Eyewitness Account of Violence at the time of Partition of India, June 07, 2008

Eyewitness Account of Violence at the Time of Partition of India in 1947

In July 1947 my father’s elder brother’s second son was to be married. His part of our family lived in a town in the Punjab called Jaranwala in Llyalpur district. That happens also to be my birthplace. The bride to be was from Jammu. The couple had been engaged for more than six months, but the date for their wedding had kept getting postponed for various reasons. One of the minor reasons was the political turmoil feared during impending quitting of the British from India. I say “minor” because no real violence was expected. Finally, when it became clear that the country was definitely going to be divided and a new state of Pakistan to be formed there seemed no point in postponing the marriage. We knew that Jaranwala and two other places where we had family and property were going to become part of Pakistan. This much was quite clear. In fact this clarity made people less apprehensive, for they thought they would become Pakistani citizens. That was not much of a problem. In fact fixing of the date for marriage less than a month before partition indicates that people were feeling quite secure.

Yet, there was small lurking fear that some violence may occur for a few days after partition. My father, however, decided that he would go to attend the wedding. Mainly for the fun of it, my younger sister 13 and I 16, wanted also to accompany him. My mother had died a year earlier. Our father agreed to take us. As I recall now, he thought it might be better if we were together at that troubled time. So all of us went, attended the wedding and had a lot of fun. The political situation had remained more or less the same. My father wanted quickly to return to Karachi to attend to his business, but we wanted to visit our sisters for two or three weeks. A plan was made that my sister and I would go first to my elder sister in a nearby town Tandlianwala and after that I alone should visit my second sister who lived about 200 kilometers away to the west in a small village near Sialkot. My sister was to stay on in Tandlianwala for an extended period.

The opportunity to travel alone by train, bus and horse cart was for me like a God send. I had a good idea of the route I needed to take, but my older cousins explained everything to me in detail. I still have vivid images of this journey etched in my mind. First part of the trip was in a train. It was so crowded there was no chance of my getting to sit on a bench. I put my little rolled up holdall on the floor and sat on it. Cheap paperback books had just become available. I had seen them in the hands of American soldiers in Karachi. Some of them soon began to appear in second hand bookstalls. I used to buy and read them. On this journey I had one and it helped to pass time. I was conscious of some fellow passengers noticing with awe a small boy reading an English book!

I faintly remember spending the night with a relative in Lahore and then being put on a bus for the next lap. From the bus station I took a Tonga (horse cart) and reached my destination called Judhala, a tiny village where my mother had grown up and an aunt and a cousin lived with their husbands and children. I had never been in a village so small, but I liked it immensely. Few houses, mostly owned by the moneylenders, were built with burnt bricks. The rest were built with mud and covered with mud and animal dung plaster. They looked clean and fresh, and, to my eye very impressive.

My sister and brother-in-law were in Jammu at that time. It was a large city and the capital of the Kashmir State. My sister’s family received me with warm affection. The food tasted delicious and walks through the fields were great. The family owned a small handloom cloth factory where they made interesting, colorful fabrics that I was told had a good market in Jammu. I spent several hours each day in the factory and watched workers doing various tasks required in producing the finished product. There were three boys in the family, two of them about my age. They treated me as a friend and took me around to show me their favorite haunts. I remember visiting some mango orchards where we tasted some of the best that I ever had.

Several days passed. We were approaching the fateful Independence Day, and the day when Judhala would become part of a new country, Pakistan. People talked about it and were curious what the future would bring, but they did not appear apprehensive. However, on August 14, my sister’s father-in-law said that he would feel better if I cut my stay and go over to Jammu, better avoid traveling on the day of the big change. So I got on a train from Sialkot and was in Jammu in a couple of hours.

The Big Day of August 15, 1947
We heard Nehru’s ‘Tryst with Destiny’ speech in Parliament over the radio. I did not understand even half of it but the spirit of the day washed over all of us whether or not we understood the words of our leaders. There were meetings all over the city of Jammu and processions of happy citizens shouting slogans. Some people were dressed in new clothes like on a festival. I remember attending a meeting near our home. It was a huge gathering of people.

Life continued in its familiar routine the next day. But a pall seemed to be hanging over us and the apparent calm seemed unreal. There was movement of the army on the roads on both sides of the new border. Normal public buses had gone off the road and we felt temporarily closed in. After about a week of this my brother–in-law began to suspect that the unrest might continue for a long time. To keep me occupied he enrolled me in the local high school. I remember the school very well. It was in an old but well maintained big building. Our teachers were good and we settled down quite fast. After about 3 months the local situation began to deteriorate rapidly and the school was closed.

There was no news about my father in Karachi, my oldest sister, or my cousins in Jaranwala. Even from nearby Judhala there was no news. After about 4 months some refugees began to come to Jammu from the neighboring Sialkot district. They told gory tales. Muslims of the area had turned against all non-Muslims, particularly Hindus and Sikhs. The government machinery had collapsed, the police had turned biased in favor of Muslims and the army was not fully able to restrain the violence. Hindus and Sikhs were forced to leave their villages and walk to Indian Punjab to the south. Old people, small children, mothers with newborn babies, the sick; everyone had to leave.

We later heard that initially the Muslims of Judhala promised full support to the Hindus. They even said that they would protect them with their lives. But as violence spread in the surrounding villages they felt helpless and withdrew support.
The Hindus and Sikhs of Judhala then made up their mind to leave. They joined neighboring villages to form a small group. As they moved, other groups merged with them seeking safety in numbers. Some of them contained more than ten thousand individuals. Muslim fanatics attacked them. Many were killed. Some women were snatched from the group and dragged away. The refugees were totally unarmed. The local Muslims had crude weapons such as swords, sickles, choppers, knives, or sticks. A few had old muzzle loading guns. With this crude assortment they managed to massacre a large number of frightened, unarmed, and uprooted persons. Their only protection was army units consisting of Hindu and Sikh soldiers. Time and time again whole groups were saved by just a handful of them. These soldiers had orders to shoot and kill, but often their mere presence was enough to scare the attackers away. According to official figures (always lower than actual) half a million were killed.

Most refugees that came to Jammu had lost some members of their families. Some had lost all. Most were injured, some quite badly. All were angry and seething to avenge the harm done to them. They began to crowd around Muslim areas in the city and make threatening gestures. Unfortunately, the Muslims too turned hostile. They tried to turn their streets into fortified camps. The hotheads among them fired gunshots to show off their strength. The refugees were itching for a fight anyway. Riots broke out. Refugees and local Hindu hoodlums attacked Muslims. One of the main streets, in the center of town was overrun and almost everyone (all Muslims) killed in all night mayhem. Even without waiting for the area to be cleaned the refugees began to move into the vacant houses.

The strain of these sudden developments flustered the city administration. They quickly moved all Muslims out of the city and attempted to transport them to the Pakistan border. To witness the scene I went to the big camp and bus station organized outside the city. It was not a sight of efficient organization. In some sections buses were loading and leaving regularly, but elsewhere Hindu and Sikh refugees from Pakistan were attacking the refuges with impunity. Hundreds were killed or wounded. I saw a woman being dragged out of a bus by two strong men and tried to intervene. The people nearby were in the grip of such terrible frenzy they turned on me and drove me away.

The city reeked with the stink of rotting dead bodies. Volunteers were called to transport them to a river about 15 kilometers away. I offered my help and witnessed scenes whose memory even to this day makes my hair stand.

Pakistani Invasion of Kashmir
As unrest spread in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, the Maharaja decided to cede to the Indian Union. Almost within a week Pakistan army attacked Kashmir. In order to augment their strength they brought a large number of armed Afghan tribesmen. To repulse this the Indian army needed to airlift men and supplies. Jammu airstrip was in poor condition. Volunteers were called to repair it quickly. I volunteered. Being only a young teenager I was asked to join the team responsible for collecting food from homes in the city and bringing it in trucks to the airport. People were generous and kind. We were able to supply lunch to a thousand volunteers for nearly a week. I vividly remember the experience to this day.

Nearly six months had passed. We learned that all our relatives, except my father, were somewhere on the road in Pakistan trying to reach the border and cross over to the Indian Punjab. We heard that my father was in Karachi where peace still prevailed. We had no idea of the condition in which our other relatives were. The worst case among our closest relatives was of a sister of my brother-in-law. She had come to Judhala from Amritsar for delivery. She gave birth to a baby boy just about ten days before they had to leave home and take to the road. It was hard for her, but she made it safely. My brother-in-law and I left Jammu and tried to work our way to Amritsar where we thought our relatives will try to go if they safely crossed the border.

There were no buses on the road. Part of the way we hitched rides on military vehicles. Rest of the way we walked. We safely reached Pathankot after completing the more difficult half of our journey. The road surface at that time was soft and there were no bridges over several streams that flowed across it in the rainy season. If it rained one had to stop and wait sometimes for several days. The road from Pathankot to Amritsar goes parallel to the Pakistan border only 2 to 4 kilometers to the south. It was a hard surface all weather road, but there were no public buses on this road either. So we had to take rides on military or private trucks. In several places we saw dead bodies on both sides of the road. These were of Muslims who came from the Indian Punjab and were trying to go to Pakistan. Violence in Pakistan inflamed anger on the Indian side and vice versa.

Just a short distance from Amritsar we saw two large groups coming from the opposite directions. The Hindus and Sikhs were coming from Pakistan and the Muslims were going from the Indian Punjab northward. They were 15 to 20 meters apart, well within shouting distance. A few people shouted insults from one side and there was an equally strong response from the other. The altercation became louder and some people left their group and ran toward the other. There was a prolonged hand-to-hand fighting. But soon, somehow, the fight stopped and the groups started walking. Such fights were not uncommon and in spite of the fact that people did not have any weapons, a lot of injuries were inflicted.

All told ½ to 3/4th of a million people lost their lives. Probably three times as many got injured, and a total of nearly ten million were displaced from their homes of several centuries. The question in my mind still arises, why did all this happened? Yes, there was a lot of political excitement. Some leaders, particularly of the Muslim League threatened violence. Of course there were hot heads among the Hindus and Sikhs also. But the Muslim League had only recently become strong and their demand for a separate Pakistan was by no means granted. It was in doubt until just a few months before the day fixed for freedom. Their utterances did create panic. But it was by no means very serious. For as I have mentioned above, even to the Independence Day, August 15, Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan were calm. So were the Muslims in the Indian Punjab. People had been living together in villages and cities together for centuries. They were neighbors, friends and business partners. Their trust in each other’s sense of decency was strong. Even the fiery speeches of the political leaders were not very effective. People thought that things would cool down after the division of the country was finally completed. What happened?

Lure of Land, Buildings and Valuables
Some Mullahs had been talking about a purely Islamic state in Pakistan, but Mr. Jinnah and other Muslim League leaders had stressed the coexistence of different religious minorities.

Some common people in villages of West Punjab too, were threatening violence, but no one believed that Hindus and Sikhs could be forced out and then kept out for good. But when the local government machinery, the police, and the military turned communal more people began to believe that what they thought was impossible could happen. More and more of the people set their sights on their neighbors’ property. That was the turning point. People saw profit in forcing their neighbors to migrate to India. The Hindus and Sikhs happened to be wealthier than the Muslims. This worsened the situation.

Why did people try to chase and kill fleeing refugees? The reason seems to be the desire to keep the loot without fear of ever having to return it.

Greed motivated the Muslims in Pakistan to throw out the Hindus, and vice versa in the Indian Punjab. Soon the refugee property in both countries was allotted to new comers by the government.

My Family
Luckily all my close family members survived. Some had close brush with death, but they were lucky. My brother-in-law and I met all of them in Amritsar. From there they slowly scattered to various parts of the country. Only person we did not meet was my father. But he was quite safe in Karachi. But as Muslim refugees began to trickle into the city, unrest began there as well. My father then got on a boat and landed safely in Bombay. Few months later he came to Punjab and we were reunited.

June 7, 2008