The battle for Lahore and Amritsar

By Ishtiaq Ahmed

The News, August 25, 2007

Large-scale rioting in the undivided Punjab subsided from March 14, 1947, onwards, but enough blood had been spilled not to let the Punjab return to normality. Lahore, Amritsar, Multan and Rawalpindi witnessed harrowing scenes of inhumanity hitherto unknown to the Punjab. However, in Multan and Rawalpindi the non-Muslims were not only greatly outnumbered, but these towns were located deep in the overwhelmingly Muslim-majority western Punjab. Therefore the Hindus and Sikhs began to migrate, often times sending their womenfolk and children away to safer havens eastwards, and decided not to confront the Muslim majority in a militant manner.

The situation of Lahore and Amritsar was very different. These two cities were the biggest and second-biggest urban and commercial centres of the Punjab. They were located in central Punjab, where although Muslims were in a slight majority the three communities were evenly balanced in terms of population. Moreover, both districts belonged to the Lahore division and there was a regular daily movement of people and goods between them. Therefore what happened in one would have an immediate repercussion on the other.

Accordingly to the 1941 census, Lahore city had a total population of 671,659. It had crossed the 700,000 mark by 1947. It had an absolute majority of 64.5 per cent Muslims and the rest were Hindus and Sikhs as well as a small Christian community. In the district as a whole, Muslims were 60.6 per cent and Hindus and Sikhs together made up 39.4 per cent of the population. However, many of the new localities and most of the commercial and trading areas in the city were owned by Hindus and Sikhs, whose presence in the life of the city was very visible and prominent. They owned 80 per cent of the total wealth in it. Thus despite the statistics which showed a Muslim majority, many of the Hindus and Sikhs believed that they together were in a majority. A widely held belief among them was that Lahore will remain in India come what may.

Amritsar had a total population of 391,010. Although Muslims were the biggest single group they were not in a majority. In the city as a whole they constituted 47 per cent of the total population while Hindus and Sikhs together made up 53 per cent of the population. In Amritsar district as a whole too Hindus and Sikhs were in a majority of 54.5 per cent while Muslims were 45.5 per cent. Amritsar was the only city and district in the Lahore division that had a Hindu-Sikh majority (other districts besides Lahore were Gujranwala, Gurdaspur, Sialkot and Sheikhupura). Although Hindus and Sikhs were the richer communities of Amritsar the Muslims were also well-represented in trade and small-scale manufacturing. Amritsar was the holiest Sikh city, but among the Muslims there was a very strong belief that Amritsar will become a part of Pakistan.

Given these demographic and geographical peculiarities the battle for these two cities raged almost until the end of June in Lahore and until the beginning of August in Amritsar. Usually recrudescence of violence would first occur in Amritsar and a day or two later it would surface in Lahore. This is evident from the newspaper reports as well as government documents. I grew up in Lahore hearing from elders that the Muslim goondas of Amritsar sent a packet filled with henna and bangles to their Muslim counterparts with a view to taunt them for not attacking the Hindus and Sikhs despite being in a much bigger majority. When I started researching the Punjab partition one main concern was to find out if this actually happened or it was merely one of those rumours which go around so much that ultimately everyone starts believing in them. I finally found a statement issued by the district magistrate of Lahore in May 1947 that the Lahore goondas had received such a package from Amritsar. The details will be covered in my forthcoming book.

It can be said that until about mid-June 1947 both sides -- Muslims versus Hindu-Sikhs -- confronted each other as equals. The RSS exploded bombs while the Muslims relied heavily on setting Hindu-Sikh localities ablaze with different substances called 'solutions' in the popular parlance.

From mid-June onwards the Muslims definitely achieved the upper hand in Lahore and the first stream of Hindus and Sikhs fleeing the city could be noted. It never ceased; on the contrary it increased by the day until on August 14 only between 10-15, 000 Hindus and Sikhs out of nearly 300,000 were in Lahore. On the other hand, in Amritsar the combat was a ding-dong situation for a long time with both sides holding fast in their belief that Amritsar will remain with them.

Consequently a very large number of Amritsar Muslims were still in that city when the Radcliffe Award was announced on August 17. Syed Ahmed Saeed Kirmani, who was in those days a prominent student leader, would travel many times to Amritsar from Lahore (during those days) carrying with him the message that Amritsar will come to Pakistan. Sardar Shaukat Hayat Khan would also travel often from Lahore to Amritsar to tell the Muslims that their resistance was paramount to the achievement of Pakistan and that their city will remain in Pakistan.

On the other hand, the Sikhs were preparing for revenge attacks in case their demand that Nankana Sahib and Lahore -- both considered holy by them -- were not awarded to India. Although the Sikhs and Muslims were engaged in negotiations until the very end to find a formula for keeping the Punjab undivided, extremist factions of the Akalis led by Udham Singh Nagoke and another by Niranjan Singh Gill an ex-soldier of the Indian National Army of Subhash Chander Bose were on the look out for assaults on Muslims. Equally the RSS had been re-grouping in Amritsar, having been ousted from Lahore by the end of June.

What comes out most strongly is that nobody wanted to leave their homes and neighbourhoods. When I interviewed Khawaja Iftikhar in Lahore in 2003 to talk about his book "Jabb Amritsar jal raha tha" (When Amritsar was burning), I was very surprised to hear him describe the relations between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs in Amritsar as very warm and cordial before the trouble began. The situation in Lahore was even friendlier as comes out clearly from my collection of oral histories.

The author is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), National University of Singapore on leave from the University of Stockholm. Email:

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