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  • Ramanjit Singh

Delhi in August & September of 1947


Muslim refugees, evacuated from areas of unrest in New Delhi, queue up for water at New Delhi's Old Fort in September 1947.

Max Desfor/AP

In reading about the events of Partition in Delhi, one comes out with a sense of enormous loss of seeing such a rich and dynamic city of the pre-Partition era being reduced to the killing fields of thousands of innocent human beings just because they belonged to a different religion. Delhi was a Muslim city, it's tehzeeb, as Ebadat Barelvi, a teacher in Delhi College, writes in his book "Twilight in Delhi", carried a particular mode of thought and living now dead and gone right in front of our eyes.

Author and Historian Gyanendra Pandey, a research fellow at Oxford and now a professor at Emory University, has written extensively on Partition and events that occurred in Delhi around the time of Partition. In his research "Partition and Independence in Delhi: 1947-48", he describes Delhi as a city that represented the cream of the Muslim elite. Where even the Hindus shared the culture of the Muslims, shared in their festivities and dressed and spoke like Muslims. They thought of Urdu as their own language.

According to the author, Delhi of the time was the city that represented India, with its diverse culture that still carried the remnants of the past Mughal glory in its thought and lifestyle. Muslims lived in the "old" and in "new" Delhi. They lived in Chandni Chowk and also in Connaught Place. They lived in Karol Bagh, Pahar Ganj, Darya Ganj and Lodhi Gardens. They were in the villages surrounding Delhi such as Mehrauli, Gurgaon, Palam, Faridabad and Gaziabad. They formed the major wholesale businesses in Sadar Bazar and Sabzi Mandi. They were in Najafgarh, Nizamuddin and Shah Jehanabad. They were in the bureaucracy and represented a major part of the government machinery till the very end of the British Raj. It was this Delhi that was forever lost by the onslaught of Partition.

It can be said that for Pakistanis, the Partition of India, however violent, was in essence a necessity for achieving Independence and for Indians (Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs alike) achieving Independence was in essence to experience the tragedy of Partition.

The violence in Delhi started in August and peaked in September. Arrival of refugees from West Punjab into Delhi was the key catalyst in triggering the riots and mass killings of Muslims. Hindus and Sikhs enraged by what had happened to their community in West Punjab unleashed their anger towards Muslims of Delhi who had no clue why they were being targeted by non-Muslims.

In fact for the Muslims of Delhi, the months of August and September brought a dreadful onslaught of violence that left them completely defenseless and demoralized. From a highly biased police force to a general sense of apathy in the city administration towards their plight, Muslims found themselves unwanted and scrambled to save their lives. Hundreds sought refuge in the homes of prominent Muslim leaders such as Abdul Kalam Azad, Anees Kidwai and others. Tens of thousands of Muslims were camping out at Purana Qila and Humayun's Tomb and were basically left to fend for themselves as no help was being given to them by the local administration.

Some of the events described by Mr. Pandey are etched indelibly in my mind, such as the one in Karol Bagh where Muslims students giving their matriculation exam in a High School were taken out and murdered. The event describing an enraged Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru trying to prevent violence in Connaught Place is also striking.

The violence in Old Delhi and the towns and villages surrounding Delhi were also being reported extensively by the foreign press. According to authors Vazira Fazila and Yacoobali Zamindar and further substantiated by other authors on this subject, about 20,000 to 25,000 Muslims were killed in Delhi and surrounding areas. According to authors Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre in "Freedom at Midnight", the orgy of violence in Old Delhi and Pahar Ganj witnessed heavy gun fire coming out of homes of retired Muslim army officers and families desperately trying to defend their homes from the encroaching mobs of Hindus and Sikhs.

From the research paper "Partition and Independence in Delhi: 1947-48":

In her memoir "In Freedom's Shade", Anis Kidwai describes the Purana Qila refugee camp in Delhi: "From the hospital, one had a vantage view of the entire camp. As far as the eye could see, tents and tin-roofed shelters were crowded together. In their midst was a ceaseless traffic of naked children, disheveled women, bareheaded girls and men burning in defiance and humiliation."

In this July 3, 1974 audio interview of educationist M.M Baig by Uma Shankar from Cambridge University, Center for South Asian Studies, gives a very detailed eye-witness account of the Muslim evacuation camps in Delhi during September to November, 1947. Interesting account of the Muslim residents in Delhi moving to camps at Purana Qila and Humayun's tomb and how in some cases the Hindu families came to help their Muslim neighbors who were now camped as refugees. M.M Baig also talks about saving a Hindu boy from the enraged Muslims.

It was only after the arrival of Mahatma Gandhi on Sept 9, 1947 the violence in Delhi started to abate. In his research paper, author G. Pandey writes:

Gandhi's fast-unto-death that he commenced on January 13th, 1948 to stop the violence in Delhi made a profound impact on every Indian.

And after the assassination and martyrdom of Mahatma Gandhi by the hands of the right wing RSS, the bloodshed finally ended. It can be said that Gandhi's ultimate goal in bringing peace to the troubled Indian Union was achieved by his martyrdom. Gandhi saved India through his death.

At a prayer meeting on December 22nd, 1947, Mahatma Gandhi announced: "Some eight or ten miles from here, at Mehrauli, there is a shrine of Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Chisti. Esteemed as second only to the shrine at Ajmer, it is visited every year not only by Muslims but by thousands of non-Muslims too. Last September 1947 this shrine was subjected to the wrath of Hindu mobs. The Muslims living in the vicinity of the shrine for the last 800 years had to leave their homes. I mention this sad episode to tell you that, though Muslims love the shrine, today no Muslim can be found anywhere near it. It is the duty of the Hindus, Sikhs, the officials and the Government to open the shrine again and wash off this stain on us. The same applies to other shrines and religious places of Muslims in and around Delhi. The time has come when both India and Pakistan must unequivocally declare to the majorities in each country that they will not tolerate desecration of religious places, be they small or big. They should also undertake to repair the places damaged during riots."

Recounting the events of Partition is a humbling experience. It forces us to shed all the pretentious and contrived ideas that we carry in our minds, whether as an Indian or Pakistani, about the causes and results of Partition and whether it was a "good thing" for the Indian sub-continent. I, for one, think that we were being played by the British and became willing enablers in their final act of this Greek tragedy.

The loss of life was unbearable. Thousands died to prove Jinnah's inherently flawed idea that Hindus and Muslims were two different nations that cannot live together. As if almost a thousand year history was conveniently ignored. As if thousands of mosques and temples jotting the Indian cities, towns and villages did not exist. The two-nation theory was forcibly "proven right" over the dead bodies of hundreds of thousands of innocent Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs.

The futility of a political movement that caught up so many in the idea that a separate state with questionable geographic boundaries would be the "true" Muslim state was in essence sheer madness as more Muslims remained in India than in Pakistan at the time of Independence. Delhi, the capital of the Mughal and the British Raj remained in India and so did the majority of Muslim cultural cities and towns such as Agra, Bhopal, Lucknow, Mysore, Hyderabad to name a few.

Those Muslims who found themselves in Pakistan saw Jinnah as the best thing that ever happened to them. Those Muslims who chose to stay in India saw Jinnah as the worst thing that ever happened to them. For Muslims in Pakistan, Jinnah was a savior. For Muslims in India, Jinnah destroyed everything they had. Such is the dichotomy of Partition for Muslims.

Partition proved to be a huge loss as it destroyed hundreds of years of Muslim culture and tradition in Delhi. A community's lifestyle that was enriched for hundreds of years was lost. The city of Ghalib was no more.

It takes a lifetime to understand Gandhi. He was right in his understanding of India. He not only fought to achieve Indian Independence but more importantly he strived to keep the idea of India intact. He was right in his efforts to keep India wrapped in its secular ethos because without it India will lose its ultimate defense which is that it is fundamentally benevolent, all inclusive, devoid of hate, tolerant of differences. There's no weapon or army that can defeat that idea. Those who invaded us eventually became one of us. And once India stops believing in that idea, then it will cease to exist as one. It will become a nation of a billion mutinies.

The image at the top of Muslim refugee children standing barefoot in line for water were also Indians. They lived and breathed just like any other Indian.

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