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  • Ramanjit Singh

1941 Punjab Census and its Interpretation


Punjab's Partition was based on British India's 1941 Census. As head of the Punjab Boundary Commission, Cyril Radcliffe took these statistics to finalize the division of the Province.

(Source: Princeton University study)

The notional boundary that was first disclosed to the public in June 1947 had given Gurdaspur to Pakistan. Gurdaspur had Muslim majority of 50.2% and Amritsar also had Muslims as the single largest community with a population of 45.4%.

As part of the boundary award, Gurdaspur was allotted to India. According to author Ishtiaq Ahmed, the reason for keeping Gurdaspur within India was to protect Amritsar from being surrounded by all three sides by Pakistani territory. Amritsar was also allotted part of Lahore district in order to add enough buffer from the Lahore city. Radcliff wanted to keep Amritsar and Lahore equidistant from each other thus making it somewhat easier to defend in case of a war. Therefore a part of Kasur tehsil, Patti, Bhikiwind were allotted to India.

Blue line depicts the notional boundary of June 1947 and the highlighted area shows the part of Lahore and almost all of Gurdaspur district (excluding part of Shakargarh tehsil) allotted to India. If the notional boundaries were kept as the final border between the two countries, then Lahore district's border would have been at Hari-ke-Pattan (the confluence of Sutluj and Beas rivers).

The census trends over the last several decades were favoring Muslims, as the Lahore district which had a Hindu-Sikh parity with the Muslims in the late 1890's gradually moved towards an absolute Muslim majority by 1940s. It can also be argued that if there had been a fresh census conducted in 1947, as a pre-requisite for partitioning India, then I'm certain that the newer demographics would have pushed the Pakistani border further eastwards. I'm certain that not only Amritsar and Gurdaspur, but districts such as Jullundur and Ludhiana would have been up for contention and could have been included in Pakistan. In a way, the 1941 census created ambiguity and allowed different stakeholders to interpret the very meaning of the word "majority" in central Punjab districts differently to India's advantage.

If one looks at the 1881-1931 Census, one can see the trend lines where the Muslim population was increasing and the Hindu population was decreasing in Punjab. Sikh population was increasing relative to its size however it was still dwarfed by the growing Muslim population in Punjab. There are several social factors involved that explain this demographic change and this is explained in the link to the study below.

(Source: Punjab University, Chandigarh)

I could imagine the conversations happening in the Boundary Commission where one would be arguing that even if Gurdaspur had 50.2% Muslim majority it is still a "slight majority" and if we want to keep Amritsar safe from Pakistani territory surrounding it from three sides then we have to allot the district to India.

In 1947, the Muslim population of Gurdaspur could have very well been 52% and not 50.2% which was the case in 1941. If we take this into consideration then the argument that it should have been given to India would have been less justifiable. May be Amritsar would have always went to India because of the Sikh holiest shrine Darbar Sahib, however that argument too becomes weak, as Sheikhupura, where Nankana Sahib is located, was given to Pakistan. If Amritsar had been given to Pakistan then the British would have witnessed a complete Sikh rebellion that would have been unimaginable in its ferocity and resulting bloodshed.

Another interpretation of the census is that Muslims had to be in the upper 60% before the district was allotted to Pakistan, anything less than that was subject to interpretation. Lahore which had a 60-40 split was allotted to Pakistan, even though the majority business community and land owners were Hindus and Sikhs. Same is true for Lyallpur where major zamindars were Sikhs but the idea of granting Lyallpur to India was out of the question regardless of the historical or business-economic argument since the Muslim population was close to 70%. The economic argument that the Sikhs pretty much developed the canal colonies were pushed to the way side as the demographic predominance of the Muslims in terms of their population was too overwhelming to justify any argument for giving Montgomery or Lyallpur to India. If the Muslim percentage in these districts had been close to 50% then I'm quite certain that these districts would have been given to India.

The bias that formed the underpinnings of the Radcliff Award can also be interpreted through the prevailing sentiment among the Hindus of the immeasurable loss of their diaspora and the social, economic and religious fabric that was established in western India since time immemorial. There was a sense that for all the social and economic loss of the Hindus that there should be some semblance of fairness in shifting the boundary of the central Punjab districts westwards as much as possible instead of pushing it further east.

During this time of diminishing returns and with total collapse of law and order and civil administration in Punjab, the carnage that was taking place in Gurdaspur, Amritsar, Jullundur, Ludhiana and areas in and around Lahore, Sheikhupura, Gujranwala, Narowal reached such a horrific level that it is unimaginable to even think about the horrible conditions of people on both sides that were witnessing one of the greatest mass killings in human history. The tussle among the two sides on which direction the central Punjab boundary will shift (westwards or eastwards) directly impacted the lives of the people living in these areas. Just a mere shift of the border to few degrees west or east posed an existential threat to the lives of millions of people.

There was a sizable Muslim population in Ferozepur, Jullundur, Ludhiana and Hoshiarpur. The case of migrating westwards to Pakistan would have been equally unimaginable to them as it was for Hindus and Sikhs residing in the western districts to move to eastern districts. Here the size of the Muslim population dwarfs the Hindu and Sikh population in districts such as Gujranwala, Multan or Rawalpindi. In no western districts the Hindu-Sikh population even reached 40%. Only Sialkot had a Hindu-Sikh population that reached 32%. Moving out of Jullundur, Ludhiana or Hoshiarpur would have been a difficult decision for the Muslims as most thought that these districts would be included in Pakistan and thus there was no reason to move. And most of the people living in these districts were late in migrating to Pakistan and thus faced horrendous conditions as it has been reported in this forum.

The Sikh and Hindu population reached 0% in the 1951 census of the western districts. This means a complete cleansing or forced removal of the population as a result of Partition. Same holds true for Muslim population in eastern districts. The 1951 census shows a complete removal of populations that took place during 1947 in Punjab.


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