In search of home
Updated: Feb 4
As Hindu and Sikh refugees started pouring into East Punjab, the newly established East Punjab Assembly in Shimla began its deliberations on how to deal with the onslaught of millions who had no place to call home.
East Punjab Legislative Assembly began its first deliberations in November 1, 1947 at Governor General's Lodge in Shimla. Speaker Sardar Kapoor Singh led the assembly and gave oath to members who were representing different parts of the East Punjab state.
Some of the members spoke emotionally about the plight of the refugees and the violence that was still occurring in the state. Members such as Sardar Swaran Singh from Jullundur, Lala Kedar Nath Sehgal who led the Amritsar delegation, Mehta Ranbir Singh who was representing Ludhiana talked about the urgent need to provide food and shelter. One member from Karnal said this in his speech,
"Our brethren in West Punjab have migrated to this province in millions and still more are coming. A friend of mine who came from Rohtak only yesterday has depicted to me the pathetic picture of hundreds of thousands of starving people lying along the road-side from Karnal to Ambala. He tells me it sinks one's heart to see such a spectacle."
Sardar Ishar Singh, Minister for Refugees and Rehabilitation, talked about touring the Ambala division (Karnal, Hissar, Rohtak and Gurgaon) and seeing the plight of the West Punjab refugees. He also provided the number of Muslim refugees who were camping in Ambala division. On November 1, 1947 there were about 207,500 Muslim refugees in Ambala, some 82,000 in Karnal district, some 187,400 in Gurgaon, 172,600 in Hissar and about 157,000 in Rohtak district.
In reading through the speeches of the legislative assembly (available here), one is reminded of the pain that many were going through in dealing with the Partition of Punjab. Member Suraj Mal from Hansi spoke of how things were so normal in the previous years and how the zeal of the Muslim League in their demand for a separate state destroyed centuries of coexistence between Hindus and Muslims. He said the following,
"It was, as you all know, on the 15th of August, 1947, at 12 in the night that the Constituent Assembly made a formal declaration of independence and of having assumed the reins of Government and it was on this auspicious day that independence was conferred upon each province in the country, as provided in the India Independence Act passed by the Parliament. But at that time no one knew that it would be attended with so much misery, bloodshed, arson and loot- No doubt, there had been riots even in March 1947, but the situation grew worse in the beginning of August, 1947, and from the 11th of August onward the situation became still worse, so much so that a number of decisions arrived at by the Punjab Partition Committee could not be implemented. This communal frenzy continued to rage and it even prevented the East Punjab Government to bring here its necessary records. The result was that the Secretariat and other offices could not possibly function for a long time. As I have said before, there was going on at that time bloodshed, arson, looting and abduction and we have no idea up to this time about the number of deaths that have taken place as a result of this madness. In fact none of us had an idea that things would take such an ugly shape. I need not tell you that lakhs of people on both sides have been rendered homeless. Thirty-eight lakhs of Hindus and Sikhs who had their homes and hearths in West Punjab have been uprooted, and so is the case of the Muslims in the East Punjab whose number is about 45 lakhs. Under the present conditions everybody feels that neither a non-Muslim can, now, live in the West Punjab, nor a Muslim can live in the East Punjab.
He further talks about the sense of loss and utter helplessness among the refugees.
"I am fully aware of the fact that the persons who possessed palatial buildings there, are without any shelter here. I also know that my distressed brethren who were leading a happy and a prosperous life in the West Punjab, are now penniless and they have no clothes to cover themselves or any money with which they can eke out an honourable living to maintain their families. I am fully conscious of the forcible conversions inflicted upon my brethren who have been peacefully following their religion. I cannot help saying that these tragedies have eclipsed even the Jallianwala Bagh tragedy which was enacted during our non-violent war of independence. What I mean to say is that the atrocities committed by the Muslims in the West Punjab are of such magnitude that even the horrors of Jallianwala Bagh pale into insignificance before them."
One should read these statements in the context of what these members were witnessing at the time. Similar speeches were being given in the West Punjab Assembly in Lahore about the horrors that Muslims faced while fleeing East Punjab.