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.
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.
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Not only that, though. To assist stop an epidemic in the filthy refugee camps, 1.5 million doses of cholera vaccine were flown from Delhi to Karachi by RIAF aircraft, largely reliable Dakotas. For the refugees, they also dropped cooked food, sugar, and oil. According to Mr. Iqbal, leaflets advising protesters to stop violence were dropped from planes by both Pakistan and India. Non-Muslims were ultimately evacuated by the RIAF from remote areas of Pakistan like Multan, Bannu, and Peshawar.
The airfields of Delhi and Punjab in 1947 also saw moments of “great danger” in circumstances similar of the desperate Afghans who attempted to flee their nation alongside and clinging to military jets at Kabul airport in August 2021.
“As soon as they were allowed, refugees in camps close to the airports would hurry to board the aircraft. In order to board the jet, desperate passengers paid off the crew with cash and gold, according to Mr. Iqbal’s writing.
Tickets cost a lot of money. There are reports of a refugee from Hyderabad, India, traveling to Pakistan with nothing but her Quran, as well as other passengers hauling a “battered child’s cane chair” and a “moth-eaten-looking parrot.”
It should come as no surprise that the planes were completely full. To make room for as many migrants as possible, seats and carpets were removed. Dakota DC-3 aircraft with a 21-passenger capacity frequently transported five times that number.
India had 115 civilian aircraft by the start of 1947, operated by 11 private companies. An “unprecedented boom” in civil aviation was brought on by the end of World War II as Indian companies purchased inexpensive aircraft, primarily Douglas DC-3 Dakotas, left behind by the retreating US Army. But because there was an excess of supply and insufficient demand, earnings fell. Ten of the commercial aircraft that were diverted from their regular flights to transport Pakistani refugees to India during the partition were made available to the government.
However, operators of commercial airlines were unable to handle the mass evacuation. In addition, they declined to endanger their people and planes for this “impossible task”. The government eventually turned to the outside world for assistance; 21 British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) jets flew “non-stop” for 15 days to transport 6,300 people from Delhi to Karachi. For Muslim refugees stuck at Delhi airfields, they also sent 45,000kg of food, tents, and vaccines.
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Around 12,000 people were evacuated between India and Pakistan using two Royal Air Force transport planes that had been assigned to evacuate British nationals. Only 2,790 of the troops were British; the remainder were workers for the railways, post office, and telegraph, who were crucial to the exchange of people on the ground.
India realized in October 1947 that this effort was still insufficient. This was the beginning of “Operation India,” during which time 21 aircraft, mostly Dakotas rented from eight British businesses, carried 35,000 passengers and more than 1.5 million pounds of luggage between India and Pakistan over the course of six weeks in October and November. A total of 170 aviation professionals from Britain were flown in to assist.
The scale of the evacuation overloaded Indian aviation companies, forcing both governments to use chartered British planes. Additionally, the use of airplanes “enabled the rapid constitution of independent India in the crucial first months after Independence,” according to Mr. Iqbal.