How People Tried to Escape the Horrors of the Partition of India

How People Tried to Escape the Horrors of the Partition of India

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This article is an edited transcript of The Partition of India with Anita Rani, available on Our Site TV.

Dan Snow and Anita discuss her family's heartrending experience living through Indian Partition.

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The Partition of India was one of the most violent episodes in Indian history. At its heart, it was a process whereby India would become independent from the British Empire.

It involved the division of India into India and Pakistan, with Bangladesh separating later.

Since different religious communities ended up on different sides of the border that they were supposed to be on, they were forced to move across, often travelling long distances. It’s shocking when you read accounts of what was taking place.

First of all, there were caravans of people walking to try and get across the border, and these people would often be walking for long periods of time.

Then there were trains, packed full of people, who might have been Muslims, leaving India to get into Pakistan or maybe vice versa – Sikhs and Hindus trying to leave what became Pakistan and get into India.

Entire trains of these people were slaughtered.

Refugees walked in caravans to try and get across the border.

Thousands of women were also kidnapped. One estimate puts the total at around 75,000 women. Maybe those women were converted to different religions and went on to have completely new families, but the truth is we just don’t know.

I was told that my grandfather’s first wife jumped into a well with her daughter to escape being murdered and there are accounts of thousands and thousands of women doing the same thing because it was seen as the most honourable way of dying.

Men and families were also choosing to kill their own women rather than have them die at the hands of the other. It is unimaginable horror.

2017 was the 70th anniversary of the Partition of the Indian Raj which caused such an epidemic of bloodshed. Yasmin Khan, Associate Professor of History at Oxford University, and author of 'The Great Partition' draws on her research and family recollections to deliver the powerful story of partition.

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Familial murder

I met someone who was 16 when partition happened. He was a Sikh man who had been trying to get into India from Pakistan when his family’s village was surrounded.

Now, his story is just one example of violence, and I should say that it was happening both ways – Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs were all doing the same thing.

But the Muslim men said to this particular family, “If you give us one of your daughters, we’ll let you go”. You have to remember that these families lived together in joint household. So you’d have three brothers, their wives, and all their children, and everybody would be living in a joint house.

The eldest of the family decided that rather than letting their daughters fall prey to Muslims and being raped and murdered by them, that they would kill them themselves. All the girls were put into a room and I was told that the girls bravely stepped forward to be beheaded by their father.

The death of my grandfather’s family

My grandfather’s family, who ended up in Pakistan as a result of Partition, must have realised that trouble was brewing. And so they went to the haveli (a local manor house) in the next village where a very wealthy Sikh family was giving refuge to Hindu and Sikh families.

The Hindu and Sikh men who were hiding there had erected a series of defences around the house, including a wall and a moat.

The moat was really interesting because basically overnight these men had channeled the water from one of the canals in the area to build it. They also barricaded themselves in with some guns.

There was a standoff with Muslim men outside – the majority of people in the area were Muslims – who continually attacked the haveli.

Dan Snow and Anita discuss her family's heartrending experience living through Indian Partition.

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That lasted for three days before the Sikhs and Hindus inside the house just couldn’t hold out any longer and they were all brutally murdered. Everybody perished, including my great-grandfather and my grandfather’s son. I don’t know exactly what happened to my grandfather’s wife and I don’t think I’ll ever know.

Although I was told that she she jumped down a well we have no way of knowing for sure; she might have been kidnapped.

India’s partition: ‘People in their final years are desperate to open up’

Wordless, one of hundreds of sketches made by Sardari Lal Parasher of the victims of partition. He subsequently locked all his works away in trunks.

Wordless, one of hundreds of sketches made by Sardari Lal Parasher of the victims of partition. He subsequently locked all his works away in trunks.

Last modified on Thu 22 Feb 2018 17.08 GMT

Sardari Lal Parasher recorded what he witnessed during partition in hundreds of feverish sketches. Then he buried the images in a trunk for the rest of his life.

The artist, from western Punjab, was a survivor of the blunt, bloody cleaving of the Indian subcontinent in 1947. As the train that would carry him from Lahore to Indian territory pulled in, an attendant pulled bodies off it and hosed it down, staining the platform red.

Once over the border, Parasher took a job as commandant of a refugee camp in the north Indian state of Haryana. He is said to have roamed the camp in the evenings, drawing with whatever he could find, even dirt, as he tried to stave off despair. One sketch, entitled Small Comfort, depicts women huddled together, expressionless but hunched in grief. Another, Defeated, is of a hooded woman face down on the ground. There is action too: men with batons raised over cowering bodies.

“These sketches remained in trunks throughout his life,” says Raju Parasher, his son. “They were never shown. They were never spoken about either.” It was not until 2004, after Parasher had died, that his children discovered the images, now displayed in the basement of a doctor’s clinic the family runs in south Delhi.

“My sister would set up a camera and ask my parents to tell me about that time,” Raju recalls. “My mother would remain silent. My father would open up occasionally, but not her. One day she had an outburst. She said: ‘It’s taken me a lifetime to forget. And now you’re asking me to remember? It’s not fair. It’s not fair at all’.”

Unwinding, by Sardari Lal Parasher

India will mark the 70th anniversary of its independence this month in the traditional way: a prime ministerial address from the ramparts of the Red Fort in Delhi, a flag-hoisting ceremony and a boisterous parade through the city.

Also traditional will be a near-total absence of any reference to the horrors that accompanied the birth of the world’s second most populous nation: the displacement of 15 million people and the orgiastic violence on both sides of the new border in which more than a million died.

“At the official level the horror has never been marked, never been commemorated,” says Urvashi Butalia, a publisher and writer. India has just one physical monument to those who suffered, and nothing in Delhi, where millions of refugees from modern-day Pakistan were housed.

No trace remains of the sprawling north Delhi camp where Amrit Sagar Bajaj arrived with his family in 1947, aged 12. “It was a dreadful phase,” he says. “We were looted and were even about to be killed. But we pretended to be Muslim and were saved.”

The official amnesia mirrors a private reluctance to remember among many of those who survived. “What is the use of remembering that bad phase?” says Bajaj, now living in a middle-class suburb where the camp once stood. “We are alive and that is more important.”

Asha Kohli was in college the first time her mother ever spoke of what they had witnessed in Lahore, a city the family fled at a day’s notice on 15 August 1947. “One day she told me: ‘They were bad times. We would go up to the roof of our house and see a fire here, a fire there’,” she recalls. “People were setting fire to Hindu homes. But then she would say that Hindus and Sikhs were setting fire to Muslim homes, too. It was a period of madness that she didn’t want us coloured by.”

The task of remembering is made harder by politics: relations between India and Pakistan are as poor as ever. Also, no single community emerged from partition as a simple victim.

“To commemorate something, you have to acknowledge that this violence didn’t leave behind easily identified aggressors and victims,” Butalia says. “It takes a lot of maturity to discuss this history without giving blame. They didn’t just do it to us. Everyone did it to everyone else, and we must never repeat it. I don’t think we’re able to face up to that.”

Things are slowly changing. The past two decades have seen a flourishing of history and literature examining the violence, particularly against women, that accompanied the creation of the two new states.

Parasher’s artworks will also soon be displayed in Amritsar, where the world’s first partition museum opened last year. “When partition happened it was probably too raw,” says the museum’s chief executive Mallika Ahluwalia. “Grieving was a luxury: there was no space and time to allow themselves to do that. They had to pick themselves up.

“Now there is a generation who were all children when partition happened. They are in the final years of their lives, and they desperately want to open up.

“This is really the last generation, and if we don’t capture their voices now, we will lose the opportunity.”

Muslim refugees near New Delhi attempting to flee India in September 1947. Photograph: AP

Ordinary citizens are also filling the gap. The Indian Memory Project, a website curated by Anusha Yadav, traces the history of the subcontinent through pictures and letters submitted by families – materials that might have sat on mantelpieces or in drawers for decades, unseen outside the home.

Yadav, a photographer and designer, set out in 2009 to collect images of weddings. She was inundated with pictures documenting the minutiae of subcontinental lives, many eradicated by its violent split. “After a year, one evening, the penny dropped,” she recalls. “This was a much bigger idea.”

Three weeks later, she set up a blog publishing the photos and pairing them with rich narrative accounts. The project has now evolved into a standalone site with over 175 entries, most infused by the epochal events of 1947.

“Indians don’t talk about pain. We’ve never been good at it. We get on with life because it’s a matter of survival,” she says. “Our attitude has been that horrible things may have happened to you – but tomorrow’s food won’t come by talking about it.”

The project is helping to change that, she says. “I’ve found that the more you tell stories, the more willing people become to talk.”

This Heart-breaking Story Perfectly Captures the Horrors of Partition

It starts when 2 new countries came into the map – Pakistan and India – and the bloody chaos that followed soon after.

During that time, a 22-year-old Krishan Kumar Khanna – a worker in a busy rice market in Sheikhupura – left his home, hoping to be back within a matter of days. He ventured to the Indian side of the border, unbeknownst to him about the partition that was soon to follow.

“When we left, we had just put a lock on the house, thinking that we’d return within 10 or 15 days. We were convinced of it,” said Khanna.

It’s been seventy years since 27th August, 1947, 13 days after the partition of the Indian subcontinent, when Khanna left his home in Pakistan. But he could never return to it. He was unable to.

He now hopes that he can see it one last time before he passes away.

We wanted to stay, we wanted to remain where we were. Partition happened, even then we still remained. Then the military came and beat us out of our neighborhoods.

“There was a ‘poison’ spreading then. People who had become Muslim refugees arrived [in the neighbourhood] as well, and questioned why these Hindus were still here.”

The Biggest Mass Migration of People

The partition was followed by an estimated 15 million people escaping their homes. Muslims were moving in trains towards west, towards Pakistan, with Hindus going in the opposite direction.

The partition of the subcontinent in 1947 led to one of the largest and most violent political migrations in human history. At least a million people were slaughtered between the religious communities that tried to make it to the other side. Some of them were slaughtered just because of their faith.

Khanna belonged to a Hindu family. He spent 70 years of his life in India and now wants to return to Pakistan.

“Outside my uncle’s house, I saw seven bodies, covered in blood,” he says.

Their blood was flowing into the street, and I stepped over it to get into the house. I still remember that blood today. The blood touched my feet and, as I was walking down the street, a man said to me: ‘Is this the freedom that you wanted?’

Khanna was unable to comprehend the ‘poison’ of communalism that was spreading, leading people to slaughter each other out of hate. Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs had been living together in the same streets for centuries and were considered a symbol of unity. But partition changed all that.

There was a strange atmosphere then, and people fell into it. Men did not have the will to kill people … but when the ‘poison’ spread. It happened, and we had to flee.

Forced displacement

“This anxiety [around going home] is centrally related to the trauma of forced displacement and the sense of loss, helplessness and despair that accompanied it,” says Kavita Panjabi, a partition scholar whose own family fled the Sindh region for present-day India during partition.

“Parting and becoming estranged from that we held dear, made people more fearful and hence violent. People thought that everything that they loved will have been destroyed.”

Khanna returns home after seventy years

‘I want to see my home’

His family is pretty much against his idea of going to Pakistan. Khanna who lives in Meerut in India, tells that his wife stopped him from going back.

I have a passion to see my home. My wife told me not to go. Who knows what might happen? But it was just a passion inside me to see my own home, my own town, what it is like now.”

“We are totally against this trip. [Pakistan] isn’t a place of pilgrimage for us. I told him not to go. What is he going to do there in Pakistan? It’s the same place where we saw so much violence, so many fights. So why go there now?

However Khanna is extremely determined to go back and visit Pakistan. When asked what he expects to see on his return, all he says repeatedly is, “I want to see my home, I want to see my home, I want to see my home.”

“Maybe I’ll find some of my friends. But who knows where they will be now.”

‘The soil is the same’

Khanna has been actively trying for the past 20 years to get visa for Pakistan but he has been unsuccessful.

After repeated and concerted efforts and a determined spirit, he has finally managed to to secure a visa for Pakistan.

After extensive interrogation from the Indian and Pakistani officers, Khanna crossed the Wagah border, leaning on his walking stick.

I am thankful to God. I have now crossed the border into Pakistan,” he says. “Back home in our Punjab, the landscape is the same. The soil is the same, and the people are the same.

Khanna first stopped at Lahore which is the place where he studied. He visited his old neighbourhood, to find the school where he once studied in and to see the places that he used to visit as a teenager.

Khanna visited Gol Bagh in Lahore after that. He recalled something as he pointed to a bench:

“I was sitting in this park reading, that was when the decision to create Pakistan was made. Someone came and told me that there is a curfew in the city, what are you doing sitting over here? I said I didn’t even know there was a curfew.”

“I thought that partition was a mistake. This was the thought at the start, and it’s the same now. It’s wrong, and should not have happened on religious grounds.”

‘Everything is the same, there are no differences’

He went on to visit his family’s hometown in Sheikhupura. Khanna is able to recognize his old neighborhood, previously known as Guru Nanak Pura, now known has Jinnah Park.

“We knew where it was, and the neighborhood was the same. There is no room for it to change. There’s no space,” he says.

After entering the street where he lived, he pointed towards a small house in the end of the street saying, “This is my old house.”

After the partition, the houses vacated by those leaving Pakistan were occupied by those who fled from the Indian side. His old house is occupied by an immigrant family from India who have made minor changes to the house but it is still clearly recognizable by Khanna.

“This is great, wow,” he exclaims as the current resident show him around the house.

The book belongs to the person who reads it, the pen belongs to the person who writes with it, and the house belongs to the one who lives in it. The house is theirs now.

He also visited his old school and was shown around by the Headmaster running the government school. He pointed to a wall, narrating a story of how he tried to climb that wall to escape from school, following by a heartfelt laughter from the teachers and the students who were delighted by this visitor from India.

A Painful Goodbye

They say all good things come to an end and Mr. Khanna felt that it was time to bid goodbye to Pakistan.

“My heart doesn’t feel like leaving. I feel like staying here for two more days.”

Upon coming back home to Meerut, his children and grandchildren anxiously asked him to narrate his experience of Pakistan.

His answer is indicative of how, the more things change, the more they remain the same. Especially for people like Mr. Khanna who have experienced and seen it all:

I felt like I was walking around in Punjab – not in India or in Pakistan. And I was just enjoying myself doing that. I didn’t feel like I was in India or Pakistan. The same people, the same faces, everything is the same, there are no differences.

Remembering partition: ‘It was like a slaughterhouse’

Seventy years after the partition of India and Pakistan, survivors from both sides recount stories of horror.

“When you see your own mother drenched in blood and stomach opened, intestines coming up, how would you feel?”

Salahuddin Khalid was a young boy living in New Delhi when life as he knew it erupted in a cataclysm of violence and bloodshed.

It was 1947, and the border between the new nations of India and Pakistan had just been created.

Salahuddin and his family found themselves on the Indian side of the border.

They were Muslims in a land dominated by Hindus and Sikhs.

“I heard a shriek. I turned and I saw a Sikh with a sword in hand and my sister was running,” he recalls.

“First, they entered the room of my mother, killed her, then they ran towards us.”

Salahuddin fled in fear. When he returned, his mother lay mutilated.

“It was just like … a slaughterhouse,” he says.

It has been 70 years since partition – the moment the subcontinent was divided by Britain, creating India and Pakistan. The number of survivors who remember that moment, and the violence that left more than a million people dead, are fast dwindling, leaving many worried that this part of history may soon be forgotten [Steve Chao/Al Jazeera]

Back then, Salahuddin knew little of the political events that foreshadowed the deaths of his mother and at least a million more people across the Indian subcontinent.

But it was people like him who endured the deadly aftermath of Britain’s historic decision to relinquish its Indian empire and carve it into two new nations along religious lines.

Now, 70 years later, memories of the horrors that unfolded as Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs turned on each other, remain raw in the minds of those who survived.

“When I remember all those things, I feel so much pain and my heart shrinks,” says Salahuddin.

The creation of India and Pakistan prompted the biggest mass migration in human history, as Muslims who were scattered across India and Hindus and Sikhs who were in Pakistan desperately tried to make it to the other side of the border.

As people fled their homes, a wave of violence was unleashed with neighbours turning on each other.

“People who a year before would’ve attended each other’s wedding parties … are murdering each other, raping each other’s daughters, roasting each other’s babies on spits,” says historian William Dalrymple.

He describes how train stations in cities like Lahore, in the new nation of Pakistan, morphed into scenes of mass death.

“The platforms are literally awash with blood because a load of Hindus waiting on the platform to travel to India have been massacred, and another platform was covered with blood because a train had just arrived from India full of dead Muslims. Total chaos,” says Dalyrymple.

Amolak Swani was a 17-year-old Hindu girl living with her parents in Peshawar, Pakistan, when she heard that a Muslim mob was approaching their home.

Her father told her and her mother that the attackers were setting homes on fire and taking women away.

“He was very frightened and he quickly gave my mother a bottle of petrol and some matches and told her … ‘If we don’t survive downstairs, then don’t give up your honour. Pour the petrol on yourself and our daughter and don’t let yourself be taken into the hands of those people’,” she says.

The attackers eventually passed by their house, and Amolak and her family fled to the Indian city of Amritsar.

Follow Al Jazeera’s coverage of 70 years of India-Pakistan partition
Follow Al Jazeera’s coverage of the 70 years of India-Pakistan partition

But other women didn’t escape.

Sardar Joginder Singh Kholi, a Sikh teenager at the time of partition, recalls a woman named Veerawaali who lived in his village in Pakistan’s Punjab province.

“She was a very beautiful woman. But during the unrest … Muslims were chasing after her,” he says.

“There was a Sikh temple in our village, so she ran inside the temple to take refuge. She paid her respects to the holy book … doused her body in kerosene and set herself on fire.”

She wasn’t the only one of Sardar’s neighbours who died. He recalls what happened to the men of the village when the attackers arrived.

“Out of the 25 men who were there, they murdered 18,” says Sardar, now 86.

“I cried a lot. Now I think of it, I feel that something happened to all of us. It’s as if humanity had died. Everybody became a devil.”

A woman worships at the Monkey Temple in New Delhi, India. In 1947, when independent India and Pakistan were created, Hindu, Sikh and Muslim mobs attacked each on the streets of the capital and other places throughout the Indian subcontinent [Steve Chao/Al Jazeera]

The atrocities have spawned decades of hostility between Pakistan and India, but on both sides of the border, there are efforts to chip away at the hatred that remains.

In the Indian city of Amritsar, a new museum is helping keep alive the memories of that era.

With survivors ageing, curator Mallika Ahluwalia says it was crucial that the Partition Museum be established while there is still a living connection to the personal stories of that era.

“It’s about the impact on each person who went through it. And what it would have felt like for them to leave behind their homes, to leave behind their friends, to leave behind the lives they’ve known and to move to a new land,” Ahluwalia says.

“It was less migration of people or partition of assets – it was this collective migration of sorrow.”

But Mallika wants the museum to be more than just a place of sad reflection. She wants to commemorate the acts of kindness that crossed religious divides and saw Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus protect each other from violence.

“I think it’s really important that we highlight those stories of humanity, that we highlight those stories of friend helping friend, neighbour helping neighbour … stranger helping stranger,” she says. “Those narratives shouldn’t get lost.”

On the other side of the border, the Citizens Archive of Pakistan has recorded the stories of more than 2,200 survivors in the last decade.

Aaliyah Tayyebi, a senior project manager for the non-profit organisation’s oral history project, says hearing the perspectives of ordinary citizens who lived through partition is vital.

“I feel if narratives of people who have suffered from both sides, whether that be a Hindu, a Muslim or a Sikh, come to the forefront and people get to hear it, then it will make them realise the horrors of war,” she says. “It would make them understand that killing one another does not solve anything.”

Aaliyah believes today’s generation needs to learn from Pakistan’s history.

“We can use it as a tool to make us better people or we can just run from it and never look back and pretend it never happened, but then we will just be foolish,” she says.

Creating a better understanding of what went on when the country was created would help foster better relations with India, Aaliyah believes.

“We are neighbours. We need to understand that for the greater good of both countries, it would benefit us to respect one another, tolerate one another, understand from our past and come to a better future.”

But some survivors, like Salahuddin Khalid, say there’s no way they can forgive the brutality they endured.

“How can I?” he asks. “You can give me tonnes of gold, tonnes of money, can you give me my mother?”

Mallika Ahluwalia is a co-founder of the first museum to commemorate the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. The museum, in Amritsar, India, recounts not only the tragedy of partition, where more than a million people died, but also the positive stories where Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims helped each other [Steve Chao/Al Jazeera]

Finally, a museum will document the horrors of partition that many Indians and Pakistanis want to forget

Amolak Swani’s knobby fingers gripped a cane as she shuffled into the room, her daughter holding her at the elbow. She settled into a chair with a sigh and began telling her story.

Swani was 16 when Muslim mobs in the city of Peshawar, in the northwest corner of what was then British India, burned down the houses of minority Sikhs in early 1947. The city where the family had lived for generations was about to become part of a new Muslim nation called Pakistan.

With their long hair and turbans, Sikhs were easy to spot. Swani and her family cowered in their second-story residence for days as their phone line was cut and food supplies ran low.

One day her father came upstairs carrying a box of matches and a canister of fuel.

“If a mob breaks in, they will do terrible things,” Swani said he told her and her mother. “Set yourselves on fire. Don’t fall into their hands.”

Her father and husband, both in the dried fruits business, were away on business when the family’s employees, all Muslims, hatched a plan for Swani and her mother to escape Peshawar.

Wearing burkas the workers’ wives gave them, the pair climbed into the back of a company truck and hid behind boxes of almonds and raisins. They drove to the train station, where the women joined crowds of Sikhs and Hindus heading east to what would soon become an independent — and secular — India.

Among the few luxuries Swani spirited out of their house were her wedding jewelry, hidden inside a Singer sewing machine, and a radio. The radio — and Swani’s story — will soon form part of the first museum dedicated to the 1947 division of the two countries, known here simply as Partition.

It is time we saved these memories while our generation is still here.

“My children said they never knew these stories before,” said Swani, 86. “It is time we saved these memories while our generation is still here.”

Occupying part of the stately, colonial-era town hall in the Indian city of Amritsar, less than 20 miles from the Pakistani border, the Partition Museum marks the first significant effort in either country to create a permanent reckoning of their violent breakup.

In what has been called the bloodiest migration of the last century, at least 14 million people were uprooted from their homes and approximately 1 million died in sectarian killings or from disease and hunger as the British carved out Pakistan from Hindu-majority India. Hindus and Sikhs were forced to flee their homes in what became Pakistan, while Muslim families faced attacks as they tried to leave India.

Employing personal artifacts and oral histories, the museum aims to memorialize the experiences of the people who died and those who lived through it.

As the independent nations grew into fierce rivals, fighting three wars, few are willing to confront the shared horrors of Partition.

“Other countries have commemorated the experiences that shaped them in so many ways,” said Mallika Ahluwalia, a trustee of the Arts and Cultural Heritage Trust, the nonprofit organization that established the museum in October.

Trustee Mallika Ahluwalia is pictured in one room of the Partition Museum. Displayed at left are a coat and briefcase donated by survivors.

“In India this continues to shape the country and yet we have nothing like this. This is one step in that direction.”

Schoolbooks in India and Pakistan gloss over the subject. The violence had few parallels in the 20th century except perhaps the Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide — but unlike in Berlin or Kigali, no city in either India or Pakistan houses a memorial to the victims.

“It is one of those very peculiar cases of ethnic cleansing in which all three communities were victims and all three communities were also perpetrators of the crimes,” said Ishtiaq Ahmed, an author and Partition scholar in Lahore, Pakistan.

“The result is we don’t want anything of the sort to be remembered. The communities and their spokespeople don’t want it to be remembered. So it’s taken a long time before some people could finally overcome all the trauma and all the complexities and decided to establish this museum.”

As Partition survivors slowly die off, there is a belated recognition of the importance of recording their stories. A separate nonprofit initiative based in Berkeley, the 1947 Partition Archive, has collected more than 2,000 oral histories of survivors and will soon make the material available online.

The museum is the only physical memorial. Its collection is skewed toward the experiences of those living in India, because the curators have not collected material from Pakistan. However, they are in contact with Pakistani groups and plan to expand the collection in the coming months.

The museum is in Amritsar down a busy pedestrian thoroughfare from the Golden Temple, the holiest site in Sikhism. A commercial center during colonial times, the city suffered some of the worst violence of Partition.

In the heart of the Punjab territory, it was a religiously mixed place, with Hindus and Sikhs together forming a slight majority over Muslims. In the final days before the boundary was announced in August 1947, as it became clear that Amritsar would fall inside India, Sikh mobs overran Muslim neighborhoods and killed hundreds, while thousands took shelter from the violence inside the Golden Temple.

Tales of frantic departures and families torn apart fill the rooms of the museum. One display case features the warm, multicolored phulkari coat worn by a 22-year-old Sikh woman, Pritam Kaur, who fled mob attacks in western Punjab but had lost track of her fiance in the violence.

She reached a refugee camp in Amritsar with her 2-year-old brother — and found her fiance, Bhagwan Singh, waiting in a long line for food rations. They were married the following year in a simple ceremony. In the display case next to the coat is Bhagwan Singh’s leather briefcase, one of the few possessions he carried with him to his new home in India.

Restless spirits

Community artist and activist, Sùna Al-Husainy, talked about her father, Saad Mahmood Al-Husainy, who passed away in London in 2012.

Sùna Al-Husainy as a baby with her family, circa 1969. Photograph courtesy of Sùna Al-Husainy , CC BY-ND

As a young man, he had escorted the future premier of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, to a meeting with India’s leader, Jawaharlal Nehru, Viceroy Louis Mountbatten and the man tasked with drawing the lines of partition, Cyril Radcliffe.

She told me that partition went right through her father’s village in the Gurdaspur district of India’s Punjab province. “When I approached my father about it, he found it very difficult to talk about it,” she said. “But he did manage to bring out a full poster size photograph of the palace he grew up in.”

Saad Mahmood Al-Husainy’s palace in India (no longer present), circa 1940. Photograph courtesy of Sùna Al-Husainy , CC BY-ND

Sùna Al-Husainy’s paternal family were Muslims, descendants of a 13th-century Sufi saint, Hazrat Imam Ali Shah Sahib. His shrine is the Makkan Sahrif, now looked after by a Sikh octogenarian, Gurcharan Singh, in India.

After partition, Saad Mahmood Al-Husainy moved to Lahore in Pakistan. As the eldest of six, he was expected to take the role of a Sufi pir or master. Instead, in a bid to escape his sense of political despair and memories of the atrocities that he had witnessed, including the beheading of his household servants, he made the decision to leave for Britain.

He enrolled at the University of Birmingham in the late 1940s to study medicine. There, at a poetry recital of the Sufi saint, Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi, he met an Irish woman, Colette O'Neill, who was training to be a teacher. They fell for each other, not least due to their love of poetry, and within three months, had got married.

The Mountbatten factor in India’s partition

Muhammad Nurul Huda Muhammad Nurul Huda

It can be said without any fear of contradiction that one of history's most massive displacements of population with the attendant violence and misery took place when, in 1947, the Indian subcontinent was partitioned along communal lines, resulting in the creation of two independent states: India and Pakistan. Despite the passing of seventy-four years since then, the debate on the justification of the partition continues, and perhaps will go on for an indefinite period, largely due to the deep wounds caused to so many people who were uprooted from their hearth and home.

A question arises as to whether India's last Viceroy's "forced march" to the demission of power further heightened communal tension and made partition inevitable and tragic. It would be relevant to recall that British Prime Minister Clement Attlee on February 28, 1947 declared that power would be transferred by June 1948 to such an authority or in such a way as would seem most reasonable and be in the best interests of the Indian people. Mountbatten arrived in New Delhi on March 22, 1947 with plenipotentiary powers and a clear mandate to expedite the process of British withdrawal. Therefore, when the Viceroy on June 3, 1947 announced his new plan and proposed to advance the date of transfer of power from June 1948 to August 15, 1947, the "forced march" began with disastrous consequences.

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So why was Lord Mountbatten in a hurry? Recent revelations indicate that "it was his intention to rush back to the fleet as soon he could extricate himself from India and to vindicate his father's reputation". His father, the "First Sea Lord of the Royal Navy, Prince Louis of Battenberg, was forced by London's fierce anti-German prejudice during World War I to abandon the fleet over which he had once so proudly presided. His then fourteen-year-old son resolved to join the Navy himself and remain in it until he became the First Sea Lord".

It would not be inappropriate to observe that Lord Mountbatten had already decided to make fast work of his India assignment. Interestingly, although the British cabinet gave him eighteen months to complete the job, he never had any intention of taking so long. To many experienced British administrators who had earlier served in India, even the eighteen months' time was an unduly hurried process which—if not reconsidered and its early terminal date not pushed back—would cause severe ruination of Indian regions and communities. The new Viceroy, however, was so eager to get on with the job that he would cut the all-too-brief allotment of time in half.

Even Winston Churchill, who was not favourably disposed to India's freedom, commented in the British Parliament that "the government, by their fourteen months' time limit, have put an end to all prospect of Indian unity … How can one suppose that the thousand-year gulf which yawns between Muslim and Hindu will be bridged in fourteen months? … It is astounding." He called the time limit a "kind of guillotine". He further added that, "Will it not be a terrible disgrace to our name and record if, after 14 months' time limit, we allow one fifth of the population of the globe . to fall into chaos and carnage? Would it not be a world crime . that would stain . our good name forever?" However, the quit-India-quickly policy won the House of Commons vote by 337 to 185.

While the complexity of subcontinental politics, intransigence of the politicians, and personal ambitions of certain important political leaders—as well as the divide-and-rule policy of the British establishment—impacted the process of transfer of power, it has to be noted that none of those played as tragic or central a role as did Mountbatten. He had been largely responsible for the "tragedy of partition and its aftermath of slaughter and ceaseless pain".

The rush for partition resulted in the horrid plight of ten million desperate refugees over Northern India. "Hindus and Sikhs rushed to leave ancestral homes in newly created Pakistan, Muslims fled in panic out of India. Each sought shelter in next door's dominion. Estimates vary as to the number who expired or were murdered before ever reaching their promised land. A conservative statistic is 200,000 a more realistic total, at least one million". The tragedy occurred as the last Viceroy did not have the wisdom and patience necessary to accomplish a delicate task. Additionally, he did not have the humility or good sense to appreciate the wise counsels of Indian leaders who "tried their frail best to warn him to stop the runaway juggernaut to partition before it was too late". Mountbatten's negativity towards Jinnah, and its tragic significance for all of South Asia in the aftermath of partition, has been traced from the recent study of transfer of power documents.

Partition maps, revealing the butchered boundary lines, were kept under lock and key on Mountbatten's orders. Had this not been so secret, then the governors of Punjab and Bengal could have saved countless refugee lives by dispatching troops and trains to "what soon became lines of fire and blood", but Mountbatten had decided to wait until "Independence Day festivities were all over, the flash bulb photos all shot and transmitted worldwide…"

"Only in the desperate days and weeks after the celebrations of mid-August did the horrors of partition's impact begin to emerge. No Viceregal time had been wasted in planning for the feeding and housing and medical needs of ten million refugees."

70 years later, survivors recall the horrors of India-Pakistan partition

In this September 1947 photo, Muslim refugees clamber aboard an overcrowded train near New Delhi in an attempt to flee India. (Associated Press)

NEW DELHI — The massacres began soon after the British announced partition: Neighbors slaughtered neighbors childhood friends became sworn enemies.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the partition of India, an event that triggered one of bloodiest upheavals in human history.

About 14 million people are thought to have abandoned their homes in the summer and fall of 1947, when colonial British administrators began dismantling the empire in southern Asia. Estimates of the number of people killed in those months range between 200,000 and 2 million.

Hindus and Sikhs fled Pakistan, a country that would be Muslim-controlled. Muslims in modern-day India fled in the opposite direction.

The legacy of that violent separation has endured, resulting in a bitter rivalry between India and Pakistan. “When they partitioned, there were probably no two countries on Earth as alike as India and Pakistan,” said Nisid Hajari, the author of “Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition.” “Leaders on both sides wanted the countries to be allies, like the U.S. and Canada are. Their economies were deeply intertwined, their cultures were very similar.”

But after partition was announced, the subcontinent descended quickly into riots and bloodshed.

Indian soldiers walk through the debris of a building in Amritsar during unrest after the partition of India and Pakistan in August 1947. (Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

Bungalows and mansions were burned and looted, women were raped, children were killed in front of their siblings. Trains carrying refugees between the two new nations arrived full of corpses their passengers had been killed by mobs en route. These were called “blood trains”: “All too often they crossed the border in funereal silence, blood seeping from under their carriage doors,” Hajari wrote in his book.

Even the fruit on the trees tasted of blood, recalls Sudershana Kumari, who fled from her home town in Pakistan to India. “When you broke a branch, red would come out,” she said, painting an image of how much blood had soaked the soil in India.

Many who lived through those times describe madness taking hold. “Some people say they had temporarily gone crazy,” Hajari said.

Archives on both sides have collected video and oral testimonies of the horrors. A partition museum will open this week in the Indian city of Amritsar, containing items that were brought over from Pakistan by refugees.

But outside southern Asia, the brutalities of partition were not widely broadcast. Partly, Hajari says, that may be because of how the events were depicted by British sources. “At the time, there was an impetus to portray the moment of independence as a triumph — that after 200 years of colonial rule, the British could part as friends. If you emphasize the death and violence, that tarnishes the achievement,” he said.

And partly, he said, it may be because Indians and Pakistanis themselves still find it difficult to discuss those horrors openly and honestly. “It is still hard to understand why those things happened. Why did that temporary insanity take over?”

These are the stories of some of those who survived.

Sudershana Kumari, an 8-year-old Hindu girl who witnessed a massacre in her home town in Pakistan

Even as a girl, Sudershana Kumari’s survival instincts were sharp enough to know that staying quiet is sometimes the best option.

Crying out would have given away her hiding place — a rooftop in her native town, Sheikhupura, where Kumari, her mother and dozens of others lay, watching the carnage on the streets below. “We couldn’t show our heads,” she said. “You show your head and you’re dead.”

Kumari’s family is Hindu they were living in an area that would soon become Muslim-dominated Pakistan. Families like hers would have to flee.

So Kumari, now 78, did not make a sound. Not when she felt pangs in her stomach after three days without food. Not even when she heard her dog Tom barking for her.

From the holes in the roof, Kumari saw her uncle and his family being killed by men with spears in the street. Her uncle was a tax collector who had made the error of filling their suitcases with cash — unnecessary weight that had kept his family from running fast enough, Kumari said. “My aunt was wearing white trousers, I remember,” she says. “She was crying, ‘Don’t kill my son, don’t kill my son.’ Then they took her daughter from her. They took her, and they pierced the spear through her body. She died like that, a 1-year-old girl.”

Kumari’s family scattered. Her town had been reduced to ash and rubble. For days, she and her mother hid from rioters who were looking for Hindus to kill and loot.

When armed men eventually found them, they were hiding in an attic packed with about 300 others from the town.

The townspeople were ushered out to a playground, where the previous day’s captives had been doused with oil and burned alive. Corpses lay strewn across the streets. “One dead body here, one dead body there. All people we know,” Kumari said. “There’s Khyaliram, there’s Baleddiram.”

Minutes before they were to be killed, a cease-fire was announced. Trucks rolled into the village from the cities, with Tara Singh, a famous political and religious leader known for his contributions to independence struggles, shouting at rioters through a megaphone. Not another drop of blood should be spilled, he was saying. They listened, because they respected him.

On the other side, they would become refugees — penniless, homeless strangers in a strange land.

Years later, Kumari had nothing left from those years besides a small box she stole from her burning town, thinking it could be used for her dolls to sleep in.

That and her memories. She fills notebooks with poems about those years. One of them reads:

Mind, don’t dwell on things of the past

Your eyes will have to cry.

Your eyes will have to stay awake all night.

Your eyes will have to cry.

Hashim Zaidi, a Muslim whose family fled India for Pakistan, fearing repercussions after an uncle killed a Hindu man

Hashim Zaidi’s Muslim family had to flee India after his uncle, a police officer, killed a Hindu intruder in his home. Fearing retaliation, his family boarded a train to Pakistan. Zaidi was 10 or 11 at the time. (Nisar Mehdi/For The Washington Post)

If Hashim Zaidi and his family hadn’t left his native town of Allahabad in India, the rioters would never have spared them.

His uncle, a Muslim police officer, had killed a Hindu rioter who was trying to enter his house, he said.

Violent acts of vengeance had become commonplace in 1947. Zaidi’s family was taking no chances. “We had no choice but to leave India for Pakistan because of incessant attacks by rioters,” he said.

Only 10 or 11 years old at the time, Zaidi was taken to Pakistan on a train. The carriages were marked to show which passengers were carrying money or other objects of value, and which ones weren’t.

“They started it, and they murdered people to get their hands on money,” he said. “People who have made it to Pakistan have given money in exchange for their lives.”

“It was all about the loot and nothing to do with ideology,” he said.

Sarjit Singh Chowdhary, a Sikh soldier who helped Muslim refugees reach safety in Pakistan

Sarjit Singh Chowdhary heard the news on the radio.

At the time, he was 2,000 miles away, serving as part of the British army in Iraq. News that partition was imminent and that his family may be in danger filled him with worry. He applied to be repatriated and was back on Indian soil by September 1947. “When I had left, India was a peaceful country,” he said. “When I came back, it was bloodshed.”

Killings had begun in March in his home town, Kahuta, in modern-day Pakistan. Later he would discover that his mother had been attacked. “My mother was a brave woman and knew how to fire a gun, so she was able to defend herself. She managed to escape and bring my siblings over to India,” he said.

As a 24-year-old soldier, Chowdhary was appointed to serve for the Punjab police and put in charge of law and order amid the unrelenting violence in the region. “I saw the body of a dead man being thrown off a train,” he recalled. “Once, on my way from Delhi to Jalandhar, we stopped at Doraha Canal and saw that the water had become red with blood.”

The news reports from his home town disturbed him deeply. “In a village just 12 kilometers from mine called Thoha Khalsa, women drowned themselves to save their honor. When the army found them, their bodies were swollen and had come up to the surface. That was the state at the time. Men were shooting their own wives and daughters because they feared what would happen if they were taken away by attackers,” he said.

Twice, he accompanied Muslim refugees across the border. “They had gathered in their villages, tied up all their things onto bullock carts. There were around 40 carts, a few hundred people,” he said. “They wanted to get to Pakistan. They must have been sad to leave, but tell me, if your life, your family’s life is in constant danger, wouldn’t you want to get out?”

Mohammad Naeem, a Muslim boy who traveled to Pakistan on the notoriously dangerous ‘blood trains’

Mohammad Naeem arrived in Lahore on a train from Agra, the city of the Taj Mahal, where he was born.

When the riots started, his Muslim family no longer felt safe in Hindu-majority India.

It was a dangerous journey. Many who traveled along the same route had been killed their bodies littered the tracks.

His father, who was separated from the family amid the riots, had to take a ship from Mumbai.

He bought a ticket, even though others at the time were riding free. When he disembarked in Karachi, people asked him why he had bothered wasting the fare money. “He said: ‘I’m a cowardly man. I bought the ticket so they don’t throw me overboard.’ ”

10 of the Most Heinous and Heartbreaking Genocides in History

Genocide obviously never sits well on the national conscience of any country, and so the finer points of definition are usually argued exhaustively. The Partition of India is such a case, and while Hindu/Muslim sectarianism lies at the heart of the debate, there is also the question of whether the British washed their hands of India, and walked away knowing that genocide was inevitable.

India was, as the saying goes, the Jewel in the British Crown. In many ways, it defined the British Empire. WWII, however, reconfigured the imperial landscape, and by then, India was demanding independence, and the British were more than willing to give it to them. The problem lay in a historical predominance of Muslims within the Indian political process. As heirs to the old Mughal Empire, traditional Muslim leaders enjoyed an influence not particularly congruent with their numbers. The departure of the British would naturally bring about democratic rule, and in a society where Hindus vastly outnumbered Muslims, universal suffrage meant Muslim marginalization.

Muslim nationalists then began demanding a ‘two-state&rsquo solution, which neither the British nor nationalists like Mohandas ‘Mahatma&rsquo Gandhi particularly wanted. Bearing in mind, however, the likely ramifications of a civil war between Hindus and Muslims in India, it seemed in the end the only viable solution. A boundary commission, sponsored by the British government, attempted to divide India along Hindu and Muslim lines. The result was imperfect, of course, but it created the map of the Indian sub-continent that we now recognize today. India and Pakistan would be separated, with what is today Bangladesh part of mainland Pakistan.

On Tuesday, August 14, 1947, Pakistan was proclaimed independent from Britain, and a day later, India followed suit. Almost immediately, as British officials handed over, Hindus in India began attacking and killing Muslims, and in Pakistan, vice versa. The result was mass slaughter as Muslims trapped in India sought to flee to Pakistan, and Hindus and Sikhs caught in Pakistan tried to make it across the border into India. The result was death and mayhem on truly epic proportions.

In total, about 11.2 million people successfully crossed the India-West Pakistan border in different directions, mostly through the Punjab region. Some 6.5 million of those were Muslims migrating from India to Pakistan, and 4.7 million Hindus and Sikhs from Pakistan to India. Over 14 million people were displaced along religious lines, and between 1-2 million people lost their lives.

The debate has never been so much the classification of the event as genocide, although that is, of course, debatable. The question is rather whether Muslim nationalists were to blame for demanding a two-state solutions, whether Hindu nationalists were to blame for allowing it, or whether the British were to blame for leaving Indian knowing that genocide was inevitable.

‘There were tears in his eyes’

On Dec. 13, a Project Dastaan volunteer wearing personal protective equipment met Anand in his house in Chandigarh, and presented him with a VR headset.

Days previously, a different volunteer on the Pakistani side of the border had traveled to Dharukna with a 360-degree video camera and&mdashwith Anand giving her directions via WhatsApp&mdashfilmed Anand’s home, the school where he studied for seven years and the village pond. When the filming was complete, the volunteer in Pakistan sent the footage to others in India, who drove it to Anand&rsquos home.

Slipping the headset over his eyes, Anand was transported seven decades back in time. The first things he saw were two lines of text: &ldquoHappy 90th birthday, Uncle. Welcome back home.&rdquo

Then, immersion. Surrounded on all sides by moving images, he felt as if he was walking around in his village, seeing familiar sights that for years had only existed in his mind&rsquos eye. Lots had changed, he noticed, but they seemed to be good changes. &ldquoIt is an improvement,&rdquo he says. &ldquoI like that my village has improved a lot.&rdquo

For Shah Umair Ansari, the Project Dastaan volunteer in the room, the change in Anand&rsquos demeanor before and after the experience was profound. The nonagenarian was not very expressive at first. &ldquoBut slowly and gradually, he told us a lot of things about the migration,&rdquo says Ansari. &ldquoIt triggered that emotion where he wanted to speak about it, wanted to feel about what’s actually been seen there.&rdquo

&ldquoHe was emotional,&rdquo Ansari says. &ldquoThere were tears in his eyes.&rdquo

The approach has implications for historians, says Sam Dalrymple, another of Project Dastaan&rsquos co-founders and the author of a forthcoming history book, Five Partitions: The Making of Modern Asia. Not only does it give survivors a sense of closure, but it gives their offspring&mdashsecond and third-generation refugees&mdasha chance to add some color to their parents&rsquo stories, and perhaps understand their own origins a little better. Plus, when children begin asking their parents questions, Partition survivors are often more forthcoming, Dalrymple says. &ldquoWhen it comes from the children, they answer these questions in a different way than they would to us.&rdquo Project Dastaan then records those answers for history.

Now, with COVID-19 vaccines on the horizon, Project Dastaan is planning expansion. The project has VR experiences for 16 more refugees in the works, including its first four in Bangladesh&mdashwhich Dalrymple says is a &ldquoa fascinating and often neglected part of the Partition story.&rdquo

The emotional impact on refugees themselves is already evident. Back in Chandigarh, Anand says that the experience has satisfied his desire to return to his home village for one last time. &ldquoThat ambition has been there all the time,&rdquo he says. &ldquoBut now having seen it, it is enough for me.&rdquo

Watch the video: Teilung Indiens