By its own modest admission, this book is the latest offering to the vast corpus of literature that already exists on Partition. That in itself is reflective of Partition’s enduring legacy (enough for it to become a proper noun). Not only is it a wound that has yet to completely heal but it is also an event, or as some would argue, a process, that has yet to be fully understood. Indeed, Chattha too, as with virtually everyone who has ever worked on Partition, tries to grapple with how communities living relatively harmoniously over generations could turn on one another so viciously. As he suggests, there certainly were societal divisions and conflicts, religious and otherwise, but none that would warrant the sheer barbarity and visceral hatred that characterised Partition.
To make sense of this, Chattha looks at the cities of Sialkot and Gujranwala and their experiences of Partition-related violence, resettlement, and recovery. This focus on localities is a welcome approach and one that is a distinguishing feature of the recent writings on Partition. Even in those instances, however, Lahore and Amritsar have predictably attracted greater attention in relation to other districts and towns. In contrast to its regional and national variants, this approach highlights the differentiated nature of violence and recovery across various localities.
Despite this variation, both Sialkot and Gujranwala have much in common. According to the author, both were plagued by intense violence and the consequent migration of Hindus and Sikhs. Both also played host to large numbers of Muslim refugees and managed to recover and develop following the chaos of Partition. That said, much the same could be said about any other district in central and northern Punjab. What marks them out though, are their contrasting local and industrial profiles. Gujranwala’s position in central Punjab distinguished its pattern of violence, resettlement, and recovery from Sialkot which was a thriving industrial city, remade into a border town by a callously drawn line which divided the subcontinent in August, 1947.
In the first of the three parts to the book, Chattha examines the pre-Partition history of both cities. Starting from pre-colonial times through to 1947, he sketches a brief history of their differentiated patterns of urban settlement and economic activities. The “colonial inheritance” of both cities is also examined in detail, which makes for interesting reading in its own right.
Gujranwala and its satellite towns were important sites within the railway network while their artisan castes, especially the Muslim Lohars and Tarkhans, were renowned for their skills in metalworking and carpentry. Sialkot, on the other hand, became a thriving export-led industrial centre for surgical and sports goods.
Having introduced us to both cities, Chattha then embarks on the second section of his book which looks at the patterns of violence and displacement that began in March, 1947. This is where the book gets really interesting. While recognising the “spontaneity” of Partition violence, he also emphasises its organised nature. This is a very important argument. While other historians have also looked at the meticulous planning and organisation that went into massacres and forced evictions, Chattha masterfully locates the agents that were
involved in violence and examines the local specificities that led to violence in both Sialkot and Gujranwala.
The case of Gujranwala is particularly interesting. In this instance, violence against Hindus and Sikhs was orchestrated by the Lohars who drew on an ample stockpile of weapons — knives, daggers, swords, carbines et al. — which they were famous for producing. Among many incidents, this group, in connivance with individual railway drivers who were at times drawn from the same caste, ambushed trains carrying Hindu and Sikh refugees to India. What followed was a systematic slaughter of non-Muslims and the looting of their possessions.
In both cases, violence accompanied and was often encouraged by the rapid breakdown of state authority. This in turn was further worsened by the active participation of policemen and state functionaries whose job it was to ensure law and order. For a visual depiction of this trend, look no further then the scene in the movie Earth in which Amir Khan expresses his satisfaction at the firemen pouring fuel onto the flames consuming the houses of non-Muslims in Lahore. As with Amir Khan’s character, the actual protagonists involved in massacres, rapes, forced conversions and looting justified their actions in terms of seeking revenge for their hapless co-religionists who were being put to the sword in
East Punjab. As should be obvious, the killing teams in East Punjab used exactly the same justifications for their actions.
Having established that, the author then leads us into the third part of his book which examines the post-Partition period and the challenges of resettlement and economic recovery in both cities. Both localities were demographically transformed by the en-masse migration of non-Muslims and the influx of Muslim refugees from East Punjab. Chattha makes the interesting point that this displacement created opportunities for both locals and refugees in different sectors of the economy. In this sense, both cities also ‘gained’ from Partition.
Also intriguing is his analysis of the state’s role in refugee resettlement and economic development.
The real strength of this book though, is in the source material that Chattha has collected. Amongst the many materials this book is based on, are FIRs that he has collected from thanas. As someone who has had the distinct privilege (sarcasm intended) of working in Pakistani archives and record offices, I can only admire Chattha for his perseverance in getting hold of these records. He also supplements these sources with his use of interviews with both the perpetrators and victims of Partition. Particularly poignant are the accounts of “dindars” who chose conversion to Islam over certain death and dispossession.
One only wishes, though, that more space could have been devoted to what is undoubtedly the strength of this book: its superb analysis of localised violence. That in itself would have made a great monograph. But in dwelling on the pre- and post-Partition period this book reads more like a collection of distinct (though well-argued) sections rather then a harmonious whole.
Returning to one of his important arguments in relation to organised violence, Chattha suggests that “violence was politically, rather then religiously or culturally motivated. The political aims were not so much tied into the wider All-India issues but were to attain local power and territorial control.” (page 255) Like others, I am also sympathetic to this view.
Yet, (and this is a general comment, not a criticism of this book) these explanations often betray an eagerness to understand violence in largely functionalist or materialist terms.
Clearly, barbarity is more comprehendible when wrapped up in motives considered to be ‘rational’ and ‘calculated.’ And yet, there remains the uneasy ‘irrationality’ of violence to contend with, which invokes the abstract (read incomprehensible) notions of ‘community’ and ‘faith.’
Both can’t be easily reconciled, especially by those who despair at the sheer ‘irrationality’ or ‘madness’ of Partition violence. And so we end from where we began. Does this book advance our understanding of Partition? The answer to that is unequivocally yes. And yet, as any historian would acknowledge, there are no easy answers. This is where writers like Saadat Hasan Manto and poets like Amrita Pritam step in; for they evocatively capture the sense of bewilderment that lies behind any work on Partition. And therefore, even after all is said and done, Partition continues to defy comprehension. For the moment though, Ilyas Chattha’s book is as good.
Reviewed by Ali Raza: The reviewer has a PhD in South Asian History from Oxford University
Partition and Locality: Violence, Migration, and Development in Gujranwala and Sialkot, 1947–1961, (HISTORY), By Ilyas Chattha, Oxford University Press, Karachi, ISBN 9780199061723, 322pp.