-trained and battle-tested in the deserts of North Africa and jungles of Burma. […] Late that summer, British historian Michael Edwardes—then a young soldier—stumbled across nearly three hundred Akalis drilling with rifles and tommy guns in a village just a few miles from Amritsar. They eagerly put on a shooting contest for him “in which the targets were dummies of Muslim men, women and children.” The fighters vowed that “there would not be a Muslim throat or a Muslim maidenhead unripped in the Punjab” when their work was done.”


Punjab was a powder keg. And in August of 1947, it finally exploded, becoming “the site of the largest communal carnage in the history of South Asia”, according to the writer Yasser Latif Hamdani. It was, as Ahmed Akbar writes: a community in the throes of self-destruction.”


Sikh militants were out for revenge against Muslims for the March massacres, and in their holy city of Amritsar, they took it. According to Alex von Tunzelmann:


In Amritsar, on the Indian side of the border, a large group of Muslim women was stripped naked, paraded through the streets and raped by a Sikh mob. Some Sikhs were able to rescue a few of the women and hide them in the Golden Temple until the army could arrive. The rest of the women were burned alive.


The major cities in the Punjab became sites of carnage, forcing millions of people to run for their lives. Muslims in India were fleeing to Pakistan. Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan were fleeing to India. It was less of a migration than a hostage exchange. Earlier that summer, when he was asked if he foresaw any mass transfer of populations, Lord Mountbatten flippantly answered:


Personally, I don’t see it. There are many physical and practical difficulties involved. Some measure of transfer will come about in a natural way …”


He was wrong. By give-or-take twelve million people. The sheer numbers of the migration were astonishing, as Yasmin Khan:


It had been unthinkable that twelve million people would move, absolutely impossible to conceive, even if anyone had believed it to be desirable. The mass migrations were the sting in the scorpion’s tail, the unknown face of the Partition plan. The tides of people flowing out of Pakistan and India were so fantastical, so vast and so thorough, that they unbalanced the entire substructure on which Pakistan had been built.


The great columns of refugees that Edwina Mountbatten had been able to see from her window on the flight back to Delhi were so immense they stretched for 20 miles in either direction. The [journalist] Urvashi Butalia claims that you could stand in a single spot for 8 days and not see the end of some of these refugee columns. They were rivers of hardship, and misery. According to Yasmin Khan:


Luggage was very often confiscated or looted along the way or simply abandoned as people became too weak to carry it; sores developed on bare feet; women gave birth to babies en route; and people died of starvation, exhaustion, cholera and grief. It must have seemed as if all the fates were conspiring against the refugees; to make matters worse the infernal temperatures on the Punjabi plains in June were followed by dust storms. A thick pall of dust caked the refugees and flies were omnipresent.”


For a little Muslim girl named Narjis Khatun, it was a turbulent, scary, and yet oddly exhilarating experience:


I was ten! I had some understanding of it, I knew where we were going and was so happy about it. We were on our way to Pakistan, to safety. At the time, the main aim was to reach Pakistan any way we could. When we got on the train, its conditions were worse than we could imagine. People were crammed and pressed against each other, with no space to move or even breathe. There were people hanging on to the doors and windows, and then there were people sitting on top of the train with their luggage and children and even small animals like goats or dogs. My brother fell sick on the train and we planned to get off at the first station in Pakistan.


‘But the strangest thing was that we never realized when it happened, when one country ended and another began … when India stopped and Pakistan started. There were no obvious differences between a land and its conjoined neighbor, and so I suspect that we gained our new citizenship in a moment curiously lost on us. Tucked away in a corner of an overcrowded train, we had quietly become Pakistani.’


For people like Narjis, the abrupt change was a jarring and destabilizing. As the writer Aanchal Malhotra describes:


“Apart from a physical displacement, there would have been a traumatic mental displacement, a sudden uprootedness, an unlearning and relearning of identity. 1947 would have created an involuntary distance between where one was born before the Partition and where one moved to after it, stretching out people’s identity over the expanse of this distance.”


But for most refugees, a sense of belonging was a secondary consideration. The primary concern was staying alive. And that was easier said than done. The journey to the safe side of the border could take days, even weeks, depending on the circumstances. And the entire time, these refugees were exposed & unprotected; easy prey for people who wanted them dead. As one survivor recalled:


 ‘I have seen people with hammers and daggers and sickles and knives, and the hate in their eyes for me, for us. I have seen it. And I will never forget that madness…’


The things that happened on the road left deep impressions. One survivor named Karam Singh, nearly 70 years later, can could still feel the fear: ‘


“When I remember, my body shakes.”


The communal violence in the Punjab during August and September was ubiquitous, ruthless, and worst of all – organized. As Yasmin Khan writes:


Much evidence points not to the crazy and inexplicable actions of mad, uneducated peasants with sticks and stones, but to well-organized and well-motivated groups of young men, who went out – particularly in Punjab – to carry out ethnic cleansing.’ Historian Andrew Whitehead agrees: ‘This was not a civil war with battle lines and rival armies – but nor was it simply spontaneous violence. On all sides, local militias and armed gangs planned how to inflict the greatest harm on those they had come to see as their enemies.’


For the British, who were packing up and leaving, the hatred between the religious communities was almost incomprehensible. In a baffling twist of irony, after 300 long years of British occupation, India’s communities had more pent-up rage for each other than their colonial oppressors. Barely any British people were harmed during Partition, but they had a front row seat to the awful spectacle. We have account after account after account of British army officers and civil servants encountering things on the road that would haunt them for the rest of their lives.


Here’s one story from Hajari Nisid:


“A Briton traveling through Alwar by rail in early September was horrified to find a barely alive Muslim girl atop a pile of corpses on a train platform. When he tried to give her some water, a bearded Hindu brushed him aside, saying, “‘Don’t do that, sahib!’ He then produced a bottle of petrol, forced some of it into the girl’s mouth and set her alight.”


Here's another:


“The British wife of another officer said her train had been stopped at dawn before reaching the city, and she awoke to bloodcurdling shrieks and groans. Raising the blinds of her compartment, she was horrified to see Sikhs being dragged out of carriages and hacked to pieces alongside the tracks. One of the blood-spattered killers—a Muslim—had tried to calm her. “Don’t be frightened, memsahib. No one will harm you,” he said gently. “We’ve just got this job to do and then the train will go on.”


Muslims and Hindus were very proficient – and creative – when it came to murdering each other, but the most talented killers in the Punjab by far, were the Sikhs. Their experience drilling, training and fighting abroad in the British army came to bear – they had the tactics, the weapons and the willpower. Alex Von Tunzelmann describes a typical Sikh attack on a Muslim village:


They were well armed with machine guns, rifles and shotguns, as well as grenades, spears, axes and kirpans, the ceremonial blade carried by all Sikhs. Usually, their Muslim adversaries only had staves. The pattern of attack was well established. When Muslim villagers saw a jatha [warband] coming, they would climb onto their roofs and beat gongs to alert neighboring villages. The Sikhs would send in a first wave to shoot them off the roofs, a second wave to lob grenades over the walls and a third wave to cut survivors to pieces with kirpans and spears. A fourth wave of older men would then go in and set fire to the village, while outriders would ride around, swinging their kirpans to fell any escapees.


One cannot help but wonder what was going through the heads of some of these young men, as they descended upon villages and butchered innocent men, women, and children so callously. Fortunately, we don’t have to guess. Here’s one Sikh militiaman in his own words, describing his state of mind at the time of a raid:


We went off raising war cries, even leaving our food. We’d go off in high spirits. I ran after this fucking Muslim with my sword and killed him. My sword was a curved one. It used to look magnificent. It used to feel good. They had killed so many of our people. We used to shout war cries and then chop people’s heads off. We would cheer each other up and shout ‘be strong!’. I was very successful. The old and young would talk about me. I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve killed. There were so many. Whoever came in front of me lost his head. Why should I feel bad? They kept kill killing our people. They wouldn’t stop. Half our people have been killed. They said it was a good thing to kill us.”


It's very tempting to listen to an account like that and reflexively, instantly recoil. To write that person off as…a sociopath, or a monster, or some outlier from the normal spectrum of human experience. But he is not an outlier – at all. And it raises an uncomfortable question: Why did so many people, from so many communities, behave in the exact same way? After all, this was not a phenomenon unique to Sikhs or Hindus or Muslims. Everyone was culpable. There were no clean hands that summer. It’s a hard thing to wrestle with, and many have tried. The writer Ahmed Akbar attempts to peel back the psychology of this reciprocal style of ethnic cleansing:


“When a person has lost the family home, when friends and neighbors have become enemies, it creates an internal state of terror which quickly becomes external terror. If you want to abolish terror, you try to obliterate what you see as its source. Then the victim wants to turn on the perpetrator of the crime, not just wishing to kill, but to cut them up, torture them, torch their house and make sure they are utterly annihilated. They are burning with the desire to avenge what they see as palpable and gross injustice. This is what gripped the main communities in 1947.


To observers at the time, it seemed like the basic fabric of civil society had been turned inside out. A British administrator named Penderel Moon remembered with a kind of dazed incredulity:


There was a complete breakdown or rather reversal of the ordinary moral values. To kill a Sikh became almost a duty. A Hindu hardly a crime. To rob them was an innocent pleasure carrying no moral stigma. To refrain was a mark not of virtue but a lack of enterprise.”


Those who took part in the violence – or at least those who will admit that they did – often express a deep sense of guilt and confusion in interviews. Even they aren’t quite sure why they did what they did. As a Sikh man named Harjit told a journalist years later:


“I cannot explain it. But one day, our entire village took off to a nearby Muslim village on a killing spree. We simply went mad. And it has cost me 50 years of remorse, of sleepless nights. I cannot forget the faces of those we killed.”


Another man, a Muslim farmer named Nassir Hussain, expressed a similar kind of dazed regret:


“I still cannot understand what happened to me and other youngsters of my age at that time. It was a matter of two days and we were swept away by this wild wave of hatred. I cannot even remember how many men I actually killed. It was a phase, a state of mind, over which we had no control. We did not even know what we were doing.”


But for every murder, every rape, every terrible crime, there were plenty of people who refused to take part in the violence. Who saw past these simplistic religious labels and behaved with incredible compassion and courage. As Yasmin Khan writes:


Against this bleak backdrop, many people carried out unusually brave, heroic and humanitarian acts. Some individuals saved the lives of neighbors, friends and strangers of different communities, even by risking their own lives. Others gave word of impending attacks to their neighbours, sheltered large numbers of people, smuggled food to the stranded and helped secretly move them from danger in the dead of night by lending transport or arranging disguises or armed protection. ‘In the end I feel honor-bound to record that the lives of my children and those of about six hundred educated Hindus and Sikhs, male and female, of the Civil Lines, were saved by the efforts of some God-fearing Muslims who gave them shelter in their houses, even at the risk of their lives,’ noted the Civil Surgeon of Sheikhupura, a survivor of the atrocities in the district.”


One Sikh man named Kushdeva Singh, who was the superintendent of a hospital, secretly evacuated hundreds of Muslim patients who would have been slaughtered in their beds by vengeful mobs. After Partition, he received 317 letters of gratitude from people he had saved or their family members.


One elderly woman in Lahore singlehandedly defused a Muslim mob who had come to kill a Hindu doctor she had been sheltering in her home, saying: “I am a Muslim mother. If you want to get past me, you will have to kill me first”. Both she and the doctor survived.


Other good Samaritans were not so lucky. A Hindu politician named Narinjan Das Bagga tried to save an injured Muslim from an angry mob and was killed in the process. A Muslim policeman, whose name has unfortunately been lost to history, saved over 200 Sikhs by fending off a gang of killers with a stick.



Meanwhile, Far away in Great Britain, the reactions to the violence in India ranged from mild disgust to total apathy. One 43-year-old housewife from Sheffield, England named Edie Rutherford wrote about Partition in her diary: 


“I swear most folk couldn’t care less, and I resent the inference that we have had them enslaved up to now. Most folk are simply glad to be shot of them, to put it vulgarly yet truthfully.”


But for the British politicians who were mourning the abdication of the Indian jewel, the violence seemed like a vindication of their bigoted assumptions. Well, well, well – who’d have thought. The second we step away, the moment we stop babysitting these children, it all goes to hell. As the former Prime Minister Winston Churchill commented:


“These horrors and butcheries perpetrated upon one another with the ferocity of cannibals by races gifted with capacities for the highest culture who had for generations dwelt side by side in general peace under the broad, tolerant and impartial rule of the British Crown.”


Already, the accusatory fingers were seeking a scapegoat. Whose fault was this - ultimately? Was it Mountbatten, who had rushed the transfer of power? Was it Muhammed Ali Jinnah, who had stirred up religious animus with his divisive rhetoric? Maybe it was Jawaharlal Nehru, who had underestimated the importance of religious identity in Indian politics? Maybe it was Mohandas Gandhi, who had insisted that the British leave in the first place?


There would be plenty of time to assign blame. But that would have to come later. As the bodies mounted and the blood flowed, the most important thing was stopping the violence. India had only been free for a month or two; and it was already on the brink of complete anarchy.


Someone had to do something.


--- ---- MUSIC BREAK -----


It’s September 7th, 1947.  


We’re in Delhi, the capital of India.


Three weeks earlier, on Independence Day, it had been the epicenter of a great celebration.


Delhi was an old city, saturated in historical and cultural significance. For a thousand years, it had been a key hub of human activity on the subcontinent. An ancestral seat for kings and emperors. And the ripples of that past could be seen and felt in every alley, every alcove, every avenue.


You could smell it in the street food sizzling in stalls. You could hear it in the music echoing from open windows. And you could see it in the breathtaking architecture, like the famous Red Fort in the heart of the old city.  


In the old days, the Red Fort had been a monument to the power of the Mughal emperors. Its iconic red sandstone walls were vivid reminders of a time when India had been free and proud and independent. Before the East India Company. Before the Raj. It seemed a fitting place, then, to raise the tri-color flag of the new Indian nation on August 15th, 1947.


As fireworks popped in the sky, and speeches rang out from the parapets, it felt like a fresh start. A new beginning. Thousands upon thousands of people had gathered in the capital to celebrate the inauguration of a new era; the triumphant culmination of what their Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru called a “tryst with destiny”.  A Muslim man named Iftekhar Ahmed was 17 years old at the time, and he remembered the sights and sounds of Independence Day vividly. The city was lit up “just like Christmas time”.


When the Mughals had built the Red Fort three centuries earlier, they had carved a phrase into the sandstone above one of the archways in Persian: “If there is a paradise on Earth, it is this.” To the thousands of spectators celebrating independence, it felt like paradise – once lost – had been found again.


The joy in the streets was so palpable that all the animus and rancor against the British seemed to be forgotten. The way the aftertaste of a bad dream starts to fade in glow of morning. When Lord Dickie Mountbatten paraded down Delhi’s streets in his lavish open-top car, he could hear shouts of “Hail Mountbatten”. People cheered as if the Viceroy was a conquering hero, not a departing oppressor. Ironically, by leaving India, the Brits had finally earned the love of their former subjects. The irony was not lost on one photographer, who quipped: “After two hundred years, the British have finally conquered India. “


But all that champagne exuberance in the capital quickly went flat as reports started to come in from the countryside, from the Punjab and from Bengal. Rumors trickled into the city – horror stories of ethnic cleansing, murder, mass suicide, gang rape – things so horrible they seemed beyond belief. Maybe, some hoped, it was just that - rumor. Baseless political scaremongering and market gossip.


But then came the refugees. The flesh-and-blood proof, that all the rumors were true.


Sikhs and Hindus from the Punjab flooded into the city, they came on trains, on planes, and by foot. Hundreds of thousands of people running for their lives. Like shipwrecked passengers swarming a life boat, they surged and stumbled into the safe haven of Delhi, bleeding, tired, exhausted and traumatized. Many of them had seen their friends murdered, their daughters raped, their children butchered.


They were homeless, adrift, powerless….and angry. So, so angry. Many of these Sikh and Hindu refugees had lost everything; and in their rage and despair, they were desperate for an outlet for that anger. Someone to punish. The one million Muslims living in the city of Delhi became the object of that craving for revenge. In the faces of Delhi Muslims they saw the reflection of their tormentors on the other side of the border – the same people who had burned their homes and chased them out. It didn’t matter that these Muslims had never done anything to them – they were Muslims all the same.


As Hajari Nisid writes: Once the migrants crossed the border, their stories and their scars spread hate like an oil slick.”


By mid-September, the only pops to be heard in Delhi were gunshots, not fireworks. The chaos and genocidal fury that had consumed cities like Lahore and Amritsar had come to Delhi itself. Fear ruled in the capital. As Alex von Tunzelmann writes:


The citizens of Delhi began to mark themselves out with visible signs that they were not Muslim. Hindus shaved their hair to leave a traditional shikha tuft on the crown and left shirts unbuttoned to show the white sacred thread worn across the chest. Indian Christians began to sew large red crosses onto their shirts. All the shops in central Delhi displayed placards saying “Hindu Shop,” regardless of their ownership. These public displays of religious identity only made the conflict more tribal.


On September 6th, a bomb exploded in a crowd of Muslims at a train station. Riots flared up like open sores all over the city. When the police arrived, they panicked, firing into the crowds and killing 450 people. That carelessness only fueled the anarchy. The next day, gangs and looters converged on Muslim shops and businesses. Broken glass glittered on the ground, and tear gas congealed in the air.  


But later that day – on September 7th,  something extraordinary happened.


As the rioters attempted to break into a famous movie theatre - the Odeon Cinema - they caught sight of a man walking towards them – no, running towards them. He was shouting and angry, brandishing a wooden stick as a club. But he wasn’t a rioter or a gangster. He was well-dressed and clean-shaven, his normally calm eyes stretched into a wild, frightening expression. This man, this lone vigilante, jumped into the mob and began beating them, shouting them, shaming them. How dare they do this?, how could they do this? To their people, to their city, to their country?


The looters realized who this man was…. and backed off. Smashing up a window was one thing, but no one wanted to put a bruise on this guy. No one wanted to trade blows with the Prime Minister of India. Jawaharlal Nehru. The reserved, jovial Nehru had rediscovered his famous elemental temper – and in the incandescence of his righteous anger, the rioters lost their nerve…at least for a few hours.


This was not the first time Jawaharlal Nehru had flung himself into the middle of a riot in the last few weeks. It was just the latest example in a pattern of what Mountbatten’s chief-of-staff, Pug Ismay, called “appalling personal risk.”


As the battle for Delhi raged around him, Nehru’s classic angry idealism roared to life. The Prime Minister of India was acting like a one-man police department in a reckless, flailing desperation to stop the killing. As Hajari Nisid writes:


Nehru angrily faced down mobs himself, rushing from trouble spot to trouble spot. At night he drove around the city, unable to rest—once even picking up a terrified Muslim couple and bringing them to his own home for safety.”


When he wasn’t fighting through administrative fatigue or arguing with this cabinet members, Nehru he was confronting armed mobs, sometimes completely alone. The Viceroy’s chief-of-staff Pug Ismay said that Nehru “went on the prowl whenever he could escape from the [cabinet] table. […] I had, with my own eyes, seen [him] charge into a rioting Hindu mob and slap the faces of the ringleaders. He seemed to have no thought whatsoever for his personal safety.”


It was only a matter of time, some believed, before Nehru got himself killed. Before he confronted the wrong mob, the wrong person, found the wrong end of a knife, or a gun, or a club. But his courage was undeniable, according to Shashi Tharoor:


The American editor Norman Cousins recounted how one night in August Hindu rioters in New Delhi, “inflamed by stories of Moslem terror … smashed their way into Moslem stores, destroying and looting and ready to kill”: Even before the police arrived in force, Jawaharlal Nehru was on the scene …, trying to bring people to their senses. He spied a Moslem who had just been seized by Hindus. He interposed himself between the man and his attackers. Suddenly a cry went up: “Jawaharlal is here!” … It had a magical effect. People stood still…. Looted merchandise was dropped. The mob psychology disintegrated. By the time the police arrived people were dispersing. The riot was over…. The fact that Nehru had risked his life to save a single Moslem had a profound effect far beyond New Delhi. Many thousands of Moslems who had intended to flee to Pakistan now stayed in India, staking their lives on Nehru’s ability to protect them and assure them justice.”


People like Pug Ismay could not understand why Nehru – who should’ve been spending his time making administrative decisions, was leaping into danger every night and putting his own life at risk. But the answer of obvious. The kindling that fed Nehru’s temper…was guilt. This was on him. This was his fault. Who’s else could it be?


He could not help but think back to what he had said just weeks before Partition, when someone had raised concerns about keeping the British Army in India longer to ensure order. Nehru had said: “I would rather have every village in India go up in flames than keep a single British soldier in India a moment longer than necessary.” Nehru had meant it rhetorically. Hyperbolically. But instead, it had become a prophecy fulfilled.


30 years earlier, as a young man, Jawaharlal had traced his fingers over the bullet holes in the wall after the Amritsar Massacre. It was a formative moment. These European colonialists seemed capable of such inhumanity and wanton cruelty. Now, in 1947, it shattered him to confront the idea that his countrymen were capable of the same kind of atrocity.


And nowhere was the atrocity more pungent than in the Punjab. Since Independence Day, Nehru had visited the Punjab multiple times. And every visit had rocked him to his core. The trips made him “sick with horror” and “peculiarly helpless”. On one occasion, Nehru’s car was stopped by a crowd, demanding he stop what they called “the war”; The Prime Minister shouted back:


“Are you not ashamed of yourselves? Have you no conscience left? What do these houses and these dead bodies show? Who is conducting this war?”  


But the reality of the situation spoke for itself. After spending one especially terrible day talking to columns of refugees, hearing their stories, seeing their hardships, Nehru seemed overwhelmed with grief. As his secretary remembered:


“I cannot imagine another day when he could have felt more strongly that all his hopes, his dreams, his faith in human nature were crashing down in pieces.”


A journalist named Shorish Kashmiri wrote about a heated moment between one refugee and Nehru:


Some young people, whose parents had been butchered and whose sisters and daughters had been left in Pakistan surrounded Nehru… One young man lost his temper and gave Nehru a resounding slap; a slap on the face of the Prime Minister of India. But Nehrui said nothing to him. He just placed his hand on the young man’s shoulder. The young man shouted: ‘Give my mother back to me! Bring my sisters to me!’ Nehru’s eyes filled with tears. He said, ‘Your anger is justified, but, be it Pakistan or India, the calamity that has overtaken us all is the same. We have both to pass through it.”


It was all beginning to take a toll on the new Prime Minister. As Nehru admitted at the time:


“Ever since I assumed charge of my office, I have done nothing but tried to keep people from killing each other or visited refugee camps and hospitals. All the plans which I had drawn up for making India a prosperous and progressive country have had to be relegated to the background.”


Depression and self-doubt began to smother Nehru. He admitted in a candid letter to Dickie Mountbatten:


“I suppose I am not directly responsible for what is taking place in the Punjab. I do not quite know who is responsible. But in any event I cannot and do not wish to shed my responsibility for my people. If I cannot discharge the responsibility effectively, then I begin to doubt whether I have any business to be where I am.”


In Delhi, things continued to deteriorate. The city became a warzone. As Alex von Tunzelmann writes:


All flights from Bombay and other cities into Delhi were canceled. Reports suggested that six hundred thousand were involved in rioting in the city, and Muslim estimates put their death toll at ten thousand. The telephone, telegraph and mail systems shut down, as did all public transport.27 A shoot-to-kill order was issued to Delhi police and armed forces. […] BY OCTOBER, there were thought to be around four hundred thousand Hindu and Sikh refugees from the Punjab in Delhi.[…] Delhi’s own population had been devastated: 330,000 Muslims had left, representing around one third of the city’s population.


Still, Nehru did his best to project confidence and instill determination in a rattled, and terrified public. As he announced on All-India Radio:


“We are dealing with a situation which is analogous to war, and we are going to deal with it on a war basis in every sense of the word.”


He told a friend privately:


“There are only two things left for us now. To go under or overcome our difficulties. And we are not going under.”



But the British who remained in India had their doubts. Mountbatten’s chief-of-staff intoned: “There is a possibility—and most keen a possibility—that orderly Government may collapse.” Even Dickie Mountbatten had his doubts, as he told a roomful of Indian government ministers:


“If we go down in Delhi, we are finished,”


But even at this crucial moment, the Indian government was divided in how to respond to the violence. Many of the politicians in Nehru’s own party, the Congress party, were displaying a shocking level of moral cowardice in the face of the ethnic cleansing. As Alex von Tunzelmann writes:


“Many in Congress conspicuously refrained from condemning Hindu atrocities in the fear that they would lose the support of the Hindu majority.[…] Now its politicians refused to criticize murder, rape and communal hatred. “I have no stomach for this leadership,” Nehru wrote in disgust. “Unless we keep to some standards, freedom has little meaning.”


Some of these politicians were flirting with religious fundamentalism, bending to the implications that India should abandon notions of pluralism altogether – to become a Hindu nation, exclusively for Hindus. The exact kind of ethno-state Muhammed Ali Jinnah had always warned India could and would become. The spectre of fear that had driven the communities apart in the first place. Nehru would have none of it. Always the outspoken secularist, he snapped in a defiant public speech:


“As long as I am at the helm of affairs India will not become a Hindu state. The very idea of a theocratic state is not only medieval but also stupid.”


Yes - in those turbulent months, Nehru was short on friends. But he did have one important ally in the battle for Delhi:


Lady Mountbatten.




For Nehru and Edwina, the spring of 1947 had been a dizzying, surreal fairytale. They had fallen hard for each other, and although they could never express it in public or be together officially, their bond was very real all the same. As Nehru’s niece recalled:


“It was a very deep emotional attachment, there’s no doubt about that. I think it had all the poignance of the lateness of the hour … that terrible cut-off-ness from the world, and anxieties about India, where are we going, all the rest of it. And then to find this—and for her, apparently, also a great and unique love.”


And when the fairytale became a nightmare, and Delhi began to burn around them, Edwina joined Nehru in a herculean effort to mitigate the human suffering. As Von Tunzelmann writes:


At the suggestion of Nehru, Edwina Mountbatten was put in charge of the emergency committee’s refugee group. While Dickie was still fiddling with his map room, Edwina established and chaired the United Council for Relief and Welfare. It was a swift, effective and hands-on attempt to deal with the reality of the situation. Edwina coordinated fifteen separate relief organizations, two government ministries and one Mahatma into a single targeted team with clear instructions and purpose. She began touring the worst areas of trouble, mobilizing volunteers and personally directing the Red Cross effort to improve water, sanitation and medical supplies. Through the United Council, she suggested initiatives ranging from the establishment of a sister organization in Pakistan, all the way down to the setting up of Girl Guide knitting circles to provide pullovers for refugees.”


And like Nehru, Edwina had no hesitation about flinging herself into churning pits of physical danger. Nehru’s daughter Indira remembered Lady Mountbatten’s response to reports of violence at a local train station:


“Edwina turned up at Jawahar’s door and changed her high heels for sensible shoes. “I am just going to the station,” she announced. “And of course there was no security, no arrangements,” said Indira. “She just went.”


As Ahmed Akbar writes:


There was no denying in Edwina the humanity, the energy, the frantic desperation to do something about the suffering as thousands and thousands of refugees poured into Delhi in 1947.


According to one historian:


Anyone required to serve with Edwina would have to help with a variety of gruesome tasks in unpleasant locations. She stopped her car when she saw injured or dead people, got out, dodged bullets and retrieved their bodies to take them to hospitals or morgues. She also ordered her husband’s personal bodyguards to forget about him and patrol the hospitals, following a number of unspeakable attacks on helpless patients as they lay in the wards.”


Nehru’s sister remembered Edwina’s tenderness to victims of Partition violence:


“It was amazing to see her in those terrible places, neither patronizing, nor over-sympathetic, but just talking naturally to the inmates. This is the hardest thing of all to do when people are destitute, hopeless or dying.”


On more than one occasion, Jawaharlal Nehru and Edwina found themselves in the thick of a mob, together. Edwina with her words of reason, Jawaharlal with his fists and righteous anger. One time, Nehru arrived at the site of an attack and found Edwina had gotten their first, according to Von Tunzelmann:


“Without waiting to organize a bodyguard for himself, Jawahar got into a taxi and drove alone through the treacherous countryside straight there—only to find Edwina already on the site, without guards, trying to pacify the would-be raiders. “Did we get our freedom so that you could kill each other?” Jawahar shouted at the mob. “He was,” noted one observer, “a man who had no fear.”


They were brave, they were reckless, but most importantly, they were together. As one historian wrote:


“In at least one photograph of the two of them visiting a refugee camp, Jawahar’s hand can be seen clasped protectively around Edwina’s.


But Nehru and Edwina were not the only ones displaying incredible bravery in Delhi. There were ordinary people, without the armor of political importance or name recognition, that risked their lives to make a difference. People like a 28-year-old government worker named Maneck Dalal.


Maneck worked at the Delhi airport as a manager for Air India airlines. As the capital descended into chaos, it was his job to safely evacuate Muslims from the city. Maneck was not a Muslim or a Hindu or a Sikh – he was Parsi, a small sect of Zoroastrianism. But his job at the airline made him a target for extremist mobs. Maneck remembered receiving anonymous phone calls to his house late at night. As one journalist described:


Maneck Dalal picked up the receiver to hear a voice say: ‘We’re coming to kill you.’ Maneck thought it was a friend playing a prank. ‘Look, I’m very tired, please don’t fool around,’ he said. But the man repeated the threat: ‘We’re coming to kill you.’


Maneck was undeterred. He would: “insist that Muslim women and girls wore a tika (the small dot on the forehead used by Hindu women), and gave them Hindu names to protect them from the Hindu and Sikh mobs watching the airport.”


Maneck did his best, but he could not save everyone. As Kavita Puri describes in her book Partition Voices:


Muslims would come to his office, begging him to take their families, offering huge sums of money. They were desperate to leave quickly, and Maneck remembers they were not all rich people. ‘But it was a question of life and death.’ He was never tempted to take the bags of money. Instead, he would patiently explain the government rules of prioritization. ‘Often they would get furious and abuse me and swear at me. They would say things like, “Have you ever seen your mother killed? Have you ever seen your sister raped?” This was a very tough period.’


Maneck and his wife Kay helped hundreds of people escape Delhi, not only by plane, but by train as well. In some cases, they were very close to home. According to Kavita Puri:


A colleague of Maneck’s, a man called Bradshaw who was the English managing director of Air India, had eight Muslim servants. The Dalals helped them to safely leave the country to get to Pakistan. ‘The last person we took, that’s what I remember very clearly, was a very smart young chap … in his early twenties.’ The couple dressed him in Maneck’s best clothes, and tie, and took him by car to Delhi station sitting in between Kay and Maneck. They walked from the car to the station – the servant in the middle of the couple. They watched him board the train as it pulled away from the platform. Maneck remembers to this day how the young servant stood out of the train to look at them. ‘I was quite touched by that because this was his farewell.’


The violence in Delhi eventually did subside. The government did not collapse. But the scars left by the riots and the killing were undeniable. A Muslim man named Nazmuddin Khan remembered returning to his neighborhood in Delhi and seeing burned bodies scattered on the street:


‘No matter how hard I try, no matter how many years pass, I can still smell it, I can feel it surrounding me as vividly as I could when I first experienced it. In the first few years, I would even wake up in the middle of the night, as if from a bad dream, and imagine that I, my body, my hands were soaked in the smell. Tell me, can one touch a smell, can one feel it, can it seem physical and alive? I didn’t think so, but there it was. My deathly companion. My silent, invisible, looming reminder.


All across Northern India, homes had been lost, lives had been broken, possessions had been stolen. For many, all that remained was memory – and anger. One survivor named Harchet Singh Bains, who was 11-years-old at the time said bitterly:


‘They say we are independent now, but what good it was when you have lost everything? … we will always curse the authorities, the British or Indians, the politicians who made this mess. I will never forget these tragic events. Always remember. I will take these things to my grave, so to speak, they were bad things. But they happened.’


Others, like a woman named Preet Singh, could barely make sense of it all:


if I were to be honest, I doubt anyone ever thought the country would be divided. I promise you, we never imagined it. From a distance, it looked simply like communal riots that would fizzle out after a while. No one ever even considered that they would go on and on and would destroy the lives of so many people. On an individual level, it didn’t make any sense. Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs had all lived in harmony once, so what had changed? It seemed, in some ways, completely removed from reality.’


Some survivors, in their grief, came to regret the entire independence movement. According to a man named Karam Singh:


‘We were better off during the British time because everybody was in peace. Nobody had any fear or anything and [the] general public thought after independence we can speak freely and do what we want freely and everything. But that did not happen.’


It was all so… surreal and unexpected, as a Professor named Sat Pal Kohli


We had demanded Independence and we received it. Though the consequence of that Independence was unimaginable. […] Despite all the systematic negotiations with the British Crown so that Indians could gain Independence, we found ourselves supremely underprepared for the sheer loss and displacement that accompanied this freedom. After all, one is not raised with the knowledge that perhaps one day, in the distant future, everything familiar will be irretrievably lost forever.’


It's estimated that about a million people died in the months following Partition, most of them in the Punjab. 12 million were displaced. The affects of that mass population transfer, as well as the ethnic cleansing that accompanied, can still be felt to this day. As Kavita Puri writes:


Punjab today is almost completely segregated. The existence of communities that had lived together for centuries, with a shared language and culture, can only now be learned of in history books.


One million dead. 12 million displaced. The numbers should be shocking, but as Alex von Tunzelmann writes, those figures are so astronomically huge that they begin to lose their meaning:


What does it matter to the readers of history today whether there were two hundred thousand deaths, or a million, or two million? On that scale, is it possible to feel proportional revulsion, to be five times more upset at a million deaths than at two hundred thousand? Few can grasp the awfulness of how it might feel to have their fathers barricaded in their houses and burned alive, their mothers beaten and thrown off speeding trains, their daughters torn away, raped and branded, their sons held down in full view, screaming and pleading, while a mob armed with rough knives hacked off their hands and feet. All these things happened, and many more like them; not just once but perhaps a million times. It is not possible to feel sufficient emotion to appreciate this monstrous savagery and suffering. That is the true horror of the events in the Punjab in 1947: one of the vilest episodes in the whole of history, a devastating illustration of the worst excesses to which human beings can succumb. The death toll is just a number.”


In 1946, about a year before Partition, Jawaharlal Nehru had sat down for an interview with a journalist named Jacques Marcuse. In that interview, Nehru had made a number of confident, borderline arrogant predictions about the future independence of the subcontinent. He had said:


“There will never be a Pakistan. And when the British go, there will be no more communal trouble in India.”


A year later, in 1947, right in the midst of the Partition violence, that journalist was back in Delhi to interview Nehru again. The journalist didn’t bring up the new Prime Minister’s catastrophically incorrect predictions; Nehru did it for him:


         “Do you remember, Marcuse? What I told you? ‘No Pakistan, no….”


He trailed off. Both of them were silent for a few seconds. Until Nehru said:


         “Wasn’t I wrong?”


----- OUTRO ------


Well, folks – that is all we have time for today.


At the beginning of this series, I said that I would try and refrain from committing to an exact number of episodes for this series – but I think at this stage, I can confidently say that we have two more to go.


This will be a six-part series. Now, dedicating half a calendar year on a single topic is not how we normally do things on Conflicted, but this is one of those subjects that deserves to be fully explored in all its fascinating and horrifying complexity.


Next time, we will hone in on a specific dimension of Partition violence: and that is violence toward women. Across northern India, bodies became battlegrounds, parcels of territory to be fought over and conquered, claimed and reclaimed. For decades, many of those women’s story existed in a sheathe of silence. And very recently, the veil has been lifted. Not only on the women who were taken, but those who fought to get them back. Next time, in Part 5, we will explore the unique struggle of women during Partition.


And then in our sixth and final episode of this series on Partition, we will end where we began – with Mohandas Gandhi. The Mahatma has been largely absent from our story since way back in Episode 2, and that is very much intentional. I wanted to create space for other, less well-know figures to shine, but we can’t land this thing without addressing Gandhi


He started this fight, and in a way, he will end it too.


And so, goodbye for now. As always thank you for spending your very valuable time with me, and I hope you have an awesome day.


This has been Conflicted. Thanks for listening.


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