Stanley Wolpert is Professor of History Emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles. His book, Shameful Flight: The Last Years of the British Empire in India, provides a vivid behind-the-scenes look at Britain’s decision to divest itself from the crown jewel of its empire. A decision which uprooted over ten million people, 500,000 to a million of whom died in the ensuing inferno. In the excerpt below we learn about August of 1947, a particularly ruthless time that followed partition.
Lahore’s railway station became a veritable death trap by August 12, Justice Gopal Das Khosla reported. “On the evening of August 11, the railway station was packed with passengers…when news came that the Sind Express, on its way to Lahore, had been attacked by Muslims, panic spread…They found that men, women and children had been brutally murdered and were lying in pools of blood…The dead bodies were carried across several platforms…while all that was visible in the city of Lahore was a huge tower of smoke.” Passengers on the Frontier Mail were murdered near Wagah. Next day no Hindu or Sikh reached Lahore station alive; Muslim gangs were prowling the environs of the city in armed packs. In June 1947 some 300,000 Hindus and Sikhs lived in Lahore. By August 19 fewer than 10,000 remained; and by August 30, fewer than one thousand. Endless caravans of Hindi-Sikh refugees moved out of that smoking pyre of death, trekking west to try and reach the new Punjab border at Wagah, twenty miles away, hoping to stay alive for another twenty miles to Amritsar.
“Nearly the whole of India celebrated the coming of independence, but not so the unhappy…Punjab,” Prime Minister Nehru broadcast to his nation on August 19. “Both in the East and the West, there was disaster and sorrow…There was murder and arson and looting in many places and streams of refugees poured out from one place to another.” Three days later he wrote to Gandhi in despair, “All this killing business has reached a stage of complete madness, and vast populations are deserting their habitations and trekking to the west or to the east.” But Gandhi was not surprised. When the Congress Party first passed its resolution favoring Partition, he had warned that the “only peace” Partition would bring India was “the peace of the grave.” He stayed for a week in Calcutta with Suhrawardy, trying to pacify raucous crowds of Bengalis, who were at first moved by the symbolism of Hindu-Muslim friendship and unity presented by this “odd couple” of old leaders living together in a burned-out building. Having “drunk the poison of mutual hatred,” as Gandhi explained it, “this nectar of fraternization tastes all the sweeter.” But it did not last very long. “What was regarded as a miracle has proved a short-lived nine-day wonder,” Gandhi confessed to Vallabhbhai Patel, after he was almost killed by brick-throwing students who rudely awakened him, compelling him to launch a fast in response. “Today we have lost all our senses, we have become stupid,” Gandhi cried aloud at his prayer meeting in Delhi the next month. “It is not only the Sikhs have gone mad, or only the Hindus or the Muslims….India is today in the plight of the [sinking] elephant king [a Hindu fable]…What should I do?” He wanted to fly to Lahore in Pakistan, but, fearing he might be murdered there, Nehru and Patel dissuaded him from going.
With the death toll in Punjab constantly rising, the new governor of East Punjab, C.M. Trivedi, urgently appealed to Prime Minister Nehru, requesting that two brigades of troops be sent at once to Amritsar. Nehru passed that message to Governor-General Mountbatten, who sent it on to Field Marshal Auchinleck, who had no more troops to send anywhere but home to England. “It is the duty of the Hindus and Sikhs of East Punjab to protect the minorities,” Nehru told a large audience of anxious Punjabis who came to hear him speak in Jullundur on August 24. “Peaceful conditions must be restored and every citizen must share this responsibility.” The desperate prime minister promised that “all possible assistance will be provided in evacuating people rendered homeless…I appeal once again to the people to create a peaceful atmosphere…and help the administration in restoring law and order.” But precious little assistance was available to restore any modicum of law and order.
In West Punjab’s Sheikhupura District, Guru Nanak was born and his birthplace Gurdwara, or temple, named Nankana Sahib, was erected; this temple was the place of worship for many Sikhs. It later became the region’s center for the massacre of Sikhs by Muslims, and that once worshipful district’s name became a synonym for terror in the minds of Sikhs. “The minorities were taken at a disadvantage, arrangements for evacuation could not be made immediately,” Justice Khosla noted, “and, while men, women and children, uprooted from their homes, ran hither and thither like hunted animals and crowded into refugee camps, a most ruthless campaign of murder, rape, arson and loot was launched upon them…Sheikhupura became a by-word…In West Punjab hooligans used it to intimidate the minorities into handing over their property, accepting Islam or quitting their homes. ‘If you do not do as you are told,’ they said, ‘we shall enact another Sheikhupura here.'” Nehru wrote to tell Mountbatten that was “sick with horror,” after he visited Sheikhupura at the end of August. “There is still an odour of death, a smell of blood and burning human flesh…This Punjab business becomes bigger and bigger…”
By August 25 more than 100,000 Hindus and Sikhs sought permanent refuge in Delhi. Refugee camps were quickly built to the north of the old city and soon filled with Punjabi families, most of whom remained. The camps grew into the new cities of Kurukshetra and Panipat, urban centers of salvation for millions of refugee Punjabi Hindus and Sikhs. Convoys of Hindus and Sikhs rushing to escape from Lahore stretched over forty miles before the end of August, those of Muslims escaping Amritsar almost as long. Children too young to walk were carried by their elder sisters or mothers, and those too old were wheeled in barrows until the axles broke. Punjab’s unrelenting heat proved too much for even able-bodied men who collapsed, many dying before they reached their promised land on the far side of Radcliffe’s line. Sir Cyril had sailed home by then, as W. H. Auden put it: “In seven weeks it was done…A continent for better or worse divided/ The next day he sailed for England…Return he would not/ Afraid, as he told his Clerk, that he might be shot.”