Kids Corner

Images: details from paintings of the Partition, by Jimmy Engineer.


Escape From Gujar Khan
Part II

by T. Sher Singh




Continuing from yesterday ...


Earlier in the day, the school staff had realized - based on rumours pouring in from the town - that matters were rapidly escalating, and made the decision to cancel classes.

They still expected things to settle down in a few days, especially if troops would arrive to restore law and order.

But that night, it seemed to have turned into a different ball-game. It looked like the whole town was outside the gates. Their slogans were now organized and in chorus, like claps of thunder. Some had already climbed atop the walls and appeared to be awaiting a signal.

All of us, the hundred students or so that were left in the hostel, and what was left of the staff, had climbed onto the roof. We had begun to rain stones down on the mob, but we knew that our arsenal wouldn't last very long, and the gates and walls wouldn't hold up much longer.

Even though we didn't put it into words, our eyes and faces in the shadows betrayed to each other that we had become resigned to our fate. But strangely, it had the effect of injecting a dose of bravura. It was surreal - each of us screaming our heads off, some with unearthly and hoarse voices by now, and pitching away as if it was the last stand against the Zulus.

Then, we heard the crack of a gun-shot. A lone shot.

We couldn't make out where it had come from.

It was worrisome because the populace did not, and was not allowed to, have firearms. If someone had got hold of one, it meant we were in far more trouble now. Suddenly, being perched on the rooftop did not look like a good idea anymore. 

Then, slowly but surely, the slogans from outside the gates died down. There was an eerie silence, not for too long, and then a different kind of yelling and screaming. The crowd was turning around and fleeing, trampling over each other. They too were not sure who had a gun.  
Magically, the shadows on the gates and walls dissolved. We could hear the people running and shouting. The sounds scrambled away into the dark abyss of the night.

The Tehsildar appeared like an apparition at the gate, a lone figure. A torch in one hand, a gun in the other.

*   *   *   *   *   

The school authorities were cognizant of the fact that things were not over. They'd only been postponed. Next time, the mob could be expected to turn on the Tehsildar ... his position, or bare-bone staff, even his official capacity, couldn't keep him safe for too much longer. 

With sunlight came a mad rush to take home the boys whose families lived close by. Some parents, having heard of what had happened the night before, were at the gates early to pick up their children. Others left on their own, feeling safety in numbers. A few were escorted by the servants.

About 80 of the boarders were gone by mid-day. 20 or so of us were left behind.

It was common knowledge by now that much of Punjab was under siege, with no recourse to law and order. Transportation was either non-existent or simply too risky. And there was concern over the fate of our families back home. Were they still alive? Or were they forced to flee for their lives?

I too had heard that mass killings had already taken place througout the Potohar region. There had been no word from my parents or anyone else. It did not bode well.

Expecting another assault on the school within hours - and this one would invariably be a disastrous one, we knew  - our headmaster made desperate enquiries on behalf of the 20 or so of us left in the school hostel.

I told him that I had an uncle, S. Labh Singh - my father’s younger brother - who lived in town. There were no phones then, and negotiating even a single sortee into the neighbourhood was rife with danger. Chacha ji was contacted immediately and I was rescued immediately and taken to his residence at the other end of the town. I have little recollection of how I got there.

I do remember though, that as we waited for an opportune moment to leave, we got the distressing news that most of the students heading home that morning had been waylaid and murdered. Those who did make it to their families seemed to have inadvertently given the mobs in wait the information that Sikhs and Hindus were still around, in hiding ... and specifically, in which homes. They were attacked, and the occupants were killed.

The general feeling was that most, if not all, who had left that day had not survived.     

I recall being shepherded into my uncle's heavily barricaded home ... it was a Sikh neighbourhood. There were anxious lookouts on every perch. I recall I felt a little bit more secure being there, though not much.

*   *   *   *   *    

My brother, Ishar Singh, and his new bride were still on their honeymoon in the Anandpur Sahib area when they heard that new borders had been hastily demarcated by "direct action" and were now "closed", and that massacres had taken place all across the Potohar area.

Remember, it was a time when there were no phones available to the public. Radios were not commonplace. There was no TV, no internet. Local newspapers were of little help, other than in conveying the enormity of what was going on in the land.

The only reliable source consisted of the refugees who were pouring into East Punjab.

And the word from them was that the villages in Punjab's countryside had been, or were being, systematically emptied of Sikhs and Hindus. Many were already dead, with the Sikh and Hindus in the villages massacred in cold blood. Or, they had fled in whatever direction they could, leaving their properties and possessions on a moment's notice, often even having no choice but to leave loved ones behind.

My brother and bhabhi ji were told in no uncertain terms that his village, Begham, and hers, Ratala, as well as the nearby villages where our relatives lived ... were 'lost'. In fact, if you hailed from there, you couldn't "go back".

Hill. Thamali. Dadyal. Mirpur. Qadian, Bewal ...

The young couple dropped everyhing and headed back ... not knowing exactly where they would be able to go.

Heading back into the maw of the monster was not easy. A journey that would take more than a few hours today, took them several days, as they zig-zagged across the state, making connections between buses, trains, tongas, bullock-carts, army-lorries ... and spending nights on the road-side or at train-stations, wherever they found themselves at night.

There were further complications. Staying put after dusk was imperative because strict curfew had been blanketed across the land. Except, the marrauding mobs did not feel obliged to follow the directives. 

The two arrived in Gujer Khan and made a bee-line for my school, knowing I would be there. They were told I had been moved to my uncle's only the day before. Escorted by local Sikhs, they rushed to my uncle's.

For the first time in weeks, I felt hope return as I saw them walk in.

My uncle was able to confirm to them that much of rural Punjab was already out-of-bounds, with the larger centres - including Lahore, Rawalpindi, Jhelum, even Gujar Khan - quickly becoming too dangerous.

And he confirmed that eyewitnesses had reported that certain villages had no survivors.

There was no word on the fate of my father or mother. Or my eldest brother, Inder Singh, and his family. Or of my sisters - Sita Kaur and Veeran Wali - and their families.

My brother Phulel Singh was last known to be still in Assam, but there was no word on his wife, Jaswant Kaur, or their new-born child.

My new bhabhi ji, Mahinder Kaur, did not have any better news. The village where her sister - also named Jaswant Kaur - had been attacked. No one had survived. There was no word about her parents, or her other sisters, or her brothers, or their families, who lived elsewhere. Police sortees into the area had brought back confirmation that no Sikhs were left in any of the villages and towns; that the countryside was littered with corpses, as even the escapees had been waylaid. A few children had been found hiding amongst the crops, emaciated after days and weeks in the fields; they had been sent to refugee camps in the east ... though their fate along the way was also unknown.   

*   *   *   *   *

There was no time to waste.

The three of us - my brother, bhabhi ji and I - rushed to the train station under escort. I do not have much recollection of the journey ... I was both exhausted and terrified. We had decided to go to Patiala - an affluent Sikh kingdom in the Punjab region - where the Maharajah, an unusually enlightened man, was reputed to have made adequate arrangements for the deluge of refugees, even though they were pouring in by the tens of thousands every day.

As Sikhs, it seemed to be the safest place to go.

The journey was not a pleasant one. There was no forgetting the fact that trains heading in both directions were being stopped every day along the way, and their occupants murdered. But we had no alternative. The hours it took for us to traverse from West Punjab to the East were, I must say, full of ardent paatth and ardaas.

With Waheguru's Grace, our train sailed through with out a hitch.    

Once in Patiala, we were herded into a refugee camp.

We spent all our waking hours talking to other refugees, trying to piece together the fate of our loved ones.

The best our fellow-sufferers could do was confirm what we already knew ... that there was no good news.And give us a few more pieces of the puzzle.

By the next day, we felt overwhelmed by it all ... by our losses to date, our homelessness, the uncertainty, the images that were seared into our brains from what we had witnessed in the last few weeks, and the worst part of it all: we had no one to turn to for guidance or help. The immediate future appeared to be as dark and impregnable as the recent past. We were in an unfamiliar part of the country, with no home to go back to, and no place to go to.

Were any of our loved ones alive? If so, where were they?

How could we ever find out, in this vast new land of half-a-billion people that had been bequeathed to us precipitously by a fleeing bunch who had left behind a subcontinent stripped of all wealth and dignity.

Veer Ishar Singh remembered that the last missive he had received from our brother Phulel Singh was from an address located in a town called Daltonganj. It was somehere in a distant state called Bihar, at least a thousand miles away.

It was the only clue, the only contact we had of anyone we knew anywhere in this strange new country we had been thrown into.

We headed to the railway station and bought three tickets to Daltonganj.

Switching trains and making connections between cities we'd never even heard of before, two days later, we arrived in this dilapidated little town ... alien to us in language, history, culture, geography, religion.

All we knew was that we had left behind Begham ... the Land of No Sorrow.

But we did not know then that we would never see it again.     


[S. Surjit Singh now lives in Florida, U.S.A.]

To be continued next week ...

July 28, 2011

Conversation about this article

1: Rupinder Kaur (Faridabad, India), July 28, 2011, 12:08 PM.

It needs a daring heart to relive those black days and write the nightmares and gruesome incidents in ink. It also requires a daring soul to read the bloody times our elders have gone through.

2: I.J. Singh (New York, U.S.A.), July 28, 2011, 3:19 PM.

It is not surprising, I suppose, that we have over time tried to bury our history instead of preserving it - perhaps because it was so often singularly painful. But we do need it because it defines what we become. This is a very necessary series that launched some time ego - the series on 1947, and another one on 1984. Years from now, historians will create a record of our history from what we say and do today. Thank you.

3: A.J. Singh (San Francisco, California, U.S.A.), July 28, 2011, 7:02 PM.

Years ago, my grandmother recounted similar stories, of how they had fled their native village of Nara (now in Pakistan), and reached India in trains packed with the dead bodies of their friends, relatives and near ones. Recounting the horrors of Partition, even 40 years later, she would lose track of everything else. Long after she is gone and having read more about the Partition, I can only now appreciate the pain and sufferings of more than a million people who were robbed of the simple life that they always wanted to live. A lasting legacy of Partition has been severe distrust amongst the Sikh, Hindu and Muslim communities that, despite their differences, formed a more harmonious society in the past.

4: Raj (Canada), July 28, 2011, 7:29 PM.

I was visiting Punjab this March and went to Gurdwara Shahidaa(n) in Ludhiana, which was built by Sikhs from Gujar Khan after 1947. Right at the base of the Nishan Sahib, there's a list of the shahids from the villages in the Gujar Khan area. Some of the names have brief description of how they died. The majority on the list are women and children. I tried speaking to caretakers, but they couldn't tell anything more about it. We have a very unique history, but others have written it, minimally or in a distorted way. I hope one day, some of us will attempt to tell our side of the story. Thanks, S. Surjit Singh ji. [EDITOR: There's no time left for "some day". Anyone who has a story to tell, or knows someone who does, should jump into the task NOW and just do it. Time and tide will wait for no man!]

5: Singh (U.S.A.), July 28, 2011, 11:46 PM.

Thank you for documenting this oral piece of history. The horror of that time (1947) has been captured in a TV film (1987) called 'Tamas', which was based on a book by the same title by Bhisham Sahni. The last scene of mass suicide by almost all women-folk of the village at the village well is especially poignant. The dark days of 1947 have been documented to some extent through art and historical evidence but the times of 1984 still remain largely hidden from the mass public.

6: Jesroshan Singh (Malaysia), July 30, 2011, 4:09 AM.

My dad heard a story from his chacha (father's younger brother) that when the latter was traveling from the West Punjab region to the East in 1947, they stopped at a lake because of a stench. Lo and behold, the lake was full of dead Sikhs. My dad's chacha took a stick and poked one of the corpses. It sank. Some locals told them that Muslim men were clearing up all villages of Sikhs. That lake had been filled with corpses for a week by then. My dad's chacha inferred that the entire West Punjab was being purged of all its non-Islamic citizens once and for all. But chardi kalaa is on our side for Pakistan is in the media today as a failed state but Punjab is evergreen, with the Grace of the Almighty ... even after a second purge in 1984, this time at the hands of Hindus.

7: Devinder Singh (India), July 30, 2011, 8:20 AM.

To equate 1984 with 1947 is to trivialize 1947. A contemporary reader will never be able to comprehend the scale and horror of the killings of 1947 if 1984 is presented as a model. The difference is, in 1984 it was all directed from the top by political bosses and lasted three days; in 1947 the killings were widespread, lasting a year at least, and all locally planned and executed, though also directed by a high command.

8: Singh (Florida, U.S.A.), December 28, 2011, 9:20 PM.

I happen to know Sardar Surjit Singh ji. From that homeless 11 year old in Patiala to a healthy, happy and a very prosperous family man in America, he makes me think of one thing: Sikhs are mortals like all but the spirit of Sikhi is infallible. Chardi Kalaa!

9: Mujtaba Shah (Preston, Lancashire, United Kingdom), May 04, 2013, 9:03 PM.

My parents and ancestors hail from Gujar Khan, in other words we're Gujar Khanis. During my visit in 2009 I came across many gurdwaras and elegant buildings which I found once belonged to Sikhs. Having a cursory forehand knowledge of the terrible history of Partition, with great reluctance I asked my elders if they ever took part in the massacre of Sikhs, and to my great relief was told that our family rather protected our Sikh brethren from harm, and it was my great great uncle, Syed Shahnawaz Shah, who undertook this great act in such a grave and sad period. My mother told me how her grandparents still continued to keep in touch with their former Sikh neighbors by exchanging letters with them regularly. Coming from a village where there was a mixture of Sikh, Muslim and Hindu families that lived in great harmony, I could imagine the loss and sadness my great grandparents must have gone through having to live without the faces they grew up with. But one thing for sure, we all regret this Pakistan ever coming about. It's one thing regretting the massacres of your own people, and it's worse still having to be recognized with a place and "nation" that started it all.

10: Rehman (London, England ), November 10, 2013, 6:06 PM.

I was born in a small village near Gujar Khan. The name of the place is Matial; it is near Ghunrella station. I would love to know more about the area. My father has told me many stories of the past ... of how surrounding villages had Sikhs and Hindus who lived in peace with my family. Furthermore, they all helped each other with farming and harvest and had true love and respect for each other. With the partition came loss of friendship. The Sikhs and Hindus did not want to leave but were forced by the British forces. My father and my uncle helped protect the Sikh and Hindu households for over two months, when other people had been hired by the political parties to harm them. The families finally had no choice but to leave for East Punjab as they were taken by force by the administration. My father would love to find his old friends; even now he regards them as his own family. We forget that they all lived together a peaceful and simple life. My Father is now 90 years old, and I sit with him regularly and talk about old days.

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Part II"

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