Sikh siblings Gurbachan Kaur and Ajit Singh recount the days of Partition when they had to flee from Pakistan to India.
New Delhi: I drove past Idgah in Old Delhi on my way to Mukherjee Nagar in North Delhi to meet a pair of elderly siblings who had survived the violence and trauma of Partition and rebuilt their lives here. It had taken some work for me to find survivors of Partition who were able to recall that era.
As I discovered after meeting 87-year-old Gurbachan Kaur and 90-year-old Ajit Singh, their recollection of events in their hometown in Sialkot and Gujranwala, where Kaur was married in February 1947, were still very sharp.
In the drawing room of Kaur’s ground floor house in Mukherjee Nagar – which is close to the camp in Kingsway Camp where the family first took shelter on reaching Delhi, and Bhai Parmanand Colony, where they were allotted their first homes by the government – there was not much to show by way of memoirs of their days in present-day Pakistan.
What adorned the walls were pictures of first Sikh guru Guru Nanak and a painting depicting a journey taken by Guru Gobind Singh. This apart a small replica of a vintage car had been placed on a corner table.
As Kaur waited for her veerji (elder brother) to arrive, she quickly readied herself for the shoot. “Let me take my dupatta before you start,” she said.
Singh, who arrived with his son, looked very fit for his age. And as he settled down and began speaking, it became clear what had kept him strong. He was a keen hockey player in his heydays. In fact, he began by recalling his days as a hockey player in Pakistan and soon narrated stories to tell me about the bond between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs in Sialkot, where their father Sardar Sundar Singh ran a flourishing grocery business.
Though encouraged by his family members to keep the interview relevant by recounting how he managed to flee to India, he insisted on narrating another incident to illustrate how there was a lot of bonhomie between communities back then. “We hear of resistance to Vande Mataram now, but in my school, Har Khalsa School, there was a boy, Zafarullah, and another, Ashraf, who used to offer ardas of the Sikhs and everyone used to feel very happy,” he recounted with a huge smile.
Singh went on to recall how a fire in the sports market at Sialkot, which was the biggest in undivided India, made everyone wary of the dangers that lay ahead. “Then incidents of violence began and many began feeling worried and started thinking about leaving. We were cautioned that the situation is deteriorating and we should plan to leave. Then one day curfew was imposed. One tenant offered us Rs 22,000-24,000 to sell our house but the deal fell through. There was another Muslim man who offered us shelter in another place in the city. My entire family reached there. When day broke, we learnt that at night a mob had attacked certain parts of the city. Several people were killed and injured and properties looted.”
Then, he recalled how two Sikh boys who were in the army came with sten guns and cautioned them about the deteriorating situation. The entire family then left Sialkot. “There was hardly any money with us and we walked towards the station. There was a train going to Jammu and we boarded it. But on the way, the track had been cut and a wooden piece had been inserted in the gap. The engine collapsed and the train could not proceed further.”
“We were then told to proceed to the Sialkot Cantonment area. A temporary kitchen was set up there where we cooked and ate. Then we came to know that we would have to proceed via Narowal and Dera Baba Nanak. But the first bus which was sent was attacked on the way. Somehow it managed to return. Then no one wanted to risk his life but we could also not return to our home in Sialkot. Then we were told that five buses of military are going to Lahore and we could board these. Despite the presence of some military personnel, these buses too came under attack. Then panic spread at the camp. Finally, some Sikh and Gorkha military personnel came and then they accompanied us and with their support we were able to cross the border and reach Amritsar.”
On reaching India, he said, it was after a gap of nearly two days that the family members were able to eat properly. The extended family, some of whose members had got separate in Sialkot, finally came together in Amritsar. The family, however, decided to move to Delhi. “We were told that trains and buses are going to Delhi and that the ride would be free. On reaching Delhi we first stayed at Kingsway Camp where a refugee camp was set up.”
Singh said help from the government did not come instantly and the initial years in Delhi were a struggle. “Initially my father sold sugar and rice at cost price and the money we could make by selling the jute and other bags they came packed in was our only profit. We witnessed some really hard times but stayed together and managed to rebuild our lives.”
Kaur recalled that she was in Gujranwala at her in-laws’ home during Partition. The family were rice wholesalers but her husband, Sardar Ram Singh, was a bank employee.
“I was 17 years old then. My in-laws house was in Kamon ki Mandi – a wholesale rice market – in Afsanbad at Gujranwala. When word spread that we would all be killed we decided to flee and I was sent out first as I had my chuda on then since I had only got married the same February. My husband’s elder brother escorted me safely out of the place. As I had just got married, there was about 20-22 tolas of gold with us. So he put all the valuables and clothes in two trunks and we boarded a goods train in which coal was being transported to flee to India.”
“We stayed in the coal wagon for three days before finally reaching to safety. Over three days we survived by eating boiled grams and drinking water out of mashkis (leather bags in which water was carried),” said Kaur, as she recounted how along the way at some places she saw bodies strewn around the tracks.
Fortunately, she said, the goods train was not searched by any of the mobs and she and her brother-in-law managed to reach Amritsar safely. “The rest of the family, including my husband, also reached India in army trucks. I came to Delhi from Amritsar and after staying for a few days near Old Fort, settled in Kingsway Camp. It was a temporary shack made of jute and canvas with no doors. But thankfully, there were no thefts those days. Later, we were allotted a house in Bhai Parmanand Colony in lieu of our house in Kingsway Camp.”
But Kaur is thankful that none of the family members were injured or killed despite the family being rescued so late and reaching India three days after they started their journey on August 17, 1947.