The 70th Anniversary of the Partition of India

Pakistan India

Seventy years on, there’s still hope.

On October 6, Dr. Ishtiaq Ahmad spoke on the 70th anniversary of the Partition.[1]

Ahmad’s argued that the truth about the Partition must be known before there can be any meaningful reconciliation between India and Pakistan. Only if Indians and Pakistanis confront and accept what happened in 1947, can there ever be light.

For instance, many Sikhs revere the Maharaja of Patiala, Yadavindra Singh (1914-1974) as the icon of a bygone age. Some have suggested that he even gave sanctuary to Muslims during the violence of the Partition.[2]


Ahmad’s research in the The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed (which includes eye-witness accounts from Patiala including from members of the Sikh community), shows a Maharaja who planned to cleanse his kingdom of his Muslim subjects.[3]

This was a shock even for some of my better educated friends in Patiala to learn. Maybe it’s time to pierce the veil of lies and illusions both India and Pakistan have woven these past seven decades. The Partition has scarred the subcontinent. Now it’s time to heal. Seek the truth. Study extensively, inquire carefully, sift clearly, and practice earnestly.[4]



[1] The lecture was part of a conference presented by the South Asian Film Education Society and the South Asian Network for Secularism and Democracy presented at the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University between October 5th to the 8th.

Dr. Ahmad is a now retired professor who taught Political Science at the University of Stockholm in Sweden. He was also a visiting professor at the National University of Singapore and the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)

[2] This last point is suggested by filmmaker Sara Singh in The Sky Below.

[3] Ahmad’s research has also been cited and excerpted in magazines and editorials like in the Hindustan Times, Frontline and Caravan.

[4] The words of the Chinese philosopher, Zhu Xi (1130-1200)

India Wins Freedom – The Maulana Speaks


Written by Randeep Singh

The complete text of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad’s India Wins Freedom was not released until 1988. Until then, Azad (1888-1958) had withheld his personal comments on the responsibility of Vallabhbhai Patel, Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohandas Gandhi for the Partition of India.[1]

The “founder of Indian partition,” was Patel, says Azad. Patel saw partition as a way to eliminate the Muslim League from Indian politics. He found it impossible and frustrating to work with the League’s members as part of an interim government and “openly said that he was prepared to have a part of India if only he could get rid of the Muslim League.”

While Nehru was less enthusiastic about partition, he became gloomy about the prospects of working with the Muslim League in government and acquiesced to the idea of partition.

Nehru sowed other seeds too. Congress had approved a plan proposed by the British cabinet to create a federation of Indian states with guarantees of provincial autonomy (including Muslim majority areas). This only just placated the Muslim League, says Azad. Nehru however proclaimed that Congress would be free to modify the plan as it wished. This alienated the Muslim League so as to make any further negotiations with Congress pointless.

The “greatest shock” for Azad was the Mahatma’s change in his attitude toward the Partition. The apostle for Hindu-Muslim unity gradually became less vehement in his opposition to Partition. Indeed, Gandhi became convinced that partition was inevitable after his suggestion to invite Jinnah to form the government was flatly rejected by Nehru and Patel.

What I found most illuminating about “India Wins Freedom” is Azad’s prescience regarding what the Partition meant for India’s future. Partition did not solve India’s communal problem; it lodged it permanently in the Indian psyche. In accepting Partition, Patel and Nehru had endorsed the Two Nations Theory. How then were they any different from Jinnah?

“India won her freedom, but lost her unity,” says Azad. It’s worth remembering 69 years on, that those who get the credit for winning India’s freedom should also bear the blame for dividing it.

Further Reading:

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, India Wins Freedom (Orient Longman: Hyderabad, 1988).

[1] Azad was the longest serving President of the Indian National Congress before 1947 and served as independent India’s first Minister of Education. He narrated his experiences in India Wins Freedom in Urdu between 1955 to 1957 to Humayun Kabir who transcribed and translated them into English.

Bollywood has run out of Punjabis


One of the odder facts about Bollywood is who runs it. India’s Hindi film industry is located in Bombay (from whose ‘B’ we get Bollywood). But the two largest communities of this city have little to contribute to the movies.Gujaratis and Marathis are together some two-thirds of the city’s population. Gujaratis dominate most of Bombay’s commerce, including the large capital market, while Marathis run the state and administration efficiently. In Bollywood, however, there’s little sign of either community.Yes, we can point to a great Gujarati actor (Sanjeev Kumar) here and a great Marathi singer (Lata Mangeshkar) there. But they are exceptions.

The dominant communities of Bollywood are two: the Urdu-speakers of North India and, above all, the Punjabis from in and around Lahore. They rule Bollywood and always have. To see why this is unusual, imagine a Pakistan film industry set in Karachi but with no Pashtuns or Mohajirs or Sindhis. Instead the actors are all Tamilian and the directors all Bengalis. Imagine also that all Pakistan responds to their Tamil superstars as the nation’s biggest heroes. That is how unusual the composition of Bollywood is.

A quick demonstration. Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan and Salman Khan are the three current superstars. All three are Urdu-speakers. In the second rung we have Hrithik Roshan, Saif Ali Khan, Akshay Kumar, Shahid Kapoor and Ajay Devgan. Of these, Hrithik, Ajay and Akshay are Punjabi while Saif is Urdu-speaking. Shahid Kapoor, as his name suggests, is half-Punjabi and half-Urdu-speaking.Behind the camera, the big names are Punjabi: Karan Johar, Vidhu Vinod Chopra and Yash Chopra of Lahore.The Kapoor clan of Lyallpur is the greatest family in acting, not just in Bollywood but anywhere in the world. It has produced four generations of superstars: Prithviraj Kapoor, his sons Raj, Shammi and Shashi, their children Rishi and Randhir, and the current generation of Ranbir, Kareena and Karisma.

Bollywood is a Punjabi industry. We have Dev Anand of Lahore, Balraj Sahni of Rawalpindi, Rajendra Kumar of Sialkot, IS Johar of Chakwal, Jeetendra, Premnath, Prem Chopra, Anil Kapoor and Dharmendra who are all Punjabis. Sunil Dutt of Jhelum, Rajesh Khanna, Vinod Khanna, Vinod Mehra, Suresh Oberoi of Quetta, and all their star kids are Punjabis. Composer Roshan (father of Rakesh and grandfather of Hrithik) was from Gujranwala.

What explains this dominance of Punjabis in Bollywood? The answer is their culture. Much of India’s television content showcases the culture of conservative Gujarati business families. Similarly, Bollywood is put together around the extroverted culture and rituals of Punjabis.

The sangeet and mehndi of Punjabi weddings are as alien to the Gujarati in Surat as they are to the Mohajir in Karachi. And yet Bollywood’s Punjabi culture has successfully penetrated both. Bhangra has become the standard Indian wedding dance. Writer Santosh Desai explained the popularity of bhangra by observing that it was the only form of Indian dance where the armpit was exposed. Indians are naturally modest, and the Punjabi’s culture best represents our expressions of fun and wantonness.

Even artsy Indian cinema is made by the people we call Punjus – Gurinder Chadha, Deepa Mehta and Mira Nair.

Another stream of Bollywood is also connected to Lahore, in this case intellectually, and that is the progressives. Sajjad Zaheer (father of Nadira Babbar), Jan Nisar Akhtar (father of lyricist Javed and grandfather of actor/director Farhan and director Zoya), Kaifi Azmi (father of Shabana), Majrooh Sultanpuri and so many others have a deep link to that city.

Now here’s the problem, actually two problems. First: Bollywood’s Punjabis are removed from the land that nourishes them. Punjab’s cultural capital is Lahore, and most Bollywood Punjabis haven’t ever seen it. Gulzar, whose real name is Sampooran Singh, told me that he didn’t want to return to his native Jhelum. He said he had left an idyllic place and had held on to its memories, which he records in his lyrics. But he’s exceptional and carries his world with him. People like Karan Johar, Aamir Khan and Hrithik Roshan are all Bombay yuppies, whose first language is English. The dialogues are all written in Roman because few read Urdu or Hindi.

Second: While Partition sent the Hindu Punjabis to Bollywood, Lahore’s Muslims are lost to it. The Punjabis of Lahore possess something that all India loves, and that is a high culture in Urdu. This is why Bollywood will always be made in a language that both India and Pakistan recognise as their own.

Unfortunately, there is no young Gulzar in Bollywood today, and there has never been another Manto. Our supply of Lahoris has run out.

The Punjabi provided the firepower of Bollywood, but he needed the space to express himself. Manto discovered this after Partition. Sitting in his lovely house, Lakshmi Mansion off the Mall, I thought of how much of a Bombay writer Manto was. He may have been Lahori but he belonged to Bombay. Bombay has always been India’s most liberal city because the dominance of mercantile Gujaratis and efficient Marathis has made it so.

But Bollywood dearly misses its Punjabis, and awaits the day it can get them again.

Written by Aakar Patel. Originally published in the The Friday Times (July 22-28, 2011):


Destination South Asia

Here’s a taste of some of the talks at Destination South Asia which took place at the University of British Columbia on March 23, 2013.

“Why is Poverty Declining so slowly in India,” Dr. Ashok Kotwal

  1. India continues to be so poor because most of its population continues to be employed in agriculture which pays so little if anything.
  2. Indians need to shift into non-farm jobs, like manufacturing but India does not have enough skilled labour partly because.
  3. Indians are so poorly educated or not educated at all

Some other points from Dr. Kotwal’s paper on the subject ( )

  1. Most Indians (93%) have no job security nor access to credit, infrastructure or skills training as they work under the table (the ‘informal sector’), and;
  2. Unskilled and poor workers have benefited little from the “high growth” because they lack the skills to take part in such skill-intensive sectors as business services (which employ only a small part of the labour force anyway).

How will India reap its “demographic dividend” when its people are unskilled, undereducated, malnourished… ?


“Beyond Political Frames: Literary Voices on Partition,” Nabila Pirani

Short-stories on Partition are written by writers alive at the time of the event, offering the benefit of immediacy to the reader, but can bring out the human and social aspects of Partition more effectively than purely historical or political narratives.

Summarizing the stories “Siqqa Badal Gaya,” “Lajwanti” and “Khol Do” by Krishna Sobti, Rajinder Singh Bedi and Saadat Hassan Manto respectively, Pirani, and the following discussion, revealed the many textures and tones of the Partition era.

In “Siqqa,” Pirani underlines how for many Punjabis, the violence of partition was mostly in the background and how the experience of partition changes through the perspective of a woman writer and protagonist. In “Khol Do,” Manto upsets the apple cart by suggesting that men from a particular community may have raped their own women. Lastly, in “Lajwanti,” Pirani looked at the invisible walls that develop between a husband and a wife who had recently been returned to her husband after being classed as “missing.”

“Pakistan’s Fading Cultural Heritage,” Umair Jaffar

Pakistani singer

The Institute for Preservation of Art and Culture (IPAC) is a Pakistani non-profit organization which seeks to support struggling artists and ustads and to preserve and propagate the classical and folk musical and artistic heritages of Pakistan.

The soul of Pakistan can be heard in the ballads of Marwari women in the Southern Punjab anticipating the return of their husbands from war as it is in the Nur Sur tradition of Baluchistan, a folk story-telling tradition stretching back to the Greek period. There are the instruments, like the Sindhi “borindo,” have been found in excavations in the Indus Valley from over 4000 years ago. And, we see how ancient instruments like the Baluchistani “banjo” can produce the sounds of the modern electric guitar.

Jaffar points out that public media presentations of folk and classical music performances were banned during Zia’s time resulting in a growing number of Pakistani youth over the years who have become disconnected from those traditions. At the same time, some traditions have also enjoyed an upsurge, such as in Baluchistan where folk music traditions have revived as part of a general cultural revival in recent years. I argued that folk and classical music traditions are bound to decline in a country where the languages held in greatest esteem (Arabic, English and Urdu) are not connected to nor supportive of its folk traditions. On the other hand, the traditions of poetry and music connected to the mother tongue helped produce the likes of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.


“History of Intercultural Dialogue and Engagement in Vancouver,” Naveen Girn


Girn’s presentation including rare photographs, news excerpts and audio clips and now part of the public archive, serves as a reminder of the history of South Asians in Vancouver.

The story of South Asians in Vancouver can be said to begin with the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1887. To attend the Jubillee in London, England, the army regiments of the subcontinent had to first pass through Vancouver. By 1907, a sizeable number of South Asians had settled in the city and that year saw the opening of the 2nd Avenue Gurdwara in Kitsilano, the first gurdwara in North America.

More than a sacred space, the gurdwara was a meeting ground for Indians of different communities, including socialists, revolutionaries and members of the Ghadr party. The early community lived through the 1907 race riots in Vancouver and the Komagata Maru, published their own news magazine (associated with the Ghadr movement), forged associations with members of Anglo-Canadian and Chinese-Canadian communities and sent delegates to Ottawa to petition the government to grant South Asians the right to vote. The gurdwara also hosted Rabindranath Tagore, who Girn points out slept in the basement there after being turned away from the Hotel Vancouver and Nehru, who visited in 1949.

The Pity of Partition: Dr. Ayesha Jalal’s Lectures at UBC

jalal image

As part of the Virani Lecture 2013 series at the University of British Columbia, Ayesha Jalal delivered two lectures on the Partition, the first on March 14, 2013, the second on March 15, 2013.

The first lecture, “The Pity of Partition: Manto’s Life, Times and Work across the India-Pakistan Divide,” looked at Manto’s life before, during and after the partition and how he portrayed it in his stories. By looking at Manto’s early revolutionary aspirations in Amritsar, his days as a screenwriter in the film industry of cosmopolitan Bombay and his reluctant boarding of a ship to Karachi in 1947, Jalal showed how partition can be examined through analyses that are not communitarian in tone but, as in Manto’s case, cosmopolitan and post-communitarian.

manto book

The second talk by Jalal, “Separating at Close Quarters: Interpreting PartitionViolence,” sought to dismantle some of the dominant modes of interpreting partition. First, Jalal pointed out that it was not religion as “faith” that was responsible for the violence but rather religion as “difference” between people. Second, communal differences were affected by the material considerations of acquiring “zan, zar, zameen” (gold, land, women). Partition was as much about looting mansions, snatching land and appropriating women as it was about killing one’s fellow man.

Third, traditional analyses of partition forget to mention that most Punjabis refrained from violence, looting, rape and arson. Most of the violence Jalal argued was perpetrated by mobs, thugs and vigilante groups but little beyond that. Muslims helped Hindus and Sikhs helped Muslims reach safe passage. In other cases, women who were  kidnapped decided to stay on the “wrong” side of the border after the formal exchanges of abucted women had been made between India and Pakistan. Any analysis of partition violence Jalal argued has to consider factors beyond just religion.

Jalal is Professor of History at Tufts University and has taught at Columbia University, the University of Madison-Wisconsin and Harvard University. For more information on Professor Jalal’s book on Manto, please click here:

Movie ‘Midnight’s Children’ – Beautiful Rendition of the Novel

On October 3rd, Vancouver offered to the movie ‘Midnight’s Children’ the largest attendance recorded for a screening at Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF). Produced by David Hamilton, directed by Deepa Mehta and written by Salman Rushdie, the film is a(n explosive) treat to watch.

The world of Midnight’s Children, a cellulide incarnation of Salman Rushdie’s classic novel on the partition of India, comes alive from the start and continues to become more vivid, more exciting, more bizarre – as it does. From hillarious to outrageous, it’s a riot to witness a woman in bits and parts through the holed sheet, and then see her emerge as a complete, and somehow baffling young woman; the three sisters, two of whom progress to become wives while the third (‘who marries a book?’) stays sitting on the sofa; the celebrated birth of Salim Sinai, and nurse Mary’s inspirational pro-activism in switching the newborns; the un-sighted black mango with all it’s ramifications on the young mind of Salim; the recurrence of the spittoon; the white-locked lady of all political powers, generals and plans, the killing fields, the homeless, Parvati’s magic, Picture Singh’s supportive appearances; and most of all, an optimistic end.

In a world where anything is possible, and at a time when people must experience the violence of doctored political change, the continuity of the narrator’s voice enables the viewer to go with it till the end.

Deepa Mehta has created this film with amazing skill, depth and vision. The chaotic culture of pre-Partition India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the characters, the atmosphere, the beauty- it is a forceful, moving and fascinating experience in cinema.

Actors performed their characters well even when there was not enough time for most. Amazing talent, beauty and hard work shines through the whole team led by Satya Bhabha (Saleem Sinai), Shahana Goswami (Amina), Seema Biswas (Mary), Shriya Saran (Parvati), Rahul Bose (General Zulfikar) and Ronit Roy (Ahmed Sinai). An unexpected disappointment: Shabana Azmi (Naseem).

The movie ‘Midnight’s Children’ remains in the mind as an unforgettable visual experience, and as a worthy preamble to a larger film. Because of the time constraint that may have caused the collage of key events toward the end, the later half, unlike the first, could not establish all of it’s changing worlds for it’s characters to live in. It does work but feels like a tease to a viewer who has read the novel, and confusion to the one who hasn’t. It needs perhaps a 3-hour film or a mini tv series.

In Theatres November 2, 2012

To be released in India December 2012

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‘Mumbai to Karachi’ India Pakistan Peace Caravan

A people-to-people peace initiative has begun with ‘Aman ke BaRhte Qadm’, an India Pakistan Peace Caravan planned for July-August 2010. This will be the second caravan organized for peace between the two countries, the first happened in 2005 from Delhi to Multan.

In a draft announcement, the organizers have noted the extreme religious agendas of fundamentalist forces on both sides of the border as divisive, and incorporates the 2007 demand of ‘Nuclear-Free, Visa-Free South Asia’. It demands from the governments of India and Pakistan to introduce less restrictive policies, and to strive for a resolution to Kashmir issue in accordance with the wishes of the people.

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‘Aman ke BaRhte Qadm’ seeks organizational endorsements on the basis of the following Draft Announcement.

India-Pakistan Peace Caravan – Amn ke Badhte Qadam
‘Probably nowhere in the world are people of two countries as emotionally entwined as are the people of India and Pakistan, and yet there is an enmity thrust upon them. The cruel turn of the wheel of history resulted in political separation, leading to a blood-spattered migration of countless people on an unprecedented scale, severing of family ties, and deep scars that have left an indelible imprint on the collective consciousness of the two nations.
‘Post-Partition, our tumultuous history has been interspersed with four wars and loss of innumerable innocent lives. Kashmir continues to be a sore point in our relations, threatening to take the two countries on a course of self-destruction. Fundamentalist groups within the religious and political space of South Asia continue to ensure that the fires of animosity are kept alive and take a heavy toll on both sides.
‘Targets of violence and of an atmosphere of antagonism, common people on both sides of the border want peace, friendship and normal relations to be established between the two countries. The ruling elites of the two countries are usually suspicious of each other, but whenever the common people of India and Pakistan get to meet, all reservations they might have about each other collapse and warm emotions of mutual affinity surge forth, very much like people of the same family meeting each other after years of separation. Enmity, hatred and distance melt away, warmth and friendship take over. In spite of the geographical boundaries forced upon us by historical circumstances, our common customs and traditions endure – our language, our music, our food and cuisine, the very mode of living on both sides of the border leaves no scope for scepticism in terms of our shared values and issues of common concern. The people are divided by borders but their hearts are one
‘We feel that if real peace and friendship has to be established between the two countries, the initiative will have to be taken by the people themselves. Various such initiatives have been witnessed over the last many years, the Indo-Pakistan Delhi to Multan Peace March in 2005 being one of them. Sufi saints and poets sang the song of love. The indelible imprints of this deep-rooted tradition are enshrined in the hearts and souls of the populace on both sides of the border. In consonance with this tradition, the March started from the dargah of the Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi , and culminated at the shrine of saint Bahauddin Zakariya in Multan , taking the message of love and brotherhood to the towns, cities and villages of the two countries. Subsequent to that, widening the scope of the initiative, a ‘Nuclear-Free, Visa-Free South Asia Convention’ was held in Delhi in August 2005, and in Lahore in 2007. Attempts to make it an annual affair have met roadblocks, the biggest being the prevalent visa-passport regime between the two countries.
‘Sustained efforts at the grassroots are required to bring about a change in mindset at the governmental levels. The problems and challenges we face are common – poverty, unemployment, the onslaught of globalisation and economic liberalisation endangering our economies, the dire need to look to the sectors of health and education. A loosening and gradual removal of barriers of trade and commerce, increasing movement of people across borders is bound to benefit both the countries. Economically strong India and Pakistan can bring about an era of peace and prosperity for the whole of South Asia . A spirit of give and take, of mutual co-operation, of creating an environment of friendship and peace rather than of jingoistic nationalism can see the two countries moving apace on a path of progress and development.
‘The last few years have seen the two governments taking steps for peace but these have been slow and intermittent, blow hot-blow cold attempts rather than being steady, continuous and sustained. The felt need of renewed efforts to pressurize the governments to listen to the voice of the peace-loving peoples of the two countries now emboldens us to take up another joint people-to-people peace initiative – the Indo-Pakistan Peace Caravan, Amn ke Badhte Qadam, from Mumbai to Karachi. This Peace Caravan will provide an opportunity to the peace-loving people of both countries to give voice to their urge for peace and friendship, and help build an atmosphere that should ultimately persuade the two governments to listen to the voice of sanity.
‘In the course of this Peace Caravan, we seek the support of people on the following points :
1. The movement of people across the borders should be made easier. At present there are all sorts of restrictions on such movement, some of which are apparently ridiculous. We would like these restrictions to be removed, for the people on both sides of the border have an intimate attachment with each other. There exists an emotional bond between the two – very much unlike the sense of animosity and mistrust that is reflected in the attitudes of the two governments. Due regard should be given to the wishes and aspirations of the people by the two governments, and they should be allowed to freely and easily meet, and inter-act with each other. In fact, the visa-passport regime should be done away with.
2. India and Pakistan must establish unconditional friendship forthwith respecting the wishes of common people of both countries and then try to resolve the issues. A solution to all contentious issues between India and Pakistan should be found peacefully through mutual discussions around the table. These issues include the issue of Jammu and Kashmir (which, in our view, should be resolved by taking into consideration the wishes and aspirations of the people of Jammu and Kashmir ), and the issue of terror-related activities on account of which the people of both countries are suffering.
3. India and Pakistan should dismantle their atomic-nuclear establishments at the earliest. Both countries should destroy landmines laid in the border areas and send their forces back to the barracks. We want that both countries should stop wasting their valuable resources in the name of defence-budget, and plan for these resources to be used for the eradication of poverty in the sub-continent. Those who are a part of the Peace Caravan believe that real security lies not in the piling of arms and ammunition but in building a relationship based on mutual trust and faith. Notwithstanding claims to the contrary, the fact is that underground landmines and nuclear bombs rather than causing damage to the ‘enemy’, only end up causing much greater harm to your own people. It would, therefore, not be inappropriate to call these weapons anti-people.
4. The two countries must end proxy and/or low intensity wars against each other forthwith and restrain their intelligence agencies from fomenting trouble across the border.
‘Peace and development are possible only in an environment of trust and mutual goodwill : this, indeed, is the message of this Peace Caravan. We very well understand that our aims and objectives cannot be achieved through just this effort. We also believe that this Peace Caravan is just one element in the many initiatives being taken up by the two peoples for Peace. Let us, then, join hands for the SUSTAINED creation and development of an environment of mutual trust, goodwill and peace between the two countries – indeed, peace in South Asia as a whole.’

Names of (some) endorsing organizations (April 20)
South Asia Partnership (SAP)
Labour Party
Peace Keepers
Democratic Commission for Human Development (DCHD)
Punjabi Khoj Ghar
Giyan Foundation
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