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HT Spotlight: Midnight’s children and their journey to freedom

Independence came at a high price: A debt with a payment schedule of hurt and regret - Rohinton Mistry, India-born Canadian writer.

punjab Updated: Aug 16, 2017 10:54 IST
Team HT
Team HT
Hindustan Times
Midnight’s children,journey to freedom,Partition
Indian refugees crowd onto to trains as a result of the creation of two independent states, India and Pakistan. Muslims flee to Pakistan and Hindus flee to India in one of the largest transfers of population in history.(Bettmann Archive)

A beggar woman sitting by the railway line is beheaded; a child found with a piece of gold tied to his arm with a note pleading the finder to look after him and accept the token of gratitude; thousands marching silently to the border at the crack of dawn with belongings on their head. Such are the memories that stir as the 80-plus look back in first-person accounts for the Hindustan Times:

Partition made me an orphan and a refugee

Milkha Singh

I was in my early teens when India got Independence on August 15, 1947. For us, it was not a moment of celebration. It was Partition, the pain of leaving our ancestral home at Gobindpura village in Muzaffargarh, Pakistan. We were forced into the unknown.

I witnessed bloodbath at the birth of two nations. Some 2,000 people of Gobindpura decided not to leave the village and on August 17, 1947, the rioters arrived. I saw my parents and siblings murdered. The village turned into a cremation ground.

So cruel was the massacre that many bodies, including those of my family, couldn’t be identified. Somehow I reached Delhi and did petty jobs, including polishing shoes, to survive. - Milkha Singh, legendary athlete known as The Flying Sikh, Chandigarh

Massacre still haunts

Gurdev Singh

When Mahatma Gandhi started the Quit India Movement, we were youngsters and joined the freedom struggle. I spent a year in jail in Lahore but when we were released, we were welcomed like heroes.

After independence, thousands migrated to Pakistan, including my friends; some migrants from Pakistan got land near our village. Partition led to the massacre of lakhs of innocent people.

In Sunam, I saw a Sikh man kill a Muslim woman’s child with a sword for the sake of a little money that she was carrying. However, he was shunned by locals. - Gurdev Singh, 95, Mason in Sunam

Freedom amid fear

Taran Gujral

A five-year child was found by a woman during the chaos after the Partition. She took him in her care. When she bathed him, she found something tied to his arm. It was a piece of gold with a note pleading if someone found him, he/she should take care of him and accept this as a gift.

We too left home in Gujjar Khan, Rawalpindi, with the family gold distributed in pouches and stitched to each member’s waist belt. We three sisters were covered in soiled khadi sheets when we moved out. Our Muslim neighbours assured us that no harm would come to us. But when the marauders started coming from outside, they became helpless and asked us to seek safety.

I was sleeping by my mother’s side in a shop my brother hired for a photo studio far away in Ranchi when the clock struck at midnight. I was awakened by the noise of crackers and feared that the mob had come. My mother put her hand on my head and said, “No dear, freedom is here!” - Taran Gujral, 86, Punjabi writer, Chandigarh

Bodies floated in Kali Bein

SS Virdi

I was doing matriculation from Lahore when the buzz about Partition began doing the rounds. My maternal uncle sent me back, saying the situation may turn ugly. And it did. My most painful memory about Partition is of bodies floating in the Kali Bein near Jalandhar.

There was such a dreadful stench. My biggest shock was finding some Rai Muslims, who residents of Lambra village had escorted to the border across Nakodar, were butchered soon afterwards by killers lying in wait for them. It was terrible, Unfazed, I returned to Lahore during the short truce that followed six months later.

I bought the famous Tej shoes from Mall Road. That is etched as a happy memory. - SS Virdi, 88, Former chief engineer, Chandigarh

Farewell to friends

Preetiman K Bhatia

I was in Class 6 in 1947. At that time, over 50% of the population in Ferozepur was Muslim. There were a few Hindus or Sikhs where we lived in Kucha Muslim Ganj.

There was a rumour that the town may become a part of Pakistan. When it was announced on radio that Ferozepur would remain with India, Hindus and Sikhs were happy and raised slogans of ‘Jo Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal’. The next morning, I remember standing on the roof of my house and seeing hundreds of Muslims carrying goods on their heads and silently walking towards the border. It was sad.

I vividly remember the names of my Muslim friends. After Partition, we never met. - Preetiman Kaur Bhatia, 80, Academician, Ferozepur

Brutal beginning

Surjit Hans

I was 16 going on 17 and had just entered college. On August 14, 1947, I was travelling by train from Jalandhar to Amritsar. Just as the train moved into Amritsar station, I saw two men stab an unarmed person in the back.

A few days after Independence that brought Partition in its wake, I boarded a train from Ludhiana and saw Muslims being killed brutally. I tried to raise my voice and was told by one of those in the mob, “Let’s finish off this traitor first.” My parents were in Multan as my father was in government service from which he was to retire on August 31 that year. I wondered what would become of them.

Seeing such brutality, I thought this was no Independence, it was ruination. I remained critical as a historian of the freedom struggle that culminated in such bloodshed. - Surjit Hans, 86, Historian, Mohali

When religion killed

VK Sibal

I was 10 that year. We were at a relative’s home in Jalandhar and I believed it was a holiday. My lawyer father was still in Lahore for his wish was to continue his practice there even if the country was partitioned.

My mother, who was carrying at that time, must have been anxious but she did not let us know. She could not shield us from the events happening around. The house where we were living was near a railway line and I saw a man shouting ‘Bole so nihal...’ before beheading a poor faqirni (beggarwoman).

Another time, I saw a frail man come down a halted train and run for his life. He was being chased. In panic, he jumped into a rainwater pool and was hacked to death there. Such gory acts made a secularist of me at that young an age. - VK Sibal, 80, Former UN diplomat, Chandigarh

Didn’t lose faith in humanity

Raghbir Singh Gill

It was a gory time. News about India’s division began making waves soon after I returned from Tanzania to my native Gill village. I bought a first class train ticket from Meerut to Ludhiana, but it was so crowded that I had to clamber on the rooftop. The canals were full of corpses.

When criminals killed a tongawalla in our village, my father asked me to escort a neighbouring Muslim family to Malerkotla. But the bloodshed did not shake my faith in humanity.

Many Muslims saved us and we saved many Muslims. It was only some ‘badmash (mischevious)’ elements who vitiated the atmosphere. - Raghbir Singh Gill, 96, Transporter, Chandigarh

Indebted to a saviour

Veer Singh

I was six years old and was carried by my father and my pregnant mother when we migrated from Dhilli, a village in Narowal tehsil of Sialkot district. I remember a Muslim toughie who I used to call ‘mama’.

People of the village feared him. He proved to be our saviour. We left Dhilli a month after Partition. While we were there, he would visit us frequently to ensure we were safe.

I remember my grandfather and father’s younger brother were burnt alive after being beaten up. It may have been independence for many but for us it was just ‘halla’ (a scream/chaos).

I remember the Muslim ‘mama’ with love. - Veer Singh, 76, Shopkeeper, Nehs village, Nabha

Haunted by hungry past

Swaran Kaur

Those days still haunt me. My father’s elder brother who had moved a little before us was beaten up at Chakrali near our native village of Tamoli in Gujranwala, Pakistan.

Humanity had fallen so low those days that people would mix poison in water tanks at railway stations and food coming as aid. We reached the banks of the Ravi and the jatha decided to stay there for the night. The water started rising and there were floods.

We had to stay there for four days without food. A helicopter reached and dropped food for us.

However, we were suspicious and did not touch it in fear till someone saw a slip attached to the bundles that read ‘Harmandar Sahib wallo langar di seva’ and we dared to eat. - Swaran Kaur, 85, Homemaker, Nehs village, Nabha

(As told to Aneesha Sareen, Avtar Singh, Manraj Grewal, Mohit Singla, Saurabh Duggal and Nirupama Dutt)

First Published: Aug 16, 2017 10:54 IST