The wounds have never healed’: living through the terror of partition
The creation of India and Pakistan in 1947 led to horrific sectarian violence and made millions refugees overnight. Seventy years on, five survivors remember
stories of partition
stories of partition
My father, who was then at Aitchison college, an elite boarding school, remembers being summoned by the English headmaster to an extraordinary assembly in April 1947. School usually broke up for summer holidays in the first week of June, but the headmaster announced that, this year, term would end sooner – in fact, the school would close the following day. “Partition was expected in 1948, but the date had been brought forward and riots had already erupted in parts of the North-West Frontier province and some areas of Punjab,” recalls my father. “Since he could not guarantee our safety, our headmaster had decided to send us home.” My father took what he thought was temporary leave of his many Hindu and Sikh friends and left for Shergarh, his village in Okara district, 70 miles south-west of Lahore.
Luckily, the line that was drawn two months later, severing Punjab in two, allotted Shergarh to Pakistan. My Muslim father had the great fortune of not having to flee his ancestral home. Nonetheless, three months of pure terror followed. “I have never known a period of greater fear and uncertainty,” he says. Shergarh was surrounded by Sikh villages. Once killings began, the villagers braced themselves for an attack every day. “Wild bands of marauding men armed with sickles, axes and swords roamed the open countryside, killing and mutilating anyone they found of the opposite faith.”
Yet my father’s grandfather had been on good terms with his Sikh and Hindu neighbours. This closeness was not unusual in pre-partition Punjab. “There was no intermarriage between the communities and we tended not to eat at each other’s houses, but we were fast friends,” recalls my mother’s brother, Syed Babar Ali, now 91.
When my father returned to school in September, he was one of only 30 of the 300 boys who had left in April. The rest, Hindus and Sikhs, had gone. The school had also lost many of its staff. “There were more cows in the school dairy than boys in the classroom,” he remembers. “Aitchison was a haunted place.”
True, political tension had been rising inexorably in the two decades preceding partition, as leaders of the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League bickered over the terms of the bitter divorce. But the suddenness, scale and ferocity of the violence that erupted in 1947 was still shocking. As historians and writers such as Nisid Hajary and Saadat Hassan Manto have noted, it was a time when the normal mores of civilisation were suspended and neighbours massacred each other without a thought.
The figures speak for themselves, but it was the barbarity that was unleashed that was terrifying. Trains filled with refugees crossing the border were stopped and every man, woman and child on board slaughtered. Only the engine driver was spared, so he could take his grisly cargo to its destination. Women – some as young as 10 – were captured and raped, and pregnant women’s bellies were slit open. Babies were swung against walls and their heads smashed in. My great aunt, then a married woman living in the walled city of Lahore, told me she had seen a man crossing an eerily quiet street littered with corpses. He was halfway across when someone shot at him. Scooping up the body of a toddler, he used it as a protective shield as he raced across. “I don’t know if that man was Muslim or Hindu,” she told me 30 years later. “It was dreadful either way.”
Partition, as Pakistani historian Ayesha Jalal has observed, was “the central historical event in 20th-century south Asia”. It scarred those who lived through it and permanently soured relations between the two countries. “It is impossible to understand relations between India and Pakistan without looking back to partition,” says Alex von Tunzelmann, a historian and the author of Indian Summer, a history of partition. “The wounds have never healed.”
Here, five people share their stories of living through partition.
Mazhar Malik, 86
By May, riots had begun in some districts of Punjab. There was also growing unease in Jammu, but, accustomed as we were to such disruptions, we thought it was more of the same. Srinagar was peaceful, so we moved in with an aunt and uncle who lived there, planning to return home as soon as things calmed down.
At partition, there was doubt as to which country the state of Jammu would join. It had a Muslim majority, but its ruler, Hari Singh, was a Hindu. By mid-August, the rest of India had already been partitioned, but our fates still hung in the balance. As the month wore on, Hindu and Sikh refugees limped into Srinagar, narrating stories of the bloodshed they had escaped in the Punjab. It was not long before riots broke out all over Jammu.
In September, my parents, along with two other Muslim families, decided to move temporarily to Pakistan for safety. A truck set off from Rawalpindi to collect us. On the eve of our departure, my father decided he would stay on. As a civil servant, he felt duty-bound to return to Jammu, since he did not have official permission to leave his post. He assured my mother he would apply for leave and join us immediately.
On 28 September, we boarded the truck with two suitcases and two rolls of bedding each and left for Muzaffarabad, Pakistan, along the Jhelum River road – a beautiful drive in any other circumstances. My father reported for duty in Jammu city on 5 October. In Pakistan, my mother managed to make contact with my father’s younger brother, an accountant who was stationed at Rasul headworks in northern Punjab, and we went on to him.