The Sikhs and the Partition of Punjab – Conclusions from Crowe’s MA History Thesis

The exhaustive study reveals many new facets of Sikh failure to share the exploits of Partition of Punjab along with the Muslim League

CUCUMBER IN A SANDWICH: At the Indo-Pak border, standing at Ganda Singh Wala (Pakistan), a village named after a Sikh; I looked towards Hussain Wala (India), a village named after a Muslim. Twenty kilometers behind me was Kasur in Pakistan, the town of Baba Bullhe Shah and ahead of me was Faridkot in India, the town of Baba Farid. Even the great Punjabi Sufi Saints stand divided by the line. Between the power-play of Indian National Congress and Muslim League, the Punjabis in the partition of 1947 were reduced to a mere cucumber in a sandwich.
“LOST HERITAGE The Sikh Legacy in Pakistan” by Amardeep Singh
By Amabel Crowe | OPINION | 

(Abstract of Report Prepared by Hardev Singh Virk)

The exhaustive study presented as MA History Thesis in University of Edinburgh reveals many new facets of Sikh failure to share the exploits of Partition of Punjab along with the Muslim League. Sikhs constituted less than 15% of Punjab population but they contributed more than 40% revenue to the state exchequer and were the richest community in Punjab. During Partition of India, Sikhs were the worst sufferers of all. They not only lost their religious and cultural heritage but also the richest economy based on agriculture in Pakistan.

The main conclusions of this study can be summed up as follows:

Sikhs were caught unawares as they were not prepared for the Partition of Punjab. First they wanted Azad Punjab with 40 % Muslim, 40 % Hindu and 20% Sikh population. When this proved to be a utopia, then they passed a resolution in favour of an independent Sikh State. Master Tara Singh and Giani Kartar Singh were their front rank leaders but they passed the baton to Baldev Singh and Swaran Singh. I consider this as a big blunder. Swaran Singh was a staunch Congressman and Baldev Singh was prevailed upon by Pandit Nehru to go with the Congress plan. He was the weakest link to present the Sikh case at London round table conference as his personal interests lay in joining India to save his business. Sikh masses were kept in the dark and Sikh elites were holding the reins of Sikh Panth. The elites (Baldev Singh, Surjit Singh Majithia, Ujjal Singh etc.) were in favour of joining India.

The Akali leadership was not united and had no clear cut policy to protect the interests of Sikhs. Master Tara Singh failed to provide leadership at this crucial juncture of history. He wanted to remain in the background and his nominees (Baldev Singh et al.) had personal political ambitions to join India. Sikh leaders’ antagonism against Muslim League proved to be another hurdle in their decision making. Ultimately, Master Tara Singh, Baldev Singh and Giani Kartar Singh crumbled under the Congress pressure and together on 18 April 1947 met Lord Mountbatten to demand the Partition of Punjab into Muslim and non-Muslim areas.

Sirdar Kapur Singh squarely blames Master Tara Singh for failure of the Sikhs to get an independent Sikh State in Sachi Sakhi. I feel his account is based on some half-truths. For example, there is no written document found in the archives of Partition where British offered some special status for the Sikhs. However, Kirpal Singh historian cites one oral evidence based on the statement of Lord Mountbatten: “It must point out that the people who asked for the partition were the Sikhs. The Congress took up their request and framed the resolution in the form they wanted. They wanted the Punjab to be divided in two predominantly Muslim and non-Muslim areas. I have done exactly what the Sikhs requested me to do through the Congress. The request came to me as a tremendous shock as I like the Sikhs, I am fond of them and I wish them well.” (Justice Din Mohammad 5 August 1947, in Kirpal Singh, Select Documents on the Partition of the Punjab, p.377).

Excerpts from the Report

  1. The end of the British Raj in India brought destitution, death and displacement for the north of the subcontinent. On 15 August 1947 the Indian people gained their independence; but the price was Partition, and the nation was divided in two.
  2. An agreement to partition the subcontinent was announced on 3 June 1947, a mere six weeks prior to its implementation.
  3. The potential for radical change in the political and social structure of India was undermined by elite politicians, who were predominantly interested in replacing the British at the top of a largely preserved hierarchical system.
  4. In contrast to the ‘Quit India’ campaign of 1942, which saw unprecedented mass participation rock the foundations of British rule, it was through political elites and colonial institutions that politics was reorganised in 1947.
  5. India Wins Freedom: An Autobiographical Narrative [1] by Abul Kalaam Azad outlines how Congress betrayed Muslim nationalists; Partition could have been avoided if it were not for some poor policy decisions from Congress high-command.
  6. This stagnated response to the massacres of 1947 has had serious implications for social cohesion in independent India, with the Sikhs arguing that they have been vilified and used as a scapegoat by the Hindu majority [2].
  7. Up to and throughout 1947, the Sikhs continued to respond to a variety of concerns, with village, caste and class identities remaining powerful. This diversity within the Sikh community was not translated into pluralistic political representation; the Akali Dal became the sole voice of Sikhs as far as the negotiations for the transfer of power were concerned.
  8. According to the 1941 census, the Sikh population was 3.8 million – 14.9% of undivided Punjab [3].
  9. As a wealthy community, they contributed disproportionately to the economic and civil life of the region, with high representation in the armed forces [4]. However, this privileged position in the Punjab did not translate into influence in the transfer of power process because the constitutional arrangement of independent India was being decided at an all-India level.
  10. Sir Evan Jenkins, the governor of the Punjab from April 1946 – 15 August 1947, complained that the dogmatism of the Congress and Muslim League high commands prevented any settlement of the political impasse in the region.
  11. The British-Congress-Muslim League triangle in Delhi was intent on a swift transfer of power [5], which was not conducive to arriving at a settlement that took account of the particular conditions in the Punjab.
  12. Between 1940 and 1946, Sikh leaders responded to the Lahore declaration with various proposals which attempted to avoid Sikh incorporation into a Muslim state. A week after the League’s Pakistan resolution, the Khalsa National Party passed a resolution prophesying that ‘the Muslim League has created a situation which may mean a parting of the ways for Sikhs and the Muslims’ [6].
  13. On 15th June 1942, Baldev Singh signed a pact with Sikander Hyat Khan, the Muslim leader of the Unionist Party [7]. In the short-term this pact alleviated communal tension between Muslims and Sikhs and marginalised the Pakistan demand. Progress was disrupted by Jinnah’s visit to the Punjab in November 1942, and Sikander’s sudden death a month later [8].
  14. The scheme was named ‘Azad Punjab’ and would comprise of Ambala, Jullundur, Lahore divisions, and out of the Multan division, Lyallpur District, some portion of Montgomery and Multan districts, with a population of 40% Hindus, 40% Muslims and 20% Sikhs [9]. It looked to create a situation where no single religious community could dominate over another [10].
  15. In February 1946 Sikh leaders passed a resolution demanding the creation of a separate, autonomous Sikh state.
  16. However, this new demand from the Sikh political leaders was not seriously acknowledged as a possibility by the British [11].
  17. The Muslim League, after gaining just two seats in the 1937 elections, had become the single biggest party in 1946, winning 75 of the 175 seats [12]. This development was crucial because it was taken as a vote in favour of Pakistan, given that the League’s main policy was a homeland for Muslims.
  18. Sikh political leaders – drawing on a long history of oppression [13] – claimed that Pakistan was ‘a matter of life and death for the Sikhs’ [14].
  19. The second development was the publication of the Cabinet Mission’s proposals for the constitutional arrangement of an independent India [15]. The proposals, which arranged India in compulsory groups in an effort to allay fears articulated by the Muslim League about Congress domination, did not include any safeguards for the Sikhs.
  20. In a letter to the Secretary of State, Master Tara Singh asked:

‘If the first consideration of the Cabinet Mission’s recommendations is to give protection to the Muslims, why should the same consideration be not shown to the Sikhs? It appears that the Sikhs have been studiously debarred from having any effective influence in the province, a group or Central Union.’ [16]

  1. Baldev Singh was the preferred Sikh representative from the British perspective, who perceived him to be more moderate and characteristic of the wider Sikh community. He was the Sikh member of the Executive Council in 1945, and was invited to serve in the interim government in 1946 [17].
  2. Master Tara Singh and other leaders of the Akali Party protested that Baldev did not consult with them on vital issues in the transfer of power process. For example, following Baldev Singh’s acceptance of 3rd June Plan, Master Tara Singh complained of ‘the total lack’ of any provision in the plan to give the Sikhs ‘any power or status anywhere, or for safeguarding their position and interests’ [18].
  3. Thus the power struggle within the Akali leadership was not conducive to a clear policy, based on the interests of Sikhs.
  4. Concerns for the welfare of the Sikh community were intermingled with personal political ambitions. Ultimately, after weighing up the dangers of the incorporation of the whole of the Punjab into Pakistan, the Sikh political elite demanded the partition of the region, together with the exchange of population in order to consolidate the Sikh community [19]. The decision was taken following a Panthic conference, and notably delivered to Mountbatten by Master Tara Singh, Baldev Singh and Giani Kartar Singh together on 18 April 1947 [20].
  5. The demand for the partition of the Punjab and exchange of population and property of Sikhs in the west with Muslims in the east of the region [21] remains controversial.
  6. Gyani Kartar Singh stressed to Mountbatten that the Sikh community had been ‘placed in jeopardy’ and ‘every Sikh in whatever situation he is placed feels most acutely about it’ [22]. However, oral testimonies and literary accounts contest this statement.
  7. The main concerns which governed the Akali strategy were fear of Muslim domination and maintaining the integrity of the Sikh community.
  8. These regular references to a history of oppression shaped the communal identity of Sikhs and instilled fear about living under Muslim rule in Pakistan.
  9. Time and time again, survivors of Partition recall the harmonious relations they had with Muslims and blame political leaders for the division of the country.
  10. The 3 June announcement to partition the Punjab thus left the Sikh leaders in disarray; this was principally because the plan had been agreed upon without a clear understanding of the factors on which a division of the region would be based [23]. Baldev Singh declared that ‘the Sikhs had accepted the British statement of June 3rd but acceptance never meant they should acquiesce in decisions that threatened their very existence’ [24].
  11. Master Tara Singh announced ‘the time has come when the might of the sword alone shall reign. The Sikhs are ready. We have to bring Muslims to their sense’ [25].
  12. The Sikh community is often particularly associated with the violence in the Punjab. It is asserted that their disproportionate involvement in the military, together with elements of the Sikh religion such as the carrying of a kirpan[dagger],result in a greater propensity to violence. Furthermore, the speeches of Akali Dal politicians were notable for their aggressive tone and implicit threats [26].
  13. As early as 2 March, Tara Singh publically declared ‘I do not see how we can avoid civil war. There can be no settlement, if the Muslims want to rule the Punjab’ [27]. The following day, the Akali leader made a dramatic speech rejecting Pakistan and unsheathed his kirpan in front of a crowd, as he exited the Punjab Assembly. This bold display of aggression ignited the situation [28].
  14. The provocation for the violence in March was principally political. The coalition ministry in the Punjab had left the biggest party in the region in opposition: the Muslim League’s frustrated agitation, and the incitement from Master Tara Singh and his associates, was all that was needed to detonate the volatile situation.
  15. Jenkins perceived politicians to be directly responsible for stimulating communal feeling in the Police and argued they were attempting to do the same with the army [29].
  16. Sikhs were particularly affected by bias in the police force, because its composition was majority Muslim [30].
  17. Akali leaders spread information about Sikh suffering in order to incite reprisals. One pamphlet entitled The Rape of Rawalpindi declared ‘thousands of innocent Sikhs murdered in cold blood…Sikhs!
  18. Years of cohabitation degenerated into distrust and fear as news and propaganda of horrific violence debased the foundations of friendships.
  19. Sikh politics was not one-dimensional; the dominant Akali Dal was not representative of the views of the entire community.
  20. The Akali elites were given the power to decide the Sikh position in the transfer of power; however, this did not mean that the Sikh community blindly succumbed to their advice or leadership.
  21. The boundary line was published two days after Partition, causing mass confusion, death and destruction.
  22. The horror and trauma of the Partition violence has not been addressed by the state; politicians prefer the non-explanation of ‘madness’, which allows them to continue unperturbed with the ‘nation building project’ [31]. However, the experience of violence, dislocation and division – all supposedly as a result of religion – has left its mark on the population of the Punjab.
  23. At no time was this more apparent than with ‘Operation Blue Star’ in 1984 and the subsequent attacks on Delhi’s Sikh population. Indira Gandhi’s military operation to tackle Sikh guerrilla activity involved the siege of the Golden Temple and the rounding up of ‘militants’ in the surrounding villages.
  24. This triggered the outbreak of anti-Sikh riots in Delhi, where 3000 Sikhs were killed.
  25. Joyce Pettigrew argues that ‘it is an irony that the Sikh people, after fleeing the establishment of a religious state in 1947, should be murdered in such large numbers, almost forty years on, in what they, until the army entry into the Darbar Sahib, had regarded as their own home – secular India’ [32].
  26. The leaders of the Akali Dal did not attempt to conglomerate the diverse concerns and attitudes of the Sikh population. Instead, they articulated an elitist policy which aimed to ensure that the privileged position of wealthy Sikhs would not be undermined by submission to Muslim rule or the fragmentation of the Sikh community, with devastating consequences.
  27. Lord Mounbatten: “It must point out that the people who asked for the partition were the Sikhs. The Congress took up their request and framed the resolution in the form they wanted. They wanted the Punjab to be divided in two predominantly Muslim and non-Muslim areas. I have done exactly what the Sikhs requested me to do through the Congress. The request came to me as a tremendous shock as I like the Sikhs, I am fond of them and I wish them well. I started thinking out a formula to help them but I am not a magician. It is up to the Sikhs who are represented on the Committee to take up the case. It is not I who is responsible for asking for partition”.

(Justice Din Mohammad 5 August 1947, in Kirpal Singh, Select Documents on the Partition of the Punjab, 377.


[1] Abul Kalam Azad, India Wins Freedom: An Autobiographical Narrative, (Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 1988).

[2] Principal Gurdia Singh Grewal, Freedom Struggle of India, By Sikhs and Sikhs in India, The Facts the World must know,Vol. II, (Ludhiana: Sant Isher Singh Rarewala education trust, 1991), 25.

[3] Gopal Krishan, ‘Demography of the Punjab 1849-1947’, Journal for Punjab Studies, no. 11, vol.1, (2004), 83.

[4] Report of Mr Justice Teja Singh, 4 August 1947, in Singh, Select Documents, 335.

[5] Lucy P. Chester, Borders and conflict in South Asia: the Radcliffe Boundary Commission and the partition of Punjab, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009), 13.

[6] Singh, Select Documents, xiv.

[7] Baldev-Sikander Pact in Carter (ed.), Punjab Politics, Vol.II, 417-18.

[8] Tan Tai Yong, ‘Prelude to Partition: Sikh Responses to the Demand for Pakistan, 1940-46’, International Journal of Punjab Studies, no. 1, vol. 2 (1994), 173.

[9] See Appendix 2.

[10] Master Tara Singh, “Azad Punjab Scheme”, Tribune, Lahore 23 July 1943, quoted in Satya M. Rai, Partition of the Punjab (London: Asia Publishing House, 1965), 37.

[11] Mansergh and Moon (eds.), The Transfer of Power, Vol. VI, 1090.

[12] Khosla, Stern Reckoning, 93-94.

[13] Mark Tully and Satish Jacob, Amritsar, Mrs Gandhi’s Last Battle, (London: Jonathan Cape Ltd, 1985), 35.

[14] Sikh leaders to Lord Ismay, 30 April 1947, in Singh, Select Documents, 51.

[15] Mansergh and Moon (eds.,) Transfer of Power, Vol. VII, 582.

[16] Letter from Master Tara Singh to the Secretary of State, 25 May 1946. India (cabinet mission). Papers relating to (a) the Sikhs, (Parliament Papers: 1946).

[17] Situation Report on the Sikhs, 11 June 1946, in Singh, Select Documents, 720.

[18]Times of India, 5 June 1947, p.7 col. 2. Quoted in Transfer of Power, Vol. XI, 136.

[19] See appendix 2.

[20] Mansergh and Moon (eds.), The Transfer of Power, Vol. X, 322.

[21] See Appendix 3.

[22] Note by Giani Kartar Singh given to H.E. at interview on 20 June 1947, in Singh, Select Documents, 137.

[23] Mansergh and Moon (eds.), TheTransfer of Power, Vol. XI, 69. Also see appendix 7.

[24] Mansergh and Moon (eds.), The Transfer of Power Vol. XII, 18.

[25] Master Tara Singh, in Singh, Select Documents, 406.

[26] Note by Jenkins, 10 April 1947, in Carter (ed.), Punjab Politics, Vol. IV, 129.

[27] Pakistan Times, 2 March 1947, in Ahmed, Punjab, bloodied, partitioned and cleansed, 119.

[28] Khushwant Singh, Cambridge Oral Archives.

[29] Note by Jenkins, 26 May 1947, in Carter (ed.), Punjab Politics Vol. IV, 216.

[30] Jagjit Singh, Cambridge Oral Archives.

[31] S. Gopal (ed.), Select works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Vol. X, (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1990), 6.

[32] Joyce Pettigrew, The Sikhs of the Punjab, unheard voices of state and guerrilla violence, (N.J.: Zed Books, 1995), 30.

[Amabel Crowe, University of Edinburgh (2014) MA History]


Scholar and scientist Hardev Singh Virk retired from Amritsar-based Guru Nanak Dev University in 2002 after serving as Founder Head Physics Department and Dean Academics. Ex-Professor of Eminence, Punjabi University, Patiala. He is the present Visiting Professor at SGGS World University, Fatehgarh Sahib (Punjab), India. 



Fighting for Sikh Causes in Indian Parliament by Hukam Singh, Kapur Singh and Tarlochan Singh (Asia Samachar, 21 Sept 2020)

Failure of Sikhs to gain an Independent State during Partition of India (Asia Samachar, 10 Sept 2020)

Betrayal of the Sikh Community (Asia Samachar, 11 May 2019)


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