RECALLING NIGHTMARE OF THE PARTITION
It’s been 70 years since the violent split that created India and Pakistan
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