A Rough Passage To Independence
Shilpa • onGeneral 11 years ago • 6 min read

Nothing can be more futile than an argument on who was responsible for the Partition of the subcontinent. With the sequence of events stretching back 60 years, such an exercise can only be an academic distraction. But it is clear that the differences between Hindus and Muslims had become so acute by the beginning of the Forties that something like Partition had become inevitable.

To those who regret the division, I can only say that the British could have probably kept the subcontinent united if they were willing to ladle out more powers in 1942 when Sir Stafford Cripps tried to reconcile the demand for Independence within his limited brief. The Congress party could also have avoided the division if it had accepted in 1946 the Cabinet Mission proposals of a Centre with limited powers and zonal and provincial autonomy. But these are ifs of history, which at best are hypothetical and at worst subjective.

Has Partition served the purpose of Muslims? I do not know. Even Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan's founder, said in an interview to a foreign journalist, "On both sides, in Hindustan and Pakistan, there are sections of people who may not agree with it (division), who may not like it, but in my judgment there was no other solution and I am sure future history will record its verdict in favour of it." He, however, conceded, "Maybe that view is correct; maybe it is not; that remains to be seen."

I was in my hometown of Sialkot in Pakistan when I heard Jinnah on Pakistan Radio assuring, "You may belong to any religion or caste or creed, that has nothing to do with the business of the state… We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one state."

Still, I had to leave Sialkot because I was a non-Muslim, as was the case with Muslims living in East Punjab and elsewhere. One million people were killed and 20 million uprooted in the wake of the forced migration. The governments of India and Pakistan refused to accept the exchange of population when they agreed to divide the subcontinent on the basis of religion. The Punjabis on both sides suffered the most. The minimum that Parliaments of the two countries can do now is to say "sorry" to each other. They should pass a resolution to express regret over what happened. Now that the relations between the two nations are on the mend, a formal apology may bury the past quicker than it has been possible otherwise.

I left Sialkot on September 13, 1947, almost one month after the birth of Pakistan. We, the family, decided to visit India and stay there until disturbances subsided. Even when I packed a small handbag, I was sure that I would be back soon. The parting was short and quick. A Hindu military officer, on transfer, who had agreed to take me to India on his jeep, was in a hurry. I still had not reconciled to the prospect of leaving my family behind.

Sialkot is 15 kilometres away from the main road. After reaching the main road going to Lahore and then to the Indian border, I realised that there was no going back. Thousands and thousands of people thronged the road. A small stream of people was coming from India, the Muslims. And a big stream comprising Hindus and Sikhs was going towards India. I could not imagine how my aged parents would make it. People rushed towards us. Some determined men and women stood on the road. They wanted us to listen to them. It was an avalanche of migration. No one expected it. No one wanted it. But no one could help it. The two governments blamed each other as they tried to grapple with the problems of migration and rehabilitation. An old Sikh, with a flowing beard flecked with grey, nudged me and tried to hand me his grandson. "He is all we have in the family," he begged. "Take him to India. At least he should live." A middle-aged woman tried to put her child in the jeep. "I will trace you and collect my son," she said.

How could I take their children with me?

Every human being has limits to what he or she can take, grief or joy, good or bad. I reached a level where I could take no more. My feelings were dulled. It was as if I was left with no emotions to react. A story of brutal murder or gang rape did not move me anymore. I just listened to the gruesome happenings as if it were just a daily exercise. The people probably felt better after sharing their sufferings with us and withdrew to let the jeep pass.

The major did not want to lose the daylight. The jeep sputtered into motion. I looked back. I could see outstretched hands asking for help. That spectacle jolted me out of my wishful thinking that things would normalise. As the jeep drove along the Grand Trunk Road, I saw dead bodies on both sides, smouldering remains of burnt vehicles and pieces of luggage strewn all over. More hideous was the sight of children impaled on swords or spears and women and men cut into pieces. They bore testimony to the hell that the people on both sides had gone through. And all in the name of religion which was supposed to represent values. The subcontinent's composite culture and pluralistic society going back to hundreds of years lay in tatters.

It was late in the afternoon when the jeep reached the outskirts of Lahore. We were told that a caravan of Muslims had been attacked at Amritsar and that Lahore's Muslims were waiting to take revenge. We got down, and waited in fear and silence. There were some stray shootings in the distance. The stench of decomposed flesh from nearby fields hung in the air. We set off again. There was nervousness but we reached the border safely.

It was great to be alive.

It was still daylight. As I looked out, relieved and happy, I saw people walking in the opposite direction. They were Muslims. I saw the same pain etched on their faces. They trudged on with their belongings bundled on their heads and their frightened children trailing behind. They too had left behind their homes, hearths, friends and hopes. They too had been broken on the rack of history. It was a caravan of people who were going to Pakistan. We stopped to make way for them. We looked at each other with sympathy, not fear. It was a strange link, which I felt. It was spontaneous kinship, of hurt, loss and helplessness. Both were refugees.



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