There is a wedding in the family of young Satjit Singh and he has arrived at his paternal village Kharpal in Narowal district on the banks of River Ravi in Punjab. His cousin is the groom and the barat is all set to leave for Sialkot, 60 km away, on horseback. There's celebration in the air but the word 'Pakistan' often interrupts the conversation. It creases the brow, but no one is unduly worried about it.
The marriage is solemnised according to Sikh traditions and the revelry continues as the extended family returns home the next day. The coy bride is welcomed and becomes the cynosure of all eyes. The week passes quickly in seeing off relatives and giving them packed meals and the customary wedding treat: a basket containing sweet-savoury mathiyaan, shakkar-paara, gur-para, sheerni, and a box of ladoo, all prepared by the village halwai. Amidst the gaiety, the only ominous voice blares from the radio. The British are all set to leave but the Radcliffe Line will be drawn and India will be partitioned. Pakistan will become a reality. The elders in the family are still not overly worried about it. Narowal is their home and they will continue to live here. It makes little difference which side of the border it is. That is reassuring for Satjit who has cleared his matriculation exams and will soon be taking the entrance tests to FA (Intermediate in Faculty of Arts). With festivity getting over, Satjit and his family return home to Amritsar where his father is posted.
Satjit feels a sense of tension in his city. The word batwara (partition) is on everyone's lips. For the first time people are being identified as Hindu, Muslim and Sikh. Meanwhile, back in his village Kharpal, they have received a message from his newly-married cousin sister who's feeling insecure about staying on in Lahore. She is married to a railway officer and he talks about his team being told to brace itself for a possible transfer of population. The scale of movement can be fathomed by none. Satjit's cousin sister's fears deepen when she sees her Lahore neighbourhood up in flames. Her family decides to move to the ancestral home at Jadanwala village, where relatives from other towns have also arrived to seek shelter as news of sporadic riots begins trickling in. They are 34 members staying under one roof now in the village home.
At the stroke of the midnight hour, a land is partitioned. Pakistan is born. India gains independence. The first prime minister of India famously says, "...when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance." To the man on the streets of Punjab, and inside homes such as Satjit's, these words mean nothing. Their ears are tuned to voices that betray fear, urgency and uncertainty. They are being told they will have to leave home, albeit for a few days, till the situation calms down. That is a reassuring thought in these times when trouble has begun brewing. Friends till yesterday are turning foes.
The Radcliffe Award, that drew the split line, had been readied on August 13 but absurdly it is told to the political leadership on August 16, a day after the two countries have rejoiced their independence. It is made public on August 17. Utter chaos prevails almost instantly. Lahore and Amritsar, once friendly neighbours, 49.5 km apart, have become outposts on different sides of the 'line'. Sikhs and Hindus living in the Lahore end are told they have to cross over, while Muslims from all over India will be doing the same from the other side. Once again, everyone feels it is a temporary packing of bags and moving to safer ground. They will be back home in a while. "Think of it as setting off on a hurried vacation," Satjit's uncle tells his family in Kharpal. "Just take the bare essentials and some money. It will be well soon." They are heading to Amritsar. It's only an hour's journey and they have made that trip many a time. Usually it's been on horseback, and at times by car. It should be much the same way, the uncle assures everyone.
Satjit's uncle's family in Kharpal has been taken aback by the sudden turn of events. They need to leave their home immediately. A Muslim friend has advised them to make a quick exit as mischief-mongers are at play. The friend says he will look after the house in their absence. There are no horses, carriages or buses to ferry them. News coming in talks about trains filled with bodies arriving at railway stations. Qatal-e-aam or bloodbath is the word heard many times over since the past three days. Satjit's uncle's family of 12 members will go to Amritsar, but will have to cross River Ravi for that. The river is in spate and the amphibious vehicles of the Army and its boats are packed to capacity. They have to wait their turn by the banks. Satjit's father proceeds from Amritsar to help his brother.
Satjit's uncle's family and father finally arrive in Amritsar. Three members cannot make it to this side of the border. They have died on the way. His father narrates tales of horror. He talks about women jumping into the river to save their honour, and children being mercilessly murdered.
In Jadanwala, Satjit's cousin sister's family has been told by her husband to get ready. They have to board the train to Delhi and time is short. They are 34 of them and getting everyone to leave together takes a while. They miss the train. Riots break out in the village. Curfew is declared. A day later, a government official enters Satjit's cousin's house and fills a column in his register. Dead: 34.
This is not merely the story of Satjit. It is the story of Partition. Almost everyone who witnessed the Divide has a similar saga to share. It's been 70 years since the line was carelessly and deviously drawn, but it haunts those who suffered till today. It haunts those who did not go through the ordeal themselves but have heard the stories of escape and massacre told to them over and over again by their parents and grandparents.
"My family was among the millions who suffered the same fate on both sides of the border," says Brig (retd) Satjit Singh, AVSM, VSM. "The Partition of 1947 has been the biggest exodus and the bloodiest in the history of the world." Based in Chandigarh after his retirement from the Army, the now-85-year-old is sharp and lucid as he describes the sequence of events that were to scar his youth and remain imprinted in memory.
Those who witnessed the trauma and lived to tell the tales are the living legacy of Partition. The one common sentiment heard during interviews with them is that none thought leaving home was permanent. Everyone always felt they would get back sooner or later. The reason why they simply locked their houses and walked out with a few belongings.
"We may travel to any place in the world, to the most luxurious, but we always long to return home. Partition snatched our home and destroyed us. It all happened in a day. We had to rebuild our lives from scratch," my grandfather, who fled from Rawalpindi, would often say. He got a chance to see his lost home 40 years later. "He directed the auto driver to the exact spot. And when your grandfather stood outside his 'home', he broke down. It's the first time I saw your grandfather weeping," my grandmother would tell us on their return from the ancestral house she had entered as a bride. "It's just as it used to be," she would beamingly say. Some solace, that.
Seeds of separation
Bengal too suffered the pangs of separation and the single-most quintessential subject you hear Bengalis discussing is life epar (this side) and opar (that side) of the border. Those who migrated from the other side long to row across and have a glimpse of their land. A raging debate in fish-relishing Bengal is whether the much-savoured ilish (hilsa) that comes from River Padma, a distributary of River Ganga, which flows through Bangladesh, is tastier than the one available locally. Usually, opar wins. Nostalgia wins.
The seeds of a separate Muslim state within the boundary of India had been sown on December 29, 1930 by poet Muhammad Iqbal during the famous Allahabad Address, at the 25th annual session of the All-India Muslim League. He had said: "I would like to see the Punjab, North-West Frontier Province, Sind and Baluchistan amalgamated into a single state. Self-government within the British Empire, or without the British Empire, the formation of a consolidated North-West Indian Muslim state, appears to me to be the final destiny of the Muslims, at least of north-west India."
In 1933, the word 'Pakstan' (later spelt Pakistan), coined by Chaudhry Rehmat Ali, came into circulation, but did not make much of an impact. All along, at different points of time in the 1930s, Muslim leaders may have voiced the idea for a separate state, but the idea of partition was never on their agenda.
At the Lahore session of the All-India Muslim League held from March 22â€“24, 1940, a resolution was formally passed calling for independent Muslim states. The statement mentioned, "Territorial readjustments as may be necessary that the areas in which the Muslims are numerically in a majority as in the North Western and Eastern Zones of (British) India should be grouped to constitute 'independent states' in which the constituent units should be autonomous and sovereign". It was after this resolution that the term Pakistan began being used. Also, the till-now secular-minded Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who saw his hope of leading India diminishing, began focussing his energies into becoming a leader of the Muslims.
By 1945, towards the end of World War II, the Empire had weakened. In India, local elections were being dominated by the Congress as well as the Muslim League, and there was a growing demand for complete independence. Britain came under pressure now to accept it.
In this environment of extreme nationalism and escalating communal tension, the insistence for a separate state for Muslims grew louder. The only way out, Britain felt, was to grant independence, and on June 3, 1947, the Mountbatten Plan was hurriedly put together. It announced that British India would be granted independence but would be partitioned along religious lines. The successor governments of the two nations would be given dominion status.
The bloody exodus
The division on paper, which massaged many an ego, turned out to be horrific on the ground. It led to wide-scale looting and rioting that killed more than 10 lakh people and made lakhs of others refugees. People scrambled to get aboard any mode of transport that would take them Across. Every conceivable open space in towns on both sides of the border turned into refugee camps. This was especially true for Lahore and Delhi, where trains would arrive packed with passengers atop rooftops. They would then be directed to various camps set up by the government. Refugees would register themselves and also report those family members who had got separated during the exodus. The already-battered refugees also had to deal with theft, food shortage and illness at the camps. The leaders of both countries, who had sounded optimistic on August 15, soon realised the ruthless reality of handling the largest mass migration of the 20th century. Its reverberations continue till date.
It was Punjab that suffered the brunt. Though Bengal too was divided, the transfer of population in the east was gradual and happened over the next three years. Punjab, which was sliced almost in the middle, witnessed widespread communal riots immediately before Partition; consequently, the transfer of population here happened almost soon after Partition as terrified people abandoned their homes on both sides of the border. Within a year or so the exchange of population was more or less complete. Amidst the harrowing scale of destruction and massacre in Punjab, many Hindus and Sikhs who did not want to leave their homes stayed back and opted to embrace Islam.
Partition killed and destroyed, but what it could not quell was the indefatigable spirit of those who migrated. Slowly but steadily they bounced back and took on life's challenges. Enterprising Punjabis set up food carts and started small businesses. Many went into construction work, for a new capital, well, a new country, was being built, and work was aplenty. Among those who migrated to India were a small section of Parsis and Jews too from cosmopolitan Lahore, and a large number of Sindhis from Karachi, who chose Bombay as their city to resettle and give wings to their dreams.
So, be it the refugee camps of Delhi or Bombay or elsewhere, many a story was born here. Stories that spoke about lives rudely uprooted, replanted and blossoming once again.