By Awtar Singh
LOS ANGELES: When the Partition of India happened, I was 20 years old and our family lived in Lyallpur (now Faisalabad) where my father was a rich contractor-cum-brick kiln owner.
The events of 1947 are vividly etched in my mind. I had just got back home in Lyallpur from Lahore Engineering College when all hell broke loose. We believed the political storm would blow over, and everyone would be able return to the new country of Pakistan as a minority. It would be not much different than how we lived in Colonial India, and we had lived well under those conditions. Lyallpur had been a very stable and calm place, and it remained calm even as the initial Partition violence raged on outside the city’s limits. Thinking it was only for safety, my father shipped my mother, sister, and younger brother to an aunt’s on the east side of the new border. She lived in Amritsar, and after the division it had gone to India.
We were optimistic for our future in Pakistan. We thought that our family’s separation would be only a temporary precaution. Father and I stayed back hoping that the violence would end. Sikhs were about three percent of the population in the whole country, and my father was financially very sound in Lyallpur. He did not want to move out. He said, “Sikhs are to be a minority whether in India or in Pakistan. I have my wealth in Pakistan, so I am here to stay as part of minority.”
So we tried to stay and even went to the city hall to salute the Pakistan flag on August 14, 1947, when it was hoisted for the first time. However, more and more killing began and ethnic violence became the rule, not the exception. At the point of a gun, people were leaving their homes and homeland to run across the new border. Millions moved, and a million were killed; many others were raped and looted, and women became especially susceptible to violence. Rioting also became common. At this time, I was twenty, a freedom lover wearing khadi as a symbol of simplicity and defiance. Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims who had lived in harmony for generations–including my best friend Hanif–were overtaken by a religious frenzy. Everything was turned upside down. Soon, the killing came closer and closer to Lyallpur. What came to be known as ‘ghost trains’, they shipped train cars full of severed limbs and bodies from Pakistan to India and India to Pakistan. Military escorts became the only safe way to travel across the border and reunite with other refugees and family. My father had a bank account fifty miles away from town, but he didn’t have the means of safety to go and cash his bank account.
On September 10, 1947, an Indian military convoy arrived in Lyallpur, and my father and I were forced to leave. We were escorted with the rest of those who had tried to remain across the new border. We left with just a few of our belongings and almost none of our family’s assets. Our beautiful house was no longer ours. A couple of suitcases, and a small amount of cash was all we could take with us.
Under normal conditions, the journey from Pakistan to India would only have taken a few hours. But the journey in this caravan took several days. As it traveled, the caravan was attacked, but it suffered very few casualties. Our camping spots were completely unhealthy and food was scarce. After many scares and close calls, we made it to the Indian border and went straight to my father’s sister’s house, which was already overcrowded and full of refugee relatives. Still, we were safe and able to join the rest of our immediate family.
In the days before our arrival, Iqbal (my younger brother) had come to the border everyday to see trainloads of living and dead bodies going across the border. People came in buses, trucks, trains. Iqbal was looking for us when any caravan crossed the border. He was not sure if father or I were living or dead.
Now that we were all safe on the Indian side of the new border, we slept on my aunt’s floor while the killings continued to go on outside. The horror stories of slaughtered human beings being shipped across the border in train stories still filled our minds. Many refugees had to be accommodated in refugee camps, because they had no ties on the Indian side. We were very thankful to my aunt for not having to be in these camps.
From my aunt’s home in Amritsar, my family moved to Basti Guzan to settle in Jalandhar where we began to rebuild our shattered lives. We found and moved into a small house in our new town that had been vacated by a Muslim family fleeing India the same way we had fled from Pakistan. I remember vividly walking into that new home and finding a piece of bread lying on the table. It struck me that the same kind of tragedy was occurring on both sides of the borders. One got an eerie, painful feeling walking into an empty home left by a family on the run. Clothes were left in old beat-up trunks. Jewelry was abandoned in boxes. Chairs and cots were scattered across the floor. We had no idea how many people had lived there, what age group they were, if they were killed, or if they had simply run away. We had no idea however, we now had a home.
(Los Angeles-based Awtar Singh, who was among the engineers who built Bhakra Dam, moved to the US in 1962 and later created first Indian fellowship at UC Berkeley. Memories of Partition appear in his autobiography Driftwood)