It’s been 70 years since the vi­o­lent split that cre­ated In­dia and Pak­istan

New Straits Times - - World -


THIS month marks 70 years since Bri­tish In­dia split into two na­tions — Hindu-ma­jor­ity In­dia and Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity Pak­istan — and mil­lions were up­rooted in one of the largest mass mi­gra­tions in his­tory.

An un­told num­ber of peo­ple, some es­ti­mates say up to two mil­lion, died in the vi­o­lence that fol­lowed, as Hin­dus and Mus­lims, flee­ing for their new home­lands, turned on one an­other, rap­ing and butcher­ing in geno­ci­dal ret­ri­bu­tion.

Five peo­ple who wit­nessed that bloody di­vi­sion spoke of their fear, losses and at­tempts to re­build their lives.

Nisar Akhtar, a re­tired statis­ti­cian in Karachi, was 6 years old when, every night, smoke be­gan to rise from vil­lages sur­round­ing his fam­ily’s home in Hoshiarpur dis­trict, Pun­jab state. His fa­ther said Sikhs were burn­ing the sur­round­ing ar­eas. Every day from that mo­ment on they “faced the fear of be­ing or not be­ing”.

Even­tu­ally, af­ter one failed es­cape at­tempt, which saw his fa­ther sep­a­rated from his fam­ily, they man­aged to flee to a refugee camp be­fore be­gin­ning a 21-day walk into Pak­istan, which was when the real night­mare be­gan.

Sikhs at­tacked their car­a­van of sev­eral thou­sand peo­ple re­peat­edly.

“They would toss the chil­dren in the air with their spears. I saw in­fants, chil­dren and el­ders with spears pierced in their bod­ies. They were moan­ing with pain and I passed, skip­ping them. What could I have done? Peo­ple were reel­ing in pain and shout­ing for wa­ter and we were too in­sen­si­tive to help them. Every­body was con­cerned with his own life,” Akhtar said.

He clung to his mother’s shirt so as not to lose her. His mother was also car­ry­ing his new­born sis­ter.

“At one stage, she left the baby on the ground. I asked her, ‘Where is my sis­ter?’ She flatly replied, ‘I don’t know’. I went back and I saw her (the baby) ly­ing on the ground and picked her up. To­day she is alive with the grace of Al­lah.”

Madhu Sondhi was 5 and liv­ing in Lahore when the Par­ti­tion came and an In­dian rail­way com­pany of­fered her en­gi­neer fa­ther a choice of mov­ing to In­dia or stay­ing in what is now Pak­istan.

The fam­ily ended up in a house near New Delhi’s cen­tral rail­way sta­tion that be­came a refuge for rel­a­tives stream­ing across the new bor­der bring­ing hor­ror sto­ries.

“Op­po­site our house was a mosque where they were slaugh­ter­ing Mus­lims. The bul­lets of­ten fell in our gar­den, so I was not al­lowed to play there,” Sondhi said.

“I was not di­rectly af­fected as I was very young. My mother’s sis­ter, how­ever, saw peo­ple be­ing killed at the rail­way sta­tion, they were shov­ing pen­cils up their nos­trils and into their eyes. She was never the same. One day she had one of her fits and picked me up, swung me around and threw me on the floor. My par­ents never left me alone with her again.

“My un­cle stayed be­hind on his farm. As the ri­ot­ers came look­ing for Hin­dus to kill, his Mus­lim ser­vants hid him in a shed and cov­ered him with cow dung cakes. They loaded him onto a horse cart and set off to the refugee camp. On his way out he gave them his house keys — ‘It’s yours, you saved my life,’ he told them.”

Raj Khanna was 14, the third of seven chil­dren of a govern­ment ac­coun­tant and liv­ing in a Hindu dis­trict of Lahore in 1947 when the killings mounted. By sum­mer of that year, oc­ca­sional stab­bings had turned into a spree of killings and mob at­tacks.

“Ri­ot­ers set fire to some of the houses on our lane. My friends and I had gone to see and help in any way. We were on the rooftop of the build­ing next door, throw­ing wa­ter to douse the flames when some­one pulled me back. That saved my life. There was a po­lice wal­lah on the street fir­ing at us. The bul­let just missed me,” Khanna said.

“When our neigh­bour­hood went up in flames, that was when my par­ents got scared and the ex­o­dus started.”

His fam­ily went to Shimla, now the cap­i­tal of In­dia’s Hi­machal Pradesh state. Khanna even­tu­ally moved to Delhi.

“I still have the refugee tag. It stays with us. The wounds never heal.”

Saleem Hasan Sid­diqui, 76, vividly re­mem­bers the blood­ied streets of old Delhi, where the stench of chopped up bod­ies wafted through the streets and fren­zied mobs dumped corpses.

“The gen­eral at­mos­phere had be­come one of dis­trust, of fear.

“No one was ready to place their faith in an­other. We did not know who they were go­ing to come for next,” said Sid­diqui, who was first in­ter­viewed by the 1947 Par­ti­tion Archive, an In­dian or­gan­i­sa­tion that finds wit­nesses from that time and records their sto­ries.

He re­called that as a 6-year-old, he was fright­ened and fas­ci­nated by the vi­o­lence.

“We were not al­lowed to go out much. But, we would race out at every op­por­tu­nity we got be­cause ev­ery­day it was ‘Oh, that guy’s chopped head was found on the road’ or ‘Oh, that guy was found mur­dered in the al­ley’. We were nat­u­rally ex­cited.

“They chopped up peo­ple and tossed them into a dry canal. Ev­ery­one was in a frenzy, killed who­ever they saw... Hindu, Mus­lim, any­one. No one was spared.”

He re­called that he would run home “with chills”.

“The things I have seen and heard... They have for­ever been etched into my mind.”

Saeed Hasan Khan was 17, trapped in east Pun­jab in Septem­ber 1947, as the killing con­tin­ued. He man­aged to hitch a ride with a friend on a spe­cial train car­ry­ing the Pak­istan army over the bor­der.

The scenery out­side the win­dow was grotesque, he said: “Corpses all around... We saw bod­ies at Ja­land­har Sta­tion, we saw bod­ies at Am­rit­sar and we saw them at Am­bala... There was noth­ing in my mind ex­cept shock.”

He made it over the bor­der safely, at­tend­ing col­lege in Lahore be­fore mov­ing to Europe for 50 years and mak­ing doc­u­men­taries with the BBC, then end­ing up in Karachi.

But, what stood out for him was when Pak­istan played In­dia in a Test match in 1954, just seven or so years af­ter the Par­ti­tion.

In Lahore, he said, every other house­hold had suf­fered some tragedy or hor­ror dur­ing the Par­ti­tion.

“But, they all for­got those mis­eries. When they saw Pun­jabi Hin­dus and Sikhs here, the sweet­meat shop owner re­fused to take money from them...

“They showed im­mense hos­pi­tal­ity.

“And when they (Pak­ista­nis) went to Ja­land­har and Am­rit­sar, the peo­ple there re­cip­ro­cated.

“It means that a com­mon man is ready to for­get and for­give, de­spite that all the things were quite re­cent and alive in the mem­o­ries of the peo­ple.” AFP


Par­ti­tion sur­vivor Saleem Hasan Sid­diqui at the home in New Delhi where he has lived since the Par­ti­tion. (Left) Nisar Akhtar and his wife show­ing prePar­ti­tion pho­tos at their home in Karachi.

Saeed Hasan Khan

Madhu Sondhi

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