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Rebel With A Cause

Mridula Sarabhai, born into Ahmedabad's celebrated industrial dynasty and nuclear scientist Vikram Sarabhai's sister, was one of those amazing women who fought for India's freedom.

After the midnight hour, she grew disillusioned with the Congress, rejected the lure of high office and championed the unpopular cause of Sheikh Abdullah for the last twenty years of her life, even going to prison for defending the Kashmiri leader.

Aparna Basu, who has just published Mridula's biography, recounts Sarabhai's fearless commitment to saving human life during the horrific trauma of Partition.

The Partition of India in 1947 and the resultant migration and massacres represented a human tragedy of enormous proportions. It 'enforced movements of people on a scale absolutely unparalleled in the history of the world.' 'There must be many examples in the bloody history of mankind where the extent of violence has been as great or even greater but it is probably true that there has never been such a big exchange of population,' wrote Horace Alexander.

It is estimated that about five and a half million people travelled each way across the new India-Pakistan border in Punjab. As Sir Francis Moodie, governor of West Punjab, wrote to Jinnah 'the refugee problem was assuming gigantic proportions'.

As an historical event, Partition had ramifications that reach far beyond 1947, yet historical records make little mention of the dislocation of people's lives, the strategies they used to cope with loss, trauma, pain and violence. Many women at that time took up relief work among refugees through their own or their family's involvement, through contact with some important person or as a result of personal loss or tragedy.

After getting permission from Gandhiji to witness the Independence Day celebrations in Delhi on the 15th August 1947, Mridula left Patna where she had been working with him for restoring communal amity and peace in Bihar. At the Red Fort where the national flag was being hoisted, she learnt from a journalist friend that communal riots had broken out in Punjab. She hurriedly contacted Jawaharlal Nehru and expressed her desire to proceed to Punjab immediately.

Nehru was hesitant to allow her to go to Punjab without obtaining approval of Mahatma Gandhi. But when news began to pour in that the law and order situation in both the Punjabs had gone out of control, he himself suggested that she should proceed to Amristar at the earliest. ''I felt honoured that I had been entrusted with this difficult and responsible job. Jawaharlal informed Gandhiji on the phone that I was going to Amritsar.''

She had planned to go in her own car but was told that the Grand Trunk Road from Delhi to Amritsar was blocked by violent mobs. Nehru advised her to travel by a plane up to Lahore and contact the Inspector General of Police, Khan Qurban Ali Khan, who had served in UP and knew many Congressmen.

Lahore was quite new to her. She had visited it only once in 1929 when the famous annual session of the Congress was held there and Nehru took the pledge of complete independence on the banks of river Ravi. She tried to contact Qurban Ali Khan but having failed to do so, started making enquiries about how to go from Lahore to Amritsar.

While doing so, she saw a convoy of Hindus and Sikhs on its way to Amritsar and asked whether any of them could accommodate her. Someone recognised her and requested her to get into his vehicle. All persons in the convoy were terror-stricken and in a state of panic as they were not even sure they would reach Amritsar alive. They were thus happy to have her with them. Her work for Muslims in Bihar was known by them and they hoped that her presence would deter Muslim mobs from attacking them.

Mridula did her utmost to raise the morale of the frightened women and children and throughout the journey tried to keep them in high spirits. The moment the convoy crossed the border at Attari in East Punjab, and entered India, a full throated cry of 'Hindustan Zindabad' broke out.

On reaching Amritsar, she found that anarchy prevailed all round. There was a complete breakdown of communications as well as of law and order. Everywhere there was an atmosphere of panic and fear. Half the population of both East and West Punjab seemed to be on the roads looking for refuge.

Only a few days had passed since Partition and both the governments were desperately trying to cope with the millions of refugees crossing the border. The administrative paralysis caused by the reshuffling of cadres on a communal basis and the infiltration of communalism into the police and military had, by the end of August 1947, created a situation in which it seemed impossible for Hindus to stay in West Punjab and for Muslims to stay in East Punjab. The governments of East and West Punjab had to face a terrible crisis in the very hour of their birth, even before they had settled down to work or had proper offices functioning.

Amritsar was full of Hindu and Sikh refugees, who had suffered greatly in Pakistan - who had been victims of the orgy or riots, loot and arson, and many of whose family members had been killed, raped or abducted and who had lost their houses and all their property. There was understandably a great deal of bitterness against Muslims. In such an atmosphere to work for Muslims was neither easy nor popular.

Excerpted from Mridula Sarabhai, Rebel With A Cause, by Aparna Basu, Oxford University Press, 1996, Rs 425, with the publisher's permission. Readers in the US may secure a copy of the book from Oxford University Press Inc USA, 198, Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10016, USA. Tel: 212-726-6000. Fax: 212-726-6440.