Skybound Divisions: Unveiling Planes’ Role in Partition
Bhisham Sahni graphically describes the atmosphere shifting in a town rife with violence when a plane circles over it three times in his 1974 novel Tamas (Darkness), which is a realistic depiction of the horrific partition of India.
“People took risks. Fighting appeared to have ended, and the remains of the deceased were being disposed of. To estimate their losses in terms of clothing and weapons, people returned to their homes. Sahni created a fictional narrative of the bloodshed that occurred as the subcontinent was divided into the two sovereign countries of India and Pakistan. Up to one million people may have died as a result of the religious violence that erupted, uprooting about 12 million people.
Aashique Ahmed Iqbal, an Indian historian, hypothesizes that as the jets flew over the unrest-ridden villages, fiction may have been reflecting reality of the relationship that endured a nation’s split. According to him, the aircraft’s sheer presence dispersed rioters and gave villages time to build their defenses. In his intriguing book, The Aeroplane and the Making of Modern India, Mr. Iqbal writes that “the aeroplane played a small, but highly crucial role during the division of the British empire in India into the independent dominions of India and Pakistan.”
The vast bulk of the 12 million refugees from India and Pakistan traveled by rail, car, cart, and foot. According to Mr. Iqbal, only 50,000 people—or less than 1% of those evacuated—were flown out of what is now India and Pakistan. Between September and November of 1947, a nearly complete swap of population was accomplished.
According to Mr. Iqbal, the Royal Indian Air Force (RIAF), the aerial force of British India and later the dominion of India, would be crucial in controlling unrest and assisting in the evacuation of refugees from the division. Their aircraft flew tactical reconnaissance missions every morning, flying over railway tracks to protect trains carrying refugees from potential mob ambushes and looking for evidence of tampering. Additionally, the planes would keep an eye out for armed crowds and use wireless radio to connect with railroads.
According to Mr. Iqbal, up to 30,000 people were walking along a 25-mile (40-km) stretch in September 1947, according to aircraft flying over Punjab. These planes picked up on mobs that were waiting in the shadows to assault weary refugees and reported their locations to military patrols. They saw dark columns of smoke rising from settlements that had been set on fire. “If you flew low,” writes Mr. Iqbal, “you would spot bodies floating through Punjab’s famous canal system.”
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