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Did Sikh Squads Participate In An Organised Attempt To Cleanse East Punjab During Partition?


By NISID HAJARI | 30 June 2015

A delegation of Sikhs leaving Downing Street, London on 8 August 1947. The delegation had presented a petition that called for the whole of the Punjab region to be included in the state of India, in the Partition of British India.

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As the date for Partition approached, the community worst affected by the move was that of the Sikhs, which was split in large numbers between the regions of Punjab that were to become part of India and Pakistan. Many Sikh leaders had come to believe that an exchange of population between the two regions was the only way to safeguard the interests of their community. When the violence escalated, Sikhs and Hindus became targets in West Punjab and Muslims in East Punjab. Observers found that the Sikh death squads, some bankrolled by the Sikh princes of East Punjab, were the best organised of the mobs that indulged in the attacks. Authorities in Pakistan would later claim that this violence was coordinated as part of a "Sikh Plan." This extract from Nisid Hajari’s Midnight's Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India's Partition examines the nature of these Sikh bands and the veracity of the Pakistani allegations.

August 1, 1947. The ominous wall calendars Viceroy Lord Louis Mountbatten had made up for his staff showed 14 days left until the end of British rule in India. The switchboard at Viceroy’s House lit up with an urgent call from the Punjab. Governor Sir Evans Jenkins had disturbing news to report. In the countryside around Amritsar, roving Sikh death squads, known as jathas, had begun targeting Muslim villages. Nearly two dozen Muslims had been killed and 30 wounded in just the last 48 hours, while four passenger trains had been attacked. Jenkins believed a bigger offensive was planned. “There is going to be trouble with the Sikhs. When, and how bad, the Governor cannot yet say,” one of his aides advised.

All summer long, Punjabi Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs had been building up armed militias in preparation for the British withdrawal, ostensibly to defend themselves in the civil war many believed was inevitable. The Sikhs in particular feared that the new border between India and Pakistan would split their community in two; their militias had swelled from a few thousand members to nearly 20,000 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. Several had switched sides during World War II and fought for a Japanese-sponsored rebel force, the Indian National Army, in Southeast Asia.

Bankrolled by Hindu tycoons and Sikh maharajahs—the young and impetuous ruler of Faridkot had allegedly converted a distillery in his state into an explosives factory—they also tended to be better-armed than their rivals. Late that summer British historian Michael Edwardes—then a young soldier—stumbled across nearly 300 Sikh fighters 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 militants vowed that “there would not be a Muslim throat or a Muslim maidenhead unripped in the Punjab” when their work was done.

For the past two months, a steady stream of Sikh dignitaries had begged Mountbatten and Jenkins to carve out a Sikh homeland. Sikh leaders wanted the borders of the Punjab redrawn, with its western edge given to Pakistan, an eastern sliver attached to India’s United Provinces, and the remainder left as home to at least 80 percent of the Sikh community, as well as most of Sikhism’s holiest shrines and the vast tracts of fertile canal lands owned and cultivated by Sikh farmers. If the remaining Sikhs in Pakistan—less than a million of them—were exchanged with Muslims in this “Sikhistan,” “then the Sikh problem is solved,” Sikh leader Giani Kartar Singh had assured Mountbatten.

If their demands were not met, on the other hand, Sikhs dolefully promised to fight—“murdering officials, cutting railway lines and telegraph lines, destroying canal headworks, and so on,” Giani told Jenkins on July 10. The Punjab governor had immediately alerted Mountbatten, warning “this is the nearest thing to an ultimatum yet given on behalf of the Sikhs.” Jatha leader Mohan Singh, a former commander in the Indian National Army, had presented the Punjab governor with an even more chilling scenario the next day:

He said that the only solution was a very substantial exchange of population. If this did not occur, the Sikhs would be driven to facilitate it by a massacre of Muslims in the Eastern Punjab. The Muslims had already got rid of Sikhs in the Rawalpindi Division [after a wave of ethnic cleansing in March 1947] and much land and property there could be made available to Muslims from the East Punjab. Conversely the Sikhs could get rid of Muslims in the East in the same way and invite Sikhs from the West to take their places. He did not put his case quite as crudely as this, but his general ideas were clear.

The Sikhs’ demands fell on deaf ears. Pakistan’s founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah thought those Sikhs who would end up on his side of the border would be useful as “hostages”; their presence would ensure that Muslims left behind in India were not ill-treated. “As far as Jinnah was concerned,” wrote a British official who conferred with the Pakistan leader around this time, “the Sikhs could go to the devil in their own way. It was they who had demanded the partition of the Punjab. They could now take the consequences.” Jenkins blasted Jinnah’s attitude as “perilously unsound.”

The man slated to become India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had hardly been more realistic. He disliked Mountbatten’s suggestion of exchanging Sikh and Muslim populations before the transfer of power. Instead Nehru advised Sikhs to trust in the Boundary Commission that would set the final border. Though the line was meant simply to divide populations of Muslims and non-Muslims, he had ensured that vague “other factors”—including presumably the location of Sikh shrines and property—would also be taken into consideration.

The Sikhs were useful pawns to Nehru, no less than to Jinnah. It wasn’t inconceivable that in order to avoid a civil war, the Boundary Commission would grant the Sikhs’ claims. Whatever extra territory they gained—including possibly the Punjab capital, Lahore—would naturally accrue to India, not Pakistan.

The Commission tasked with dividing the Punjab—two Muslim judges, a Hindu and a Sikh—wrapped up their hearings in early August. As might have been expected, the Commissioners deadlocked, each siding with their own community. That put the case in the hands of one man—Sir Cyril Radcliffe, chairman of the Boundary Commission. Radcliffe had never been to India before. After finishing his task he would never return (“I suspect they’d shoot me out of hand, both sides,” he candidly admitted to one interviewer). He knew next to nothing about the lands he was tasked with dividing, nor did he have time to learn. He only arrived in Delhi on July 8, with barely five weeks to finalize the border.  

Radcliffe spent most of his time in a bungalow on the Viceregal estate, dripping sweat onto ordnance maps and closely-typed census tables. He described the brutal Indian summer as a foretaste of “the mouth of hell.” Commissioners in Lahore and Calcutta sent him daily transcripts of their hearings to study. It would have taken years to settle upon a proper boundary, Radcliffe later wrote, one that took into account not just demographics but natural features, canal headworks, communications, and culture. Yet to blame his ignorance, or the radically shortened timetable, for the bloodbath to come is too easy.

No conceivable border could have satisfied both Sikh and Muslim demands. Mountbatten had created the mechanism of a Boundary Commission less to square that circle than, as one senior British official in London put it, “to keep the Sikhs quiet until the transfer of power.” After that, when they confronted the reality of their position, they would be the problem of the new Dominions and the British would be gone. Radcliffe’s task was in that sense quite simple. “Jinnah [and] Nehru … told me that they wanted a line before or on 15th August,” he recalled. “So I drew them a line.”


“Sounds like a loose rail there.”

On August 18, D.G. Harrington-Hawes was crossing a canal bridge in the Punjab’s Ferozepore district in a train engine, with the driver and a Hindu soldier. They had left the other cars of the Calcutta-Lahore Mail behind at the previous station while they tried to discover why no signals were coming from the posts ahead. It turned out someone had removed two fish-plates from a rail over the bridge; a pickaxe lay nearby. In this part of Ferozepore the countryside was mostly flat and open, but at intervals great clumps of a coarse, reed-like grass grew as much as 10 feet high. Harrington-Hawes saw three Sikhs dodging through the grass about 200 yards away. He fired his revolver once in their direction.

Returning to the rest of the train, the men decided to reattach the passenger cars and proceed before the line was sabotaged further. Although they didn’t realize it at the time, most of the Hindu and Sikh passengers had mysteriously disembarked. When the train reached the canal bridge again, the sleepers were charred—the Sikhs had tried to set the bridge on fire—and an entire rail had been removed. They were able to reattach the rail and hurtle forward. But a mile before the next station the driver suddenly slammed on the brakes and shouted, “My God, the track’s gone!” Harrington-Hawes remembered thinking, “Now we’re for it,” and “with squealing brakes, escaping steam, and a roaring and a crashing, the heavy locomotive plunged off the track … dragging the tender and the first three coaches after it.”

At the spot where they had derailed, the grass grew high and close to the tracks. Harrington-Hawes could see the outlines of a large body of Sikhs hiding there, and more rushing to join them. It was dusk; knowing the train carried a small escort, the fighters seemed content to wait for nightfall before attacking. Soon there were hundreds of them. From the reeds came a chilling, triumphant cry: “Wah Guruji ki fateh!” (Victory to the Guru!).

A day earlier, All-India Radio had broadcast the details of Radcliffe’s boundary award. In that morning’s papers, maps showed Punjabis precisely how their province would be sliced up. The details of the border shouldn’t have come as a great surprise, other than the transfer of parts of Gurdaspur and Ferozepore to India. But Sikhs now had to abandon any hopes of a more generous allotment from the Boundary Commission, or a last-minute intervention by Mountbatten. It was official: Jinnah’s Pakistan had split their community in two.

That year the end of Ramadan and holiest day in the Muslim calendar, Eid, fell on August 18. For Muslims living in eastern Punjab, that was the day when “the whole countryside seemed to have gone up … as if on a prearranged signal,” as Harrington-Hawes wrote. In the districts of Ferozepore, Hoshiarpur, Gurdaspur, and Jullundur—all of which fell on the Indian side of the new border with Pakistan—large, well-armed jathas swept down upon Muslim villages and swarmed into Muslim neighborhoods in cities and began methodically massacring their inhabitants.

When Brig.-Gen. R.C.B. Bristow visited the city of Jullundur the next morning, the streets were deserted, other than for the armed Sikhs who had poured in overnight. Corpses filled Muslim homes. The police had vanished. Sikhs used long poles with burning rags at the tip to set fire to buildings where other Muslims still cowered. A Muslim magistrate later told Bristow that at the end of the first day’s assault in Hoshiarpur city, “blood was pouring from the upper storeys [sic] into the streets below.”

The Sikh war bands appeared to be “working under some centralised control,” reported the British commander of the Boundary Force that had been tasked with keeping the peace. Messengers on foot, horseback, and in jeeps raced around delivering orders. The gangs employed “sound and enterprising tactics”—almost military in their precision. After surrounding a Muslim village the Sikhs would often attack in waves. A vanguard would hurl grenades over the walls, while others set fire to the thatch huts and swordsmen hacked down those trying to flee.

Hardcore militants traveled in groups as small as a couple dozen and as large as 500 men. Where they appeared, they would rally Sikh villagers to join in their assaults, often swelling the size of mobs into the thousands. In some cases Boundary Force troops, too, participated in attacks. In Jullundur, Bristow came across a tank unit manned by Hindus from the Jat peasant caste, firing harmlessly in the air above a gang of Sikh marauders. When he demanded to know why they were shooting high, the Jat officer told him innocently that their guns had been set for anti-aircraft fire and couldn’t be lowered. “The Jat soldiers were not unfriendly, but conveyed by their demeanor that the Raj had ended, and the conflict should be left to them to settle in their own way,” Bristow recalled.

This was not “civil war” as it’s normally imagined, with Hindu and Muslim peasants suddenly and inexplicably picking up whatever sharp implements happened to be closest to hand and slashing away at one another. (In fact, Hindus hardly seem to have participated in these initial attacks.) Instead the Sikhs appeared to have launched the concerted assault militia leader Mohan Singh had predicted over the summer—an ethnic-cleansing campaign to denude India’s half of the Punjab of its Muslims. Years later, Ajit Singh Sarhadi, an adviser to Sikh ruler of Faridkot state, admitted there was at least some design behind the Sikh rampages. “The main effort of … the [Sikh] High Command was to somehow get the East Punjab vacated from the Muslims, who [w]ould be made to migrate to Pakistan,” he wrote. The rajah of Faridkot, he added, had done “a great service” by helping to arm the Sikh war bands.

Civil administration in the Indian half of the Punjab collapsed almost immediately. Over the summer, Hindu and Sikh officials had put off leaving the Punjabi capital of Lahore as long as they could, hoping that the city might be assigned to India. They had barely had time to get established. Ministers were scattered across four different cities, without offices, secretariats, or communications. As late as mid-October the new East Punjab Governor, Sir Chandulal Trivedi, could not even place a direct call to Delhi—all the phone and telegraph lines in the Punjab were routed through Lahore, now part of Pakistan. “They … are living on rumours,” one stunned observer reported of Trivedi and his ministers.

Orders from the top were routinely ignored at the local level. In both East and West Punjab party hacks had been promoted to positions that were often beyond their experience and capabilities. Partisan officials displayed, as one Sikh Deputy Commissioner lamented of his new brethren, “almost a tendency to extol the misdeeds of miscreants and justify the ill luck that had befallen the [victims].”

To outsiders, it looked as though the Sikh war bands had been given the run of East Punjab. About a week after Independence, Penderel Moon, a former civil servant now working for the Muslim ruler of Bahawalpur state, traveled through the province:

So far as I could make out, the villages of the Eastern Punjab were just being allowed to run amuck as they pleased. From the Grand Trunk Road, particularly on the stretch from Ambala to Ludhiana, murderous-looking gangs of Sikhs, armed with guns and spears, could be seen prowling about or standing under the trees, often within fifty yards of the road itself. Military patrols in jeeps and trucks were passing up and down the road, yet taking not the slightest notice of these gangs, as though they were natural and normal features of the countryside.

The Pakistan government would eventually produce a series of pamphlets with titles like “The Sikh Plan” that claimed to prove a conspiracy lay behind the attacks. The case for this is circumstantial at best, and ignores the fact that mobs—smaller and less-organized, admittedly—had also sprung up on Pakistan’s side of the border. Many British accounts rely disturbingly on stereotypes of the Sikhs as a turbulent, hot-tempered community—a people who had, as Jenkins put it, “not lost the nuisance value which they have possessed through the centuries.” And of course, even if some Sikhs did have a “plan,” their many leaders were too divided and inconstant to coalesce behind a single strategy.

What seems incontrovertible, though, is that of all the Punjab’s militias, the Sikhs were the best-organized, best-trained, and best-armed. As the BBC’s Robert Stimson put it after touring the Punjab extensively in August 1947, they “were therefore more effective and behaved worse.” “The Sikhs were the aggressors,” Nehru declared without hesitation in an August 22 letter to Mahatma Gandhi, estimating that twice as many Muslims had been killed in East Punjab to that point as Hindus and Sikhs in the West. When he wrote to Gandhi again three days later, Nehru said he believed that some Sikh leaders were hoping to provoke a war between India and Pakistan, so they could launch an invasion to recapture the western half of the Punjab.

On Sunday, August 24 Jinnah took to the airwaves to address his wobbly nation. His address was aggrieved and one-sided. He gravely condemned “the orgies of violence in Eastern Punjab, [which] have taken such a heavy toll of Muslim lives and inflicted indescribable tragedies.” There were dark elements at work, Jinnah told his people, “enemies who do not wish well to Pakistan and would not like it to grow strong and powerful. In fact, they would like to see it destroyed at its very inception.”

Rather than acknowledging the not inconsiderable number of attacks on Hindus and Muslims in western Punjab, Jinnah simply warned his new citizens, “It is of the utmost importance that Pakistan should be kept absolutely free from disorder, because the outbreak of lawlessness at this initial stage is bound to shake its newly laid foundations.”

In the prevailing atmosphere, his bitter tone probably undercut any good his injunction may have done. Already, Penderel Moon noted, “to kill a Sikh had become almost a duty; to kill a Hindu was hardly a crime.” The day after Jinnah’s address, a battalion of Bahawalpur state troops watched impassively as Muslims in the town of Bahawalnagar went on a rampage. A trainload of mutilated Punjab refugees had pulled in that night, enraging locals. The next morning’s casualty figures made it clear just how diligent the soldiers had been in restoring order: 409 Hindus had been killed in the mayhem, and one Muslim.


Most accounts of the Partition riots tend to focus on the eruption of violence in mid-August, leaving the impression that the chaos steadily tailed off thereafter. In reality the massacres grew wider and more intense for weeks. In mid-September they were approaching their peak. The exodus from both halves of the broken province had assumed Biblical proportions. An estimated 1.75 million Muslims had crossed into Pakistan from the East Punjab, while a roughly equivalent number of Hindus and Sikhs had emigrated to India. Millions more were on the move. Organized refugee convoys—called kafilas—now stretched for 50 miles or more. The tramping of hundreds of thousands of cows, buffalos, and blistered human feet churned up the Punjab’s dirt roads. When these great masses of humanity paused for the night, LIFE photographer Margaret Bourke-White wrote, the flicker of thousands of campfires “rose into the dust-filled air until it seemed as if a pillar of fire hung over them.”

One kafila, filled with more than a quarter-million Muslim refugees from East Punjab, had recently begun the long, dangerous march to Lahore. The most direct route would bring them through the Sikh bastion of Amritsar. The city had been emptied of its Muslim population and was now filled with tens of thousands of vengeful Hindu and Sikh refugees from West Punjab. They refused to let the column pass. Crowds chanted “No Muslims out!” and swore that not a single Muslim would cross the border alive.

Sikh leader “Master” Tara Singh could not—or would not—rein in his followers. Any remorse he might have felt at the start of the massacres had dissipated as refugees recounted the horrors they’d suffered at the hands of Muslims on Pakistan’s side of the border. Meeting with Major-General K.S. “Timmy” Thimayya, who was now in charge of Indian troops in East Punjab, Singh said he saw only one way to resolve the widening conflict: war between India and Pakistan.

The Army did not relish the challenge of taking on the Sikhs. The jathas had grown bigger, bolder and more organized. They vastly outnumbered the kafila escorts: already, in one assault, a 10,000-strong jatha had attacked a detachment of 60 soldiers, wounding their Sikh officer four times. Commanders feared their Sikh soldiers would begin to desert if they had to keep fighting their brethren.

At a hastily called conference with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan in Lahore, Nehru was forced to admit his government’s impotence. He could not open Amritsar’s gates. The best alternative Thimayya could propose was to bulldoze a new road around the city for Muslim convoys to use. The project would take several days. In the meantime the refugees—who suffered repeated attacks on their journey, and were refused food and water in the villages they passed—would have to wait.

Tara Singh’s idea of carving out a powerful Sikhistan in the Punjab sounded less crazy now. In the Sikh states, ongoing pogroms were emptying villages of Muslims. Muslim kafilas that ran the gauntlet of Sikh states made fat, all-too-easy targets for royal troops. One Indian Army officer sent to investigate conditions in Patiala met a Sikh ex-soldier who had served in his unit during the war. He asked how the man was faring. “Fine,” the former sepoy said with satisfaction. “We are getting the most excellent shikar [hunting]. If we don’t kill 700 Muslims a day we think it is a poor bag.” Nehru himself said that “he did not doubt that [the maharajah] of Patiala wished to get complete supremacy of Sikhistan” and had killed or expelled his kingdom’s Muslim population as a first step.

Even Trivedi, the East Punjab governor, appeared to have little sway over his Sikh ministers. In early September he had pressed Punjab Home Minister Swaran Singh to take more forceful action against the jathas. For almost two weeks, Singh had not even deigned to respond, and when he did he casually dismissed the massive raids as “sporadic and local outbursts of violence.” The urbane Trivedi finally lost his temper, blasting Singh’s police for taking part in rampant loot and slaughter. “I would not be sorry if the Army shot them [all], including their officers,” the governor raged.

Suspicions were further inflamed by a sudden Sikh migration out of the green canal colonies of Montgomery and Lyallpur, which were now part of Pakistan. In early September, Sikh leaders had ordered their followers to evacuate the canal lands en masse, even though they had not yet been targeted by mobs. Unlike the bedraggled Muslim kafilas—which “straggled sorrowfully along the road like a lot of tired ants,” according to one British observer—the Sikhs’ loaded bullock carts rolled out with “march discipline … worthy of the British Army at its best.” Armed and mounted scouts guarded the convoys’ flanks, while white-bearded former soldiers carrying shotguns and wearing their World War I medals led the way. The Sikhs looked like they were leaving with “their tails up,” said one British official. In a letter to British Prime Minister Clement Attlee, Jinnah described this “controlled exodus” as “part of the Sikh plan” to consolidate their community on lands that had been wiped clean of Muslims.

The Sikhs from the canal colonies were abandoning large plots of some of the most fertile land in the subcontinent, and they were not likely to be satisfied with the small, hardscrabble farms that awaited them in East Punjab. Worries now grew that once their ranks had been collected, Sikhs would launch an insurgency across the Punjab border to reclaim the whole province. In mid-September, Nehru’s hardline deputy “Sardar” Vallabhbhai Patel dispatched 800 rifles to Faridkot and told the rajah he might soon be called upon to defend “territory other than that within the boundaries of his own State.”

There was open talk of a Sikh invasion of Lahore. “THIS MAY SOUND ALARMIST,” West Punjab Governor Sir Francis Mudie wrote to Jinnah, the passage marked out in boldface type, “BUT IF ANYONE SIX MONTHS AGO HAD PREDICTED WHAT THE SIKHS HAVE ACCOMPLISHED IN THE LAST TWO MONTHS, HE WOULD HAVE BEEN LAUGHED TO SCORN. WE CAN AFFORD TO TAKE NO RISKS.” Pakistan’s Army was already stretched to the limit: by the middle of September Gen. Sir Frank Messervy, Pakistan’s Commander-in-Chief, had “not a single battalion in reserve.”

On September 19, Tara Singh swore to Nehru that he had not the slightest ambition of creating a Sikhistan. Yet the very next day Singh told an Amritsar newspaper that Sikhs could never tolerate “the surrender of the canal colonies we built with our endless endeavour.” He called for all Sikhs along the border to be armed by the Indian government. “A state of war exists between India and Pakistan today,” he said matter-of-factly. “I wish India realised that it would be far better to fight it out with the aggressor openly … so that millions of more lives may [not] be lost in vain.”

India had recently restarted the “Pakistan Special” train services meant to transfer Muslim civil servants to Karachi. The trains carried armed escorts, followed undeclared routes and kept their timings secret. Yet the jathas seemed to have no trouble tracking them, even broadcasting news of their arrival over loudspeakers at Amritsar’s station.

While the image of the “corpse train” arriving full of the dead and mutilated remains perhaps the most enduring icon of Partition, most passenger services had actually been halted after the initial attacks. The worst massacres only came to pass now. Over the weekend of September 20-21, four of the Pakistan Specials rolled across the border and into Lahore one after the other, their floors slick with blood. Some had been attacked multiple times. One train’s escort had fended off a jatha in 45 minutes of ferocious hand-to-hand fighting. Another had lost several hundred passengers, including 62 children under the age of eight.

On September 22, after a refugee train coming the other way arrived in Amritsar full of non-Muslim dead and wounded, the Sikh fighters went berserk. A mob estimated at 10,000 people swarmed a Pakistan-bound train full of Muslim refugees, firing automatic rifles, tossing bombs, and slashing away with swords. Only 200 horribly wounded passengers survived; at least 1,500 people were killed, including the British commander of the train’s escort. Bourke-White arrived at the scene soon afterward. All along the platform, she later wrote, blue-turbaned Sikhs sat cross-legged, their curved kirpans across their knees, patiently waiting for the next arriving Special.

Pakistan had few means of responding. Mudie suggested to Jinnah that if India could not bring the Sikhs to heel, Pakistan should make use of its “hostages.” A convoy of 400,000 Sikhs from Lyallpur was now approaching the Balloki canal headworks, which they had to cross in order to reach India. On September 23, Mudie informed Thimayya that he was closing off the headworks until the Indians could guarantee the safety of Muslim refugees coming the other way. “This is said to have made a considerable impression upon [the Indian leaders],” Mudie advised Jinnah.

Thick jungle lined the road leading to the canal crossing. It was perfect cover for ambushes. The Lyallpur convoy had been on the road for nearly two weeks now, and if not allowed to pass, India’s Lahore envoy Sampuran Singh wrote to Nehru, the refugees would “suffer untold privation, disease and misery.” Pakistani authorities were focused on another concern: “Situation in which vast and well-armed Sikh convoys might try to fight their way out is electric,” Laurence Grafftey-Smith, Britain’s ambassador to Pakistan, urgently cabled London. “Government are rushing troops into West Punjab.” That day the rains finally broke, drenching the already miserable refugees on both sides of the border. The Punjab’s rivers swelled, ready to burst their banks.

An excerpt from Nisid Hajari’s Midnight's Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India's Partition. Reproduced with the permission of Penguin Random House.


Why Sikhs are blamed so much for partition violence?

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On 15/06/2017 at 2:39 PM, kdsingh80 said:

Why Sikhs are blamed so much for partition violence?

Good share KDSingh. I never bothered to buy Nisari's book as I thought it was too biased from reading the reviews. But it does hold a lot of info not found in other books, so I may get it. Now coming back to your question, one of the answers is that the Sikhs have been very open about their participation in violence and acceptance of share of the disturbance. So other people will point the fingers as well. Especially Pakistanis, who are so reluctant to accept any share of partition violence. I feel sorry for these pakistanis who have been fed wholesale propaganda thatthe Muslims were the innocent party and the Sikhs were the guilty. Very few pakistanis even know about rawalpindi and hazara, and their govt doesnt tell them it happened. They have erased all their part in the violence in order to make it look like partiition was necessary for their (muslim) survival in that region. These naive pakistanis still beleive bangladesh to be an indian conspiracy.

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On 6/15/2017 at 9:39 AM, kdsingh80 said:

Why Sikhs are blamed so much for partition violence?

There are probably books/articles out there which blame Muslims for the violence too. Muslim League's call for the Direct Action day was a major cause of violence.


Bhul chuk maaf

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10 minutes ago, paapiman said:

Wasn't Direct Action Day meant for Muslims all across India to show support for a separate Muslim nation?


Bhul chuk maaf

The  blame of  starting partition violence is on muslims but sikhs are so much blamed for massacres after partition , even random search will land you on British articles newspapers blaming sikhs

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15 hours ago, kdsingh80 said:

Nisid Hajari is not Pakistani , he is born in India and bought up in Washington

Makes no difference. There were many Muslims who were afraid to travel through Panjab to Pakistan becasue fo the violence and ended up staying in India, even though they wanted to be in Pakistan. I don't think that Muslims in India have any empathy for Sikhs outside of Panjab.

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Excerpted from Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition by Nisid Hajari, out now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Throughout August 1947, as Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs engaged in one of the most terrible slaughters of the 20th century in next-door Punjab province, lights continued to blaze from New Delhi’s ivory-white Imperial Hotel. On weekends, diners packed the tables in the Grill Room overlooking the lawns, while Indian socialites dripping with gold and jewels filled the dance floor well past midnight. To many of the city’s well-to-do, the bloodshed that had erupted upon the birth of modern India and Pakistan still felt unreal. The Indian women in particular seemed to be “on heat,” one British journalist noted hungrily. “The aphrodisiac was independence.”

No band played on Saturday, Sept. 6, however. A curfew had emptied the dining room. Anyone standing on the hotel’s veranda would have been bathed in a different light—a rose-colored glow that filled the horizon to the north. The Muslim neighborhoods of Old Delhi were on fire.

When they imagine the terrible riots that accompanied the 1947 partition of the Indian subcontinent, most people are picturing the bloodshed in the Punjab. On Aug. 15, the new border had split the province in two, leaving millions of Punjabi Hindus and Sikhs in what was now Pakistan, and at least as many Punjabi Muslims in India.

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Gangs of killers roamed the border districts, slaughtering minorities or driving them across the frontier. Huge, miles-long caravans of refugees took to the dusty roads in terror. They left grim reminders of their passage—trees stripped of bark, which they peeled off in great chunks to use as fuel; dead and dying bullocks, cattle, and sheep; and thousands upon thousands of corpses lying alongside the road or buried shallowly. Vultures feasted so extravagantly that they could no longer fly.

As awful as the carnage was, though, it was for much of August concentrated in the Punjab. The combatants were mostly peasants, armed with crude weapons. If the two new governments had managed to quell the mayhem quickly, they might in time have found scope to cooperate on issues ranging from economic development to foreign policy. Instead, the infant India and Pakistan would soon be drawn into a rivalry that’s lasted almost 70 years and has cast a nuclear shadow over the subcontinent.

A few short days in Delhi at the beginning of September 1947 helped to tilt the scales. Most train services across the new border had been suspended because of the spiraling massacres, stranding thousands of Muslim civil servants destined for Pakistan in the Indian capital. Desperately short of staff, the Pakistani government was already struggling to cope with hundreds of thousands of traumatized refugees and a stalled economy. Pakistan’s prickly founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, suspected the Indians of deliberately seeking to sabotage his fragile state.

Muhammad Ali JinnahMohammad Ali Jinnah at a military march in Karachi, Pakistan, after having been sworn in as the first governor general, on Aug. 17, 1947.

Photo by Keystone/Getty Images

His fears weren’t entirely unfounded. For several days running, according to some eyewitness reports, small groups of Sikh and Hindu militants had been roving the broad, manicured avenues of New Delhi, defying the curfew. Some appear to have been marking out the rooms in government dormitories occupied by Muslim clerks and peons, as well as the houses and bungalows where Muslims lived or worked as servants. A British diplomat later reported seeing a lorry full of Sikhs pull up outside the home of the local chairman of British airline BOAC, which had agreed to transport Muslim officials to Pakistan by air until the trains resumed. “That’s the place,” one of the Sikhs confirmed, carefully noting down the address.

Vultures feasted so extravagantly that they could no longer fly. 

On the night of Sept. 6, sword-wielding gangs began working their way from target to target, dragging out and killing Muslims. The next morning mobs took to the streets all over the city. One descended on the military airfield at Palam, from where the BOAC charters were taking off; another blocked the runways at the civilian Willingdon Airfield as airline employees fled in terror. Muslims caught out in the open were stabbed and gutted, including five who were killed in front of New Delhi’s cathedral while worshippers celebrated Sunday Mass. Looters broke into Muslim shops in Connaught Place, the colonnaded arcade at the heart of the city. By 10 that night, Delhi hospitals were reporting three times as many Muslim as non-Muslim casualties.

Rushing to Connaught Place, India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was appalled to see a contingent of police standing by idly as Hindu and Sikh rioters carried off ladies’ handbags, cosmetics, and wool scarves—even bottles of fountain-pen ink. Nehru grabbed a baton from one indifferent policeman and flailed away at the crowd himself. The prime minister would learn later that Delhi police had picked up rumors that “two well-known [Sikh] extremists from Amritsar” had organized refugees from the Punjab into makeshift killing squads. Plot or no, Delhi’s police appeared content to let the rioters go about their business unmolested.

Although they later tried to play down the extent of the chaos, Nehru and his deputy, the tough Home Minister Vallabhbhai Patel (known as “Sardar,” or Chief), at least temporarily lost control of their own capital. Ministries sat empty because clerks and officials were too afraid to come to work. Buses, taxis, and horse-drawn tongas—usually driven by Muslims—stopped plying the roads. The phones went dead. Within 48 hours, hospital mortuaries had filled to capacity; dozens of bodies lay unclaimed on the streets for days. With food shipments rotting in abandoned trains, ration shops closed up. At one point the city had only two days’ stock of wheat in reserve.

Lord Louis Mountbatten, Britain’s last viceroy, had stayed on after independence to serve as India’s first governor-general. Many of his staff members had seen combat with him during World War II; even they were stunned by the whirlwind. “This is more hectic than at any time of the war,” Mountbatten’s chief of staff Lord Hastings Ismay wrote to his wife—a potent statement from a man who had lived through the Blitz. He advised her to cancel her plans to come out to see him: “There is a possibility—and most keen a possibility—that orderly Government may collapse.”

150604_HIST_1947-MountbattenEdwina Mountbatten, C. Rajagopalachari, and Lord Louis Mountbatten at Darbar Hall of Rashtrapati Bhavan in Delhi in 1947.

Courtesy ofWikimedia Commons

Initially none of the Indian leaders doubted that Sikhs, who had played a central role in the Punjab violence, had spearheaded the Delhi attacks, too. More than 200,000 non-Muslim refugees from the Punjab had squeezed into the capital, and plenty of them thirsted for revenge. Patel called in local Sikh leaders and threatened to toss their followers into concentration camps if the violence did not cease. He also gave the army a “free hand” to go after Sikh troublemakers. Commanders ordered their troops to shoot rioters on sight. Though the military could not admit openly to targeting any particular community, Mountbatten joked grimly, “the object would have been achieved if in 48 hours’ time the local graves and concentration camps were occupied more fully by men with long beards than those without.”

Very quickly, however, Patel’s assessment of the threat changed. The problem was not just the Sikhs. Earlier police reports had also warned of a brewing Muslim uprising in the capital. Most of the city’s ammunition dealers were Muslim, as were most of its blacksmiths. The latter had supposedly converted their workshops to churn out bombs, mortars, and bullets. Patel had been worried enough about the threat to issue licenses to several new Hindu arms dealers in Delhi. He had “been giving arms liberally to non-Muslim applicants” for self-defense, he reassured a colleague.

Some Delhi Muslims were indeed armed. They fought back against the police as well as the Hindu and Sikh gangs; among reported gunshot victims on Sunday, non-Muslims actually outnumbered Muslims 45 to 20. Though evidence of any conspiracy is scant, quite a few Delhiites seemed to believe that the city’s Muslims posed as great a threat as the death squads, if not greater.


During the riots, officials trying to rescue Muslims often found the public reluctant to help. Owners of private cars and trucks removed key parts so that the authorities couldn’t requisition the vehicles. Volunteer drivers pretended to get lost or to develop engine trouble when asked to deliver aid to Muslim areas. (Eventually the government enlisted idealistic students to ride along and watch over them.) Even four days into the rioting, the U.S. military attaché witnessed Indian army troops standing by as Muslim women and children were clubbed to death at Delhi’s railway station.

97k/11/huty/6662/23Indian nationalist leader Jawaharlal Nehr asks members of the Constituent Assembly to take a pledge of loyalty to the new state in August 1947.

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Patel was more in tune with the popular mood than Nehru. While the principle that Hindus and Muslims should be able to live together remained central to Nehru’s vision for India, the Sardar was less sentimental. He did not trust that all of India’s Muslims, many of whom had until recently supported Jinnah, had switched loyalties. If they did not think of themselves as Indians, he believed, then they belonged in Pakistan.

Nehru would almost certainly have lost an open fight with his deputy. Horrified by the casualty reports, the prime minister tried to ban Sikhs from wearing their ceremonial knives, known as kirpans. Patel pushed back, saying the decree discriminated against the Sikh faith. “Murder is not to be justified in the name of religion,” Nehru protested. Yet after a “violent disagreement” between the two men, the Sardar triumphed. Sikhs regained the right to carry their daggers after a 48-hour pause.

Nehru seemed to believe he had a better chance of quelling the unrest single-handedly than by working through his own administration. He went “on the prowl whenever he could escape from the [Cabinet] table, and took appalling personal risks,” Ismay recalled. Nehru would angrily face down mobs himself, rushing from trouble spot to trouble spot. A veritable tent city, filled with Muslim refugees, sprouted on the lawns of his York Road bungalow.

One night a Muslim friend named Badruddin Tyabji showed up at Nehru’s door to alert him to an especially troubled area—the Minto Bridge, which Muslims fleeing their Old Delhi neighborhoods had to cross to reach the safety of refugee camps in New Delhi. Each night, Tyabji said, gangs of Sikhs and Hindus lurked nearby and sprung upon the defenseless Muslims as they trudged past.

The riots fatally undermined any trust Pakistani leaders had in their Indian counterparts. 

Nehru immediately bolted from his seat and dashed upstairs. He returned a few minutes later holding a dusty, ungainly revolver. The gun had once belonged to his father, Motilal, and hadn’t been fired in years. He had a plan, he told Tyabji. They would don soiled and torn kurtas and drive up to Minto Bridge themselves that night. Disguised as refugees, they’d cross the bridge, and when the thugs tried to waylay them, “We would shoot them down!” The stunned Tyabji was able to persuade the leader of the world’s second-biggest nation “only with great difficulty” that “some less hazardous and more effective method for putting an end to this kind of crime should not be too difficult to devise.” Mountbatten feared Nehru’s impulsiveness would get him killed and assigned soldiers to watch over him.

Nehru’s individual heroics evoked great admiration in men like Ismay and Mountbatten. But they did little for Delhi’s Muslims. After the initial wave of attacks, thousands had fled their homes. Authorities almost immediately started evacuating the rest, claiming they could not guarantee the safety of residents if they remained where they were.

Muslims were dumped in guarded sites by the truckload—places which it would be generous to describe as refugee camps. Within a week, more than 50,000 were crammed into the Purana Qila, a ruined fort. They huddled pitifully on the muddy ground with no lights, no latrines, and hardly any water or food. The Pakistan government flew in shipments of cooked rice and chapatis all the way from Lahore to feed them.

Muslim refugeesMuslim refugees crowd a train trying to flee India near New Delhi on Sept. 19, 1947.

Photo by AP

Ismay melodramatically compared the scene at the Purana Qila to “Belsen—without the gas chambers.” Dignified Muslim professors and lawyers were squashed next to cooks and mechanics, longtime Gandhians next to stranded, would-be Pakistan bureaucrats. Wounded and sick moaned without medical attention; babies were born in the open. Armed Sikhs patrolled the one choked entrance, taking down the license plate numbers of Europeans driving in to deliver food and supplies to their friends and former servants.

With the help of Gurkha and South Indian troops—who were less vulnerable to the sectarian passions roiling their northern counterparts—authorities managed to control the worst of the violence within a week. Volunteers began to clean up the streets, and ration shops reopened. Nehru asked the governors of other Indian provinces to take in tens of thousands of Punjab refugees, to get them out of the capital.

But the riots fatally undermined any trust Pakistani leaders may have had in their Indian counterparts. Nehru’s estimate that 1,000 victims had died in the rioting was generally considered “ridiculous,” according to U.S. Ambassador Henry Grady. He figured the true toll to be at least five times higher; others said 20 times.

Victims of religious conflict, Pakistan 1947Corpses of Muslims slaughtered and left in a river as they were migrating from India to Pakistan on Oct. 3, 1947.

Photo by Margaret Bourke-White/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

At the height of the violence, Jinnah was inundated with hysterical reports from the Pakistani ambassador in Delhi, Zakir Hussain. Hundreds of Muslim refugees had carpeted the grounds of his house, Hussain reported, and the embassy’s food supplies were running out. He described the Indian government as either intent upon eliminating the capital’s Muslim population or indifferent to their fate. Army troops were openly gunning down innocent Muslims. In one particularly florid cable Hussain warned, “The entire Muslim population of India is facing total extermination.”


A conviction was taking hold among Jinnah and his lieutenants that India had launched an “undeclared war” on the weaker Pakistan. The Indian leaders seemed incapable of transferring Pakistan government servants to the new capital Karachi, or of protecting them in their Delhi homes. Cargo trains full of equipment and supplies meant for Pakistan were being derailed and torched in the Punjab. At least some members of the Indian Cabinet appeared to be winking at the Sikhs’ murderous activities. “It is obvious that their orders are not carried out,” one of Hussain’s cables said of the Indian leaders, “or at least different members of the government are following conflicting policies.”

In mid-September, Ismay spent three days in Karachi trying to convince Jinnah that the Indian government bore Pakistan nothing but goodwill. Jinnah was dismissive. He was convinced that Sikh and Hindu militia leaders had planned the violence in the Punjab as well as Delhi. Though intelligence had given some inkling of their plans over the summer, they had been allowed to walk free. With its vast resources and powerful military, Jinnah believed, India could even now have suppressed the Sikhs if only Nehru had had the necessary “will and guts.” Instead he could not even guarantee the safety of Muslims in his own capital.

Ismay returned to Delhi profoundly depressed. In a secret codicil to his report, meant for Mountbatten’s eyes only, he warned that Jinnah had begun speaking in dangerously warlike tones. In the very first hour of their talks the Pakistani leader had struck Ismay “as a man who had given up all hope of further cooperation with the Government of India.” All that had happened in the month since independence just “went to prove that they were determined to strangle Pakistan at birth,” Jinnah had told Ismay grimly. “There is nothing for it but to fight it out.”


How stupid Nehru and Mountbatton could have been , why they didn't ask Jinnah to control riots in west punjab first.Everything was started by muslims from Rawalpindi riots to Train attacks in Lahore when deadly retaliation came they started crying

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On 6/20/2017 at 0:04 AM, kdsingh80 said:

Even American media published news of train attacks on muslims by sikhs, strangely you will not find a single news of muslims attacking sikh/hindu train

So you haven't come across any news articles (in western media) of attacks on Sikhs/Hindus? What about the attacks on Hindus in Bengal? Bengal suffered a lot too during Partition phase.


Bhul chuk maaf

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Another major factor to consider is that partition violence only relates to violence post 14th august. That is when the Sikhs actually fought back. Before that date the muslims had the upper hand and were killing Sikhs in western Panjab. In Lahore the muslims had started killing hindus and sikhs from 6th july as that was the day partition was announced. Because there was uncertainty over lahore, the muslims fire-bombed hindu/sikh areas until they left, so there was no chance of Lahore ending up in India. The Sikhs should have done the same with those border villages with historic gurdwaras. It was a great mistake to have left them to pakistan, when the opportuniuty was there.

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1 hour ago, chatanga1 said:

Another major factor to consider is that partition violence only relates to violence post 14th august. That is when the Sikhs actually fought back. Before that date the muslims had the upper hand and were killing Sikhs in western Panjab. In Lahore the muslims had started killing hindus and sikhs from 6th july as that was the day partition was announced. Because there was uncertainty over lahore, the muslims fire-bombed hindu/sikh areas until they left, so there was no chance of Lahore ending up in India. The Sikhs should have done the same with those border villages with historic gurdwaras. It was a great mistake to have left them to pakistan, when the opportuniuty was there.

I don't think  Radcliffe took such recent data for partition. Even if sikhs had done the same but on papers that area was muslim majority then it was going to awarded to Pakistan

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if we were talking about large areas then yes, it would have been hard, but 6 villages? and it wouldn't have been for free. We could easily have given similair space to pakistan in return. If india could hold onto kashmir by force for all this time, why not Lahore?


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11 hours ago, chatanga1 said:

Another major factor to consider is that partition violence only relates to violence post 14th august. That is when the Sikhs actually fought back. Before that date the muslims had the upper hand and were killing Sikhs in western Panjab. In Lahore the muslims had started killing hindus and sikhs from 6th july as that was the day partition was announced. Because there was uncertainty over lahore, the muslims fire-bombed hindu/sikh areas until they left, so there was no chance of Lahore ending up in India. The Sikhs should have done the same with those border villages with historic gurdwaras. It was a great mistake to have left them to pakistan, when the opportuniuty was there.

Actually, the Muslims began their genocide and ethnic cleansing well before even the summer of Partition, The Sikhs and Hindus of Rawalpindi, other parts of Pothohar, and Multan were first attacked in 1946, we waited a whole year before getting back at them, and even then, when they started killing more of our people, did we retaliate.

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On 6/19/2017 at 9:04 PM, kdsingh80 said:

Even American media published news of train attacks on muslims by sikhs, strangely you will not find a single news of muslims attacking sikh/hindu train

You'll find attacks on Sikhs and Hindus documented as well, you just have to have the intention to look for them, which isn't too difficult.  

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On 6/19/2017 at 5:29 AM, kdsingh80 said:

The  blame of  starting partition violence is on muslims but sikhs are so much blamed for massacres after partition , even random search will land you on British articles newspapers blaming sikhs

The blame falls upon the muslims as they had brought it upon themselves and started the carnage of partition, especially in the case of Punjab, that's indisputable.  With Jinnah's and the Muslim League's agitation growing, organized unprovoked massacres and regional purges befell the Sikhs of west Punjab as early as 1946, in Pothohar and the Multan area in particular.  Newspapers blame Sikhs for killing more on our side of the border and organizing the attacks more effectively and in a well calculated fashion.  It is, however, well established that in Punjab, the Muslims had started the carnage.

Your "random search" shouldn't be that, a "random search", it should be thorough and comprehensive.

I get sick tired of Sikhs castrating themselves by taking the blame for partition, as if it was mostly and solely our doing.

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6 hours ago, chatanga1 said:

So do I. I'm not ashamed or regretful of their actions during 1947. It had to be done.

It's human nature and communalism-nationalism. A tit for tat policy. Not exactly moral on our part, but it had to be done.  In east Punjab, Muslims were provoking some of the violence,  in the Hoshiarpur Zila and northern Doaba, for example, Muslim Jats and zameendars began organizing Muslim militias to attack overwhelmed and isolated Sikh villages.  Since a number of Gujjars were loharis (Iron-smiths), they provided arms to these hordes, the Muslim zameendars provided horses and other arms (rifles, pistols, etc).

When they saw the tables turning almost immediately (as Sikhs in Doaba put up a good fight, and later received help from Majhaili and Malwai reinforcements) and the repercussions of their doing, did they began fleeing westward en masse.


From a point of view shaped by human nature, circumstances, survival, and necessity, Sikhs have less, if any, reasons to be apologetic. 

The Rajas of Malwa were wise to begin accumulating arms and forming militias, they served us well.



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22 hours ago, chatanga1 said:

if we were talking about large areas then yes, it would have been hard, but 6 villages? and it wouldn't have been for free. We could easily have given similair space to pakistan in return. If india could hold onto kashmir by force for all this time, why not Lahore?


I think our only hope as of now is to begin proselytizing non-Sikhs in our part of Punjab (including Haryana, northern Rajasthan, Himachal, Delhi), as well as promote and stimulate Sikh population growth and encouraging Sikh settlement in Punjab.  If a war were to break out between India and Pakistan in the near future, giving a reason for India to invade the Pakistani held Punjab, we could assert some influence to permanently retain areas like Lahore, Kasur, Okara, Nankana Sahib, Sheikhupura, Bar Doab Canal Colonies (that WE built), Lyallpur, former Montgomery area, Toba Tek Singh, Norwal, Gujrat, Gujranwala, Sialkot, Hafizabad, and even Pothohar.  The Muslim population of those areas would likely become refugees, accept their situation, or face oppression for any opposition or insurgency they may begin. 


However, that's all theoretical.


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20 hours ago, chatanga1 said:

 I'm not ashamed or regretful of their actions during 1947. It had to be done.

To some extend, Sikhs had no option but to fight back (as in the example provided by Kuttabanda2 paaji), but we can never justify killing Muslim women. That will remain a shameful part of our history.

Like for example, in Amritsar, Muslim women were paraded naked and then burn't. This was completely against Sikhs ethics. Sikhs are not suppose to kill women and children in a war.


Bhul chuk maaf

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12 hours ago, paapiman said:

To some extend, Sikhs had no option but to fight back (as in the example provided by Kuttabanda2 paaji), but we can never justify killing Muslim women. That will remain a shameful part of our history.

Like for example, in Amritsar, Muslim women were paraded naked and then burn't. This was completely against Sikhs ethics. Sikhs are not suppose to kill women and children in a war.


Bhul chuk maaf

That is true,  Dasmesh Pita Ji commanded us to keep Khalsai Achaaran even in times of battle and warfare.  The acts of violence against women and children in 1947 is a permanent stain upon our history.

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