The Punjab: A book review

Non-fiction/The Punjab by Ishtiaq Ahmed, Rupa/2011, 754 pp; Rs995 (Hardback)
Now another work on the partition history tries to unravel multiple narratives of partition survivors and refugees on the both sides of Punjab. So far, plights of Punjab has been confined in the textual debates as the contentiousness involved with intra feuds kept India conscious yet timid participant on the whole issue. Kashmir was the other factor that cornered any potential wayout of better cultural/civil exchange between the both sides of Punjab, which also undermined the Punjab from the bilateral strategic concern of India and Pakistan. 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 even notch below.

British rulers remarkably succeeded with their strategic plans to handover two strife ridden countries and that happened to a large extent, as they imagined. Unfortunately this part remained missing in most of the works 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 which gives extra authenticity to his stand. Although his own concern on forced migration, ethnic cleansing/genocide needs to be 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 wanted? 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 vital coverage although stereotypical account of “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 repetitive delineation of commonly known harshness, it’s better to admit that violence needs no logic or even worst, can thrive on 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 the cases through the complex handling of political scenarios and enforcing its failures to the religious life of desperate communities. Further on pages 380-381 (The Punjab disintegrates) presents the lucid narration of tragedies visited 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 hard minded 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 important; Dr. Prem Sobti’s (personal physician to the President of India) recalling of turning Lahore from a paragon of communal peace and harmony to an open battleground strengthens the positive aim of Ishtiaq’s work. And finally focus 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 grim truth during partition and afterward.

Ishtiaq Ahmed’s The Punjab is a well intentioned and meticulously researched work on the partition…overall, it provides the sublime merit’s 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. Ishtiaq has spent years working on this project and this becomes quite evident through progressing on the pages of The Punjab. With reading this book, readers will be informed on a crucial phase of continental history. Only reading has to be careful enough!

(Atul Kumar Thakur is a journalist.)