Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Punjab Story!

Book Review: Non-fiction/The Punjab by Ishtiaq Ahmed, Rupa Publication/2011, 754 pp; Rs995 {Hardback}
Now another work on the partition history tries to unravel multiple narratives of partition survivors and refugees on both sides of Punjab. So far, plights of Punjab has been confined in the textual debates as seeing the contentiousness and intra feuds, India remained a conscious yet timid player on the whole issue. Other foremost thing, that cornered any potential wayout of better cultural/civil exchange between the both side of Punjab was the Kashmir issue, its substantially backyarded the Punjab from the bilateral strategic concern of Indian and Pakistan. Rest the formation of Bangladesh in 1971 and India’s pertinent role in it opened the second most vital strategic point, now the issue of Punjab was slipped notch below.

Remarkably, British succeeded with their strategic plan to handover two strife ridden countries…that happened. Unfortunately this part remained missing in most of the work on partition…at some point, Ishtiaq refers for real origination of violence but finally he let down those observation for community led violence as the major destroyer of peaceful socio-religious fabric. On judging the end, he is absolutely right; with putting details of newspapers, journals, government reports and personal accounts of different set of peoples gives extra edge to his stand. Although his own concern on forced migration, ethnic cleansing/genocide needs to reckoned with the wider possibilities that were given passage by the immoral political planks of British. A dangerous by-product of colonialism-partition, requires more meticulous handling of what colonizers wants? And how they moved up with their nasty strategic planks?

The best thing that comes out of this book is details of real sufferers on both the side of Punjab. Founding place for Malerkobla state in east Punjab where unlike Patiala, Muslims escaped annihilation could be regarded a good put although stereotypical account “The Rape of Rawalpindi” could have mentioned less overtly. Notes on The Sikh Plan {pages xxxviii-xxxix, A Sikh plan to eradicate all Muslims from east Punjab} seems a reprising exercise as instead foretelling, what happened exactly, it’s better to admit that violence needs no logic or even worst, can thrive bad logic. The March Riots: Rawalpindi and adjoining rural areas (pages 226-230} reminds the worst of sectarian violence, Ranjit Singh Bhashin’s account of Thamali village is one among countless cases where centuries old co-existential bond of neighbourhood suddenly turned into the nightmarish ground of butchering. Unfortunately hatred routed in most of cases through the complex handling of political scenario and enforcing its failures to the religious life of desperate communities. Further on pages 380-381 {The Punjab disintegrates} presents the liveliest narration of tragedies in west Punjab {Pakistan}, Giani Mahinder Singh and Sardar Baldev Singh’s dialogue with Patel and his insensitive remarks to retaliate the Muslims shows the mishandling of entire issue by the political class. The crux of this book gives ample insights, how Muslim League ceased to handle the violence impartially and how weak was the demographic/social understanding of the leaders of Congress and Muslim League.

Focus on Lahore Division {pages 416-418} is very vital; Dr. Prem Sobti’s {personal physician to the President of India} recalling of turning Lahore from a paragon of communal peace and harmony to open battleground strengthen the positive motives of this work. And finally mentionable details on pages 519-20 {Amritsar and three Tehsils of Gurudaspur} with the account of Lahore based writer, A.Hameed adds to the realistic horror stories that unfortunately was the case during partition in 1947.

Ishtiaq Ahmed’s The Punjab is a well intentioned and richly detailed work on the partition…overall, it provides the sublime gesture of people’s history. Relying more on the victims instead on the ruling elite’s game plan is both the strength and weakness of this book. However, there will be no denying that whenever the tells of partition will be grounded; mention of this book will become essential. Ishtiaq has spent years working on this project and that becomes quite evident through progressing on the pages of The Punjab. Readers will be enlighted after reading this book. Only reading has to be careful enough!
Atul Kumar Thakur
October 8, 2011, Friday, New Delhi


  1. Great work Atul..congrats, and thanks for theorizing and handling the story with care...Varsha Singh

  2. Congrats. Go ahead..Ashutosh Kumar,Patna

  3. Articulate an well written book review-Ashutosh Thakur

  4. Dear Atul Thakur Sahib,
    Many thanks for this very thorough review. I understand you have spent lots of time to unravel what I tried to unravel and have done it with great success. So, congratulations on this and many thanks as well.
    I tried to explain to Rajinder Puriji that I deliberately eschewed getting carried away with the temptation to pursue the British hand and how it worked on the big boys, Jinnah, Nehru, Patel and indeed Gandhi. I wanted this to be a study of the Punjab and not of the partition of India. I do point out the 12 May 1947 meeting of the British heads of the armed forces and others where endorsing Pakistan was explicitly stated.
    I think at some point I want to pursue this line that the British hierarchy must have been something we have never understood. Most certainly the conspiracy to divide India was kept a secret for the Punjab governors and this happened at the very highest levels. Mountbatten was sent with one mission: keep India in the commonwealth, united or divided. The latter prevailed for various reasons.
    So, this time the review of material and the interviews had to be about what happened in the Punjab and as you very kindly acknowledge that has been achieved in this book.
    What I have done is that this is the first study of the Punjab partiion in 64 years. Also, unlike historians this is the work of a political scientist who has spent years researching and writing on forced migration, ethnic cleansing, genocide, ethnicity and nationalism. The result is both a theory and a framework for analysis. I hope someone highlights these original featurs of this book.
    Do let me know when the interview is published in the Hindustan Times and please keep in touch.
    There is a very good chance that I come to Delhi in mid February to attend a conference at Delhi University on human rights. I hope we can meet.
    Warm regards,
    The writer has a PhD from Stockholm University. He is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University. He is also Honorary Senior Fellow of the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore.