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Etchings of Violence
[December 29, 2005]

Etchings of Violence


(India Today Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge)EPICENTRE OF VIOLENCE: PARTITION VOICES AND MEMORIES FROM AMRITSAR

Edited by Ian Talbot and Darshan Singh Tatla

Permanent Black

Price: Rs 595

Pages: 234

Many modern scholars argue that communal riots can only continue when government fails. Ian Talbot and Darshan Singh Tatla's collection of interviews with refugees from East Punjab at Partition supports this view. As Talbot puts it in his introduction, "None of this (violence) could have continued... without the connivance of officials, policemen and soldiers. Many of the attacks in both sides of Punjab were carried out with military precision."



Without any editorial comment, save a short introduction, the interviews are presented as straight transcriptions translated largely from Punjabi. All of the interviewees were what Talbot calls "acute refugees" who eventually settled in Amritsar, an epicentre of Partition violence and a place of transit for tens of thousands of displaced people. In the city itself on the eve of Partition, Muslims made up 49 per cent of the population, most of them artisans. By 1951 they were 0.52 per cent.

The interviewees, mainly Sikhs from varied economic and educational backgrounds, reveal the resilience of the refugees and how little they relied on government assistance to support themselves. Voluntary organisations and gurdwaras came forward spontaneously to help feed and clothe them. One figure, Bijli Pahalwan, is mentioned more than once. A leading Hindu transporter of the city, he arranged free transport and truckloads of men to defend the Golden Temple in case of attack.


Each interviewee describes his or her relations with Muslims before independence. More often than not these relations were close. Sardar Aridaman Singh Dhillon's grandfather protected Muslims in his area and ensured they crossed safely to Pakistan, motivated by the principles of Sikhism. Dhillon sees the original roots of the divisions in Punjab in the aggressive attitude of the Arya Samaj to other religions and its expression in the Punjabi press published from Lahore. He is one of the few to mention the press. For many during Partition local news seemed to come through word of mouth, much of it rumour. Dhillon also assesses the damaging role the British and the local Congress party played, while many of the other interviewees blame Partition more generally on politicians.

Inexplicably only four of the respondents in this collection are women, although those who are included have valuable experiences to relate. One helped to recover Muslim women abducted by Sikh and Hindu men and take them to Pakistan. One of the women escaped back to India at great personal risk and others objected violently to being taken away. Another interviewee tells how her brother intended to kill her so that she wouldn't be raped if their column of carts were attacked by Muslims, but that other refugees dissuaded him. Three of the interviewees were under 10 years old at independence, perhaps too young to have been included. This is, however, a small complaint.

Nearly 60 years have passed since 1947 and the chances to hear the voices of witnesses to Partition are dwindling just as the importance of oral accounts of historical events has been widely recognised. In this context this serious and scholarly volume is to be warmly welcomed.

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