Kids Corner


Escape From Gujar Khan
Part I





I, Surjit Singh, was 12 years old when my parents decided to send me to a boarding school in Gujar Khan.

We lived in the village of Begham (pronounced b‘-ghaam) - a settlement named by our ancestors, literally the "Land of No Sorrow” -  on the Punjab side of the River Jhelum, which fell under British rule.

Across the river was Kashmir, loosely 'ruled' by a Dogra, the direct descendant of a handful of rogues who had betrayed the Sikhs a century ago and were awarded this part of Ranjit Singh’s empire as the contracted price for their treachery to assist the British in annexing Punjab to the Raj. The current raja, Hari Singh, was an absentee landlord, whittling away time in Europe, permanently adrift in debauchery and a drugged stupor, while his people drifted into starvation.

Our family had logging contracts within forests extending all the way to Srinagar. The entire operation of their business covered cutting down the timber, transporting it to River Jhelum, strapping them into booms, floating them down the river, shoring them in the city of Jhelum, and then, finally, selling them in the mandi.

Hence, it made sense to settle down in remote Begham, where they had lived for generations. Kashmir was a hop, step and jump away. Way below from the hill-top village, they could trouble-spot the booms for log-jams. And the mandi was within a day’s journey.        

Westwards from the river, including Begham, sprawled the Potohar plateau. Once past the jagged cliffs that guarded the river, it took a few hours’ walk to get to the town which served as the headquarters of the tehsil (somewhat like a county) of Gujar Khan. The town bore the same name.

55 miles north was Rawalpindi. 40 miles south was the city of Jhelum; a further 60 miles was Lahore, the bustling capital of Punjab.

I had completed Class 6 by this time, at a school located in the neighbouring village of Hill, which was a 5 mile walk eastwards from Begham into Kashmir, over a set of cliffs and along a string of hills and valleys. It would take me two hours each way, and didn’t leave me much energy once I got to school, or fit to study much once I got home in the evening.

The walk itself held its perils. I would, of course, be accompanied by a few other boys from the village, heading for the same school. Boys being boys, some of them simply decided to hang around en route, day after day, and head home in the evening without having been to school at all.

I must confess I sometimes gave in to peer pressure and participated in the truancy.

As a result of all these factors, I wasn’t doing well at school and before long was branded a “na-laayak” - “not so bright”!  

I was the youngest of a brood of six children. The eldest four - two brothers and two sisters - were already married. The fifth, another brother, was engaged to be married shortly. I was the baby of the family.
My parents - Sardar Budh Singh and Sardarni Sahib Kaur - were worried about by education. The remedy they came up with was to send me to The Guru Nanak Khalsa High School in Gujar Khan, the nearest town. The distance - 20 miles - necessitated my being admitted as a boarder.       

There was no easy way to do those 20 miles. You simply walked the dirt track; it took 5 to 6 hours. For those who were elderly or sick, you had the choice, once you reached the village of Qadian 14 miles away, to do the final six by tonga. For those who had more than what they could carry on their persons, you could hire a camel to assist with the load.

It was a school populated by several hundred, a majority of them Sikhs and Hindus, but also some Muslims. The boarding school held approx. 100 of us, of which 90 or so were Sikhs, the rest Hindus. The school being known as the best in the region, it also attracted Muslims, but because they were usually less well off, they were only day-schoolers.

The monthly fee was Rs. 4 or 5 . The cost of boarding and lodging was Rs. 16 - 18 per month, though we were on our own for breakfast, which we bought with our pocket money from the canteen.

I would receive Rs. 30 - 35 per month allowance from my parents; it covered all of my expenses.   

I remember I was assigned to Room No. 4 in the dormitory area. I shared it with 3 other Sikhs and 2 Hindus.

Again, school didn’t prove easy for me.

My handicap this time around lay in the fact that English was taught here from Class 5 onwards. Back in my previous school in Hill, it started in Class 7, which meant I was totally clueless amongst the other students who had already been studying English for two years.

Didn’t take me long to get branded “na-laayak” all over again!

I liked History, though, and fared well with Punjabi/Gurmukhi, Urdu and Persian, in all of which I had had good exposure while at Hill.

The new year - 1947 - brought some relief.

My brother, Ishar Singh was out in the eastern end of the country in the border State of Assam, dabbling in business along with our elder brother, Phulel Singh. With the war recently over, the Americans using this area as an army base for their operations in Burma, Malaysia, Singapore, etc. against the advancing Japanese during the World War, were now heading home. Shiploads of supplies were being dumped at throw-away prices. Hence, the business in “disposals” which the two brothers had got into, buying truck-loads of auto-parts, for example, in Assam, and selling them in lots to the traders in Calcutta.

However, they were heading home now for the younger Ishar Singh’s wedding.

I trudged home too to join the festivities. The wedding took place at the bride’s village - Ratala, a village ensconced between the trade-mark ravines of Potohar, midway between Gujar Khan and Begham.

I didn’t get to know my new bhabhi (brother’s wife) - Mahinder Kaur - because, within days after the festivities ended, I was shooed back to Gujer Khan. The newly-weds headed to Anandpur Sahib for their honeymoon.

Back in Gujar Khan, I began to settle back into our routine, and I returned to playing catch-up with the English language.

Rumours of general unrest in the country-side filtered into the school. The recently ended World War had played havoc on the British Isles and they had lost their appetite for carrying any more the “white man’s burden”, as they described the systemic pillage and plunder they had conducted on the subcontinent through the preceding centuries.

Gossip was rife with stories of English bureaucrats carving the country into several parts to cater to the growing demands from the minority Muslims who were suspectful of the historic smugness and arrogance displayed by the majority Hindus.

Both communities wooed the Sikhs who, to date, had proved a buffer between the two.

But, as March brought warmer weather, progressively Punjab too began to feel the effect of rising political temperatures. The heat was on. The cauldron had long gone past simmering, and had begun to boil. Time was running out, as the British administration was precipitously ordered to head home, which they did with unseemly haste, leaving behind a mere handful to complete the formalities.

Independence from foreign rule was finally in sight, after centuries of virtual slavery.

But there was no joy or celebration in the air.
I remember going into town in the evenings. Signs with slogans like “Pakistan Zindabad!” had suddenly begun to appear in stores and street corners.

Gone were the usual Punjabi friendliness and courtesy you once knew you could expect from even strangers. Wherever you went, you were met with inexplicable angry glares from Muslims … my friends and I obviously stood out in our Sikh turbans. It just didn’t make sense to us, this new and strange hostility.

Sometimes we would walk past large crowds assembled in circles at the road-side, intensely focused on a mullah’s oration on how Muslims had been kept downtrodden by all - British, Hindu, Sikh - and that it was time to rid the yoke.

Not yet in our teens, we simply shrugged our shoulders and headed back to the hostel.

Then, one night, it began.

The school was protected by a wall around. Across the gate was the residence of the local municipal official, the Tehsildar. He was a Sikh. Within the compound was the single-storied school-house. Another building, also single-storied, housed the gurdwara. A third, a short distance away, closer to the gate, was the hostel. It had a partial second floor, which housed the hostel superintendent.

It was dark outside; we heard voices and a growing din outside the gate. A crowd had gathered. They began to pelt stones into the school compound, shouting slogans of “Pakistan Zindabad” and demanding that all Sikhs and Hindus leave for India.

They left after a while. But thereafter, it became a daily occurrence, with  increasing intensity night after night until, within a week, the crowd had grown into an unruly mob, armed with knives, lathis, axes and a variety of farming implements. They rattled the gates, and then attempted to scale them and the walls.

We rushed to the rooftop, armed with stones, and showered them with our own missiles until they retreated.

It was common knowledge by now that mass killings had begun, starting with the Peshawar area in the northwest, but murder and mayhem had now spread into the Punjab hinterland.

Sikhs and Hindus were being indiscriminately killed … in the streets, in their homes, wherever they were outnumbered by the Muslim mob.

There was also word that thousands of Pathans had been imported into the region to terrorize the non-Muslim populace into fleeing eastwards into what was now being described as “India” as opposed to large areas identified as an exclusive Muslim “Pakistan“.

There were rumours that entire villages of Sikh and Hindus had been wiped out; that women had been raped, mutilated, carried away or brutalized before being murdered.

In Gujar Khan, the daylight hours were still relatively safe. We occasionally sauntered out in groups to get food supplies. We even ventured into the train station, hoping to meet some Sikhs we would recognize and ask them for news ... and help. Or troops - we could urge them to guard our school.

But the train station, we discovered, had turned into a hell of its own.

The fleeing British had left no troops or officers behind. The local armed forces were struggling with the new reality - of separating into an Indian Army and a Pakistani Army. Who could you trust? Would Muslim soldiers help Sikhs and Hindu victims? And vice versa? What were their instructions? Were they willing to follow them? Did they even have any weapons or had they been taken away as a precaution, or by the ‘enemy‘?

Also, of the few one did see from time to time, there weren’t enough of them to go around … each village, town and city - nay, each mohalla and neighbourhood, was begging for protection and intervention!

Amidst a total breakdown of law and order, it had become a free-for-all, literally, and human nature being what it is, each side vied to out-do the other in its atrocities.

Thus, on the Pakistani side, corpses of brutally mutilated Sikh and Hindu victims were loaded onto India-bound trains … to strike terror in the very heart of India.

It didn’t take long for trains to start arriving on the Pakistani side, loaded with Muslim corpses.

Each act of inhumanity had to be outdone to continue the terror-effect.

Trains of Sikhs and Hindus fleeing to India were then stopped en route by mobs assembled from the countryside, the occupants murdered in cold blood, and only then was the train allowed to proceed to Amritsar, but with a lone living occupant … the train driver!

So, when we ventured onto the train platforms in Gujar Khan to seek help, we were confronted with the sight of groups of men gathered around each carriage door, loading them with corpses. Blood-soaked. Mutilated. Decapitated. Severed limbs or limbless trunks. Men, women and children. But often unrecognizable as anything resembling human beings.

On another occasion, we witnessed - from a hidden vantage point - the same grief-stricken mob receiving a train chugging in from India, carrying its corresponding cargo of Muslim corpses.

Neither side claimed monopoly to boorishness. Each outdid the other, hour after escalating hour.

We were young boys and couldn’t help being mesmerized by the surreal scenes enacted at the train station every day. Of a death train leaving, of a death train  coming in. The wails, the moans, the screams. The “Allah-o-Akbar”s and “Pakistan Zindabad”s … and yes, “Hindu-Sikh Murdabad” - 'Death to Hindus and Sikhs'!

Classes were suspended. They would resume, we were assured, once the ’raulla’ - ’troubles‘ - had blown over.

Naively oblivious of the gravity of the danger that lurked all around us, we repeatedly sneaked out of school during daylight hours to witness yet again and again the hell that the train-station had turned into.  

More significantly, we found ourselves without any adult supervision, in times that seemed to have suspended all semblance of normal human behaviour. There didn’t seem to be any rules in operation. No morals. No ethics. No compunctions.

Back at school, we collected a whole arsenal of rocks and bricks and had them ready in convenient stacks on the rooftop of the hostel.

Come night, when the mob arrived on schedule, we hurled our missiles and, at the same time, screamed blood-curdling choruses of the Sikh war-cry - “Boley so nihaal, Sat Sri Akaal!“: ’Blessed is He who cries - God is Truth!’   

It seemed to work, because the mob would hastily retreat from the shower of bricks and stones and then disperse for the night. We were told by the Tehsildar that the impression the mob had from the war-cries was that a unit of Nihang Singh warriors had been brought in and were in now entrenched in our compound to defend us and the gurdwara within the school complex.

The Tehsildar, the head bureaucrat for the tehsil, was - being a government official - guarded by a spartan staff. The mob had seen it fit not to meddle with him. He had summoned an army unit for our protection, but there was no yet sign of relief, because none seemed to be available.

The Nihangs are a left-over of the fierce Akali battalion in Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s army a century ago! - crack troops who were widely feared as the Sikh Emperor’s “suicide squad”, warriors who would stop at nothing to vanquish the enemy. It was a well-known fact that even the Pathans of Afghanistan feared the Nihangs.

Descendants of them still hung around in groups outside gurdwaras or in farms and villages, but now no more than a historical oddity and anomaly.   

The mere rumour of their presence in our compound had struck fear and second-thoughts in the minds of the marauders.

The following night, however, the mob were encouraged by their swelling numbers, and seemed to have found some confidence. It was obvious to us from the sounds we heard, as we huddled on the roof, that they were getting ready to storm the school.


Continuing tomorrow ... PART II

July 27, 2011

Conversation about this article

1: Singh (U.S.A.), July 27, 2011, 7:36 PM.

This is the reason why 'responsible' ownership of arms is so vital, especially for a community like the Sikhs. The key-words are: 'responsible ownership' of arms. The U.S. constitution rightly defines this right in the Second Amendment to their Constitution. When will the Sikh community understand this right that they used to exercise in pre-1947 - and, to a certain extent, pre-1984 times?

2: Harbans Lal (Dallas, Texas, U.S.A.), July 28, 2011, 9:41 AM.

The account of your family that you have recorded is the story of many families. As such, it is an important history and unfortunately, a similar exodus can be forced upon us again. How has faith guided these families at times of extreme stress? Look forward to the rest of the story.

3: Harinder (Uttar Pradesh, India), July 28, 2011, 2:55 PM.

As a community, we were caught napping in 1947. And again ... in 1984.

4: Abdul Hayee (Gujar Khan, Punjab, Pakistan), December 19, 2011, 4:49 AM.

Sardar Sahib! Do you know anyone from Jatli, Sukho, Daultala or Sahang (all in Gujarkhan)? I am also from GujarKhan.

5: Mehmood Mir (Sukho, Gujarkhan, Punjab, Pakistan), October 06, 2012, 2:47 PM.

I'm from Sukho, the historical village of many prominent Sikh families.

6: Gurpreet Singh Anand (New Delhi, India), February 27, 2013, 8:00 PM.

Sat Sri Akal, Sardar Sahab ji: Do you know S. Gurdit Singh ji Kohli from Gujarkhan who was the first Indian Officer of the British Imperial Forest Service? Since he was a Gujarkhan resident and your family was in the timber business, there may be some link. Can you please revert? He was my Nana ji. And did you ever go back to Gujarkhan? Where do you live now?

7: Mujtaba Shah (Preston, Lancashire, United Kingdom), May 04, 2013, 9:09 PM.

I shall be making a visit to Gujar Khan soon, and was thinking that I'd make a mini photo and audio documentary of Sikh history in Gujar Khan. If any of my Gujar Khani Sikh brethren could be kind enough to give me details of their places where their ancestors lived or belonged I would appreciate it, as I will go out to visit any place and document it. Thank you. [EDITOR: It'll be great if you visit the gurdwaras, schools and other buildings and areas mentioned in this series of articles and photograph what remains of them (or has replaced each of them) and e-mail us the photos. We'll be glad to publish them here. Thank you.]

8: Iftikhar (Reading, United Kingdom / Gujar Khan), June 26, 2013, 6:06 PM.

I also studied in the same school, though it is now called 'Muslim High School, Gujar Khan'. My mother's family belonged to Kangar village not far from Begham. Have you Visited Gujar Khan since you left?

9: Mir Azad (High Wycombe, England), July 01, 2015, 9:55 AM.

I hail from Begham, near Kangar Gujar Khan. Hill Begham is a short distance away from my village. The area is surrounded by River Jhelum. Nice to read this history of Gujar Khan.

10: Tony Kohli (London, United Kingdom), March 09, 2017, 4:33 AM.

I was born and raised in London, England, and I'm trying to trace my family. My father's family left Gujar Khan when he was 2 in 1947. Would anyone know of my Great-grandfather, S Charnjit Singh Chhachhi? Any help much appreciated.

11: Dr Gulsher (Holland), September 12, 2017, 8:46 AM.

I am from Qazian (also mentioned in article). I now live in Holland but go back regularly. I also still have family in Gulyana.

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Part I"

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