Sparks from Assam started dangerous fires in Mumbai and some other places last week. Mercifully, these did not last long. But they have the potential to start a gigantic fire engulfing the entire nation. This is a chilling reminder of the Partition holocaust, one of the greatest human tragedies in history.
Muhammed Ali Jinnah announced that his party would observe August 16, 1946, as Direct Action Day. He declared, “Today we bid good-bye to constitutional methods. Today we have forged a pistol and are in a position to use it. We mean every word of it.” Bengal was the only province in the country where the Muslim League was in power. Direct Action was launched in Calcutta. Suhrawardy, the Muslim League chief minister, released his goons, as per plan.
There was a massacre of non-Muslims on the first two days. It was surprising that the British governor did not exercise his special powers to dismiss the Muslim League ministry and impose Governor’s Rule. He remained a mute spectator. From the third day, non-Muslims, primarily Sikh taxi drivers and Bihari labourers, started retaliating in a big way and Muslims now suffered equally. Suhrawardy asked for help from the Army to restore order. He now turned on East Bengal, which had a hapless Hindu minority.
Hindu women were targeted and there was complete mayhem in Noakhali region. The Mahatma undertook a padyatra in Noakhali to restore peace. Thousands of Hindu refugees from East Bengal poured into Bihar seeking shelter. They narrated their tales of woe. Hindus in Bihar got inflamed and started attacking the local Muslim minority with a vengeance. Widespread communal violence in rural areas took place for the first time. This was difficult to control as it was spread over a vast area, devoid of suitable communications. Hitherto communal riots used to be an urban phenomenon.
The Bihar government promptly asked for Army assistance and normalcy was eventually restored. Several thousand Muslim families were massacred and their houses destroyed. The only redeeming feature was that Armymen remained totally impartial. Muslim priests from Peshawar, Rawalpindi and Lahore visited Bihar, saw the mayhem and went back with pictures of the atrocities. Soon the whole of North India, from Delhi to Peshawar, was in flames. The civil administration virtually collapsed; the Army was widely deployed. Most of the soldiers came from that region.
They saw how their kith and kin had suffered. The impartiality of the soldiers got seriously affected. With the announcement of Partition on June 3, 1947, the extent of violence increased further. Soldiers earmarked for different dominions now had divided loyalty. Millions perished and millions were uprooted in that holocaust.
The current violence in Assam has had a serious impact in several places. Pakistan launched a cyber war by sending SMSes and MMSes to Muslims to inflame communal passions. A mob of 50,000 Muslims collected at Azad Maidan in Mumbai to protest against atrocities on Muslims in Assam and Burma. Some burnt cars, targeted media, attacked shops, molested policewomen on duty and desecrated the Amar Jawan Smarak. Several policemen were injured. In Lucknow, mobs burnt shops, smashed cars and desecrated Buddha’s statue.
There were similar incidents in Allahabad. Besides, thousands of SMSes were sent threatening students and others from the Northeast in Pune, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Chennai, asking them to quit. Knowing how Delhi police had failed to provide security for students from the Northeast, they panicked. An exodus of over 20,000 people took place. Intelligence about these messages was available but no preventive measures were taken by the Central and state governments. Against this background it was irresponsible for the state government to permit the holding of the protest rally at Azad Maidan. It also failed, miserably, to stop the mayhem.
The Opposition in Parliament has very rightly announced full support in tackling the grave crisis and not to take any political advantage. Yet we must identify the fault lines. The biggest problem facing the Northeast has been demographic aggression by the unabated influx of millions of illegal migrants from Bangla-desh. Our vote-bank politicians have been blatantly assisting this with total disregard for national security. If a repeat of what happened at the time of Partition is to be avoided, the government must shed its slothful and “chalta hai” approach. Good governance, prompt preventive action and ability to foresee situations rather than be overcome by them are imperative. National interests and security must never be ignored.
The writer, a retired lieutenant-general, was Vice-Chief of Army Staff and has served as governor of Assam and Jammu and Kashmir.