Last Updated: 04 Nov. 2013
The Lahore Resolution of 1940 marked a turning point for the subcontinent. As the leaders of the Muslim League stated their desire for a separate Muslim state, the drive for Pakistan escalated. The partition of India gave rise also to the question of partitioning provinces, in particular Bengal and Punjab. In effect, the Muslim League focus shifted from the protection of Muslim minorities to separating Muslim majority areas to delineate the boundaries of a Muslim state. The struggle to win over Punjab, which held key Muslim majority areas, therefore became paramount. Yet the desire to create a contiguous majority area held many complications, not only in maintaining communal contiguity where there was often none, but particularly for the large Sikh community who were alarmed at the possibility of being a non-Muslim minority in a potential Muslim state.
The Cabinet Mission proposal set by the British, of a federal system in India after their departure, was met with great consternation by Congress. Though the British offered an interim government, the Congress rejected the proposal stressing on the need for a strong center, and agreed to the constitutional reforms offered, as long as the proposal was subject to Congress revision. The Muslim League accepted the proposal on the basis that the grouping of provinces contained the seeds of Pakistan in them, yet the clout Congress had over future workings of the proposal resulted in non-reconcilable differences between the two major political parties. The Muslim League withdrew its support from the Cabinet Mission Plan in July 1946, threatening to resort to direct action to achieve Pakistan. Despite the political tensions, the British invited the Congress to form the interim government, and Jinnah announced 16 August 1946 as the date for Direct Action to commence.
In Punjab elections for the interim government in 1946 resulted in the leading non-communal Unionist party dealing with an increasingly powerful Muslim League. The Unionist Party was losing unity within its ranks with the loss of powerful leaders. With the death of Sir Chotu Ram in January 1945, the solid standing of the Hindu Jats was tenuous at best, while defections continued in support of Pakistan. Such support was on the rise amongst the Muslims of Punjab as tensions with the Sikh community reached its peak. Though the Unionists formed a coalition government, election results on 24 February 1946 proved a Muslim League popular victory; the Muslim League won 75 seats in the 175 member assembly, becoming the biggest single party to win the most seats in parliament. Politics in Punjab were now firmly entrenched along communal lines. With the induction of the first Indian administration, officials, depending on religious affiliation, made the environment of hostility worse by not maintaining administrative neutrality.
The stratification of political affiliation deepened across the subcontinent, giving fuel to an environment of increased communal hatred. Incendiary speeches made by political leaders from both sides of the divide sparked violence and encouraged acts of extreme brutality. Answering the call of Direct Action, Muslims assembled in various cities across the subcontinent. Clashes with Hindus and Sikhs in some cities descended into massacres orchestrated by criminal elements in cities such as Calcutta. The interim government led by Congress was sworn into office on 24 August 1946, and Nehru wrote to Jinnah, inviting the Muslim League to join them in the center. Yet, though they were members of the same cabinet, Muslim League and Congress ministers could not agree on any power sharing arrangement at the center. In light of the continuing tension between the Congress and Muslim League, the partition of India into two states became a real objective that had dire consequences for the Punjab.
The Sikh leader Master Tara Singh had voiced concerns regarding the designation of the Sikh community to the Muslim majority areas vis-à-vis the Cabinet Mission Plan. The advent of Direct Action to achieve Pakistan split the rift further, as the Sikh community was reluctant to be a minority in a Muslim state. Feeling that the British had neglected their rights as a nation, with the Punjab as their cultural and religious homeland, the Sikhs began to push for the partition of Punjab. Master Tara Singh demanded the making of Khalistan for the Sikhs in East Punjab.
Direct Action was in full swing throughout the subcontinent, and amidst the turmoil, the British announced transfer of power to the Indians on 20 February 1947. The British government stated the handing over of power would take place no later than the middle of 1948. With a definite deadline in place, agitation reached unprecedented levels, with Muslim League leaders filling prisons across the country. The murder of a Sikh constable in Amritsar amidst violent rioting resulted in uproar within the Sikh community. Although Jinnah and other Muslim League leaders tried to appease the situation by writing to Sikh leaders such as Master Tara Singh extending a formal apology, the Sikh political parties with the Akali Dal at the forefront, could not be appeased and violence mushroomed across all the cities of the Punjab.
Tara Singh’s historical speech in Lahore, where he allegedly waved his kirpan in the air, split the gap between the Muslims and non-Muslims of Punjab irrevocably. Political slogans flung by either side dichotomized communities; support for Pakistan became a question of proving Muslim faith and protecting the Muslim community, and opposition to Pakistan was viewed as a necessity by non-Muslims who did not wish to become a minority. With the Independence Act of 18 July 1947, Pakistan became a reality, and during this time, Jinnah strove to win Sikh support, but without guarantee of any safety, the two sides were irreconcilable.
The final wave of communal violence began on Partition 14th and 15th August 1947, as millions of people on either side of the newly found border were forced to move. The immense turmoil left as many as 1.5 million people dead, and violence persisted till December 1947.
Ahmed, Ishtiaq. The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed. Karachi: Oxford UP, 2012.