Did Sikh squads participate in an organised attempt to cleanse East Punjab during Partition?

30 June 2015
A delegation of Sikhs leaving Downing Street, London on 8 August 1947. The delegation had presented a petition that called for the whole of the Punjab region to be included in the state of India, in the Partition of British India.
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
A delegation of Sikhs leaving Downing Street, London on 8 August 1947. The delegation had presented a petition that called for the whole of the Punjab region to be included in the state of India, in the Partition of British India.
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As the date for Partition approached, the community worst affected by the move was that of the Sikhs, which was split in large numbers between the regions of Punjab that were to become part of India and Pakistan. Many Sikh leaders had come to believe that an exchange of population between the two regions was the only way to safeguard the interests of their community. When the violence escalated, Sikhs and Hindus became targets in West Punjab and Muslims in East Punjab. Observers found that the Sikh death squads, some bankrolled by the Sikh princes of East Punjab, were the bestorganisedof the mobs that indulged in the attacks. Authorities in Pakistan would later claim that this violence was coordinated as part of a "Sikh Plan." This extract fromNisidHajari’s Midnight's Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India's Partition examines the nature of these Sikh bands and the veracity of the Pakistani allegations.

August 1, 1947. The ominous wall calendars Viceroy Lord Louis Mountbatten had made up for his staff showed 14 days left until the end of British rule in India. The switchboard at Viceroy’s House lit up with an urgent call from the Punjab. Governor Sir Evans Jenkins had disturbing news to report. In the countryside around Amritsar, roving Sikh death squads, known as jathas, had begun targeting Muslim villages. Nearly two dozen Muslims had been killed and 30 wounded in just the last 48 hours, while four passenger trains had been attacked. Jenkins believed a bigger offensive was planned. “There is going to be trouble with the Sikhs. When, and how bad, the Governor cannot yet say,” one of his aides advised.

All summer long, Punjabi Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs had been building up armed militias in preparation for the British withdrawal, ostensibly to defend themselves in the civil war many believed was inevitable. The Sikhs in particular feared that the new border between India and Pakistan would split their community in two; their militias had swelled from a few thousand members to nearly 20,000 by the end of July. Many of the fighters were ex-military—well-trained and battle-tested in the deserts of North Africa and jungles of Burma. Several had switched sides during World War II and fought for a Japanese-sponsored rebel force, the Indian National Army, in Southeast Asia.

Bankrolled by Hindu tycoons and Sikh maharajahs—the young and impetuous ruler of Faridkot had allegedly converted a distillery in his state into an explosives factory—they also tended to be better-armed than their rivals. Late that summer British historian Michael Edwardes—then a young soldier—stumbled across nearly 300 Sikh fighters drilling with rifles and tommy guns in a village just a few miles from Amritsar. They eagerly put on a shooting contest for him, “in which the targets were dummies of Muslim men, women and children.” The militants vowed that “there would not be a Muslim throat or a Muslim maidenhead unripped in the Punjab” when their work was done.

For the past two months, a steady stream of Sikh dignitaries had begged Mountbatten and Jenkins to carve out a Sikh homeland. Sikh leaders wanted the borders of the Punjab redrawn, with its western edge given to Pakistan, an eastern sliver attached to India’s United Provinces, and the remainder left as home to at least 80 percent of the Sikh community, as well as most of Sikhism’s holiest shrines and the vast tracts of fertile canal lands owned and cultivated by Sikh farmers. If the remaining Sikhs in Pakistan—less than a million of them—were exchanged with Muslims in this “Sikhistan,” “then the Sikh problem is solved,” Sikh leader Giani Kartar Singh had assured Mountbatten.

Nisid Hajari is the Asia editor of Bloomberg View.

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