A small girl is woken in the night. The family is to travel immediately from their idyllic home near Lahore, in what is current-day Pakistan, to India.
Along the way she sees overturned bullock carts, burning villages and decapitated bodies floating down the canal.
Elsewhere, a young boy is also about to embark on a journey – heading in the opposite direction, from India to newly formed Pakistan.
Traveling by truck, he sees bloated vultures feeding on bodies by the roadside. His small hands hold a gun.
Seventy-five years later – and now in their 80s – the partition of India remains seared into each of their memories.
In August 1947, the Indian subcontinent won independence from the British empire. The bloody partition hastily divided the former colony along religious lines – sending Muslims to the newly formed nation of Pakistan, and Hindus and Sikhs to newly independent India.
An estimated 15 million people were uprooted and between 500,000 and 2 million died in the exodus, according to scholars.
Tensions between India and Pakistan today are “a result of the manner in which the two countries were born, the violent Partition,” said Guneeta Singh Bhalla, founder of the 1947 Partition Archive, a community-based archive which has documented over 10,000 oral histories, based in Delhi, India and Berkeley, California.
“Without understanding Partition, resolving the past and healing our wounds, we cannot move forward,” she told CNN.
Partition also holds important lessons beyond India and Pakistan. “We are seeing a rise of political polarization – left v. right, religious v. non-religious, or one religion v. another – in many places around the world,” said Bhalla. “A lot of the rhetoric we are hearing now is similar to the kind of rhetoric in the public realm that preceded the 1947 Partition-era violence,” she added.
“Partition is an example of the real human cost of this sort of polarization in society,” Bhalla said.
Here, Baljit Dhillon VikramSingh and Hussan Zia, two people who lived through this pivotal moment in South Asia’s history, share their memories – and partition’s legacy today.
The girl who traveled from Pakistan to India
“We are the lucky ones… do not weep for my hands”
Opinion by Baljit Dhillon VikramSingh
Baljit Dhillon VikramSingh was 5 years old during the partition of India. She moved from near Lahore, in what is now Pakistan, to the city of Sri Ganganagar in Rajasthan, India. VikramSingh lives in Los Altos Hills, California. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.
My childhood was idyllic. I was born into the Dhillon clan, lions of the Punjab, landlords of many villages. Our village was Nayanki, outside Lahore in what is now Pakistan.
We had all the comforts – horse buggies to ride, imported puppies to play with, messenger pigeons to fly. Love was showered by all the elders in this fortunate extended family.
We knew no difference of who was Muslim, Sikh or Hindu.
Then one fateful night I was awakened with my two younger brothers and put in a jeep with my father, mother, uncle and aunt in a hurried manner. The journey is as clear as crystal in my mind, even today at the age of 80.
The horror I witnessed as an almost 6-year-old: dead, dismembered and decapitated bodies floating down the canal. Overturned lorries, cars, bullock carts and more savagely bloodied people.
The armed men – soldiers on the Pakistan side in white uniforms – pointing rifles at us and my mother’s courage as she jumped from the jeep and laid her dupatta (traditional shawl) at the captain’s feet, begging for mercy for her small children.
There was no marker, no crossing. No one even knew where the border was drawn.
I remember a village along the way in flames – the white uniformed men who stopped us had been given orders to burn it – as once more we fled through the back roads trying to reach safety at my maternal grandparents’ home in Tarn Taran Sahib, near the city of Amritsar.
After a short stay with my Nankas (maternal grandparents), we moved on to our new home Sri Ganganagar, in the state of Rajasthan. (A distance of some 200 to 300 kilometers from our starting point). At least we had a place to go.
My mother said now we are truly refugees. We came to one room, a tin roof kitchen, no servants, no lush mango groves, no buggies. The sandstorms and dust ravaged everything. We drank from the same diggi (pond) as the animals, rode camels, learned Bagardi (Rajasthani dialect), read by the light of kerosene lanterns, wore homespun gray clothing like the villagers.
Life was harsh; hot and dusty summers, freezing desert cold in the winter. The elders never complained. They carried the bricks and mixed the cement to build the house. They leveled the fields to plow and plant.
My hands writing these words brings back the memory of my grandfather crying over the hands of my mother, as she gave him a glass of water she had purified and strained through three layers of muslin.
He wept that her hands were so work-worn and brown and no longer the hands of a daughter of a noble family. We are the lucky ones my mother answered. We are together. Do not weep for my hands.
My heroes are my grandfather, mother and father. How did they become so stoic and manage life and still shower us with love? They sacrificed to send us to various colleges and military academies.
My marriage was arranged in 1959 to a Stanford graduate, an engineer. We moved to the US in 1967. He went first and I followed a year later with our four daughters.
I babysat for 50 cents an hour so I could be home to raise the girls. Hard work, tenacity and patience learned from the legacy of partition and my elders’ example of love and care made it possible to build a life in a new country far from home and loved ones.
I have been rewarded with material comfort, but I live a simple life.
The word “partition” gives no sense of the tearing asunder of lives simply because a line was drawn by the powers that be. Friends and neighbors who had lived together in peace for generations now enemies.
Both my brothers, officers in the Indian army, fought against Pakistan in multiple unnecessary wars. My brave mother always a little afraid we would need to flee again since we lived so close to the border.
I saw my strong father weep many years later as he stood at the border gesturing towards Pakistan saying “Bawa, the train from Lahore used to come here.” Grieving for his home, the memories and all that was lost. He would say we were brothers, we shared the same food, why would we kill each other?
That belief is why we did not leave immediately but then had to flee as the madness came.
The wounds of partition will always be raw, even 75 years later. The impact on me is that I will always be empathetic to humanity. I am antiwar. I will always lift people up if I can, never put them down.
These are lessons learned from my elders. And lessons taught to my descendants.
The boy who traveled from India to Pakistan
“We kissed the ground… it felt gritty and tasted brackish”
Opinion by Hussan Zia
Hussan Zia was 13 years old during the partition of India. He moved from Jalandhar, in India, to Sialkot, in what is now Pakistan. He later served in the Pakistan Navy and is the author of several books on partition, including “Pakistan: Roots, Perspective and Genesis,” “Muslims and the West: A Muslim Perspective” and “Muslims and the Partition of India.” He lives in Canada. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
“If they kill me first, don’t finish all the cartridges; keep one each for your mother and sisters,” my father told me as we stood watch on the roof, guns in our hands. “Make sure you kill them first before you die.”
The horrible thought troubles me to this day.
At the time of partition, I was a few months shy of 14 and living in Basti Danishmandan, a suburb of Jalandhar City, in the Muslim-majority Jalandhar district that now forms part of India’s Punjab state.
Basti Danishmandan had been overwhelmed by thousands of Muslim refugees, many of them wounded and sick with no food or medical facility. At night, when the nightmarish cries of one of them raised alarm, my father and I would rush to the roof with guns in hand. This was to guard against “jathas” (armed groups of Sikhs) that routinely attacked Muslim settlements at night.
I belong to a community of Pathans that had lived in settlements on the outskirts of Jalandhar City for more than 330 years. My father, a judge, had opted to serve in Pakistan after the partition.
On August 27, the Pakistan government sent two trucks to Basti Danishmandan to evacuate government officials and their families. The road to Lahore was mostly deserted as the large-scale migration had not yet started. But evidence of the breakdown of administration, violence and brutality was apparent. We saw scattered belongings, many bodies, bloated vultures and dogs that fed on them by the roadside.
Both the trucks were stopped at Amritsar – a Sikh stronghold about 15 miles short of the Pakistan border. There were some anxious moments as Sikhs armed with spears, swords and daggers began to gather around the trucks. Fortunately, once again the sight of our guns kept them at bay.
Shortly after leaving Amritsar, someone shouted, “We are in Pakistan!” There was no check post. Everyone got out and spontaneously kissed the ground. I remember it felt gritty and tasted brackish.
In Lahore (roughly 130 kilometers from our starting point), we were housed in a bare room without any furniture in a house owned by a Hindu family that had moved to India. My father was temporarily assigned to help in a huge refugee camp at the airfield in horrifying conditions.
The normally busy city had a deserted look with the offices, businesses, shops, schools, hospitals and other institutions closed. (These were mostly owned by Hindus and Sikhs who had migrated to India much earlier).
On one occasion, I watched as my father rushed to help a man across the road who had fallen down. It turned out he was a Hindu who had been stabbed. He was already dead or died in my father’s arms. There was an application asking for police protection in his hand. It was a quirk of fate had he gone a few steps further he would have been safely inside the local police station!
At the beginning of October, we moved to Sialkot City in Pakistan’s part of Punjab and lived in a house next to a locked building. One day I saw someone in one of its slightly open windows and told my mother. She told me not to tell anyone else. Then she prepared a vegetarian meal and asked me to leave it in the window for the occupant, an old Hindu who had been left behind as the family migrated to India. She continued this daily routine until arrangements were made to send him to India.
In the end, the partition left up to an estimated 1 million dead and uprooted 9 million Muslims and 5 million Hindus and Sikhs. What we had witnessed and experienced affected all of us profoundly. It robbed us of the joy in our lives and replaced it with feelings of loss, sadness and hopelessness (PTSD) that lingered for a long time.
It is often suggested that the madness in 1947 was rooted in religion. But Hindus and Muslims had lived peacefully in India for 12 centuries and never engaged in an orgy of mass murder and expulsion on this scale.
The unwisely hastened transfer of power had not given enough time to set up an effective administration, particularly in East Punjab. (In February 1947, Prime Minister Clement Attlee announced the British would transfer power by June 1948. Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last viceroy of British India, advanced that date to August 1947).
The hasty British withdrawal left the field clear for anyone to loot, burn, rape and murder with impunity. The cowardly abandonment of responsibility by the British, aided and abetted by the Congress Party that insisted on their quick exit, was the main, if not only, cause for the disaster.