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Book Review
A dark chapter of Partition

Name of the Book: Khitta-e-Irtidad-e-Punjab Aur Da’wat-e-Islami [‘The Area of Apostasy in Punjab and the Invitation to Islam’]
Editor: Zarif Ahmad Nadwi Year: 2001
Publisher: Zarif Ahmad Nadwi, Mahad-al Rashid al-Islami, Jagadhari, Haryana 135003
Pages: 110 Price: Not mentioned

The partition of India in 1947 brought in its wake one of the greatest massacres in human history. Some two million people, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Dalits and others, were killed and many more forced to migrate from their ancestral homes across the newly created frontier between the two successor states of British India. The Punjab saw the most horrific blood-letting. West Punjab was completely emptied of its Hindu and Sikh population. My own grand-parents were among the over three million people torn from their West Punjabi homes and sent hurtling across into India. A distant branch of my family refused to leave Lahore, and could retain their lands and lives only after they agreed to convert to Islam, which they reluctantly did. 

In Eastern Punjab, the Muslims, who had formed more than a third of the inhabitants, met with a similar fate. They were given only two choices: either to flee to Pakistan or else be killed. Only a handful survived, keeping their faith alive in secrecy. Many more hurriedly adopted a Sikh or Hindu guise. The vast majority of these consisted of poor artisans and labourers, spared their lives because they provided valuable services in the local economy. Landed Muslims were almost all killed or expelled. The only Muslims to have been spared the torment were the inhabitants of the small principality of Maler Kotla. The Nawab of the state had supported the tenth guru of the Sikhs, Gobind Singh, against the Mughals, and so the Sikhs left them mercifully untouched.

This little booklet consists of a series of letters written by the noted Muslim ‘alim, the late Maulana Sayyed Abul Hasan ‘Ali Nadwi, to a disciple and student of his, Zarif Ahmad Nadwi, who is presently engaged in work among the few thousand Muslims who remain in East Punjab. Through the Mahad-al Rashid al-Islami, an Islamic seminary based at the town of Jagadhari, Zarif Ahmad and his team are struggling, as the book suggests, to help the Muslims of the erstwhile eastern Punjab, including the present-day states of Punjab Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, who, in 1947, out of fear of death, were forced to forsake their religion. Several of these have been reclaimed through tablighi or missionary efforts and are now being provided Islamic education through the agency of Ahmad’s madrasas. 

The bulk of the letters consist of general exhortations about the need for tabligh or missionary work among the hidden Muslims of Punjab and observations on the difficulties of the stupendous task. Sadly, the letters consist of little else. The book is made even less informative with the absence of any of the letters written by Zarif Ahmad to the Maulana, which might have shed more light on the working of his organisation and of the actual conditions of the Muslims of the region.

Some information is, however, provided in a lengthy article by Maulana Ishaq Jalis Nadwi, editor of the Lucknow-based Ta’mir-e-Hayat which appears as an appendix to the book. It describes in great detail a visit undertaken by Maulana Nadwi and some of his colleagues to Punjab in 1979. It provides interesting observations, although disappointingly brief, on the wild blood-lettings of 1947 and on the current status of the Muslims of the Punjab, including some who still choose to conceal their faith out of fear, and on the work of Islamic missionary groups among them. It refers to the rallies organised under the auspices of the Payam-e-Insaniyat [‘The Message of Humanity] movement in the Punjab and quotes extensively from the speeches delivered on the occasion by Maulana Nadwi stressing inter-faith dialogue and inter-communal amity. It also discusses to the work of certain Muslim organisations working among what, for want of a better term, could be called the crypto-Muslims, such as the Tablighi Jama’at and a chain of small madrasas. In addition, interesting insights are also provided on the efforts of the Ahmadis of Qadian among these people and the role of Sunni groups in opposing them. The brief section on the Muslims of Maler Kotla, where they form the majority of the town’s population, is interesting. 

Although this book is short on facts, it is, nonetheless, one of the few works on the work of Islamic missionary groups working the crypto-Muslims of the Punjab. One looks forward to a more detailed treatment of the subject. With news just coming in of Sikhs voluntarily handing over to the Muslims a mosque in Gurdaspur that they had occupied in the 1947 disturbances things might seem brighter for the small Muslim minority in Punjab and for people like Zarif Ahmad working among them.

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