by Omar Ali
“agli wari beyraja peya tey chhadna nahin…” (the next time anarchy occurs; don’t miss your chance…)
The dream of a violent and destructive “revolution” that will “sweep away this sorry scheme of things entire and remake it nearer to heart’s desire” may or may not be an old idea. Some think it is derived from the apocalyptic visions of various Judeo-Christian cults and prophets, others that it is a relatively new idea that arose in post-enlightenment Europe and got exported to the rest of the world. Whatever the case, it is an idea that permeates modern millenarian ideologies like communism, and from that fecund source it has found its way into Islamism and dozens of other ideologies that yearn for total transfromation rather than incremental change. We in the subcontinent have not yet seen an organized premeditated revolution akin to the Russian or Chinese experience, but in the 20th century, we did see at least two episodes of very violent and sudden re-ordering of affairs, once in 1947 and then in 1971.
Neither episode was marked by anarchy in every corner of the subcontinent; the anarchy of 1947 was especially concentrated in West Pakistan and East Punjab. Many terrible massacres and crimes occurred in other parts of North India and Bengal, but Punjab was by far the worst hit and the most totally transformed. In West Pakistan, countless prosperous Hindus and Sikhs lost lands and businesses and moved to India (or died in the attempt). All this property was then reassigned to new owners. Keep in mind that urban property in particular had been heavily concentrated in the hands of Hindus and Sikhs. e.g., all of Anarkali bazar in Lahore was in Hindu hands prior to partition and on the main road (Mall road) there was only one Muslim-owned building (Shah din Building). Almost all cinemas and other valuable commercial property were owned by Hindus and Sikhs. Evacuee property boards were set up to try and bring some order to this process but the administration was as virginal as the state. A very small number of Muslim officials suddenly found themselves in the position of deciding the fate of property and assets worth billions. In the ensuing scramble, the most enterprising, the best connected, and the least scrupulous managed to grab vast wealth and opportunities, while millions didn’t even realize the full significance of what was happening.
Terrible massacres and riots were not just the result of deep religious hatreds or the sudden eruption of primal human savagery; enterprising crooks took advantage of the anarchy of partition to get rid of competitors and anyone whose property looked ripe for plucking. As matters stabilized, terrible crimes and atrocities disappeared into the black hole of memory and the new elite got busy embellishing its own mythology of “deliverance from the Hindu yoke”, with little mention of how this “deliverance” involved the looting of existing property and the takeover of institutions and positions suddenly left vacant by the departure of the Hindu and Sikh elite.
As far as I know, no one has published a detailed look at how many of the current Pakistani elite are composed of descendants of those who vaulted into elite status in 1947, but the proportion cannot be insignificant. And the effects of partition did not just include the upward mobility of some and destruction of others; everyone paid a price when long established traditions vanished overnight and the urgent ambition of the newly rich combined with shallow nationalism and millenarian fantasies to define the new world. An anecdote from someone who failed to grab the opportunities available may be a better guide to how these events were assimilated into new values; an old man in our village in West Punjab was near death in 1970 and like most people in our village, was dying after a lifetime of poverty and hardship. He had become incoherent but a few minutes before the end, he suddenly became lucid and grabbing the hand of a younger relative, passed on this deathbed advice: “agli wari beyraja peya tey chaddna nahin…” (the next time anarchy occurs; don’t miss your chance…). Beyraja (absence of Raj) here refers to the time in 1947 when, for a few months, every property owned by Hindus and Sikhs was suddenly there for the taking. He, like most people, had missed his chance. He did not want his younger relatives to miss the next one.
Property was also suddenly available in East Punjab, where Muslim peasants were being driven out in a very systematic campaign of intimidation and massacre. The exchange was not equal in terms of property because the Sikh cultivators who were driven East had lost more than they could get from Muslims moving West, simply because Sikhs in West Punjab had held more land than Muslims in East Punjab. But even so there was always opportunity for the better connected and more ruthless to edge out those who lacked the necessary entrepreneurial drive. The Hindu commercial class driven into India was even less likely to find commercial property worth a tenth of what they left behind. In their case, their subsequent entry into the Indian elite may have owed more to hard work and the enhanced drive of those driven to take refuge in another land, but again, the results cannot have been equally distributed. Many a gentle soul may have floundered in poverty while those with greater drive and ambition leapt ahead. And for all of them, “winners” or “losers”, the psychological impact of partition cannot have been entirely benign. One under-examined impact is the way both Indian and Pakistani migrants lost their connection with their old culture as they left the land where that culture had been born and bred. The subsequent success of modern “fundamentalist” and nationalist ideologies in migrants on both sides, and their continued migration to a hundred other countries after the first migration shook them loose, also owes something to the events of partition.
The events of 1971, while very different in their causes and in the mechanics of transfer of power, ultimately involved anarchy and violence at levels similar or greater than those seen in partition. Known prominent Awami League sympathizers were obviously targeted at the start of military action in East Pakistan, but it was the Hindus in East Pakistan who became the primary victims of a policy that can only be described as ethnic cleansing. It is common for both Pakistan and Bangladesh to underplay the “Hindu-centric” aspect of this policy (for different reasons), but its impact was dramatic. Practically the entire Hindu population of East Pakistan was forced to escape to India. Most of them ended up in pathetic refugee camps and the death toll from disease there was much greater than the death toll from bullets and bombs in East Pakistan itself. Come December, they could go back to BD, but even though the Awami League had a relatively secular outlook and may have been genuinely willing to welcome them back, getting back valuable property was not always easy. Army action had been accompanied by extensive looting and in many cases the looters were locals, working with or without the Pakistani army. Urdu-speaking migrants from Bihar and North India who were ideologically aligned with the Pakistani army took the lead in many cases, but as in any period of anarchy, local Bengali “entrepreneurs” were also able to step forward and this part of the story is not as well-advertised.
In any case, the Urdu-speaking migrant population did not enjoy its opportunity for loot, plunder and local domination for too long in East Pakistan; with the Pakistani army’s surrender on December 16th, they suddenly found themselves on the losing side in a civil war, which is never a happy place to be. Hundreds, probably thousands, were massacred within a few days while others found refuge in overpopulated, disease-ridden camps, where some are living to this day, waiting for Pakistan to take them back. Now it was their turn to lose property and positions and naturally there were Bengali entrepreneurs around to take advantage of these opportunities. In some cases, these Bengali entrepreneurs were the same people who had loyally served the Pak army in its 8 month long crackdown and now managed to switch sides in time. A researcher interviewing Bengali rape victims many years later asked one of them why she did not try to get justice for her suffering? She replied that the same person who took me to the Pakistani army camp in 1971 is the local MP today. Where would I go for justice? A new elite was born in BD, just as one had been born in West Pakistan at partition. And some of those joining the club were as enterprising and unprincipled as the ones who heard opportunity knocking in 1947 and grabbed it with both hands.
The point is not to rake up bygones or blame one country or one nationality or to besmirch the name of a particular ideology or religion. It is just to point out that in all such events, when the dust settles it is not only (or not even mostly) the ideologues and true-believers that have changed position in society; enterprising crooks take advantage and move up, and many gentle souls find themselves sliding down the socio-economic ladder. The populations targeted for cleansing are very variable; Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Bengalis, Punjabis, aristocrats, feudals, whatever…and their crimes, real and imagined, always loom large in propaganda. But all too often, “rivers of blood” are just that; rivers of blood. The price is very high and the reward unevenly and unfairly distributed. As millenarian excitement rises again in Pakistan and the dream of a new “revolution” takes hold in the middle class, it is worth keeping some of this in mind.The revolution, if it comes, may not be what they were looking for...
“A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery…”