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My Musings at Wagah Border: Why I Couldn’t Help Wondering If There Could Have Been No Pakistan

My Musings at Wagah Border: Why I Couldn’t Help Wondering If There Could Have Been No Pakistan

  • If word of Jinnah’s illness had gotten out, there was a high possibility that those who opposed the creation of Pakistan would have stalled the entire process.

Visiting the Wagah border in Punjab, and the partition museum in Amritsar was to me, a personally moving experience. It was a revelation to get an up-close view of a border, that is barely a human barricade. And, that the hype and hysteria that surrounds is all political and a facade. After all, the inhabitants of both countries are people who shared a common land, less than a century ago. In millions of years of human history – it is simply a blip.

First, the Wagah border ceremony.

An elaborate and celebratory Joint Retreat Parade takes place every single day between the Indian BSF (Border Security Force) and the Pakistan Rangers, at the Attari-Wagah joint check post (JCP), Attari. This happens to be one of the few International land border posts that both countries share.

The retreat ceremony itself is a traditional practice, which is performed when the fighting troops conclude their battle, sheathe their weapons, and retreat from the battlefield after sunset. The BSF has maintained this legacy of the retreat ceremony since December 1, 1965.

The experience of an emotionally charged crowd, patriotic songs played with everyone singing and dancing, and cheering for the troops on both sides of the gate was incredibly moving and electrifying at the same time.

Next, the Partition Museum.

But, before that, I want to share this lesser-known fact of history.

The “Big Secret” — there could have been no Pakistan.

Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, in their book “Freedom at Midnight,” argue that the Partition of India could have been avoided if “the most closely guarded secret in India” had become known — Muhammad Ali Jinnah was suffering from tuberculosis which was slowly but surely killing him.

No one knew about this except his sister.

“If Jinnah had been just an unfortunate victim of tuberculosis, he would have been confined in a sanatorium for the rest of his life. Jinnah, however, was not a normal patient. When he was released from the hospital, Patel brought him to his office. Sadly, he revealed to his friend and patient the fatal illness which was stalking him. He was, he told Jinnah, reaching the end of his physical resources. Unless he severely reduced his workload, rested much more frequently, gave up cigarettes and alcohol, and eased the pressures on his system he did not have more than one or two years to live.”

The knowledge of one’s slow demise would have broken the will of most people, but Jinnah remained a man unmoved. “Nothing except the grave was going to turn him from the task to which he’d appointed himself of leading India’s Moslems at this critical juncture in their history.”

Would this have stopped the Partition?

If word of his illness had gotten out, there was a high possibility that those in opposition to Jinnah’s Pakistan would have stalled the entire process, until he was too ill or had passed away. Without his iron will, it would have proved easier to convince his followers that Partition was best avoided.

“Jinnah knew that if his Hindu enemies learned he was dying, their whole political outlook could change. They might wait until he was in his grave, then unravel his dream with the more malleable men underneath him in the hierarchy of the Moslem League.”

But this was not meant to be.

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“He was not going to let his rendezvous with death cheat him of his other rendezvous with history. With extraordinary courage, with an intense and consuming zeal that sent his life’s candle guttering out in a last harsh burst of flame, Jinnah lunged for his lifetime goal. ‘Speed,’ Jinnah had told Mountbatten in their first discussions of India’s future, was ‘the essence of the contract’. And so, too, had it become the essence of Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s own contract with destiny.”

Thus, the Partition was officially sealed and done. And, as a result, displaced between 10 and 20 million people along religious lines, creating overwhelming refugee crises in the newly constituted dominions. There was large-scale violence, with estimates of the loss of life accompanying or preceding the partition disputed and varying between several hundred thousand and two million. The violent nature of the partition created an atmosphere of hostility, friction and suspicion between India and Pakistan that affects the mutual relationship to this day.

Amritsar was badly affected by the Partition in 1947. Not only did half its population flee, but the border also made it a transit point for a majority of refugees. It was the last stop for trains leaving for Lahore and the first stop when distraught refugees arrived from the other side.

Almost 40 percent of its houses were destroyed or damaged in the riots. In all nearly 10,000 buildings were destroyed. Equal destruction in Lahore and other cities meant that a forced exchange of population took place, amidst carnage and looting.

Amritsar’s role as a transit point saw most of the city and its buildings become makeshift refugee camps for those fleeing from Pakistan. All schools and colleges were closed (only re-opening in February 1948) to accommodate refugees. One estimate notes that around 570,000 refugees crossed into Pakistan and 471,000 crossed into India in a single week of October 1947 through Amritsar and Ferozepur, placing enormous strain on these cities. As refugees arrived bearing agonizing tales, Amritsar became even further inflamed.

Furthermore, its severance from its sister city Lahore, and the break in its major trading routes, would result in Amritsar becoming a rare city that declined in population in the two decades following Partition. While it had a population of 390,000 in 1941, this would drop to 330,000 in 1951, and only rise to 380,000 in 1961, a full 20 years later. With the departure of many skilled artisans and labor, its severance from its traditional market, and its position on the border discouraging capital investment, the impact of Partition on Amritsar would be long-lasting as it would lose its position as an industrial and economic center.

History has its own way of shaping the future, good or bad.

Jayashree Srikanth lived in the United States for 16 years, then moved to Bangalore with her husband and two daughters. She is a proud homeschooler of a special needs kid, who has a successful art career now and has won several awards including carrying the torch for the Rio Paralympics, in 2015. Her younger daughter is studying Neuroscience and Psychology at UCLA. Social work, writing, and traveling are her passionate hobbies.

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