The Long Journey from Bhera to Delhi:
The Hindu-Sikh Exodus in 1947
Part I: From Bhera to Mandi Bahauddin, Pp. 2-16
Part II: From Mandi Bahauddin to Delhi, Pp. 17-25
The Long Journey (Part I): From Bhera to Mandi Bahauddin
This is the story of how the division of India into two nations came to be enacted at the local level in the small, ancient and peaceful town of Bhera in 1947. The author, then a 14-year old kid, and his family were witnesses as well as targets of the movements and events that steadily unfolded into an irreversible migration of the town’s Hindus and Sikhs to India, ending centuries old sojourn of their families in Bhera. This segment of The Long Journey covers the post-1946 stirrings for Pakistan in Punjab, the rapidly deteriorating conditions for Hindus and Sikhs in the Rawalpindi region and elsewhere in western Punjab, the growing concerns of the town’s Hindus and Sikhs for their own security and future in soon to be formed Pakistan, local Muslim leadership’s intervention to prevent Hindu blood- shed, the departure of the town’s Hindus and Sikhs by a special train, the attempted ambush of the train by a Muslim mob near Bhera and the attack’s neutralization by the train’s army escort under the command of a Muslim captain, and the delivery of Bhera’s Hindus and Sikhs to a refugee collection camp in Mandi Bahauddin in Pakistan for eventual transit to India.
Hindu/Sikh - Muslim Relations in Bhera before 1946.
Despite the emerging differences in the viewpoints of the town’s Muslims and Hindus/Sikhs with regard to the idea of Pakistan, the two communities continued to live and interact without any religious friction. In our memories of the pre-1946 period there is no entry for communal tensions and riots between the town’s communities. Like in most other towns of Punjab, places of worship of each religion functioned without any interference from the followers of other faiths in Bhera. ChhaintaaN wali Masjid was adjacent to the Jhuggi wala Mandir; both shared a wall. The Mullah gave his Azaan five times a day from the mosque, and the Hindu temple had its daily prayer accompanied by the tolling of its bells every evening. The Sikh priest in the nearby Gurudwara recited Gurbani around five o’clock every morning, and this recital from the top of the Gurudawara’s clock tower (the highest point in the town) was heard far enough to wake up people of all faiths at that early hour in the surrounding neighborhoods. The public prayers of different faiths did not grate on anyone’s religious sensibilities, and this kind of long standing accommodation was not due to the absence of blaring loudspeakers in those days.
Relative to Hindus and Sikhs, Muslims were in a majority of more than 2 to I in Bhera, but Hindus and Sikhs felt secure and safe. As a Hindu child growing up in the town, I never felt we were a minority, much less a vulnerable minority. A clear majority status in the town and western Punjab had given the Muslim community a lot of self-assuredness. When Punjabi Muslims felt aggrieved, it was mostly because they thought that their coreligionists were denied their fair share of political power in the non-Muslim majority areas of India. In Punjab, Muslim numerical strength translated into their proportionate political and administrative power under the system of separate electorates and religion-based quotas for jobs. Most of the time, the town’s Tehsildaars (the government administrators and judges), Thanedaars (Chiefs of Police), and Chairman of the town’s Municipal Committee in Bhera were Muslims. No Hindu or Sikh ever felt unhappy or aggrieved with these appointed and elected officials. Until 1946, Bhera’s Muslim’s self-assurance as a majority community was also reflected in their relative lack of overt political activity. Whereas the local branch of the Indian National Congress, largely comprised of Hindu and Sikh membership, held frequent public meetings and rallies against the British rule, the local Muslim League was relaxed and less demonstrative in its opposition to the British rule. Of course, the Muslim League was rapidly gaining strength and popularity among Muslims at the cost of Unionist party around this time. However, getting rid of religious minorities was not then a part of Muslim League’s creed for Pakistan.
Communal Stirrings in Bhera
Alas this era of peace and tranquility was not to last for ever; Bhera was not an isolated island. The news of killings of Hindus on Mr. Jinnah’s Direct Action Day in Calcutta under the rule of Shaheed Suhrawardy in August 1946 was worrisome, but there was not any serious apprehension among us at that time about our own future and security as Hindus and Sikhs in Punjab. Calcutta was far too distant a place to impact us seriously. We felt secure under the Unionist government of Khizar Hayat in Punjab. The Unionist party and government were comprised of Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh landlords and Jats. However, when we heard a few months later about the massacres of Sikhs and Hindus closer home in the northwestern parts of Punjab, the situation acquired a threatening import for us. With continuing reports of attacks on our religious communities in the rural areas of the Rawalpindi Division, we Hindus and Sikhs in Bhera began having tangible concerns for our own security.
Our father was totally apolitical. We did not get any newspaper at home, nor did we have a radio to keep us abreast of the news about the country’s inexorable move toward its partition. I had started reading the headlines in Urdu dailies like Milap and Pratap in our school’s library when I was in the sixth or seventh grade (around 1944). Both the newspapers had Hindu owners and editors. Mahasha Krishan and his son, Narinder, managed and edited the daily Pratap, and Mahasha Khush-hal Chand and his son, Ranbir, ran the daily Milap. Both the dailies were staunchly Arya Samajist in their outlook; they also subscribed to the political ideology of Indian National Congress. They promoted the Congress’ view that religion should not be the basis of nationhood, and they argued that there was no need to split India into different countries based on religious counts. These two newspapers were clearly opposed to the Muslim League’s demand for Pakistan and carried on combative debates on this issue with the Muslim newspapers like Zamindar and Nawai Waqt.
One day I wandered into the town’s public library located in the Christian quarters behind the old Police Station and the Court Complex. That is where I came across the two Muslim newspapers, Zamindar and Nawai-Waqat, for the first time in my life. I was taken aback by their presentation of the news and their portrayals of Gandhi and Nehru as Hindu leaders who were promoting Hindu interests at the cost Muslims. Politically naïve, I could not believe that any body could miss the “truth” by such a wide margin. As a young boy of about 13-14 years of age, I had not yet learned the hard lesson of life that different groups can see the same event or person very differently based on their allegiances. The views of these newspapers were discordant, even antithetical, to the ones I had acquired as a young lad. Reading the two sets of Hindu and Muslim newspapers around 1945/46, one could hardly find any meeting ground between the Hindu and Muslim positions. The Muslim newspapers described Indian National Congress as a Hindu organization and its secular/nationalist platform a façade designed to hoodwink the Muslims. The Hindu newspapers painted the Muslim League as bent on wrecking the country’s oneness.
The Congress party did its utmost to woo Muslims to its fold, but kept losing the battle. The Indian Muslim League had staked its claim as the sole representative and protector of Muslim interests, a claim Indian National Congress could not concede without being reduced to the status of a party for Hindus alone. The local branch of the Congress party in Bhera was headed in the 1940’s by Chaanan Shah, a Munshi (a clerk and a book keeper) for Lala Ishar Das mehndian wale. Chaanan Shah, a tall, lanky man who was always dressed in white khaddar, had several high school students from the Arya high school become active workers of the town’s Congress party. My neighbor and classmate, Inder Raj Kapoor, was one of these student workers. Their main task was to shout slogans at the Congress party’s rallies and public meetings held in the rectangular ground of Ganjwali Mandi. When three officers (Shah Nawaz, Sehgal, and Dhillon - - a Muslim, a Hindu, and a Sikh) of the Indian National Army (set up by Subhash Chandra Bose in Burma to fight the British) were put on their court-martial trial for treason in Delhi’s Red Fort, Inder Raj Kapoor assumed the command of the sloganeering squad. Inder instructed us that while we shouted the zindabad (Long Live: Dhillon/Sehgal/Shah Nawaz) slogans for each of the three officers on trial for treason, we should shout first and most often such slogans for Shah Nawaz. This was part of Inder’s earnest, though naïve, effort to convince Bhera’s Muslims that the Congress party was more than equally concerned about the fate of Col. Shah Nawaz as a Muslim freedom fighter. Alas, there were to be no winning of Muslim hearts from such naïve tactics.
The political views of Muslims and Hindus/Sikhs had grown so much apart by this time that any political initiative coming from one community to bridge the gap was hardly trusted by the other. On one occasion I heard a discussion between some older Hindu boys from our mohalla and the three Muslim brothers who had a furniture-making carpentry shop opposite Jhugiwala Mandir. The Hindu boys tried hard, but could not convince these brothers about the religious impartiality of Gandhi and Nehru. However, the three brothers did concede that Subhash Chandra Bose was the only Hindu leader who was a true nationalist.
The Gathering Storm
One day in early 1947, I watched from the balcony of the Sikh Gurudawara the mock jannazaa (funeral) of Khizar Hayat, then the Chief Minister of Punjab. An effigy wrapped in a coffin cloth was being carried out by four people on a roughly hewn board and a few other people made the funeral procession. What the procession lacked in size, it made up by the ugliness of its behavior. It was not that they were shouting, “Hai, Hai,” and “Khizar Hayat Murdabad,” a couple of these protestors also kept beating the “dead body” with old, torn shoes. This gesture was the worst insult they could heap on their political opponent from their religion. As a child, I was perplexed at this mean spectacle of hatred. How could these Muslims think so ill of a fellow Muslim? I learned later that Khizar Hayat’s Unionist Party was a coalition of Muslim, Sikh, and Hindu landowners of Punjab. Most Hindus and Sikhs were satisfied with his administration and policies. But, Khizir Hayat had earned the ire of the Muslim League and community, because he did not readily go along with Mr. Jinnah’s call for the partition of country into India and Pakistan. Punjab was a critical component in Jinnah’s vision of Pakistan, and to allow such a non-cooperative Muslim leader to retain political power in Punjab was perceived as an affront by Muslim League. The clearly pro-Muslim League results of the elections and the wide-spread agitation against Khizar Hayat led him to resign in March of 1947. The British Governor took over the administration of the shaky province. Communal riots became rampant in Lahore by this time, especially after Master Tara Singh’s public tearing of a Muslim League’s banner. Reports of riots in the cities of Multan and Amritsar and of massacres of Hindus and Sikhs in the countryside of the Jhelum district (bordering our Sargodha district’s northwest) started coming by words of mouth. Bhera remained untouched by violence, though.
One evening in early June, I saw a small crowd, mostly Hindus, gathered to listen to a radio broadcast outside a house in the street not far from Chitti puli da darwaza. The Hindu owner had placed his radio on the front terrace of his house for the benefit of those who did not have a radio at their homes. I learned that Lord Mountbatten, Pandit Nehru, Mr. Jinnah, and Sardar Baldev Singh were scheduled to make statements on the independence and partition of India and formation of Pakistan. The radio reception was very poor, and I could not understand much of what these leaders had spoken. I gathered from the comments made by the grownup members of the audience that all the four speakers had indicated their consent to the country’s partition into India and Pakistan. The prospects of the country’s partition did not please the audience, but they appeared resigned to it. Bhera was so deep inside the Muslim majority part of Punjab that it was bound to go to Pakistan. Nothing they wished could avert it.
As the Central Government’s decision and the political parties’ seal of consent for the country’s partition into India and Pakistan became known, Hindus and Sikhs in western Punjab started feeling a tangible concern for their future and safety. In less than three months after this declaration, the country’s partition had to be completed into a Non-Muslim majority India and a Muslim-majority Pakistan. There was an unwise haste to finish this enormous task in 90 days in the midst of a rapidly deteriorating situation. Howsoever dismayed, the Hindus and Sikhs did not consider it discreet in Bhera to voice any opposition against the decision on the formation of Pakistan and country’s partition. Somewhat reassuring was the absence of victory parades and loud jubilations by the local Muslims to celebrate the news of the soon to be formed Pakistan. Now that the demand for Pakistan had been officially conceded both by the government as well as the Indian National Congress and Akali Dal, we thought it should pacify the worked up feelings of Muslims in Punjab. Bhera was still at peace with itself, but the situation in the rest of the province remained grim, mean, and brutal.
Considering Options: To Stay put or to Pack up
Around mid-June, a general meeting of the residents of our Hindu mohalla was held to look at their future in Pakistan and to consider the two options that were open to them: To stay put or to pack up and leave? The heads of the DhoanaN da mohalla families and their grown-up male members pondered the issue of their future and safety in the soon to be the Muslim state of Pakistan. All the mohalla elders spoke and variously expressed the ancestral kinship of their families with the land of Bhera and how emotionally wrenching was the mere thought of leaving the town for unknown places. They were born and had lived in Bhera all their lives. Most elders thought that the communal violence in Punjab and other provinces would subside and come under control with time. They recalled how over the centuries Punjab had seen many a king and kingdom change without any major harm coming to the ruled public (reyyat). Some pointed out that, when Muslims of Punjab joined the movement to carve out a separate country with a Muslim majority in Northwest India, ethnic cleansing of Hindus and Sikhs was not a part of their agenda. They also talked about the economic and social costs of abandoning the family’s established businesses, homes, and lands for an uncertain life in distant and unknown places. Overall, it was congenial for them to hope that no harm would come to them in Pakistan.
Lala Daya Ram Kapur and Lala Anant Ram Kapur, the elders of the mohalla’s two anchor families, indicated their decision to stay. They were optimistic that the deteriorating communal situation would be brought under control by the law and order authorities once the transition to Pakistan was completed. Most dramatic was the sanguine outlook of Ram Lall Dhawan, who was so resolute on staying in Bhera that he announced a major renovation project for his house in the mohalla (he, indeed, had already started some construction work in his house)!
On the other hand, we heard a darkly pessimistic forecast from another resident, Chaman Lal, an Arzi-navis (a petition-writer) in the local court. He warned against the comfort of hoping for the best and its attendant decision in favor of staying put. He recommended packing up and leaving the town while it was still safe to escape with one’s family to cities well east of Lahore. The safety of our families should come before any concerns on hardships and sacrifices, he argued. Based on what he had been able to gather from his Muslim clients, he felt sure that Muslims in the countryside were planning to kill and loot the Hindus and Sikhs of Bhera at the opportune time. He also cautioned that the times had changed (is bar, waqt badal gayai hein), and history might not repeat itself to save us from harm. Pakistan was being ushered in not through a conquest by a king and his armies, but by the determined will of the majority community that had been persuaded to view Hindus and Sikhs as their enemies. Moreover, how Muslims would treat us here in Pakistan depended on how Hindus and Sikhs in the rest of India would behave toward Muslims. In contrast to Ram Lal Dhawan’s plans to renovate his house in the mohalla, Chaman Lal announced his plan to leave Bhera with his family in a week or so.
Few took Chaman Lal’s warning seriously and his words kindly. They disputed his sources of information as less than reliable. When he tried to defend his information, he was literally drowned in noisy interruptions. They instead talked about the predicament of the business men and land owners. It took their forefathers many a generation to have a successful business in place, and how could one throw it all away. One could sense the high-status elders of the mohalla turning hostile toward Chaman Lal, a man of modest means and standing in the mohalla’s social hierarchy, who was making them look less than fully concerned about the safety of their families. No one would let Chaman Lal speak any further, even when he kept pleading, “ik meri arz vi te sunno (Please listen to my one submission, too).” Apparently supporting Chaman Lal but in reality ridiculing him, two grownup boys repeatedly “asked” the elders to listen to his one “submission” (tusi inhan di ik arz te sunno). The gathering split into twos and threes, and one elder confided that it was easier for Chaman Lal to move to another town because he had portable skills to earn his livelihood; any way he had precious little to lose in Bhera. After all, what he needed to earn his livelihood was nothing more than a set of pens, ink pots, a cushion to sit on, and a chowki-desk for writing petitions outside any court building!
Our father, Hori Lall, earned a modest livelihood from his saraafa business in which he charged fees for attesting to the relative purity of gold and silver by testing them on his touchstones, and also made more money or incurred sizeable losses by buying and selling these precious metals. He had a lot of competition from three other sarafs in the Guru Bazaar: Lala Sita Ram Malhotra (his shop also had the town’s sole dharma-kanta), Chuni Lal Chopra, and PiraN-Ditta Mal (see Note 4). In 1947, our father was already 58 years of age, handicapped by rheumatic knees, and lacking enough capital to start his business all over again in a different part of the country to provide for his family. His situation inclined him to believe that Hindus and Sikhs would be spared and allowed to live and work in Pakistan. In his way of thinking, the tensions had to subside and we all needed to wait it out.
Chaman Lal’s and his family (his wife, Shanti Devi; two daughters, Bimla and Krishna; and a young son, Hari Om) packed up and left for Patiala in the next few days. Theirs was the only family from our mohalla to migrate on its own accord well before August 15, 1947. Some mohalla residents made fun of his voluntary exile, and were wishful in predicting how he would one day regret his decision to uproot his family. By the end of August 1947 when the entire Hindu and Sikh population of Bhera felt threatened, trapped and desperate, everybody in our mohalla envied Chaman Lal for his foresightedness. Ram Lal Dhawan’s fate was the saddest; not only he had to stop the renovation work, he also had to get ready for leaving the house he had vowed never to abandon.
A Grim Incident
One day early August, we watched an incident in the mohalla with a lot of alarm. Carried on a cot, a man was brought to a house that belonged to Ram Tikaya Malhotra. Mr. Malhotra had retired from the North West Railways as a Platier (an official who inspects railway tracks while seated on a trolley pushed by two men running on the rails). He was a widower who had returned with his two daughters recently to Bhera to spend his retirement in his house in the mohalla. One of his daughters had appeared as a private candidate for the Punjab University’s Matriculation examination held in May/June. Because of the disturbed conditions in the province, the examination results did not become available in Bhera. Mr. Malhotra persuaded a young man, Tilakaa (Tilak Raj) to take a train to Lahore to obtain the exam results for his daughter. It was a dangerous assignment; we had started hearing of attacks on Hindu and Sikh passengers in trains.
Tilakaa and Prakash Habshi (see note 1) were two unmarried men in their thirties who worked for Gopal Bahri and were known for their pluck and ability to put up a tough fight. They lived in a chabbara over a shop next to the great banyan tree in the Jhugi Bazaar. It was Tilakaa’s reputation as daredevil, fearless guy that brought the risky assignment and made him accept it, i.e., he could not refuse the task without losing his face. When his train from Bhera stopped at Malakwal Junction for passengers to catch other trains, a couple of murderous men with knives and daggers barged in the compartments and dragged the Hindu and Sikh passengers out for killing. Seeing the odds piled up against him, Tilakaa told the attackers that he was a Muslim. They ordered him to take off his pajamas to check if had been circumcised or not. On finding him not circumcised and thus a Hindu, they stabbed him several times all over his body and left him for dead in the train. A few hours later when the same train returned to Bhera, half-dead Tilakaa was rescued and rushed to the town’s hospital. When he was brought to Mr. Ram Titakaya Malhotra’s house, he was all wrapped up in bandages. Mr. Malhotra’s family took care of him, and provided the needed medical treatment. I do not recall any Hindu from that day onwards traveled out of Bhera by train. Any way a week or two later, the train service to Bhera from Malakwal was suspended. Buses from Bhera to Bhalwal continued to ply, but only Muslims passengers felt safe to travel by them.
Preparing for the Worst
The news of riots and killings from all over Punjab continued to pour in more macabre tones. The feeling of being trapped and resulting insecurity crystallized fast into a serious concern. All families in the mohalla were now expected to have some means to resist attacks on their lives if they were to materialize. The most common tools of defense were packets of powdered red pepper for women and limbs of dismantled charpais (four-legged, strung cots) for men. We had also piled up bricks, stones, and glass bottles to throw at those who would invade our neighborhood. No one in our mohalla owned a licensed (or unlicensed) firearm. The Gurkha guard of the Punjab National Bank in the street just outside our mohalla carried a gun on duty to protect the bank assets.
One day we witnessed a surprising scene. A police party was taking a Hindu, Mangal Sain, in handcuffs to the police station. Walking just behind Mangal Sain was a policeman carrying a water bucket with four or five sealed canisters immersed in it. According to the policeman, the canisters were homemade bombs and had been seized from Mangal Sain’s shop. Mangal Sain was a tinker by trade. He used to live in our mohalla with his widowed mother, Rajo. When his old mother died a couple of years earlier, he was still unmarried and moved out of our mohalla to stay somewhere else in the town. So far as we knew, he was a loner. We do not know what happened to Mangal Sain after his arrest. Whether and when he was tried, imprisoned, and released? Did he ever make it to India?
After Mangal Sain’s arrest, there was a rumor that the local police would search Hindu and Sikh houses to recover hidden weapons. For many years our family had owned a black baton with a concealed 6-inch blade. When the baton was pulled at its ends, its two inconspicuously fitted parts would split into a short handle with a double-edged blade and a second part as the sheath for the blade. This could be construed as our most “dangerous” weapon. Of course, it did not stand a chance to protect us against daggers, swords, and spears. We were nevertheless apprehensive at the possibility of getting caught with this baton in our house in the event of a door-to-door search by the police. Late one evening when it got dark, we pushed the baton down the roof-level opening of the gutter-pipe. It slid down the pipe and, as expected, got stuck at the pipe’s foot-long elbow near the first floor. The rumored search never materialized, but we breathed free after the baton had lodged into an unsuspected recess of the gutter pipe!
Ushering in Pakistan
On August 14, a fairly large crowd of local Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and Christians gathered outside the Court/Police Station buildings to cheer and salute the official unfurling of the Pakistan’s national flag. The independence from the British was a muted theme in the larger celebration of the birth of Pakistan. The Hindu and Sikh shop-keepers hoisted and prominently displayed Pakistani flags outside their shops.
After a few days of apparent quiet and peace, one very early morning (around the unusual hour of 3:00 a.m.) we were awakened by the continuous beat of drums (dhols) from a southwesterly direction. The untimely and steady beating of the drums was sensed by us as a kind of call for the Muslim faithful to arise and gather for a planned mission. Mobilized by the countryside Mullahs to avenge the killings of Muslims in the Hindu and Sikh majority areas of India, a mob was growing in size near one of the city’s gates and was set to start a bloody reprisal against the kafirs of Bhera.
The drum beat shook up all Hindus and Sikhs, throwing them into a state of foreboding. We brothers could hear our parents’ worried talk as to what was likely to happen. I was seized by fear, my stomach churned, and I had to rush to the latrine. We could see families gathered on the roofs of their houses, worried and paralyzed. Other than bolting shut the mohalla’s main gate, there was no discernable mobilization on the part of the mohalla residents to organize even a modicum of group defense against what appeared to be an imminent attack. We felt paralyzed.
Then the drums suddenly stopped their beat. We learned later that Sheikh Fazal Haq Piracha, the long serving Chairman of the town’s Municipal Committee and a member of the Central Legislative Assembly in New Delhi since 1934, confronted these brigands that morning. At one point, he took off his turban and put it at the feet of the mob leader(s) and begged them to turn back to their homes and leave the Hindus and Sikhs of Bhera alone. He told them that Hindus and Sikhs had lived in Bhera for centuries in peace with Muslims and they owed them at least a safe passage for the sake of Bhera’s past and its fair name. His prominent stature in the community and his heart-felt appeal persuaded the mobs and their leaders to disperse. When most people got caught up in the vortex of religious strife and brutal reprisals of 1947, some righteous, God-fearing persons held their heads well above the swirling waters of hatred and revenge. One such person was the native son of Bhera, Sheikh Fazal Haq Piracha, our savior. He was the one who single-handedly dissuaded the Muslim mobs of tenant farmers and villagers from acting on their plans to kill and plunder the town’s Hindus and Sikhs. We owe our survival as a community to this righteous man.
The immediate danger to our lives seemed to have been averted, but everyone came to realize that Bhera could not remain for long an oasis of safety and peace in the midst of wide spread hatreds in the country at large. It had belatedly become clear to us that there was no future for Hindus and Sikhs in Bhera, for that matter anywhere in Pakistan. We felt trapped. There was no safe way out. The trains were being stopped to pull out Hindus and Sikhs of the compartments for killing on the platforms, perhaps to spare the Muslim passengers the sight of ghastly butchery of Hindus and Sikh passengers inside the trains. Sikhs were readily identified by their turbans, facial hair, and the Kada (bangle) on their arms. Hindus could pass for Muslims but for their names and religious icons (if tattooed on their bodies) and their failure to recite the Islamic kalma. When there were no outward signs of a suspected person being a Hindu, the absence of circumcision in men betrayed their Hindu identity.
Safe Departures for Some Hindus and Sikhs with Connections.
Some Hindu and Sikh families had relatives in the army and/or had resourceful relatives in India. These relatives sent army trucks or civilian trucks with army escorts to bring their families and friends safely to places like Amritsar in India. One day I saw a truck with a military escort parked outside a house on the periphery of SahniaN da mohalla. Four to five families and their belongings had been squeezed into the truck, including the family of the town’s hospital’s compounder (pharmacist). The compounder’s identical-twin sons were a year junior to me in the school, and I considered them very fortunate to have the kind of connections they had to secure their escape. Jagdish, an army officer, showed up with two military trucks. Besides evacuating his parents (his father was the town-crier and a part-time dough-kneader for Jolly’s Bakery) and siblings, he chose several other families to join his evacuation caravan. There were over one hundred men, women and children packed into the two trucks; among this batch of evacuees was the town’s prominent family of Lala Jiwan Mal Sahni.
The Last Straw: Reaching a Point of no Return
Hardly had our sense of relief over the stopped attack on Hindus and Sikhs lasted a week when a riot erupted near the ChopriaN da Mandi. A couple of Hindus were attacked around a shop, and one of them, a young man by the nickname of Bayya (son of Ram Lal Mandariya), was killed by a group of attackers (see Note 2). The panic spread rapidly and led to a fast and total shut down of every Hindu shop in the bazaars. Lal Kuppi’s kiryana shop in Guru Bazaar was set on fire, and the smoke from the smoldering fire could be seen for several hours from the neighboring mohallas (see Note 3). Hindus and Sikhs stopped doing whatever they were doing and rushed from wherever they were to find safety in their neighborhoods, and locked themselves behind the closed doors of their homes and shut the mohalla gate. I heard the loud banging of the house doors and window shutters as they were being shut forcefully. I thought we were having an earthquake. “They have started killing Hindus,” shouted someone. We became worried about our father and my elder brother, Prem Sarup, who were at our father’s saraafa shop. Hafiz, the rang-rez (the dyer) whose shop was opposite to our father’s in the Jhuggi bazaar, rushed to advise my father and brother to leave right away for our house for safety. He told them that riots had started in another part of the town. My father (who was on crutches due to arthritis in his knees at the time) and brother came “running” as fast as they could, and were let in behind the shut doors of our DhoanaN da mohalla.
The women had already been directed to go and hide in the dark recesses of a big, old house. They were asked to carry their pouches of red-chili powder to throw in the eyes of attackers. No body had thought of the possibility of the safe house (with one entrance and no separate exit for escape) for women and children being set on fire. Our house was adjacent to the mohalla’s main gate, and if an attack were to occur, we probably would have been among the first houses to bear the burnt of attack.
Later that day, sitting on a cot with his three sons (9, 14, and 19 years old) in another “safe” house in the mohalla, our father looked shaken to the core. With tears in his eyes, he told us that he had failed us as our father for not having the foresight to escape with our family well before the catastrophe struck. He would never forgive himself if our mother and we, his children, came to any harm.
We breathed easy when the riot did not spread to cause any damage beyond the death toll of one Hindu life and the single case of arson. The killing of one person was either an isolated incident in itself or something that was not allowed to spread. We are not aware if there was any intervention by people of good will like Sheikh Fazal Haq or by the police to stop further violence. Any way, there was no more loss of life and destruction of property that day. Yet, the sheer terror (daih-shat) caused by this incident, coming at the heels of the averted attack by the Muslim mobs a few days earlier, was overwhelming in its impact on our psyches. It was a kind of last straw. Out of fear, the Hindu and Sikh shops, businesses, and schools remained shuttered from that day onwards to the very last day of our stay in Bhera. The prospects of a safe and secure future for Hindus and Sikhs as a community in Pakistan had collapsed irreparably for us. Even the most sympathetic local Muslims had by now come to view an exile for us to India as inevitable and in our best interests. No one asked us any more to stay back.
Worries over safety and survival had now become the foremost concern for the Hindus and Sikhs in the town. All of us were physically cooped up in our mohallas. We were also cut off from all news. We did not know what was happening to Hindus and Sikhs in other towns. The newspapers from Lahore had stopped arriving. The local generation of electricity had been severely curtailed to the extent that it could power only the street lights at nights. It was most likely due to the shortage and disrupted supply of diesel for running the generators. The smallest generator was run in the evenings and at nights; the result was that electric power was no longer available for domestic use at any hour. Only eight out of the 27 houses in the mohalla had electric connections to begin with. When the electricity was turned off for all homes, the few radios these families had became inoperable. The silence of the radios was disturbing. The lack of news about what was going on in the rest of Pakistan and in India fed our worst fears.
One late evening, Inder Malhotra, an electrician and our next door neighbor, used a ladder to reach the light-bracket of the mohalla’s sole electric pole, and was able to plug in one end of a long wire to its bulb-holder. The wire brought electric power to a radio that was placed on a table below the light. With the help of a wire-antenna, Inder was able to tune in the radio to catch the All India Radio Delhi station. The station was broadcasting live or recorded evening prayer of Gandhi ji. In his broken Hindi rendered a little more unintelligible because of the poor reception and static, Gandhi ji was recounting the dream he had the previous night in which he saw a Muslim bibi (lady) in a Delhi refugee camp without a blanket and shivering in cold. That is what we could make out of his narrative. It did not please us; how could Gandhi ji talk of the suffering of a Muslim bibi in Delhi while being so “utterly silent” on the plight of Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan! We did not know then that he had been to Noakhli in East Pakistan around this time to bring peace there for Hindus after his success in stopping the killings of Muslims in Calcutta by going on a fast-unto-death there in mid-August (see Note 5).
Few Hindus now dared step far from their mohallas. Hindu women stopped going to the Jethu di khui area for buying their daily vegetables from the Muslim women vendors who used to bring baskets full of fresh produce from their farms each morning. Now one of these vendors started bringing her basket of vegetables to the mohalla for us to buy. Muslim cowherds continued to take the cows and buffalos of the mohalla families out for grazing. Bassu, a Muslim employee of Lala Anant Ram Kapur continued to prepare the feed for the family’s buffalo and milk the animal for the family. Our milk-woman, BegmaN, who lived just outside the mohalla next to the Sikh Gurudawara, continued to bring us buffalo milk measured in Gadwis. Balla Nai, a Muslim barber, came every second day to the mohalla for the elders to get their shaves. Most blessedly, jamedaars (Mussalies, the Muslim “category” of sweepers and latrine-cleaners) did not stop attending to their cleaning chores for Hindus and Sikhs. Shalli, who used to clean our dry latrine, did not kindly miss a day of her work for us in this critical period.
Our isolation in the mohalla from the external world made us more susceptible than usual to rumors of an impending attack. The mohalla elders approved a plan for nightly vigils by the mohalla’s youths (those who were older than 18 and unmarried). Different groups of 3 to 4 young men took their turns to patrol the street outside of the mohalla at night. Like professional chowkidars (watchmen), they used to walk with laathis (long bamboo staffs) in their hands, periodically shouting Jaagte-Raho (Keep awake). They were advised to rush back into the mohalla if they spotted any danger, instead of fighting it out. Although as many as four families and one commercial bank were housed in the street outside the gated mohalla, the main defense against any invaders had to be mounted primarily from the houses inside the mohalla. Small heaps of bricks and glass bottles were piled on the roof tops. These “missiles” were to be the weapons for our first line of resistance against the attackers. For any hand-to-hand combat, the limbs of cots and kitchen knives were the only available tools for men.
Waiting for the Evacuation Train: Overnight Camping at the Railway station
The “official” word was spread that a special train was expected to arrive any day to evacuate us. We started looking forward to a special train with army escorts to evacuate us safely to India. The first thing we used to do in those days was to go to the roofs of our houses in the morning and look in the direction of railway station for any sign of billowing smoke of a train’s engine (steam locomotive). We were advised to be prepared to leave on short notice. Accordingly we had started packing up our essential belongings and preparing the food we needed to carry with us. There was going to be only limited space in the train for the entire Hindu and Sikh population of Bhera and, naturally, very little room left even for their barely essential belongings. Our mother had to make the hard decisions on what few household things were worth taking with us and what needed to be left behind or thrown away. Besides the modest amount of family jewelry, the most valuable things in terms of sentiments were the three phulkaris she had saved for decades to give as welcome gifts to her prospective daughter-in-laws on the weddings days of her three sons. Also dear to her heart were a few very beautiful khais (bed sheets) she had got woven by the local Muslim weavers from the countless spools of cotton thread she had spun on her charkha (spin–wheel) over the years. She also had to think of a few other items; beddings, cooking utensils, essential clothing for everyone, etc. She also thought of cooking only those food items that won’t spoil readily, such as puris (fried breads), prathas, and khameeri roties. Besides a few vegetable preparations, she thought of carrying a small jar of mixed pickles that do not go stale.
Like other Hindu and Sikh business men, our father had the task of collecting from those who owed him money and of paying back his debts to other business men. The goal was to raise enough cash on hand to sustain the family for as long as one could in unknown settings. Our elder brother took on the task of going through stashes of family papers to gather any school documents, reports of births, photographs, and letters from the family members in one place to take along with us. One of the pictures he found was a group-photograph in sepia of our family before my younger brother and I were born (circa 1928-29). In the picture, our elder brother was a baby in our mother’s lap, our two unmarried sisters and another brother (who had died of typhoid in Rawalpindi where he was attending D.A.V. College for his F.Sc. in 1942) were in the standing row. Very precious was the presence of our paternal grandmother in the picture. Obviously the town’s only photographer (he had his shop/studio next to the Arya Samaj Mandir outside the Ganj wala darwaza) had been brought to the house for this event; he took the photograph of the family gathered on the flat roof of our house. Someone had forgotten to remove the rather ugly four-legged ghada-stand (ghadas are earthen pitchers used to cool water by seeped evaporation in summer months) in the background for this picture.
There were a hundred other things, small and big, that tugged at you but had to be left behind in the house. Our mother still harbored a certain hope that she would be able to return with her family to our home in Bhera. She did not want to throw anything away. She did not mind giving away a few things to the people who needed them. My mother’s Pfaff sewing machine was very dear to her heart. She had sewn most of her children’s clothing herself on this machine, and she did not want to part with it. When BegmaN, our milk-woman, approached our mother to sell this machine to her, she hesitated to sell it. BegmaN persuaded her with the argument that the sewing machine, if sold to her, would at least be in good hands and used properly, instead of gathering dust in the abandoned house for God knows how long. Touched by BegmaN’s words, our mother let her have it for a few rupees. The Pfaff sewing machine was the only article we sold in Bhera. Except for the few things we managed to carry with us, most other household things were left behind.
Finally the day of saying good-bye to Bhera came with the announcement that the long awaited special train would arrive later that day to take the Hindus and Sikhs away to India. What made the departure really tragic was our own looking forward to this day when we would escape from the town where our ancestors had lived as a community for centuries long before the arrival of Muslims in India. Now the time seemed to have arrived when we would leave it for ever. Most sadly, the opportunity to go far away from Bhera had turned into a kind of deliverance!
All families in the mohalla made hurried, last minute preparations for the departure and their march to the railway station. Our mother served us prathas with hot milk, and packed up the food she had prepared a day or two earlier for our journey to somewhere in India. Just before noon, a Baloch army man came to our mohalla to ask the families to hurry up and rush to the station. Lala Daya Ram Kapur, the old patriarch of the mohalla’s richest land-owning and business family, did not like this on-the-spot pressure to make it quick. He could not help asking the soldier what was the great rush when he was leaving all his properties and business behind in Pakistan. This did not please the soldier who told Lala Daya Ram to carry his home and lands “on his head” to India!
Everybody had to walk and carry their belongings on their person to the local Tonga stand outside the Ganj wala darwaza from where they could hire a tonga to ride and carry their belongings to the railway station. I was carrying on my head a large, bronze metal box containing all the food our mother had cooked for our trip and a bag full of sundry items. When I reached the town’s main chowk (intersection) I saw a sight that still haunts me. Sugreev, who had a kiryana shop opposite the Gurudawara entrance in the main bazaar, was desperately trying to restrain his old mother from breaking loose from him. It appeared that the old lady, her hair and clothes disheveled, had dementia and was hard to control. Her son had to take her along with his family to wherever the train was going to deliver them. I watched the struggle between the two for a few minutes, and then had to move on to join my family members who had moved ahead. Sugreev’s predicament was indeed heart breaking; I do not know the outcome of his efforts to bring his mother with him. He could not have left his mother behind on her own as their entire community was on the way to India. In the 1950s, I got to read Saadat Hasan Manto’s story, Toba Tek Singh, in Urdu and found the fate of Sugreev’s mother no less poignant than the plight of Bishen Singh in Manto’s story.
Carrying boxes, beddings, hand bags, and trunks (metal suit cases), men, women, and children walked in a slow, staggered procession in the direction of Bhera’s tonga stand. The town did not have more than two dozen tongas to begin with. The demand for these vehicles was especially great from those who had physical handicaps (e.g., our father was on crutches) or those who were carrying a lot of luggage with them. The tonga drivers made frequent trips to the station to meet the demand, and most people had to wait for their turn.
By the time our family reached the railway station by tonga, the huge waiting room with benches for the third-class passengers was overflowing with people. We had to lay down our goods under a tree on the road and sat on our trunks with rolled beddings for cushions. Many people were still coming in. The late comers settled with their belongings on the half-kaccha road with crushed stones embedded in its dirt surface. Once in a while, a policeman would arrive looking for a Hindu businessman (mostly individual bankers who had made loans against pawned stuff) and take him to the town’s police station in a tonga. It turned out that there was nothing sinister about these summonses. The Muslim clients of these Hindu businessmen and bankers had raised enough cash to retrieve the stuff they had pawned earlier with them. So far as we know, there were no unfair pressures on the Hindu businessmen to return the pawned materials without receiving payment of the loans they had extended. The few Hindus who were hauled to the police-station came back to the railway station to rejoin their folk.
Bhera’s railway station was the terminus for the Malakwal-Bhera railway line. The station had a long platform with two sets of railway tracks, two water-pitcher stands (one for Muslims and the other for Hindus), a shunting yard, a godown, and a circular turn-table for the train engines to reverse their direction for the return journey to Malakwal Junction. We noticed the presence of armed soldiers around the railway station and saw them posted as guards at the periphery. Besides the Baloch soldiers, there was also a batch of Sikh soldiers in this army contingent made available to provide armed escort for the train. The Captain of this unit was a middle-aged, tall, handsome Muslim gentleman. He was taking rounds of the extended site of our gathering.
It was already getting late in the day yet there were no signs of the train at the platform. We saw the Captain in frequent consultation with his colleagues. Then as it was about to get dark, the people thought of having the meals they had brought with them in the remaining light. The single water hand pump outside the station was crowded as each family came to fetch water for the evening meal. Everyone in the crowd was patient for its turn. The waiting line moved fast, because the families did not have big pots to fill. Around this time we were informed that the train’s arrival had been cancelled for the day. Each family made a bed or two on the ground. Except for the fortunate few who had found space in the waiting room, others had to make their beds in the open on the rough road to spend the night. I still remember how hard it was to lie down on a bare (no padding) sheet spread over the stone-studded pavement (see Note 6). Although it felt safe with the military men guarding our “camp,” we slept fitfully. The town’s fairground next to the railway station was turned into a toilet facility for the night.
In the morning, we were asked to go back to our homes in the town (tongas were available for the return trip), and advised to wait for another train in a day or two for our evacuation. We were also given to understand that no tongas would be available for our next trip to the station and that we were to bring only those goods with us that could be carried on our persons from our homes to the railway station. The new limit on how much luggage could be brought was prompted by the fact that the evacuees had managed to bring far more baggage with them than could have been stored in the railway compartments without displacing the passengers. The heaps of luggage could stand in the way of evacuating all those who had to leave.
Although we were not excited at going back to our homes, we felt relieved to find the locks on our houses intact on our return. No house in our mohalla was broken into during our twenty-four hours of absence. We felt embarrassed, because we had feared a kind of free-for-all looting of the goods and belongings that we had left behind. There were also no signs of any looting of the town’s Hindu and Sikh shops during our short absence from the scene.
Final Farewell to Bhera
A day or two later, we were ordered to return to the railway station for catching the special train that had already arrived. This time there were no tongas to take us to the station, so we set out early from our house this time. Whether they were sick or crippled, young children or old folks, everyone had to walk all the way from their homes to the railway station. The walking distance from the farthest point in the town to the station was three to four miles long, and it took quite some time to cover it. Most people had to make several stops on the way to catch their breath as they were not used to walking such a distance in a single stretch with their carry-on belongings. Our father was on the crutches. Our elder brother carried a small metal trunk on his head. I carried a gathhri (a wrapped bundle) of clothes for our daily wear, while my younger brother was assigned the task of carrying our prepared food for the journey. Our mother’s heels were sore and hurting so badly that she could hardly walk, especially with our hold-all bedding on her head. She had to stop several times on the way and we kept company with her. When she reached the station, she almost collapsed on the floor of the waiting room. She thought she was going to die there, and told our father to take good care of us, their three sons. I could not bear to see this scene, and kept praying to God to spare our mother’s life.
Someone suggested that we should contact a Muslim doctor (a Unaani hakeem) who lived in one of the nearby houses in a row. My elder brother went to get him to have a look at our mother. The doctor took my brother back to his house and sent with him a packet of powder medicine to be taken by our mother with a glass of milk. But we did not have milk on us to give it to our mother. Our neighbor in the waiting room was none other than a neighbor from our mohalla, Shrimati ShielaN Vanti Kapur (see Note 7). She had brought milk with her in a container for her baby daughter. Watching our mother’s condition, she offered a glass of milk for our mother to take with the medicine. After she had taken the medicine, our mother felt much better and in an hour or so of rest managed to board the train on her own feet.
My elder brother thinks that there were no more than ten bogies (cars) in this special train. As many as 5,000 to 6,000 Hindus and Sikhs (along with the baggage they had carried on their person to the station) had to be squeezed in those bogies. Bringing with us only those belongings that could be carried on our heads without breaking our necks made it possible for everybody to get evacuated in a single army-escorted train of ten bogies.
Before our special train left Bhera’s railway station one day in the third week of September, 1947, a batch of Muslim National Guards (the Muslim counterpart to the Hindu RSS of those days) showed up in their green uniforms and lined up on the platform in a “Guard-of-Honor” formation to bid us farewell. We watched them from the windows of our railway compartment, not knowing what to make of this entirely unexpected move. We were at that time suffering from the oppressive heat in our railway compartments. We were packed like herrings in the train; several families (over 100 persons) stuffed in each small compartment. The crowding made the inside of the train feel like an oven, even when all the windows were kept wide open. At one point, one Muslim national guard, Baalu (for Iqbal), who used to work as a sweeper for a Kapur family in our mohalla, approached the head of this family and advised that we better close the windows. It did not make any sense; he did not tell us why the windows need be closed. He kept pleading though. Before he went back to be with his fellow-guards, he made sure that we were going to shut all the windows. The gentleman returned after a while to ask why we had kept one window open. We told him that it would not shut. He suggested we better place a trunk (suit case) or even a rolled-bedding against the window to cover it. We sensed something was remiss, something ominous to befall us. It was only when the train suddenly stopped just a few miles from the station and we heard rapid firing by the escort soldiers that the full scope of the peril we were in dawned on us. It became clear why this caring person was so much concerned about the open windows. He knew of the planned attack on the train, but could not divulge it.
The train gave its whistle, its steam engine puffed and the train started to roll away from the railway station, passing Bhera’s first signal-arm (chotta haath) and then the second signal-arm (bada haath). The lowered signal-arms indicated all clear to the train, but there was a dreadful obstruction waiting for us. Hardly had the train moved three or four miles when it stopped due to an obstruction on he tracks near Hazurpur. A large mob of marauders was waiting there to ambush us. The Captain, our second savior after Sheikh Fazal Haq, ordered his men to open fire in order to deter the mob. The firing by his men succeeded in stopping the attack and saving the lives of Bhera’s Hindu/Sikh men, women, and children. Some of the attackers must have been injured and a few perhaps even got killed. The Muslim and Sikh soldiers removed the tree trunk from the railway tracks that the attackers had placed there to halt the train, and the train resumed its journey to Malakwal.
The men waiting to ambush our train were mostly from Bhera’s surrounding villages (including a few from the town itself), who could hardly wait to kill the Hindu and Sikh men, and carry away their women and cash and jewelry as maal-e-ghanimat. Once turned back from the gates of Bhera by the pleas of Sheikh Fazal Haq Piracha, most of them showed up “dutifully” a few weeks later to waylay our special evacuation train. We do not know if they were there for their mission when the first train did not show up a day or two earlier. However on this occasion, before our train was stopped a few miles from Bhera, we could see from the window chinks a few of these folks running by the side of our train. They had axes and spears in their hands, and those who did not have a donkey or a camel were carrying cots on their heads to bring back the booty. These laggards were trying hard to reach the site of planned ambush in time so as not to miss on their share of the spoils. When the train was stopped at the barricade that had been set up for the purpose, the main body of raiders came rushing from behind the embankments of a canal to attack us. The Captain promptly ordered his armed men to open fire, making the mobs retreat and find shelter behind the embankments. But for the effective protection provided by the armed escort commanded by the Captain, Bhera’s Hindus and Sikhs would have been a captive target for butchery in the stalled train (see Note 8).
This time the train did not stop until it reached Malakwal Junction. Perhaps for security reasons, our train was parked in the open before reaching one of the railway platforms with sheds. It was easier for the soldiers to guard and defend the train in the open; it avoided sneak attacks coming from built-up structures. The Sikh soldiers were assigned the guard duty; they stood every 20 feet or soon either side of the train. It was a very hot day in September, and the soldiers stood in the sun for hours until the train was cleared to leave. We had no idea our train was bound for Mandi Bahauddin until we reached its railway station and were asked to get off. The town had been selected to serve as a collection-point camp for Hindu and Sikh refugees from Jhelum and Sargodha districts.
At Mandi Bahauddin Railway Station, I saw quite a few Hindu elders (one from our mohalla) take off their turbans and lay them at the Captain’s feet as a gesture of their deep gratitude for saving them, their womenfolk and children. He was uneasy at this gesture and just stepped back from the turbans, telling the Hindus that what he did to save them and their families was a matter of duty for him. He surely was a true Muslim, a gentleman officer, and a karmayogi for whom a duty performed was its own reward. We do not know this officer’s name or the place he was from, but his face will ever remain hallowed in our memories. He was a stranger, but our savior. May God bless his soul.
Note 1: Behind his back, Prakash was referred to as Habshi (African) because his father was a Bherochi Hindu and mother an African woman in Kenya. He was a good looking, tall, dark, muscular, curly-haired fellow known for his toughness and sheer courage.
Note 2. We learned later that the name of the assailant who killed Bayya was Maqbool Lohar. We do not know if he had also led the attack party or happened to be a rank-and-file member of the party.
Note 3. The town did not have any fire-fighting equipment other than one wheeled open-tank with a manual pumping mechanism. The water from the tank had to be pumped by four persons (two o each side) for jetting it with a hose on the fire. This vehicle had rusted over the years as it lay abandoned in the front yard of the town’s municipal committee’s building. A preferred and more common method of fighting fires was to form a bucket brigade in which men formed a chain to move buckets filled from the water drawn from nearby wells to the fire site. Understandably on this day, no Hindu or Sikh would endanger his life to form a chain of citizen fire-fighters to douse the fire in Lal Kuppi’s shop.
Note 4. PiraN Ditta (Given by Pirs) was a Hindu, but this name was common among Hindus and Muslims alike in western Punjab until the early twentieth century. However, there was also a separate Hindu variant of this name, GuraN Ditta. For the Muslim names of Allah Ditta and Allah Ditti, Hindus had corresponding names of Ram Ditta and Ram Ditti. Some Hindu men were named Ram Rakha (Protected by Ram) and women, Ram Rakhi. The Muslim counterparts for these names were Allah Rakha and Allah Rakhi. Allah Jawaya and Ram Jawaya were the other pair of names from the same tradition; however a Hindu name like Ram Tikaya does not appear to have a matching name among Muslims.
Note 5. In their book, Freedom at Midnight, Larry Collins and Dominique LaPierre describe Suhrawardy’s rush to meet Gandhi just before his planned departure for Noakhli and requested him to first help save Calcutta’s Muslims. Gandhi made Suhrawardy accept a few conditions before he started on his long fast in Calcutta and delayed his departure for Noakhli (1975, pp.225-226)
Note 6. The road between the tonga-stand and the railway station was prepared by having a steam-roller go over the spread of crushed rocks and pebbles on the road’s dugout bed; no layer of asphalt was ever laid over the road’s stone-studded pavement which by 1947 had turned terribly rough and uneven.
Note 7. Mrs. ShielaN Vanti Kapur was a daughter-in-law of Lala Daya Ram Kapur of our mohalla and the wife of Mr. Harbans Lal Kapur, a leading advocate in the town. One of their sons, Narinder K. Kapur, a Seventh grader in the Arya Highh School in 1947, retired as a Judge of the Punjab/Haryana High Court in Chandigarh.
Note 8. The planned attack on Hindus and Sikhs of Bhera in their mohallas and homes, if it had not been averted, would have been less costly in lost lives than this attack, if not foiled, on a trainload of passengers. In the former case, many of the intended targets could have escaped in several mohallas. In some, they could have inflicted some damage to the attackers in gated neighborhoods. In contrast, the attack on the train, if it had not been stopped, would have led to a total massacre of the towns’ Hindus and Sikhs who were sitting ducks with nowhere to escape and had no tools to put up even a token resistance.
(This article appears along with other articles on related topics at: www.bhera.com)
The Long Journey (Part II): Mandi Bahauddin, Pakistan to Delhi, India
The first half of this part of the journey takes the community of Bhera’s Hindus and Sikhs from their arrival at Mandi Bahauddin Refugee Camp in Pakistan to Atari, the first Indian railway station east of the Wagah border. The narrative in this part is one of jug-beeti; what the community went through from the day of its landing at the Mandi Bahauddin railway station to the day of its safe arrival in India. The second half of this segment extends from Chhe-Harta in Amritsar to Delhi via Ludhiana and Ambala Cantt, and is more like an aap-beeti, our family looking for and finding its lost daughters and their families and coping with problems of homelessness. It also has an element of jug-beeti to the extent it represents the broad experiences of other refugee families who sought their missing relatives and struggled to secure a roof over their heads in India.
Once we disembarked from the special train at Mandi Bahauddin and after our elders had conveyed their gratitude to the Captain for saving our lives, we were made to march to a walled complex of cotton mills abandoned by its Hindu/Sikh owners. On the way to this cotton mills area, the men from the Baloch army-unit kept pushing and goading us to move faster by hitting us at times with their rifle butts. I saw one of the soldiers hit the headmaster (Mr. Pindi Das Chopra) of our school, and his teenage daughter started crying (see Note 1). Later, some people surmised that the harsh attitude of the Baloch soldiers was probably due to their anger at having learned from the train crew that the safety of the arriving Hindus and Sikhs was secured at the cost of several Muslim lives.
My younger brother Rajinder and I were carrying some bags and utensils containing the food cooked by our mother in Bhera for the journey. Fried breads like puris and to some extent prathas do not spoil readily. The bags were not heavy, and we walked fast to arrive in a cotton mill compound. We were separated from our mother, father, and elder brother. Other families also got split on the way. It took some time for people to find each other. The huge, windowless godowns (warehouses) for cotton storage were deep, dark caverns; their only sources of light were two big gates on the same side. The lack of cross-ventilation made the humid heat inside these godowns most unbearable. We chose to stay in the open.
After spending only a few hours in the cotton-mill compound, we were ordered to march to a different site .We were escorted by the same men, but this time there was no undue rushing and harsh prodding. We landed in the abandoned building of the town’s Khalsa (Sikh) High School. The classrooms were bright and airy, verandahs provided ample shade, and the school’s lawns in quadrangular compounds had trees and shrubs. Our family spent the first night in the open compound; our area was no more than the area of two side-by-side beds. At night, the retarded daughter of one of our immediate neighbors in the compound kept throwing her rather heavy legs on our mother. Our mother took the punishment; none of us could save her from this thrashing. The women had to sleep next to women, and men could sleep next only to men from other “adjacent” families. In the open, there were no boundaries of privacy between families, except that men and women from different families could not be contiguous to each other.
Next day the families from Bhera were able to move into empty classrooms. There were no desks or any other furniture in the school’s classrooms; they had been apparently removed by the looters. In one classroom, I found two chemistry-lab beakers that served as our glasses. In another, I found an Urdu book that recounted the adventures of Omer Ayaar (Omer, the clever and naughty) as a child and young boy. It gave me a few days of very enjoyable reading.
Some families had limited cash on their hands. They were worried how long would their cash reserves last for food if the length of their stay in the camp got stretched beyond their resources. Luckily, the Muslim vendors just outside the camp charged reasonable prices for the grocery items like wheat flour, oil, vegetables. Almost all men in the camp were without work and income, except for a few doctors who charged nominal fees for their consultations. One person who was most in demand and made the most money in the camp was the sole Hindu barber from Bhera. Older people of our father’s generation were not used to shaving with safety razor blades. They were dependent on the barbers to give them their daily shave with their folding razors. The boys in the camp happily skipped their haircuts, but most of the elderly people needed their faces shaved every second or third day, depending upon how busy the resident Hindu barber of the camp happened to be on a given day.
Then the cholera broke out in the camp. The reasons were not far to seek. The crowding and the unhygienic conditions in the camp were most likely to have brought it about. There were very few toilets (mostly dry latrines that were infrequently serviced), far too few for the thousands of men and women. Most people went to the open areas around the camp and relieved themselves. The children would climb the stairs to go to the roof of the classroom buildings for the same purpose. Pretty soon, the sanitary situation worsened; there was a lot of filth and stench in the relieving areas. As the deaths due to cholera started to increase; we could see from the roofs several cremation fires burning next to the camp in the evenings. Among those who died of cholera was the wife of Lala Ralla Ram, who had a goldsmithy shop not far from our father’s sarafa shop. She died away from home, leaving behind her two young daughters and husband in the camp. One heard rumors that nila-thotha (copper sulphate) was being mixed in the milk that was sold by Muslim dairymen to the camp residents. The dairymen used to bring their buffaloes to a main road near the camp to sell the fresh milk. Every one insisted that the buffaloes be milked in the customers’ presence. That was done, but it did not stop the cholera. Most people started drinking boiled water, and washed the vegetables thoroughly before cooking them. Whenever any one of our family members had queasy feelings, we were given a teaspoon of brandy which we had brought with us in a quarter-sized bottle. We considered brandy as the medicinal antidote for all manner of gastric troubles. No one in our family got cholera; we were lucky because the brandy could not have stopped it. Lala Ralla Ram’s wife was given some brandy for her loose motions and vomiting, but it did not help her.
To relieve the crowding in the school building, the camp authorities permitted the camp residents to move into regular houses on the street that connected the school with the town. There was a great rush to get private rooms for the families. Our family managed to occupy a kitchen for our room in a big house with four apartment-like units. The house had a large inner compound. Our neighbors in this house were the extended family of Lala Daya Ram Kapoor from our mohalla, and another family of Lala Des Raj Mehta who for many years had served as an elected member on the Bhera’s municipal committee. He had, however, lost his seat to a Young Turk, Dewan Dina Nath Sahni, in the last municipal elections held before the country’s Partition.
In the pre-Partition era, Mandi Bahauddin was a flourishing, well-to-do town, not far from the town of Chillianwala where the Sikh armies valiantly fought the British forces in 1849. In the pre-Partition days, visitors to Mandi Bahauddin were told that, if they were to visit the battle ground near that town, they could still find the shells of the bullets fired in the battle. The Sikh families of the town were the most prosperous ones, and had constructed spacious houses, each house having several living units within it, but only one main entrance. Most of the houses were double-storeyed, and had hand-pumps for the second floors as well. Unlike Bhera’s, Mandi Bahauddin’s streets ran parallel and were straight, wide and paved.
I had spent my one summer vacation around 1941-42 at my younger sister’s house in Mandi Bahauddin. Her husband was a doctor who had started his private practice in the town after obtaining his LSMF medical degree from the Christian Medical College in Ludhiana. My brother-in-law also taught Physiology at the town’s Khalsa High School, the site of our camp; the school did not offer that many classes in Physiology to warrant the hiring of a full-time instructor for this subject. I had very pleasant memories from my earlier visit to this town. Five years later in September of 1947, I found the town deserted and looking forlorn. Its entire Sikh/Hindu population had already left the town, and Muslims from other towns had yet not moved in to fill the vacuum caused by the exodus of local Hindus and Sikhs.
Our month-long stay in the Mandi Bahauddin camp was one of unnerving uncertainties, a cholera epidemic, and numerous hardships and deprivations. Our sojourn in this town came to an end with the arrival of a special train that took us on our journey from Mandi Bahauddin to India. The train had its first stop at Lal Musa Junction. This railway station used to be a very busy place twenty-four hours a day, bustling with hurried transit passengers, railway porters and hawkers of food stuff. Now there were not any passengers, porters, or hawkers to be seen at the platforms. It appeared that the normal train runs and most other operations had been suspended due to the widespread disturbances.
Our railway compartment’s only toilet was utterly messed up by overuse; nearly a hundred nervous men, women, and children using it. We requested a railway employee who was sweeping the platform to clean up our toilet for something like a hundred rupees (it was a big sum then) or for any price he thought fit. He was half tempted by the size of the reward, but thought it appropriate to consult with one of his colleagues. His colleague told him in our presence not to do the job for the Hindus! By comparison, the Muslim jamedars of Bhera thankfully continued to clean our latrines until the last day of our departure.
In normal times, passengers on the trains approaching from the Malakwal side had to change trains for their onward journey in the direction of Lahore or Rawalpindi. Now because of the disturbed conditions, it was not advisable to allow the refugees to walk to another platform for boarding a different train. Our train needed to be shunted and re-routed to continue its journey in a different direction to the Indian border via Lahore. We knew it was going to be a long stop, but not as long as it turned out to be.
The train waited for a few hours at the platform where it had arrived from Mandi Bahauddin, and then it was moved to a distant and deserted shunting area for the night. This secluded area gave us shivers of concern and fright. There was a small military escort to protect us if we were to come under attack, but we were not sure that they would be able to stop the mobs if they turned out in large numbers. Partly because we were not informed as to why the train was moved from the railway platform to this lonely spot, we thought that the move was perhaps a plot to facilitate an attack like the infamous one that had taken place near Kamoke (see Note 2). We kept a night long vigil, prayed non-stop, and panicked at any unusual sound that came from any direction. The morning brought a big relief. The fears of an overnight attack were not borne out. Now we could hardly wait for the train to be on its way to India.
The train finally left the Lala Musa station around noon time and sped past towns like Gujrat and Gujranwala (we could see the burned out houses and shops that bordered the railway tracks). But it had an uncomfortably long stop at Muridke. The engine-driver left the train at this station to get some milk from the town for his tea. He took more than two hours to return, while the train-load of refugees waited for him in a state of panic! Next, the train stopped briefly at Mughalpura, and then came to a much longer halt near Harbanspura for hours. It was around 9:00 p.m. when our train stopped there. The inordinately long stop, so close to our destination, was dragging on, and giving us lots of anxiety and fright. We could hear the sound of beating drums (which for us meant a kind of clarion call for mobs to gather and raid the train). Because our train was once again not parked at a platform, it felt disturbingly eerie around the train. We did not dare step down from the train. We learned later that the Muslim locomotive-driver, out of concern for his own safety, had declined to drive the train into the Indian Territory. It took a lot of persuasion and guarantees by the armed escort to persuade the unwilling driver to take the train to Atari, the first station after the border with India. It was around 3:00 in the morning when our train finally reached Attari after crossing the Wagah border we could not see. Almost all of us got down and knelt on our knees to kiss the soil of India. We shouted loudly, “Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akaal; Har Har Mahadev.” Hundreds of local Sikh men and women were there to welcome us at that early hour and to treat us to chappatis and daal, a very precious meal after 44 hours of train journey in the land that had turned hostile and murderous.
The train then took us to Chhe-Haratta, a satellite town of textile mills west of Amritsar, where the entire train load of refugees disembarked. We found an evacuated shop for our temporary stay in this town. The shop was a brick structure with a wide door that opened on the Grand Trunk road. Our parents bought milk, sugar, flour, and tea leaves from somewhere. They also brought a pan full of “cream” from which they planned to make ghee by heating it and skimming the milk-solids from the top. We must have looked emaciated to our parents; they wanted to provide us the missed Punjabi “essentials” of butter and ghee for good health.
Like most Indian shops, our shop-residence in Chhe-Haratta did not have any toilet facilities inside the premises or a nearby community facility. We all had to cross the Grand Trunk Road to find an uninhabited open-air area for use as a toilet facility. Luckily for us, we were used to squatting and hardly a furlong away from the road we found an abandoned brick kiln that served the purpose. Earlier, we had brought several bricks from the kiln to improvise a chullah (stove) in the shop for cooking.
When we were still in Bhera and saw the situation for the Hindus and Sikhs getting increasingly hostile and hopeless all over western Punjab, our family thought constantly and worried about the well-beings of our two married sisters and their families living in Rawalpindi and Mianwali. The postal services had almost broken down, residential telephones were non-existent in those days, and traveling by train had become suicidal. There was no way to find out how they were doing. Our sisters were equally concerned about their parents and brothers in Bhera. We were to learn later that, after our elder sister’s family reached Taran Taran in India from Rawalpindi, our brother-in-law traveled from one big city to another in Indian Punjab, trying to find us in refugee camps or any one else from Bhera who knew of our whereabouts.
One day our parents and elder brother, Prem Sarup, went to Amritsar to gather any news about our two sisters and their families. Were the families of our sisters stuck in those towns or they were able to escape well in time to India? Were they alive, safe in India, or were they kidnapped, killed, hurt, or trapped in Pakistan? The in-laws of our elder sister were settled in Tarantaran (near Amritsar). Our parents ran into someone who had recently met our sister’s in-laws in that town. They learned from him to our great relief that our elder sister’s family had safely made it to India from Rawalpindi a few days before August 15. We found out further that she and her family had moved to Patiala to stay with her elder brother-in-law’s family. However, our parents could not get any news about our younger sister and her three-year old son who were in Mianwali with her in-laws at the time of country’s partition. There was no organized source of information in Amritsar or anywhere else to find out the fate of Hindus and Sikhs from Pakistani towns. We prayed for the safety of our sister, her son, and her in-laws.
Early one morning in Chhe-Haratta, a caravan of tired, haggard, young and old men and women was moving in front of our shop-residence along the Grand Trunk Road. This was a caravan of Muslim refugees trudging toward the Pakistani border. They had their slow moving bullock carts to carry their children and the old and infirm. A few goats and donkeys were also in tow. Their clothes were tattered and covered with dust; they had apparently been on the road for several days. From the kind of clothes they were wearing, it appeared that they were from areas like Panipat, Karnal, Rohtak, and Gurgaon from the Ambala division of undivided Punjab. None of the women were wearing burqa. They were poor folks from rural areas. They had a military escort accompanying the caravan. The unending stream of men, women, children, and their carts flowed slowly but steadily. We watched them from the shop we were living in. We were so benumbed by own experiences as refugees that we did not feel much empathy at that time for those who were going through a much greater hardship in getting to their promised land of shelter. But, we did not feel any hostility against these poor folks who were being made to pay for the escalating madness of others on each side of the border. They must have been worried over the prospect of spending another anxious night in the open on the Indian side of the border; the remaining distance to Pakistan would have taken longer than the remaining daylight hours they had for their trek.
One day while our parents and elder brother were away to Amritsar, Rajinder and I thought of treating ourselves to hot tea. We built the fire in the chullah (stove), put a patilla (pan) half-full of water on the stove, threw in a few spoon-full of tea leaves, and brought the water to boil. When we poured half a cup of milk into the dark brown brew, much to our surprise the brew turned pure white like regular milk. We threw in more tea leaves, but the brew retained its whiteness. We sipped the white brew; it tasted somewhat like hot tea, but did not look the brewed tea we got used to drinking in the Mandi Bahauddin camp. We attributed the transformation of the brew into a pure white beverage to the remarkable purity of the Amritsari milk. When our parents returned, we told our mother of what had transpired. She asked us from where we had gotten the milk when there was no milk at home. We pointed out the pan from which we had taken half a cup of milk to pour into the tea brew. She told us that it was no milk; it was the cream from which she was going to make ghee for us! She asked us if we had noticed the richness of the crème compared to the ordinary milk. We as children in Bhera had never heard of “cream.” I do not think our mother had heard of it either, but someone must have told our parents to go for this milk-product to make unadulterated ghee at home.
After staying in Chhe Haratta for no more than four or five days, we got a train from Amritsar and reached Ludhiana. We stayed there with our father’s cousin-sister (Bhua VeeraN) who with her family had left Bhera a month or so before August 15. They were staying in the vacant house of a Muslim family who had apparently left for Pakistan in the wake of riots. In one niche of a room, they had found a miniature copy of the holy Koran. One day, my elder brother and I hawked the local Urdu newspaper at the railway station to earn some money, but our enterprise was cut short by the regular newspaper vendors who got us chased out.
Meanwhile, our brother-in-law (the husband of our elder sister) had been traveling to several cities like Amritsar, Jalandher, Ambala, and Ludhiana in Indian Punjab to look for us. Our elder sister and at that time her only child (our niece) stayed back with the family of our brother-in-law’s brother in Patiala while he was searching for us. Finally, he found us in Ludhiana. We learned from him that our younger sister and her son were in Lucknow staying there with her brother-in-law’s family. He did not know more about her, but it was singularly good news to hear their safe arrival in Lucknow. Our brother-in-law advised us to go to Ambala where he would join us after personally briefing our sister in Patiala about our well-being.
Our next stop was Ambala Cantonment. The train from Ludhiana terminated its run there. We were advised by someone to go to a refugee camp on the outskirts of Ambala Cantt. There we found an open-air grassy spot in the Prem Nagar refugee camp. It was now early November when Ambala nights get quite cold. We bought or were given two sets of razaais (quilts) and tulaais (cotton mattresses with the thickness of a quilt) by the camp authorities. We did not get a tent, so we had to sleep in the open. When we got up early in morning, we found the outer side of our quilts was soaked wet and the overnight dew drops had coalesced to start dripping from the quilts on to our tulaai mattresses.
We had brought some pots and pans from our stay in Chhe-Hartta, we needed some wood to make fire for making tea. Rajinder and I walked to the nearby railway tracks that were lined by trees, and started foraging for fallen twigs and branches for the needed fuel. While we were busy in this task, a train passed us. A boy from our mohalla, Ved Bahri, was waving at us from the boarding steps of the packed train. We were quite excited to see a familiar face from Bhera, and waved back joyously.
The same day or a day later, our brother-in-law arrived in Ambala and took us from the open-air camp site to the Arya Samaj Mandir in Ambala Cantt. We were allowed to stay in the hall’s two-foot wide gallery (balcony) that went along the hall’s four inner walls and was at the first floor level above the ground floor. We had to cook outside the hall, but we had a roof over our head and access to regular toilets.
Ambala was relatively easy to get in, but it was real hard to get out of Ambala at that time, especially if you were a refugee who wanted to go to Delhi. The Central Government in Delhi had banned the entry of Hindu and Sikh refugees to Delhi for fear of further riots against the town’s Muslims. Hindu and Sikh refugees like us from Pakistan had to apply for permits to get on any Delhi-bound train. A member of the Board that issued permits for travel from Ambala to Delhi, was Mr. Jaswant Rai. He was the principal of the D.A.V. College, Rawalpindi, and our brother-in-law who was the Art & Drawing teacher in the D.A.V. High School knew him. Our brother-in-law was able to persuade Mr. Rai to grant us the prized permit. But one had to wait for days to get a train to Delhi. No trains were running on schedule to Delhi. So we were camped at the Ambala Cantt railway station to catch any train that could carry us to Delhi.
The Ambala Cantt railway platform was packed with refugee squatters waiting for any Delhi-bound train. While waiting there, someone from our naanaka (maternal grandparents) town, Jalalpur Sharif, recognized our mother and told her that her old mother (our grandmother, Naani) with her son’s family was camped in the passengers’ waiting room outside of the railway station. My mother took me along to visit her mother and her brother’s (our uncle’s) family. I was carrying the permit that would allow us to re-enter the railway platform. The huge waiting room (the waiting halls outside a railway station only had roofs, but no walls) was overflowing with refugee families who had eked out barely enough space to spread their legs. After checking with a few other occupants of the waiting room we were able to locate my grandmother, my aunt and three cousins in very shabby circumstances. My grandmother was lying on the floor, looking listless with her eyes closed. She was very sick with gastroenteritis, dehydrated and barely alive. Our mother (Bhag Vanti) held her mother’s hand and tried to wake her mother, “Baibai, mein Vanti aan, Baibai.” (Mother, I am Vanti, Vanti; Mother). Our grandmother struggled to shed her daze, and greeted her daughter back, “Vantiaye, theek hein, Hori Lall (our father) and bachhe theek nein,” (Vantiaye, are you fine; Is Hori Lall alright, are the children fine?). The Maan Beti (Mother-Daughter) met, cried, and talked. We learned that her son (our uncle) and a grandson were stuck in Murree, and it was our aunt (her daughter-in-law) who had managed to bring her family from Jalalpur to Amballa Cantt. Our aunt was also taking care of the grandma, cleaning her up, and washing her soiled clothes. She also had to carry her old and sick mother-in-law (our Naani) on her back from place to place. There was no medical care available to the refugees in these terrible conditions. Our mother must have sensed that it was to be her last meeting with her mother?
Afraid that a train to Delhi could show up any time at the platform where other members of our family were waiting with our very meager belongings, I kept pushing my mother to cut short her talking with her mother so that we could return to the platform. She rebuked me severely for my pestering haste and lack of regard for my grandma. After about half-an-hour of the reunion, my mother and I walked back to the platform.
Several weeks after we managed to reach Delhi, we learned that our Naani ji had died the day after our mother had met her in the Amabala waiting room. The morning after she met her daughter, her son (our uncle, mamaji) and her eldest grandson showed up to rejoin their family. It was a miracle for its timing. Our grandma was most glad to see them, especially her grandson of whom she was very fond. Hardly two hours after this second reunion, she breathed her last. It appears that she had held on to her life for an extra day to meet her only daughter, her younger son and a grandson for the last time. Then she died in peace. She was cremated in a city hundreds of miles away from her hometown, in an alien place that she had perhaps never heard of in her life! At least, her son was there to light her pyre.
In 2003, I was in Ambala Cantt for two or three days. I tried to locate and visit the waiting room where our Naani had passed away 56 years earlier in such pitiable conditions. The entire area was utterly changed and so congested that my efforts to see and photograph the place where she had breathed her last did not work out.
Going back to the day we were at the Ambala Cantt. Railway station waiting to catch any train that would take us to Delhi, a train arrived well past midnight. There was a virtual stampede at the platform when a train said to be for Delhi came to a stop. The train was already packed many times its capacity. Getting in a compartment was no mean struggle; it required super-human effort of pushing, squeezing and wading our way through the crushing humanity of desperate passengers on the platform and in the train cars. People started pushing their luggage through the window. Four of us (our parents and two brothers) managed to squeeze in one railway compartment. Our elder brother had to climb to the roof of the train and perch himself there among hundreds of others for the journey to Delhi. I do not know how well prepared he was to take on the cold winds of early December morning on the exposed top of a running train. When the train stopped at Jagadhari station and a few refugees got off the train, our brother was able to join us in the compartment.
Our train from Ambala arrived at the old Delhi Junction around eleven P.M. We asked our tonga driver to take us to Kothi No.19, Barakhamba Road near Connaught Place. On the way, my younger brother and I made the tonga stop right in the intersection of Nayya Bazaar and Khari Bowli so that we could get down to look at the tracks for the trams that used to run in those days in old Delhi. In Bhera when some people talked about trams in Delhi streets we had difficulty comprehending how the tram tracks did not interfere with the cross-traffic of other types of vehicles on those roads. We used to think of the trams tracks to be raised tracks above the ground. Little did we know until this day of revelation that the tram rails were embedded in the ground like in Bhera’s only grade crossing of the station road and the shunting yard rails.
It was past midnight when we showed up at 19 Barakhamba Road. The kothi belonged to Smt. Sat Bharawan, who was like a sister (moonh-boli behn) to our father. We woke her up so late in the night. My father shared his plight with her, and she graciously let us in and found a room with two beds for our family. My father had all along thought we could find temporary shelter at her place. She was originally from his place of birth, Haranpur in district Jehlum. She and our father had grown up as children in Haranpur. Our father had visited her and her husband a couple of times in Delhi over the years on his trips to Dayal Bagh, Agra. Our father was a follower of the Radhaswami sect, a religious-cultural reform movement founded in Dayal Bagh in 1861. His moonh-boli sister and her husband were staunch Arya Samajists. Delhi’s largest Arya Samaj Mandir near Lajpat Rai Market in Chandni Chowk is named Dewan Hall after her late husband’s name, Dewan Chand. A school on the Arya Samaj Road in Karol Bagh is named after her, Sat Bharawan Higher Secondary School for Girls. My father’s faith in Smt. Sat Bharawan’s generosity was not misplaced. She let us stay at her place for over two months. There were four or five other refugee families who had also found shelter with her. One of them was the family of Ram Lal Mandaria whose young son, Bayya, was the sole victim of communal killing in Bhera.
When our younger sister with her son came to see us in Delhi, we learned what had happened to our sister and her in-laws in Mianwali. We learned that one night their house was attacked. Her father-in-law was shot dead by the Muslim assailants on the spot when he opened the door. Our sister, her mother-in-law and two married sister-in-laws were bayoneted by these assailants (who appeared to be members of some army detachment). They demanded and got all the jewelry the women had collected and kept in special waist-bands. The three-year old son of my sister, another three year old son of her younger sister-in-law, and two daughters (2 and 5 years old) of her senior sister-in-law were spared (not hurt) by the assailants on the grounds that “all children are innocent.” The younger sister-in-law died of her wounds (punctured stomach and bleeding) later that night. Our sister’s father-in-law, who was the only grownup male member in the house, had already been killed. A few days later, the mother-in-law (Smt. Subhadra Devi) died of her wounds in the Mianwali refugee camp.
My sister’s and her sister-in-law’s hands had been pierced while they vainly tried to ward off the bayonet charges. They also had bayonet wounds in their abdomens. The two surviving ladies, two three-year old boys (one’s mother had been killed) and two young girls were flown to Delhi in a plane arranged by Dewan Mohan Lall (see Note: 3), the husband of the deceased sister-in-law. He had rushed to Mianwali in a Dakota airplane with a rescue team, made available by the government of India, to bring back the entire family, but returned only with his son and his son’s Massi, Mammi, and three cousins (see Note 4).
This brings us to the end of our journey from Bhera to the Mandi Bahauddin Refugee Camp in Pakistan and finally to Attari, India and eventually to Delhi. This journey of survival was strewn with fears, apprehensions, dangers, threats, hardships, heart breaks, and enormous challenges. We thank God and people of good sense and good will that the Hindu and Sikh community of Bhera (including our family) was able to come out alive from a landscape that had turned murderous. The next phase in the journey of our lives, to be narrated in a future attempt, was one of unending struggles to rehabilitate ourselves.
Note 1: To comfort his daughter, the headmaster told her good humouredly, “Stop crying, my child. Have not I hit so many boys with my cane in the school”? Two sons of Lala Pindi Das Chopra live in Bhera Enclave and Pashchim Vihar in Delhi.
Note 2: It was in the Mandi Bahauddin camp that we first heard of this attack on the refugeee train from Pind Daddan Khan in which almost all men were killed and women and children abducted. Later in India, we learned that one of my cousins was abducted and never recovered in subsequent campaigns to rescue such women. The husband of a newly married friend of my younger sister from our mohalla was killed in the attack. The friend herself was in Bhera with her parents and escaped abduction but not widowhood.
Note 3: Dewan Mohan Lal, who hailed from Miani, was then the Chief of Public Relations and Liaison, Bennet Coleman & Co., the publishers of the Times of India and Illustrated Weekly of India. A very dynamic and resourceful person, he met Gandhi ji, Pt Nehru and Sardar Patel, among others, to persuade the Government of India to provide a chartered Dakota airplane with a Rescue Team for bringing back his wife, son, and in-laws from Mianwali to Delhi.
Note 4: Almost sixty years later in 2007, the 3-year old kid who lost his mother in Mianwali serves as the Director General of the Government of India’s Standing Conference of Public Enterprises, having previously served as the Chairman of the State Trading Corporation of India. The other boy (my sister’s son) is retired as Engineering Manager, Factory Design, Intel Corporation in California. One of the two girls became a high school librarian, and the other became a Hindi poet.
(This article appears along with other articles on related topics at: www.bhera.com)