The partition of the Punjab in
mid-August 1947 took place as part of a negotiated settlement
brokered by the British between the Indian National Congress, the
All-India Muslim League and the Sikhs of Punjab to partition India
and transfer power to India and Pakistan.
The total population of the undivided Punjab Province was 33
million. It included territories directly administered by the
British (pop. 28 million) and several princely states. The Punjab
was a Muslim majority province while Hindus and Sikhs together
made up a very large minority of 44-47 percent. The principle on
which India and the Punjab were divided was that Muslim-majority
areas were separated from the rest of India and given to Pakistan.
The demand to partition India was made by the main communal party
of the Muslims, the All-India Muslim League. It insisted that
Indian Muslims were not a minority (one-fourth of the total
population of India) but a separate nation by virtue of their
Islamic faith and culture.
When the Muslim League demanded the partition of India the Sikhs
of Punjab demanded the same principle be applied to the Punjab.
The Indian National Congress wanted to keep India united but
realizing that the Muslim League was insistent on the partition of
India, on March 8, 1947, it threw its weight behind the Sikh
demand for the partition of the Punjab.
Viceroy Mountbatten came to the conclusion that the partition of
India had become inevitable. Therefore on June 3, 1947, the
Partition Plan was announced which required the Punjab and Bengal
assemblies to vote on whether they wanted to keep their provinces
united or partitioned. Both the assemblies voted in favour of
partitioning their provinces.
The actual transfer of power to India and Pakistan proved to be
bloody and bitter. Some people have described it as one of the ten
great tragedies of the 20th century. The estimated loss of life
during the partition of India is one million. Besides, 14-18
million people were forced to cross the international border in
search of safe havens.
For the Punjab alone, the loss of life is estimated somewhere
between 500,000-800,000 and 10 million people were forced to flee
for their lives. More importantly, after World War II the first
case of ethnic cleansing took place in the Punjab. Therefore, it
bore the brunt of the partition violence. Thus at the end of 1947
all traces of a Muslim presence in the Indian East Punjab were
wiped out, except for some Muslims remaining in the tiny princely
state of Malerkotla (total population 88,000). In the Pakistani
West Punjab, Hindus and Sikhs became conspicuous by their absence.
Given the fact that the pre-partition Punjab had a robust legacy
of a 'live and let live' tradition bequeathed by the efforts of
Muslim Sufis, Hindu Sants and Sikh Gurus, such an outcome at the
end of 1947 was too drastic and traumatic and remained an
intriguing and perplexing puzzle. There were some peculiarities
which rendered the Punjab vulnerable to violence in case the
competing parties and their leaders could not agree to keep their
province united. Among them the main factor was that nearly a
million Punjabi Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs had recently been
demobilized from the British Indian Army.
Additionally there were criminal gangs operating all over Punjab.
These two elements and partisan government functionaries,
politicians and ethnic activists formed nexuses that began to
coordinate attacks on the 'enemy community'. Once the British were
gone and two partisan administrations came to power in the divided
Punjab whole-sale attacks on the minorities started taking place.
By the end of the year ethnic cleansing had been achieved.
The main argument set forth in this study ("The Punjab Bloodied,
Partitioned and Cleansed: Unravelling the 1947 Tragedy through
Secret British Reports and First-Person Accounts"/OUP) is that the
partition of India was necessary but not a sufficient basis for
the partition of the Punjab. In other words, if India had not been
partitioned the Punjab would not be partitioned. However, there
was no logical necessity for the Punjab to be partitioned if India
Why could not Punjabi Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs agree to keep
their province united? Why did the violence that took place in the
Punjab dwarf the violence that took place in other parts of India?
I explain these with the help of a theoretical framework developed
in a chapter entitled 'A theory of ethnic cleansing'.
Fear of an uncertain future, lack of communication between the
leaders of the estranged communities, the waning authority of the
British and the consequent unreliability of the state institutions
and functionaries created the social and political milieu in which
suspicion and fear proliferated, generating angst among the common
people. In such situations reaction and overreaction led to
intended and unintended consequences which aggravated and finally
resulted in the biggest human tragedy in the history of the Indian
There is the first holistic and comprehensive study of the
partition of the Punjab. It covers chronologically the events
which unfolded during 1947 and covers the whole of Punjab - the 28
districts and the princely states. During January 1 - August 14,
1947, it was under British rule. According to Sir Evan Jenkins,
the last British governor of Punjab, only some 5,000 fatalities
had taken place till August 4, 1947. From August 15 to December
31, 1947, those figures shot up to anything between 500,000 to
No official documents are available from either India or Pakistan
on that period. I have, for the first time in 65 years, brought to
light the events on both sides with more than 230 first-person
accounts. I also spoke to people now settled in other parts of
India and Pakistan and in London, Stockholm and several US cities.
It took me 12 years to collect the evidence to tell the story of
what happened after power was transferred to the East and West
The conclusion I reached from my research is that in March 1947
the Muslims started large-scale violence, mainly against Sikhs but
also against Hindus, in the Muslim-majority districts of northern
Punjab. Yet at the end of that year more Muslims had been killed
in East Punjab than Hindus and Sikhs together in West Punjab. How
and why that happened is for the first time presented in this book
Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University And
Honorary Senior Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS),
National University of Singapore. His book "The Punjab Bloodied,
Partitioned and Cleansed: Unravelling the 1947 Tragedy through
Secret British Reports and First-Person Accounts" has just been
published by Oxford University Press. He can be reached at