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Essay
Last Updated: 01/10/2014
Partition through Literature
Showkat Ahmad Dar

The hard struggle against British rule was marred by the division of a united India. Millions are said to have moved across the borders and lakhs of people lost their lives. This was an irreparable loss for the subcontinent. We can’t undo the partition, which is now a reality. We must learn lessons from history. The aim of the paper is to focus on the writers’ perspectives, as reflected in their stories and novels. It is interesting to note that a majority of these writers transcend the petty ethnic prejudices and are generous in portraying characters of other ethnic groups.

Key words: Partition, Communalism, abduction, Toba Tek Singh, Train to Pakistan.


The population of India is composed of a variety of people possessing various religions, practising diverse rites, speaking different languages, and having manifold cultures from times immemorial; remarkably, they lived in relative harmony, fostering a spirit of humanism and tolerance among its inhabitants which gave them a reputation of “inimitable eminence”. Irrespective of their disparity, they forged a united front in the struggle for independence, and thus liberated their country from the chained yoke of the British Empire on the 15th of August 1947. However the wonderful moment of independence was marred by the tragedy of Partition, “an original trauma”, which constitutes one of the most tragic chapters in modern- history, not only of India, but of the whole world.

first edition cover

Salman Rushdie in Midnight’s Children portrays the Independence / Partition episode as follows: “in all the cities, all the towns, all the villages the little dia-lamps burns on the window-sills porches verandas, while train burns in the Punjab, with the green flames of blistering paints and the glaring saffron or fired fuel, like the biggest dias in the world. And the city of Lahore too is burning.” The monster in the streets has began to roar, while in Delhi a wiry man is saying “at the stroke of midnight hour, while the world sleeps, India awakens to lay and freedom. And beneath the roar of the monster there are two more yells, cries, bellows, and the howls of children arriving in the world their unavailing protests mingling with the din of Independence which hangs saffron and green in the night sky.” In this passage, Rushdie creates a montage by linking the features of customary everyday life and the birth of two children with the violent destruction associated with Partition.

At the root of Partition lay the concept of communalism between the two principle communities (Hindus and Muslims) of the subcontinent; a political assertiveness of a community to maintain its identity in a plural society. Indian premier Jawaharlal Nehru remarked that “One communalism does not end the other, each feeds on the other and both fatten”. The creation of Pakistan synchronised with the partition of India; which marked the communal hurly-burly, and resulted a large scale migration, torture and massacre. Its magnitude was so great that it impacted all walks of life. A tragedy began to unfold in the border state of Punjab with an exodus of Hindus and Sikhs eastwards into India and Muslims westwards into Pakistan. The consecrated land of the modern religion of Sikhism split apart, and the “radical leaders called for Khalistan, which never materialised”.1 Urvashi Butalia estimates that in 1947 “roughly ten to twelve million people are said to have moved within the space of a few months, between the newly truncated India and newly created Pakistan. Between 500, 000 to One million people are believed to have died.”2 Mushirul Hassan estimates that “29,000 to 50,000 Muslim women and 15,000 to 35,000 Hindu and Sikh women were abducted, raped, forced to convert and marriage.” Not only these, but an “untold number of women particularly in Sikh families were killed by their kinsmen in order to protect them from being converted and perhaps an equal being killed themselves”.3 Another writer G. Pandey notes that a few families, on both sides of the border, were willing to sacrifice young women to abduction in order to buy security for the family.4 Thus the most victimised people in the partition on all sides were women.

The other side of Partition was the creation of the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir, once known as paradise on earth but know called the most dangerous place to live. The centuries of coexistence among Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims was sacrificed to a new era of mutual suspicion. The resulting mass relocations of these groups transformed village populations overnight, as human traits turned inhuman, and peaceful co-existence turned to suspicion and sadism, and each and every one became enemies.

The relationship between the Hindus and Muslims started deteriorating rapidly after the Khilafat and non-cooperation movement. If one would study carefully the historiography of the Partition, it would be difficult to place the blame exclusively on any one of the actors—be it Quid-i- Azam Ali Mohammad Jinnah, Jawaharlal Nehru or Mohan Das Karam Chand Gandhi – or in concrete terms, the Muslim League or the Congress. The great modern scholars and leftist historians Bipan Chandra and his colleagues consider the creation of Partition to be the result of the “surging waves of the Muslim Communalism” and “mainly because of the long term failure of the congress to draw the Muslim masses into the national movement”.

But we should be careful not to exonerate the role of the British rulers who were the chief culprits of the age old policy and practice of “divide and rule”, and dissected the common flesh and blood of India. Thus Moulana Azad aptly held that the partition was neither in the interests of India [Hindus] nor in the interests of Muslims themselves.5 Similarly Aysha Jalal has argued that “the psychological legacy of partition has left a much deeper impact on people's minds than the social, economic and political dynamics that led to the division. Whether the two dimensions should be separated quite as surgically as India was dismembered by the partitioner's axe is itself an issue of considerable disagreement among historians.”6

Oxford University Press, 1909

Historians nowadays are less apprehensive about the causes of the partition and are more introspective about its consequences. This lethal man-made tragedy has left a permanent mark on the psyche of all Indians and Pakistanis, and particularly haunts those whose families were the victims of this holocaust. Many attempts have been made by writers to process the agony, cruelty and genocide of the Partition through their art, and thus the experience has crept into prose, poetry drama, novels and short stories.

Saadat Hasan Manto, aged 42 The foremost attempt in this direction has been taken by Kashmiri Saadat Hasan Manto who lived in Bombay at the time of Partition and then in 1948 moved to the newly created country of Pakistan. Even after many decades, his writings are considered the most authoritative by researchers of Partition. What had been witnessed and experienced by the affected writers during the trauma of Partition is related in his stories in precise and unflinching detail. One of his best and perhaps the most famous partition stories is “Toba Tek Singh” has been called the “enfant terrible of the Urdu literature” by Mushirul Hasan. It is a conglomerate of the psychology and emotional interpretation of the pre and post partition affairs based around the central character of a Sikh prisoner named Bishan Singh who had gone mad fifteen years earlier. Everyone in the asylum prison calls him Toba Tek Singh, the name of his village. He often chants non-sense phrase like “Uper the gur gur the annexe the bay dhayana the mung the dal of the laltain.” The story is an ironic classic. A couple of years after Partition, both the governments (Pakistan and India) decided that the prisoners should be transferred to their respective lands. Muslim lunatics in India should be transferred to Pakistan and Hindu and Sikh lunatics in Pakistani asylums should be sent to India. Upon learning of the decision, the inmates are confused, as they knew nothing of the new land. If they were in India, where on earth was Pakistan? The protagonist's insanity creates a ‘no-man’s land’ between the two countries. Along with the inmates, we readers are left wondering “How a world which was so familiar had suddenly become a world of strangers?7 This is a pathetic story in which one gets the impression of the chaos and confusion that prevailed at the time of partition.

The pain of the abductions, rapes, and murders, and the other horrors of partition are also portrayed by this sensitive and creative writer. Thanda Gosht, Kali Shalwar, Khol Do, and Open It, to name only a few, are other well known stories of the author. In Open It, Sadat Manto depicts the madness caused by partition on women, telling his readers the story of a woman who was exploited and used by men for their individual contentment, and how cruelty engulfed all parts of subcontinent.

Train to Pakistan, Khushwant Singh

The successor of Sadat Hasan Manto was the writer of the magnum opus Train to Pakistan written by journalist-historian Khushwant Singh after nine years of Partition. Singh himself belongs to the community who remained the chief victims of the Partition. That is partly why, in this novel, he depicted all the ingredients subtly. Train to Pakistan is the story of an isolated village Mano Majo that is plunged into the abyss of religious hate. Singh’s attempt in the novel is to see the events from the point of view of the people of his village, a microcosm for “the self-destruction of India not only as a social and political entity but as a human and moral community”In the very opening lines of the novel, Singh laments that “the fact is both sides killed. Both shot and stabbed and speared and clubbed. Both tortured. Both raped”. He neither blames one or other but both parts. The women’s helplessness in the partition described by Singh is beautifully summed up by another writer, Bapsi Sidhwa, who asks herself, ? “Why do they cry like that? Because they are delivering unwanted babies, I‘m told or reliving hideous memories. Thousands of women were kidnapped.”9

Train to Pakistan pictures, as rightly put by K. K. Sharma and B. K. Johri, “the brutal realistic story of political hatred and mass passion during the tragic days that proceeded fallowed the partition of India. Trains were halted and the unfortunate passengers were ruthlessly butchered. Men, women and children were indiscriminate victims. They were molested and killed by armed bands of men.”10 He criticised Hindus, Muslim and Sikhs alike for their acts and performances, for example. the Mullahs [Muslim preachers] were reported to have roamed the Punjab and the Frontier Province with boxes of human skulls said to be those of Muslims killed in Bihar.11 Talking about Sikhs he narrated the story of a Sikh Sardar on a killing spree in a jeep alongside at mile-long column of Muslim refugees on foot; “without warning they opened fire with their stang guns. God alone knows how many they killed…”12 The animal characters of the human beings, irrespective of their religion or caste, is shown by the witness novelist. The novel also highlights the hopeful story of a Sikh boy and a Muslim girl whose love affair surpasses the dead cruelty and outrage of war. But it is right to mention here that the much of the story is given to scenes of romance and lust, which does much to maintain the reader’s interest and positivity during the great novelist’s magnum opus:

“He brought the girl’s face nearer his own and
Began kissing her on the back of her neck and on her ears
He could not hear the goods trains any more.
It had left the countryside in utter solitude.
Hukum Chand could hear his breathing quicken.
He undid the strap of the girl’s bodice.” 13

Khushwant Singh, like Salman Rushdie, believed that the birth of the two children [Pakistan and India] sent a portentous signal about the future of the new nations, doomed to destroy each other. In the above mentioned partition stories, a common theme is that, due to the partition of the country, friends became foes and long lasting traditions of brotherhood and peaceful coexistence quickly disappeared.

As said earlier, partition is now a reality, we can’t undo it. History teaches lessons and the need of the hour is to learn from them. The two so called “world wars” were fought among the European countries, not the Asian countries. Millions and trillions were exhausted; large numbers of human resources wasted but still they learned to cooperate and live peacefully with each other; then why not the people of the south Asia? Let’s pledge for the same, if not for ourselves, then for the new generations to come.


1 Shahid Hamid, Disastrous Twilight: A Personal Record of the Partition of India, London, Ico Coper, 1986, pp. 259-264.

2 Urvashi Butalia, The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India, Durham, Duke University Press, 2000, p. 208.

3 Mushirul Hasan (ed.) Inventing Boundaries: Gender, Politics and the Partition of India, Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 183.

4 G. Pandey, Remembering partition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001, p. 195.

5 Bipan Chandra, et.al, India’s struggle for independence, Penguin Books India, 1989, New Delhi, pp. 500-04.

6 Ayesha Jalal, Secularists, Subalterns and the Stigma of 'Communalism’: Partition Historiography Revisited, Modern Asian Studies, 30, 3 1996, pp.681-737.

7 Bhalla, Alok ed., Stories about the partition of India, Harper Collins, New Delhi, 1999, 122.

8 Personal Review: Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh.

9 Sidhwa, B (1997) New Neighbours’, Time Retrieved on May 5, 2010 from http://www.pathfinder.com/time/magazine/1997/int/970811/spl.neighbors.html.

10 K. K. Sharma and B. K. Johri, The Partition in India- English Novel, Vimal Prakashan, Ghaziabad, India, 1984, p. 64.

11 Khushwant Singh, Train to Pakistan. New Delhi: Orient Longman Pvt. Ltd., 2006, p.10.

12 Ibid, p. 6.

13 Ibid, p. 32


Showkat Ahmad Dar is a Ph.D. Research Scholar in the Department of History, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, Punjab 143005.
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