During the dark days of Partition the soldiers of both India and Pakistan did a splendid job of protecting the people, upholding the highest traditions of the British Indian Army.
India and Pakistan are known to the outside world for their 60 years of dispute, and their complicated, brutal internal struggles. While a new wave of horrific violence perpetrated by religious extremists is shaking the very foundation of the Pakistani state, in India ugly communal forces are gaining in strength by the day. The armed forces of both countries are engaged in countering the violence emanating from the internal threats.
Perhaps the darkest chapter in the troubled history of both countries was Partition, which accompanied their independence. Countless number of innocent people were massacred on both sides. What is little known is that in those times of hatred and bigotry, soldiers of all religions and ethnic groups behaved splendidly. It was amazing to see the way the men of honour conducted themselves while their religious compatriots were killing one another on the streets.
In 1947, the British Indian Army was divided and officers and men were moved from one country to the other to join their new units. Major Nisar Ahmad Qureshi was designated Assistant Military Secretary of the Pakistan army. His family moved from Simla to Ambala, where it stayed with Nisar’s classmate Squadron Leader Mehra. From Ambala, the family members went to Delhi, where Major J.A.L. Kama was their host until they were safely flown to Pakistan. In December 1947, Captain Sri Ram’s family was in Muzaffarabad. He sent a message to his friend and wartime comrade Captain Anwar Qureshi, who moved his family to Rawalpindi. Anwar made arrangements for the family to stay at Major Abdul Rahman’s house. He got hold of an army truck and drove it himself to Lahore, where he handed over the family to the Indian High Commissioner for safe repatriation. Such men on both sides deserve our respect for, they lost neither their discipline nor humanity in the days when many around them were blinded by hate.
A majority of soldiers and officers of all religious and ethnic communities upheld the tradition of a fine institution. In one instance, a number of soldiers were on a train taking Hindu refugees from Pakistan to India. The guard van had a Hindu and a Punjabi Muslim soldier protecting their charge. A Sikh subedar, a Hindu sepoy and a Punjabi Muslim havaldar were travelling together on this train. The Sikh subedar was kept out of sight and protected by the Muslim havaldar when the train passed through Pakistan as mobs were roaming the railway stations. Once it entered India, the subedar took the Muslim havaldar to his first-class compartment where a retired Sikh captain was also present. The two Sikh soldiers threatened large mobs with their weapons to prevent them from entering their cabin. Risking their lives, they protected the Muslim havaldar and dropped him safely at Meerut.
The First Mahar is a battalion of the Indian army. In 1947, it consisted of an equal number of Marhattas and Sikhs. Captain Syed Ahmad Mansur was the commander of a Marhatta Company of the battalion. In August 1947, he was on internal security duty in Delhi but was in charge of Hindu soldiers who did not belong to his battalion. He was asked if he would escort Muslim refugee trains. He agreed on condition that he would be given a platoon from his own company of Marhattas of the First Mahar. When Mansur and his indomitable Marhatta soldiers were escorting some Muslim passengers near Jalandhar, the engine was derailed by rioters. A large mob converged on the train and Mansur’s Marhattas opened fire to protect Muslim refugees. The train reached Pakistan safely. On their way back to India, Mansur and his men escorted a train of non-Muslim refugees. They performed their task without favour or prejudice, protecting every life under their charge, Muslim or non-Muslim.
Several Gurkha and Garhwal Rifles battalions, which performed internal security duties, never hesitated to open fire on bloodthirsty mobs. A patrol of the First Kumaon fired on a Hindu mob, killing more than 50 people. Many of the killed rioters were Ahirs belonging to the same villages from where the regiment recruited its men. At the Regimental Centre in Agra, some soldiers complained about the incident. However, when it was made clear that only a thoroughly professional and first-class regiment can act without favour and prejudice, all was well. These were truly shining moments in the history of the proud Kumaon regiment.
In Pakistan, too, battalions consisting of Muslims performed their duty with the utmost devotion. When the 7th Battalion of 10 Baluch Regiment commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Gulzar Ahmad was stationed in Karachi, a Muslim mob attacked a group of Sikhs near a gurdwara. A patrol was rushed to the scene and soldiers shot at the rioters without hesitation. Muhammad Ali Jinnah complimented the battalion on performing its duty without fear or favour. 11 Cavalry escorted non-Muslim refugees from Abbotabad and the Gujar Khan area and a Squadron of 11 Cavalry commanded by Captain Akhtar Aslam protected the lives and property of non-Muslims in Mianwali.
Major Muhammad Aslam of the 7th Field Battery was in charge of law and order in Mandi Bahauddin. Some local hooligans gathered around his party and told him they planned to loot the homes of non-Muslims. Aslam warned them to disperse but they rushed at the military detachment. Soldiers opened fire, killing six rioters and the rest ran away. The Chief of the Pakistan Army General Frank Messervy sent a letter of commendation to Aslam, in which he said: “It is essential for the future of Pakistan that the present disturbances are stopped as soon as possible. The police in these disturbances have become so communal minded as to be unreliable and under such circumstances, if the Army becomes communal minded the whole future of Pakistan is at stake.” The same could have been said about the Indian Army.
Many non-Muslim families lived among frontier tribesmen at the time of Independence. The local Pushtun code of conduct assured them some protection. When it was decided to repatriate the families to India, their protection was entrusted to the army and scouts. The 2nd Battalion of 15 Punjab stationed in Kohat was given the task of escorting them from Parachinar. The second-in-command, Major Sardar, brought the families safely to Kohat where they were placed in a safe camp. The camp was protected by soldiers of the Pakistan Army.
The Kurram militia set up a camp for non-Muslims in Parachinar and protected it from the depredations of fellow Muslims. In Peshawar city, two platoons of the militia rescued several Sikh families. South Waziristan Scouts were assigned the task of escorting a Gurkha battalion and a Sikh mountain battery from Wana. The proud Pushtuns were responsible for the safety of their erstwhile and equally brave comrades who happened to be Sikhs and Gurkhas.
An Afridi platoon led by Jemadar Shera Baz was escorting non-Muslim soldiers from Sarwakai to Jandola when their convoy was ambushed. Shera Baz and several scouts laid down their lives protecting the soldiers. It was a matter of honour for them to protect their charge. They performed their duty against enormous odds and pressure from their own kith and kin. Such actions are part of the collective heritage of the Pakistan Army.
Hatred begins against the ‘other’ who belongs to a different linguistic, ethnic or religious group. Unfortunately, it gets internalised quickly. Long after the ‘other’ ceases to be relevant, bigotry and hatred continue to take their toll. Pakistan supported non-state actors, inflaming them with the most retrogressive ideology to keep India busy. It is now reaping the harvest with the same forces devouring the country. This should serve as a lesson for those who sub-contract national security to non-state actors. In India, fear and suspicion of Pakistan reared a whole generation on the gospel of hate. These demons are now eating away the foundation of India.
There is a lesson for everyone in the way the soldiers of the British Indian Army conducted themselves in 1947. Men belonging to different ethnic groups and religions stood firm while performing a difficult and painful task. They fired at co-religionists who were bent on killing and looting. The people of India and Pakistan owe a lot to the brave men who provided a ray of light in the dark days of wanton murder, looting and destruction.
(Dr. Hamid Hussain is an independent analyst based in New York.)