by Omar Ali
“agli wari beyraja peya tey chhadna nahin…” (the next time anarchy occurs; don’t miss your chance…)
The dream of a violent and destructive “revolution” that will “sweep away this sorry scheme of things entire and remake it nearer to heart’s desire” may or may not be an old idea. Some think it is derived from the apocalyptic visions of various Judeo-Christian cults and prophets, others that it is a relatively new idea that arose in post-enlightenment Europe and got exported to the rest of the world. Whatever the case, it is an idea that permeates modern millenarian ideologies like communism, and from that fecund source it has found its way into Islamism and dozens of other ideologies that yearn for total transfromation rather than incremental change. We in the subcontinent have not yet seen an organized premeditated revolution akin to the Russian or Chinese experience, but in the 20th century, we did see at least two episodes of very violent and sudden re-ordering of affairs, once in 1947 and then in 1971.
Neither episode was marked by anarchy in every corner of the subcontinent; the anarchy of 1947 was especially concentrated in West Pakistan and East Punjab. Many terrible massacres and crimes occurred in other parts of North India and Bengal, but Punjab was by far the worst hit and the most totally transformed. In West Pakistan, countless prosperous Hindus and Sikhs lost lands and businesses and moved to India (or died in the attempt). All this property was then reassigned to new owners. Keep in mind that urban property in particular had been heavily concentrated in the hands of Hindus and Sikhs. e.g., all of Anarkali bazar in Lahore was in Hindu hands prior to partition and on the main road (Mall road) there was only one Muslim-owned building (Shah din Building). Almost all cinemas and other valuable commercial property were owned by Hindus and Sikhs. Evacuee property boards were set up to try and bring some order to this process but the administration was as virginal as the state. A very small number of Muslim officials suddenly found themselves in the position of deciding the fate of property and assets worth billions. In the ensuing scramble, the most enterprising, the best connected, and the least scrupulous managed to grab vast wealth and opportunities, while millions didn’t even realize the full significance of what was happening.
Terrible massacres and riots were not just the result of deep religious hatreds or the sudden eruption of primal human savagery; enterprising crooks took advantage of the anarchy of partition to get rid of competitors and anyone whose property looked ripe for plucking. As matters stabilized, terrible crimes and atrocities disappeared into the black hole of memory and the new elite got busy embellishing its own mythology of “deliverance from the Hindu yoke”, with little mention of how this “deliverance” involved the looting of existing property and the takeover of institutions and positions suddenly left vacant by the departure of the Hindu and Sikh elite.