August is a month when all of India celebrates Independence Day and remembers the great sacrifices made by freedom fighters to help the country become free of British rule.
It is also a month to reflect on the savagery and bloodletting that took place when the country was partitioned on religious lines. The areas that now form the state of Kerala were mercifully spared of the violence of 1947, but places like Bengal and Punjab had the worst massacres.
The story of the Partition of India also comprises several heroes, sung and unsung, who saved the lives of terror-struck and innocent people who ended up being on the wrong side of the Radcliffe Line.
Sardar Kavalam Madhava (K M) Panikkar is celebrated for his incredibly long list of achievements, but his single-minded focus to save thousands of lives during the Partition is largely forgotten. Hailing from the village of Kavalam in Alappuzha district, Panikkar is now remembered as independent India’s first ambassador to China. He also served as ambassador to France and Egypt, in addition to working as an academic, newspaper editor (he was the founding editor of the Hindustan Times) and writing scores of books.
Born in 1895, Panikkar, who excelled in his studies in Kottayam, Madras and Oxford, entered the Princely Service in the 1920s. After working in the Patiala State, he moved to Bikaner, where he was first the foreign minister and later the prime minister, a position he held when the British were making their hasty retreat from India in August, 1947.
In his book titled In Two Chinas, Panikkar gave an account of his last days in Bikaner, before he was requested to serve as a diplomat for newly-independent India.
“To the north and east of it (Bikaner) lay East Punjab where Hindus and Sikhs had joined hands against the Muslims and were indulging in murder, loot and arson,” Panikkar wrote. “To the west of it lay Bahawalpur in Pakistan, where on one single day five thousand Hindus have been massacred.” This led to a large number of Hindus and Sikh refugees fleeing Pakistan and coming to Bikaner.
“The Muslim population in Bikaner itself was in a state of panic,” Panikkar added. “I was well aware that if I did not stop the conflagration on the borders of Bikaner and prevent it from spreading, it could not be stopped and would reach as far as Bombay with consequences which no one could foresee.”
The Muslims of the state were fearful of being attacked by not just vengeful refugees, but Sikhs from the irrigated part of Bikaner called Ganga Nagar. Communal passions ran wild through many parts of northern India at that time, and news and rumours of violence spread fast, leading to even more violence.
The areas that now make up Rajasthan were fertile grounds for mass communal violence in 1947. Stories of attacks on Rajput kingdoms by Muslim invaders, and Rajput valour, bravery and instances like mass suicide of princesses to escape ‘dishonour’ had been narrated to children for hundreds of years. Communal elements were looking to take advantage of the tense environment of Partition to settle old scores.
“I was determined at all costs to prevent the trouble spreading into Bikaner, not merely because of humanitarian considerations, but because I was well aware of the consequences of arousing the dormant anti-Muslim feeling of the Rajputs, and I knew that if there was the least weakening on my part, Rajputana would repeat, perhaps in an exaggerated form, the terrible history of the Punjab,” Panikkar wrote.
Having the support of Maharaja Sadul Singh, Panikkar sent the princely state’s army to Ganga Nagar, on the Punjab and Bahawalpur borders. The prime minister then toured the area and told residents that no violence would be tolerated against the state’s Muslim subjects. This came with a warning that the army had been given orders to shoot at rioters and that the civil authorities were authorised to impose collective fines on communities indulging in violence and to confiscate land!
Special evacuation of Punjabi refugees
Within a week of his visit the tension dissipated in the state, but over the next few weeks, the scale of violence and barbarity in neighbouring Punjab continued to get worse. Over 80,000 Punjabi Muslim refugees began to gather in camps near Bikaner’s borders. “The military guards provided by the government of India for these camps were altogether inadequate as the bulk of the Indian Army was still in Pakistan and the available forces in India were required for more important work,” Panikkar wrote. Attacks on refugee camps were common and this added to the worries of the Bikaner authorities, who feared an influx of refugees and chaos within its borders.
Panikkar requested the Indian government to evacuate the refugees by train and even offered railway wagons provided the government sent armed guards to protest those fleeing the violence. New Delhi, already overburdened with refugees coming in from Pakistan, was in no position to help.
When help wasn’t forthcoming from an overburdened union government, Panikkar decided to take up the responsibility himself. He wrote: “I decided to escort the refugees across the state, partly by special trains over the Bikaner State Railway and partly on foot across the sands of Bikaner.” The state army would protect the convoy.
This decision did not go well with many in Bikaner, especially in places like Ganga Nagar where there were calls for revenge from both Hindu and Sikh refugees and locals alike. Panikkar, however, had the complete support of the Maharaja of Bikaner.
“The first convoy went across to Pakistan safely without a single incident,” Panikkar wrote. “Taking courage, I then ordered a second convoy, this time on foot with only Police escort, to march across the state.” Panikkar was in not in a position to personally escort more refugees and the state’s resources were under tremendous pressure, and so came the decision for a police escort by foot.
Thousands of people, including women and children, undertook this journey of over 350 kilometres on foot and crossed the desert. Food and water were provided, and the local population was kept away from the refugees. The police also had to keep in mind a danger of surprise attacks from hooligans and refugees who crossed over from the other side.
“When this weary procession also reached Pakistan, I heaved a sigh of relief,” Panikkar wrote. “The Maharaja was also extremely happy. He felt pride in the fact that his was the only state, where not only no anti-Muslim incidents had taken place, but where conditions were so normal that refugees could be convoyed across with only a police escort.”
Once this problem was solved, Panikkar went to New York, as part of India’s delegation to the United Nations General Assembly. His international diplomatic career would subsequently take off.
Those horrible days in 1947 left a deep imprint on Panikkar’s mind. He wrote about the “painful memories” of the “inhuman cruelty, deliberate massacres and large-scale relapse into atavistic barbarism, which were displayed on both sides.”
It has been 74 years since India was divided on religious lines. The country’s younger generations need to be taught about the savagery of those days, lest India forget what kind of evil human beings are capable of when drunk on the poison of hate. When talking of those days, heroes like Panikkar should be remembered with a great degree of reverence.
(The writer is the author of 'Globetrotting for Love and Other Stories from Sakhalin Island’ and 'A Week in the Life of Svitlana')