By Shevlin Sebastian
Photo: Overcrowded trains going from India to Pakistan and vice versa
One day, when Nawab Khan was standing outside his house in New Delhi, in August, 1947, he heard a shriek. He ran inside and saw that a Sikh man had slaughtered his mother with a sword. “I could see the intestines falling out and her whole body was drenched in blood,” says Nawab. He ran away and managed to survive.
Later, he came to know that a line on a map had divided India and Pakistan. And he was supposed to go to Pakistan. But he remained in Delhi.
The Partition created the biggest mass migration in history, with more than 20 lakh people leaving one country and going to the other, carrying nothing but a few clothes, some bits of money and fear in their hearts.
Because, on the way, Muslims were massacring Hindus and vice versa. Many trains at Delhi and Lahore were filled with dead bodies and blood-stained seats.
Says historian William Dalrymple: "People who a year before would have attended each other's wedding ceremonies were now murdering each other, and raping each other's daughters."
Author Nisid Hajari, in his book, 'Midnight’s Furies' wrote, “Gangs of killers set whole villages aflame, hacking to death men and children and the aged while carrying off young women to be raped. Some British soldiers and journalists who had witnessed the Nazi death camps claimed Partition’s brutalities were worse: pregnant women had their breasts cut off and babies hacked out of their bellies; infants were found literally roasted on spits.”
But some were lucky. Lata Advani, who was 17 at that time was living with her parents in Lahore. Suddenly, the family heard that a Muslim mob was coming down their street. Her father informed her mother and her that they were setting houses on fire and assaulting the women.
Lata's father gave a bottle of petrol and a matchbox and told her mother to douse herself, and Lata in case, he could not defend the house. “Don't give up your honour,” he said. But thankfully, the attackers went past their house and the family were able to flee to Amritsar.
Tragically, around 1 lakh women were abducted or raped. Some even killed themselves. Sardar Mohinder Singh, who was a teenager during the Partition remembers a woman named Swaroopa who lived in his village in Pakistan's Punjab province. "She was a very beautiful woman, that was why the Muslims were chasing her.”
Swaroopa ran into the Sikh temple, paid respects to the Holy Book, then doused her body in petrol and lit her body.
One reason for the high casualties was because Britain was reluctant to use its troops to maintain law and order.
Today, India and Pakistan have gone to four wars over the status of Jammu and Kashmir and East Pakistan, which later became Bangladesh. Indian Muslims are frequently suspected of harbouring loyalties towards Pakistan. Many non-Muslims in Pakistan are vulnerable thanks to the so-called Islamisation of life there since the 1980s.
Said the great Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto: “Human beings in both countries were slaves, slaves of bigotry... slaves of religious passions, slaves of animal instincts and barbarity.”
However, many blame the British for what happened. Scholar Yasmin Khan, in her acclaimed history 'The Great Partition', said, “Partition stands testament to the follies of empire, which ruptures community evolution, distorts historical trajectories and forces violent state formation from societies that would otherwise have taken different and unknowable paths.”
One rupture was the change in demography. In 1941, Karachi was 47.6 per cent Hindu, while Delhi had 33 per cent Muslims. By 1951, almost all the Hindus of Karachi had fled, while two lakh Muslims had been forced out of Delhi. These changes remain seventy years later.
And the future looks grim. Says Hajiri: “The rivalry between India and Pakistan is getting more dangerous: the two countries’ nuclear arsenals are growing, militant groups are becoming more capable, and rabid media outlets on both sides are shrinking the scope for moderate voices.”
Hajiri concluded: “It is well past time that the heirs to Nehru and Jinnah finally put 1947’s furies to rest.”
(Published in the special Gandhi supplement in The New Indian Express, Kerala editions)