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The Pain of Partition

August 2003
The Pain of Partition


On the night of 14-15 August 1947, Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru, the Prime Minister of India was delivering his historic speech of having made ?a tryst with destiny'. At that very moment Hindu families living in our street in Dipal Pur, a sub-divisional town in the district of Montgomery, now in Pakistan were bemoaning our destiny. Initially at least, independence only brought us misery and suffering.

The divide between Hindus and Muslims was growing by the day. The residents of our street had shifted inside a large building along with their valuables. This gave us some feeling of security. It was still hot at that time of the year, and there were no fans or electricity. The day was spent inside the cool rooms of the house and at night we would all gather on the roof. There was no radio or newspaper to provide news of the outside world. Whatever information could be obtained was through rumors passed on by people standing on the roofs of houses on the adjoining streets. The loud explosions and sounds of firing at night indicated that some trouble was brewing in the town.

Hordes of farm workers who had always felt distressed, rightly or wrongly, by the treatment meted out to them by their non-Muslim employers were now seething with revenge. Thus we found our house looted. Hindus and Sikhs owned most of the shops in the town. These were looted at night while the police looked the other way.

With the total lack of information and many frightening rumors, our morale had started dwindling by the third day. I even lost track of the date. It was difficult to believe that with the ushering in of the long awaited Freedom, the two communities who had been living together in the same mohallas, streets, villages and towns since the times of the Khiljis and Moghuls had overnight become sworn enemies.���In the normal course of things there should have been merry making and rejoicing on this day of Independence. Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs should have embraced each other. Instead we seemed to prove Churchill's prophecy of our being unworthy and incapable of governing ourselves.

Having witnessed the looting of our houses and the burning of our shops, it was clear that we were not secure if we stayed on in Pakistan. The only alternative was to move out of the country as fast as possible. Our problem was how to safely reach and cross over to the Indian border which was miles away.

For the first lap of the journey we had to reach the local bus stand, which was about a mile from our lodge. Early next morning we carefully selected the bare essentials and carried the boxes or bundles to the bus stand. My father, my younger brother and I were the only adult members to bear the load. We had to make several trips to the bus stand with increasing fatigue and strain.

There were only two buses with a capacity of 30 people each to carry the whole lot of thousand odd people. Our first shock was to learn that this journey of 16 miles to Okara that we had made umpteen times at the normal fare of about half a rupee was to cost several times as much now.���I don't know who was exploiting the situation. In any case I didn't see any bus on the stand. An atmosphere of uncertainty and fear remained throughout the morning. Then we were asked to move inside the school boundary that was across the road. The school where I had spent six years had three feet high boundary walls and we felt herded inside as if to be butchered.

Our apprehension proved right when Manzoor Ahmed nicknamed Joorie, a wrestler friend of my elder brother, came to inform us that we should move out of the school premises since a slaughter was being planned for the night. Joorie was a tough guy in the town. I had never liked or trusted him but somehow he was loyal to my brother who had joined the Air Force. He volunteered to take us back to a safe place. We also warned our other relations to quit the school before night. Joorie escorted us to the house of Birju Pansari, a big grocer in the town. We lodged ourselves in the lobby of the house, a large room with high ceiling.

As the evening approached we found many ruffians boasting of having killed scores of Hindus in various adjoining villages. Most of these were young men carrying a sword, a spear a dagger or at least hard steel bound stick. Some weapons had blood smears on them.

The alarming nature of the situation now dawned on us with fearful clarity. Someone talked about a caravan of village peasants passing outside the town on way to India. When my mother heard this she requested Joorie to escort us to the caravan. As we wound our way to the town gate, we saw strange figures lined up on both sides of the narrow street armed with weapons. Having Joorie with us got us through safely.

As we came out of the huge gate of the town we saw a miraculous scene of innumerable bullock carts laden with grain and household goods heading towards India.���We learnt that they were all farmers who were moving towards India. Punjab had sent a large number of soldiers to fight in the First World War. In recognition of their services, the British government had rewarded them with barren tracts of lands, which these ex-soldiers cum farmers had made fertile by hard work and helped by a network of canals. Now they had decided to migrate to India. Because of their earlier military background, they were a tough lot and many of them possessed licensed firearms and thus felt secure. We also felt secure in their company and gladly started walking with the convoy.

After joining the convoy, we thought of our relatives who had gone back to their houses. Did they know that a convoy was passing through the town and they could join it too? My mother asked me to rush to our street again and inform them even at some risk to myself. Joorie again volunteered to help and accompanied me. Followed by them I rushed back to the convoy. My family was waiting for me on the Canal Bridge just outside the town. As we all joined we started on the first lap of our migration to India. I looked back to the town where I had spent 12 years, where I had played and studied at my favorite canal where I had frolicked with friends and had learnt swimming. At that time it didn't occur to me that I was seeing the town and the canal for the last time.

Nor did it occur to any one of us that we were making history ?- the creation of two independent states of India and Pakistan in the Asian sub-continent accompanied by so much bloodshed.

We had walked about three miles away from our town when it became dark. The caravan, called kaafila by us, halted for the night. Some armed ex-soldiers took up positions to guard the caravan. We lay down on the ploughed fields beside the road using pods of mud for pillows. Not having slept well for many days I found the bed on mother earth very soothing and enjoyed a very relaxing sleep. We had not eaten for over 24 hours and now the pangs of hunger started troubling us, particularly my sister and two younger brothers 4 years and 2 years old. We had left the town in a hurry with empty pockets.

My parents begged some bullock cart owners who were carrying their eatables with them to provide something for the children. Taking pity on our condition and the age of children one of them gave some parched grams. The children gladly took them. We were on the move again. The early hours were relatively cool. So we walked fast. After walking about six miles the road turned right towards a town named Haveli. Now the sun was getting hotter. And the heat after the rainy season is scorching. On the side the road was a nullah ? a small stream flowing with canal water. Finding the asphalt road hot to walk on, we started walking inside the nullah. This cooled our feet and refreshed us a bit. We continued walking till afternoon. There was no time for rest.

This was the third day of our journey on foot. Our legs were heavy with fatigue. My two younger brothers needed to be carried since they could not walk much. Even my mother who was generally very tough and sturdy was showing signs of exhaustion.���Besides the thirst and hunger that was making us weaker by hour.

My mother was feeling dehydrated. I was afraid she might fall any time. The Indian border was still a few miles away. There was a canal flowing parallel to the road but about a furlong away. I wanted to go there to fetch water but was prevented since hostile people were lurking there. Ultimately I found a pool of rainwater along the road. The water collected some days ago had turned blackish and moss had grown over it. I removed the moss and took a handful of water to my mother. She sipped it and threw it back. It was bitter and undrinkable. We moved on towards the great river Sutlej that was thought to be the boundary between India and Pakistan. Ultimately we glimpsed the backwaters of the river. We rushed forward and were glad to sight a pool of river water in front of us. All of us dipped our hands in the cool water and taking handfuls started gulping. After quenching our thirst we looked around to view our surroundings. It is then that we noticed that there were two dead bodies floating in the pool from where we had drunk the water.

We were near the river and the bridge that was to take us to our El Dorado ?Free India.���The Sutlej at this time of the year after the rains was in full might. A cool breeze blew. Our minds were full of the grand reception we thought we would receive as we stepped into Indian Territory. It was a fairly long bridge. Ultimately we reached the end of the bridge and felt the road descending and slightly curving towards right.

From the left hand side on a dusty track was another caravan of bullock carts ascending towards the bridge. There were old men with flowing beards and wearing turbans, women covering their heads, children, cattle and carts loaded with household utensils and goods. They were our counterparts, the Muslims of Punjab who like us were inching their way towards their heaven, the land of the pure, Pakistan. All of a sudden I noticed a skirmish between the two caravans. The Sikh peasants from our caravan fell upon the other caravan and started snatching their goods, cattle and killing those who opposed them. It was a gory scene.���A short distance from the bridge we got the first glimpse of our reception. Some good Samaritans from the nearby town of Fazilka had brought bags full of baked grams and puffed rice. They were offering handfuls of it to hungry people like us. We took what was available. And then we learnt that the Indian Territory was still a few miles away across a railway line.

This was the third day since we had eaten anything substantial. We found a family baking chapatis on a burning log of wood along a pool of rainwater. The family had almost finished their cooking. My mother begged some flour from them. She kneaded the floor in her apron with water from the pool. She made some thick rotis with her bare hands and baked them on the same burning log of wood left by the other family. It was the freshest meal we had taken ever since we had started on our journey. Our next delicacy was the ripe sugarcane growing on the wayside fields. Their sweet juice provided strength and refreshment. We were close to the railway line, the so-called border when it began to rain. These were welcome showers in the hot and humid August weather but we didn't want to get drenched since we had no other clothes to wear. Finding an empty school building along the roadside most of the people rushed in and took shelter. There was still a distance of about seven or eight miles to cover before reaching Fazilka.

We were delighted to see a bus. It was already full and heading towards Fazilka. My mother and the children climbed onto the roof of the bus. There being no space for us, my father and I hung to the steel stairs for the roof. Night had set in when the bus halted in the city and we all alighted. So we were now standing on the soil of Free and Independent India! What a thrilling experience!

Soon we were surrounded by the local people who started inquiring about our previous home, my father's profession, our experiences during the���journey and what we intended doing now. The last question really flabbergasted me. After having entered Indian Territory, we had no home, house or any relation in India. The immediate need was food and shelter. After hearing our story, a local man opened his empty shop for us to spend the night. Another brought a pitcher of water. Still another brought us some home made chapatis and vegetables. This was our first wholesome meal in Free India. After leaving our age-old homes and entering India we had also earned the title of sharnarthis or refugees or displaced persons.

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