Voices of Partition

“At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom,” pronounced Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, as India was declared an independent nation on August 15th 1947. Nehru’s joy was on the whole mirrored across India, intense violence was however to ensue across certain regions. Will Jones reports on the religious conflict in the Punjab region where fifteen million people were left displaced and over one million died.

“A train track running to Rawalpindi lay by my Grandfather’s field,” says Gurbaksh Garcha, who in 1947, at the age of eight, would play on his family’s pastures in the East Punjab village of Dahrian. “I used to see refugee trains travelling to Pakistan with slaughtered people hanging off the sides of the carriages,” he remembers vividly. “Militants would stop these trains by the canal bridge, shoot the passengers, men, women and children, and then drop them into the canal, some alive, some dead.”

Now living in the UK, Gurbaksh represents a large émigré population of Punjabis, many of whom have first-hand experiences of the Partition of India in 1947. Sixty-three years have since passed yet painful memories of this moment in history still resonate strongly on the minds of these individuals. Indian independence was a cause for widespread celebrations across most of the nation. In the Punjab region however, the consequences were tragic. Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims, who had previously lived in relative communal harmony, turned on one another, committing acts of remorseless murder.

In Rawalpindi, located in the Pakistani divide of Punjab, Sikh communities endured particularly gruesome violence. “A lot of women were abducted, it was a horrific situation. The honour of the community resided in the women, so militants would attack, abduct and rape them,” says Professor David Hardiman, a historian at the University of Warwick who was born in Rawalpindi during the year of the Partition. “There were incidences where Sikh women were beheaded by their fathers or they would commit suicide by jumping into the nearby well as a way of saving their community’s honour.”

The severity of the tensions forced displaced families across Punjab to flee the villages their ancestors had lived in for centuries. Travelling on foot, in human columns called Kafilas, Sikh, Hindu and Muslim refugees found themselves in grave danger. Armed bands lay in wait on route, preying on the vulnerable, regularly turning in murderous attack. In the desperation of flight the old and infirm, the disabled, women and children, often got left behind. According to a BBC documentary, which was televised on the sixtieth anniversary of the divide, fifteen million people were left displaced by the Partition. Over one million died.

“It was the most significant moment in the past century that has affected the subcontinent,” says Dominic Rai, whose family originates from Sansarpur in East Punjab. Now living in Cardiff, Dominic is the Artistic Director of the Man Mela Theatre Company. He has recently launched the ‘Voices of Partition’ theatre project, which seeks to share personal experiences of the Partition and promote mutual understanding between the different religious groups. “Within the next five to ten years, people who experienced the Partition will begin to disappear. It is therefore so important to share their stories, not only with the Punjabi community but everyone.”

At the heart of the Voices of Partition project is Mazhar Tirmazi’s play ‘A Lifetime on Tiptoes.’ The piece explores the pain and separation felt by his mother as his family were forced to flee their ancestral village in the eastern divide of Punjab following the persecution of fellow Muslims. Mazhar hopes that the play will raise awareness and remind people of the atrocities of the 1947 Partition. “The whole idea of this play was to unfold this great human tragedy which people are not mindful of,” he says. “Punjabis are not conscious of their history, culture and language, and for me this is particularly painful.”

Living in London since 1975, Mazhar has been able to observe the changing dynamics between the Hindu, Sikh and Muslim Punjabi emigrant communities. “Initially the relations between the different faiths were very good,” he says. “The fact that we were living in a modern democratic society helped people to forget about their prejudices.” Cracks in these relations have however reappeared – segregation has emerged once again. “It has got worse. Religious extremists started coming to this country and religions started competing with each other […] money, greed and prejudice is harming Punjabi people across the UK.”

In contrast, coexistence amongst the different religious groups is stronger in other UK cities. “In Cardiff things are entirely different, we don’t hate each other. It’s a completely different kettle of fish,” says Councillor Jaswant Singh, a Sikh Punjabi who represents the Riverside borough of Cardiff. “Twenty-five per cent of the population in my district is that of ethnic minorities, including strong Muslim, Sikh, Bangladeshi and Gujarati communities. It’s an extremely diverse and friendly community, everyone says hello to one another.”

Jaswant was forced to flee his home in Lahore at the age of eleven, just one month before the Partition was announced. His father, already working in the United Kingdom, had been informed that the city was to be declared the capital of the new state of Pakistan. Sikh and Hindu families therefore faced persecution at the hands of Islamic militants. He swiftly arranged for his family to board a train from Lahore to Bombay where they travelled by ship to England. The decision almost certainly saved Jaswant and his family their lives. Large-scale massacres were to ensue across Lahore in the following months, as Sikh and Hindu houses in the old quarter of the city were sent into flames.

Despite such atrocities, Jaswant has always maintained a strong connection with his homeland and was delighted with the reception he received during his recent return to Lahore. “I must say that the people there welcomed us tremendously,” he says. “Originally when I arrived and could not quite place myself, a young bloke came up to me and said ‘come down with me on my bike, sit behind me, I will take you around the city, see if you can remember anything’. And I did, memories came back to me. It brought me a lot of peace to find out where I was born and what school I went to.”

Yet behind its welcoming exterior lies a city plagued by problems. “My immediate impression when I go to Lahore is poverty. It’s very visible and ugly. Not only economically but in a cultural, linguistic and religious sense. And it is this poverty that has created terrorism and crime,” says Mazhar Tirmazi. The emergence of Lashkar-e-Taiba, an Islamist militant organisation based in Lahore, supports Mazhar’s beliefs. The Indian government believe that the group is responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which left 166 civilians dead after terrorists armed with assault rifles, grenades and explosives caused carnage at a number of high-profile buildings across the city.

The eastern divide of Punjab meanwhile has benefited from contrasting economic fortunes and is ranked by the Confederation of Indian Industry as the second richest state in India per capita income. “I have found that our side of the Punjab is very prosperous. Technology is everywhere. Families own cars, mobile phone and many other modern means. Even people living in shacks have television aerials sticking out of their homes,” says Gurbaksh Garcha. This development has however come at a social cost. “With prosperity, civilisation has disappeared. Helping one another and feeling love towards each other has gone. These emotions are completely absent and it has led to such deterioration. There is a lot of selfishness and this is very disheartening for me,” he reflects with regret.

The Partition of the Punjab continues to have a profound effect on Punjabis living in the UK. Relations between the religious communities remain tarnished and tense, as hatred amongst younger generations continues to divide Punjabi society in the name of faith. Four thousand miles away, their ancestral villages stand as a distant relic of their past selves, blighted by the effects of Partition. Yet in spite of these problems, Punjabis in the UK maintain an undoubtedly strong connection with their homeland. Hopes for peace and prosperity remain strong, while the survival of Punjabi heritage is unquestionable: “Punjabi people can’t make love in another language. So as long as we continue to love in the language, Punjabi culture will never die,” pronounces Mazhar with confidence and pride.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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