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Rajmohan Gandhi’s book review of Ishtiaq Ahmed’s Punjab: Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed

13 August 2013

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IIC Quarterly


Rajmohan Gandhi

Author: Ishtiaq Ahmed Publisher: Rupa, Delhi, 2011 Details: pp. 808, Price: ` 995

In our subcontinent’s book of violence, some chapters are gorier than the rest. Of those dealing with the 20th century, none are more bloodstained than ‘Punjab 1947’ and ‘East Bengal 1971–72’. While the latter has yet to find its adequate historian, it would seem that Ishtiaq Ahmed’s study has finally done justice to ‘Punjab 1947’, attaining in its narration hitherto unreached levels of analysis, comprehensiveness and detail.

Two major studies of the 1947 killings and migrations appeared in India within three years of their traumatic occurrence: Justice Gopal Das Khosla’s Stern Reckoning, and a book compiled for the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandak Committee by Gurcharan Singh Talib, entitled Muslim League Attack on Sikhs and Hindus in the Punjab. On the Pakistani side of the border, three short publications were brought out in 1948 by the West Punjab government: Notes on the Sikh Plan; RSS in the Punjab; and Sikhs in Action.

However, this study of over 800 pages by Ishtiaq Ahmed, a Stockholm-based political scientist born in Lahore, is the first large work on the subject by someone of Pakistani origin, even though Ahmed comes across more as a tireless scholar than a Pakistani.

‘Unravelling the 1947 Tragedy’ is his stated aim. He seeks to break the tragedy down into what happened; where, how and why it happened; and in what sort of numbers. Concluding that ‘ethnic cleansing’ rather than ‘genocide’ took place, Ishtiaq Ahmed estimates that in all between 500,000 and 750,000 Punjabis—Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs—perished in that year. [. . .].


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