During the desperately uncertain days of Partition in August 1947, the families and communities living on the wrong side of the divide weren’t sure about their future. In the run up to independence, due to the vitriolic political atmosphere, the animosity between the Sikhs and the Hindus on one side, and the Muslims on the other, had given rise to very violent attitudes. The political leadership had perhaps not comprehended the dark forces that their extreme partisan stands were unleashing. The first glimpse of these vicious frictions became visible an year earlier during the Direct Action Day on 16th August 1946, when slaughter, arson, looting and rapes on a large scale had occurred in Calcutta, followed by similar incidents in Noakhali in October. Bengal, at least, had already become unrestrained, proceeding on the path of bloodletting.
The epicentre of violence soon shifted to the Punjab where the emotional Punjabis were to indulge in a terrifying process of ethnic cleansing, resulting in displacement of over 14 million people, the violent deaths of anywhere between 200,000 to one million people and the abduction of nearly 80,000 women. Very few families crossed the hastily created border unscathed. Nearly every one of those people, including children, has a story to tell.
Despite communal violence in Amritsar, there was no planning for migrating to Muslim-majority areas
Although it was certain that Amritsar would be part of India and Lahore of Pakistan, yet no one seems to have decided to move across to safer areas while there was peace. Probably no one thought that they would have to migrate. According to the stories that I have heard from my elders, while there was full scale political activity on an almost daily basis along with frequent incidents of violence in Amritsar, there was no planning or forethought about migration to Muslim-majority areas. Even if someone had any inkling of coming events, the new country, its administration, the refugee camps and administrative structures were not in place. There was nowhere to move. The greatest migration in the world history was, inevitably perhaps, a sudden exodus.
Lahore and Amritsar, 50 kilometres apart, are twin cities in many aspects. There is similarity in the shape and extent of the old cities, as defined by their walls, similar number of gates (over a dozen) and circular roads around them. A magnificent place of worship, the Badshahi Mosque, and a historic fort, the Shahi Qilla, lie on the edge of Lahore city. Similarly, a splendid Hindu temple, Durgiana Terath, and a notable fort, Gobindgarh Fort (locally known as Bhangian da Qilla), lie on the edge of Amritsar. Lahore has the revered Data Darbar whereas Amritsar houses the holiest of Sikh Gurdwaras, the Darbar Sahib. The frequency and beauty of mosques in Lahore are matched every bit by that of Gurdwaras in Amritsar. Each has a historic park – Minto/Iqbal Park in Lahore and Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar. Both have their own Gol baghs and Hall Bazaars. For the Aitchison College in Lahore, there is an Aitcheson Bagh in Amritsar. Both have Lahori and Mori Gates in the walled cites. The road from Lahori gate in Amritsar leads, in a straight line, to the Delhi gate in Lahore. The icon of Lahore, Zamzama or Bhangian di Towp that has been made immortal by Rudyard Kipling as Kim’s Gun, was brought to Lahore from Bhangian da Qilla in Amritsar by Ranjit Singh. Residents of both cities speak Punjabi and both are literary centres. Both have a rich tradition of producing writers, poets and sportsmen. The aerial distance between Data Darbar and Darbar Sahib is 53 kilometres, which is less than the distance between Clifton and DHA City in Karachi, or between Rohini and Greater Noida in Delhi. Melbourne, New York, Shanghai and a host of other cities are wider than this. Half the population in Lahore, as in Amritsar, was Muslim before independence. Many people used to commute between the cities via railways on a daily basis. There was a very strong and affluent Sikh presence in both cities. Each community was certain that both cities would be part of the country of their choice. In reality, the emotional multitude had desires beyond their reach because greater forces had already drawn a line roughly bisecting the road between the two cities. The twin cities fell in rival camps. The prime markets in the two cities, Hall Bazaar in Amritsar and Shah Alam Market in Lahore, were reduced to ashes due to arson.
Tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children were to lose their lives trying to cross over the line in the opposite direction. They hoped for a utopia on the other side, beyond the hastily drawn borders, little knowing that they would have to overcome the challenges of settlement and integration in the new country. The patriotic spirit of the early days soon whittled away under the harsh realities of everyday life.
My family originated from Kashmir and had been residents of Amritsar since around 1820, when Ranjit Singh snatched the state from the Abdali Afghans. My father’s maternal side, mostly ‘qaligars’ (who polished utensils), were residents of the Hathi Gate area in the city. My paternal side, mostly ‘rafoogars’ (carpet menders), were based in Lohgarh and Chitta Katra (Inside Lahori Gate) areas. Both these vocations are obsolete now. My grandfather, Ameer Bakhsh, like hundreds of other people at that time, fell victim to tuberculosis in 1925, when my father, Mahmood Sadiq, was about three years old. At the time of Partition in 1947, my father was twenty-five years old, a matriculate and employed in Railway Workshop Amritsar as a draughtsman at a princely salary of Rs. 43 per month. My elder uncle, Ghulam Sadiq, employed as a guard in the North Western railway – a job that he continued after Partition – was stationed in Rawalpindi, where he was to spend his whole life. After Partition, my father was employed in the Irrigation department as a draughtsman, and my younger uncle, Irshad Hassan, in the railways workshop as a storekeeper. They settled, together with eight other immigrant families, in a large building in Gujjar Gali, Gumti Bazaar area in Mohalla Pani Wala Talab, Lahore, where we continued to live until the early 1970s.
There is similarity in the shape and extent of the old cities of Lahore and Amritsar, defined by walls
The story of this building needs to be narrated here. Built on a square-ish irregular plot of land measuring about 50 by 45 feet , the building was three stories high. Above the double-door gate was a stone plaque reading ‘Gulzari Mal, Jewellers, 1939’. Not much is known to us about the family of Gulzari Mal. However, in the early years of independence, there were some residents of the neighbourhood who knew the family. Unfortunately, we didn’t bother to take notes. Having undergone the same trauma, we didn’t think it merited any importance. However, he was a successful jeweler with a thriving shop in the nearby ‘Sarafa’ Bazaar. He had five sons and an unknown number of daughters. Certainly, it was a large family and the rich merchant built a house consistent with his wealth.
My father’s Majeed Phupha (Barray Phupha to us) was in Delhi during Partition, where he owned a carpet shop. He migrated to Lahore in late September and started looking for an abandoned house to settle his family. By some circumstances, he was led to Mohalla Pani Wala Talab, where he found this huge building, all vacant and ready to be occupied. Another group of three Urdu-speaking families from Delhi also reached the building soon after – almost simultaneously. My BarrayPhupha (great-uncle) allowed these families to occupy the ground floor and himself took up residence on the first. We need to remember that the migrants were fused with patriotic and sacrificial spirit. The selfishness and corruption came much later. Within weeks, a group of two families also came along and the Barray Phupha, with a remarkably accommodating attitude, let them have the second floor. When the family of his nephew Tahir came looking for shelter, he allowed him to go on the third floor in two of the Barsatis which had an attached kitchen. After some time, when my younger chacha (uncle) Irshad, found a job in the Lahore Railway Workshop and needed shelter, the magnanimous Barray Phupha gave him one of the remaining Barsatis. The fourth Barsati was occupied by one of the families given the second floor. My father’s maternal uncle, commonly called Babu Mama, who had divorced his wife in pre-Partition days and was single, couldn’t settle in Rawalpindi and found a job in Lahore in around 1950. He was given the fifth and the last remaining Barsati by the ever generous Barray Phupha. When my father was posted to Lahore in 1959, we started sharing this fifth Barsati. After sometime, Babu moved to a room in Rang Mahal Chowk so that his nephew could live comfortably with his family. For a long time, I used to carry food from my home (read ‘room/Barsati’) for Babu Mama. He would give me a few coins that I kept in an earthen moneybox.
My mother’s family were tailors by profession and were residents of Katra Karam Singh, where my maternal grandfather (Nana) had built a fairly big house. My maternal great grandfather had migrated from Kashmir and could converse in Kashmiri only, knowing little Punjabi. He had set up a thriving tailoring practice that was continued by my Nana, who was known in the area as Master Razzaq. His apprentices (shagirds) and workers continued to respect him in Lahore after Partition. A survivor of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, he was a loyal worker of pro-Congress and anti-Pakistan Majlis e Ahrar. Katra Karam Singh was also the abode of Bholu Pehlwan and his family, where my mother studied Holy Quran from Bholu’s sister. The pehlwans were clients of my Nana for their clothes. They settled on Mohni Road, Lahore, after Partition and continued to invite my maternal uncles to their fights till the late 1960s.
When Partition occurred, Katra Karam Singh was relatively peaceful and my Nana refused to move out despite the turmoil in the surrounding areas. When the environment deteriorated rapidly, especially after the arrival of Sikh and Hindu refugees from West Punjab, he sent his family to Lahore on a train with the family of one of my maternal grandmother’s sisters. He was hoping to get them back when peace prevailed. The two families found refuge in a house in Kailash Gali, Gowalmandi. This lane was off Bhagwan Bazaar which forked from the Railway Road along the Amritdhara building . My Nana, who soon found Amritsar dangerous for Muslims, migrated in late August 1947 and partially walked to Lahore despite a polio-induced limp in his left leg. He set up his shop close to Amritdhara building, at the junction of Bhagwan Bazaar, Ram Bazaar and the street leading to Dil Muhammad Road. He ran this tailoring shop till his death in 1968. His two sons went into the jewelry trade. The two families shared the house for the next quarter century. A son of my maternal grandmother’s sister still lives there. My mother was married from this house in 1950 and I was born there in 1952. I spent many of my childhood days in the locality, mastered the Lahori dictionary of four letter words, loitered around the mausoleum of Shah Mali, stole poultry from the nearby streets and nearly went on to become a pickpocket, but that is another story. Gowalmandi was known for producing ruffians of all kind. Luckily, I moved on to more respectable vocations.
During the fevered political atmosphere of the mid 1940s, my father’s family was staunchly in the Muslim League camp. Until the middle of the year 1947, the security situation of the city was normal. With the June Plan – when it became certain that the British would leave by August and that the Punjab province would be divided between the two emerging nations along religious lines – stabbings and arson started occurring with increasing frequency. Those living or passing through areas where the rival community was in a majority were especially at great risk. The railway line from Delhi to Lahore passed on the north side of the city along the circular road. Hathi Gate was located on the north-eastern corner of the walled city. Durga Mandir and the railway station cum workshop complex were located across the circular road from this gate. As one went south from the gate on the circular road, the first mohalla on the left was Lohgarh Gate, followed by Lahori Gate and Katra Karm Singh in quick succession.
On the 1st of August, when my father and uncle Irshad were returning from their offices on their bicycles on the circular road, a homemade explosive device was hurled at them in between Hathi and Lohgarh gates. On the 4th, two cousins of my grandmother (Dadi) were injured in a firing incident. On the 7th, there was another bombing incident in the locality. My father and uncle didn’t go to office again.
The fires and firings started coming closer to their street. On the 4th, my grandmother, and some of her relatives, departed for Rawalpindi to be with her elder son. Curfew had been enforced in the city by 7th. On the 13th, the curfew was lifted between 3 and 5 in the afternoon. My father and the remaining family packed whatever they could, hired a tonga for Rs. 3 (they were still plying) and ran the gauntlet of crossing the battle lines to the railway station. The place was full of Muslims waiting for the trains to Pakistan. They couldn’t board the first three and, eventually, found space on the fourth. My father climbed and rode on the top of the engine. They reached Rawalpindi and went to Islamia College refugee camp to wait for the rest of the extended family to arrive. When they did, they proceeded to the better managed Mansar Camp for refugees on the GT road in Campbellpur district, on the left bank of river Indus. The camp is now the home of AJK Regimental Centre. They had luckily reached Pakistan unscathed, though homeless, jobless and without any household items.
Whenever I see a photograph of a refugee train with people sitting on top of carriages or pass by AJK Centre, I recall the trial and trauma suffered by my loved ones in those difficult Partition days.
Every household in our family had some items from that looting of 1947
The family stayed in Mansar Camp for about two months before moving to Rawalpindi in early October. The earlier residents of Mohallas Nanakpura and Mohanpura were mostly Sikhs and Hindus and had left for India. My father, his mother and three brothers took an empty house in Mohanpura. His maternal uncles occupied a house in Nanakpura. Many other members of the family also took houses in these two localities, where some of them still live. They also started raiding nearby vacant houses to collect household goods. In one of the houses, they found a sword with a scabbard, which is still in the possession of the family of my elder uncle. Until the early seventies, we possessed brass glasses and silver woks with Hindu names inscribed on them. Unfortunately, we didn’t think of preserving them as part of history but then it seemed insignificant as every household in our family had some items belonging to that looting. It is also bizarre and astonishing that perfectly peaceful and law abiding citizens resorted to raiding vacant houses to start their lives afresh.
While my elder uncle, being posted to Rawalpindi Railway Station, continued to live in his Mohanpura house till late 1970’s, the search for employment took my father and his younger brother to Lahore. My brothers and I were born and raised in Gumti Bazaar and Gowalmandi areas. Life had finally started to take on the semblance of normalcy.
Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org