At the stroke of midnight on 14 August 1947, India, Britain’s prized ‘jewel in the crown’, gained its independence. However, the euphoria of independence was overshadowed by unprecedented inter-communal violence between Hindus and Muslims in the aftermath of Partition. In the birth throes of two sovereign states, the mass migration of people across the new borders left millions dead, and an estimated 15 million as refugees.
Here, the writers explore the experiences of the Partition diaspora through the histories of their families, who were eyewitnesses of the division of the region. These narratives, of two families that hail from opposite sides of the Subcontinent – Punjab in the west, and Sylhet (today in north-eastern Bangladesh) in the east – also highlight the diverse post-Partition destinies awaiting the displaced. Their experiences remind us of the heroic efforts of ordinary men and women struggling to survive those dark days.
From Punjab to Malaya: Neeta’s family history
My father, Sham Singh, was one among many innocents whose lives were forever changed upon India’s ‘freedom at midnight’. He was a lecturer at Atchison Chief’s College in Lahore when his peaceful life, ensconced in academia, was rudely shattered. Partition left psychological scars that lasted throughout his life. It was only on very rare occasions that my parents would relate their Partition story to me and my siblings. Their most vivid memory was of sleepless nights, of fear caused by the distant sounds of inter-communal rioting, and of fires burning in the city. Trapped in Lahore, my father’s immediate concerns were for the safety of his family, and to leave for India. Fortunately, one of his students was the son of the Raja of Mandi, at that time a princely state in Himachal Pradesh. When the Raja sent an armoured escort to evacuate the young prince from Lahore, the latter insisted on taking my parents and baby brother with him. My parents stayed under the Raja’s protection in one of the numerous quarters on his sprawling palace grounds for almost 5 months until some semblance of peace was restored.
During his stay in Mandi, my father was employed in preparing the young prince for the Senior Cambridge Exams, which he was to take in Delhi. My family accompanied the prince to the Indian capital, where they stayed in Mandi House until the prince returned home after his exams. During this time, my father registered for allotment of housing and job placement with the relevant authorities in Old Delhi. With the influx of Hindu and Sikh refugees into the city, a large number of rehabilitation colonies had been established in places like Rajendra Nagar, Tilak Nagar, Patel Nagar and Lajpat Nagar.
While they waited for new work and housing, my parents travelled by train to Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh, where my maternal grand-uncle, Milkhi Ram, was a Signal Inspector with the Indian Railways. My mother often recalls how large-hearted he was in offering up his sprawling bungalow and garden, in which he set up tents to house his relatives and other refugees who had fled West Pakistan. When my parents arrived, my grandmother and her two unmarried daughters were already there. Milkhi Ram had escorted them from their home in Lahore to the safety of his home. My mother remained in Saharanpur with her extended family for over a year, while my father made several trips back to Delhi and got a job as a lecturer at Hindu College, Delhi University. He then moved his family from Saharanpur to Delhi, where they lived in temporary quarters in Sher Shah Mess for about two years.
For a down payment of INR 1000, my father and many other refugees were eventually allotted land in the new colony of Lajpat Nagar. There my father built his first house in independent India. However, there was no electricity or water supply in the new colony. My father took it upon himself to organise the property owners into a residents’ committee to deal with these and other issues. My mother proudly remembers that because he spoke like a lawyer, the residents appointed him as their spokesperson. Through his unfailing efforts, my father succeeded in getting electricity and water supplied to the colony, earning him the undying gratitude and respect of the community. Despite such hardship, my parents looked back upon their Lajpat Nagar years as the halcyon days. They were happiest there, making do with little but living as a community where the neighbours looked out for each other and lived in harmony.
Destiny, however, was to take my father even further away from his homeland. In 1953, upon seeing an advertisement for teachers in what was then still British Malaya, my mother persuaded my father to apply for the job. So the adventure continued. The family, with a number of other contracted teachers, set sail on the Santhia from Calcutta, stopping in Rangoon for a few days enroute to Penang. From there, the teachers and lecturers were posted to different parts of Malaya.
The refugees were a resilient breed. In fact, people who, like my father, had come to Delhi from the urban areas of West Pakistan were mostly educated professionals, or involved in trade and commerce. In Old Delhi, for instance, the Punjabi refugees took control of the cloth market in Chandni Chowk. The refugees developed a complex relationship to their new city: they were regarded as having injected new life and prosperity into Delhi, but were also blamed for Delhi’s haphazard urban sprawl.
My oldest maternal aunt’s family followed a different path. When Partition took place, she was already married to a medical doctor, Charan Singh, and lived in Ramgarh, Lahore. My cousin Meenu related her chilling account of her family’s flight from Lahore. Barely three-and-a-half years old at that time, she recalls that her father was a physician with a busy medical practice. Having been orphaned early in his life, he survived many hardships to become a self-made man, and valued the people who supported him. Because of his selflessness, he was appointed the guardian of the community where he lived in Ramgarh. At the time of Partition, he was building a new house for his growing family. Seeing the rampant rioting, he decided to get his family out of Lahore, to Amritsar in India. Incessant reports of refugees being slaughtered en masse on the trains made his decision even more difficult. Our grand-uncle Milkhi Ram suggested that they travel in a maalgaddi – a sealed goods train – that nobody would suspect of carrying people. My cousin recalls that her young mother – barely 25 years old, with three little daughters and pregnant again – packed the bare essentials for that hazardous journey. She remembers the hay on the floor of the compartment, and the other travellers huddled around in little groups. They were instructed not to make any noise, especially when the train stopped at stations on the way. Since my cousin was the eldest child, she understood the danger, and when someone outside banged on the compartment with a stick to see if the train was carrying any refugees, she almost peed from fear. But then someone shouted that it was okay for the train to go on. She remembers how she huddled close to her mother and sisters, her teeth and fists clenched, and then the relief as the train began to move and eventually arrived in Amritsar.
From Amritsar, my cousin recalls, her family moved to Milkhi Ram’s home in Saharanpur. There, she has vague memories of her father’s comings and goings. Meenu recalls that his decision to go to Lucknow instead of Delhi was influenced by the fact that one of our relatives lived there, and he hoped to get some assistance and advice. In Lucknow, he also met other Sikh families, and decided to set up his practice there. He built a sprawling bungalow to accommodate his growing family in the colony of Shingar Nagar, on the outskirts of Lucknow. Besides the clinic in the city, he set one up in the house as well for the convenience of people in the neighbourhood. My mother recalls that in his efforts to serve the community, he would distribute free medicines to patients who couldn’t afford to pay.
Like Delhi, Lucknow was also inundated by Partition refugees from Lahore, Peshawar, Rawalpindi and other places. The Punjabi, Sindhi and Sikh refugees not only set up their shops and businesses, but also brought with them a determination to succeed at any cost. As a result, Lucknow’s old-world, laid-back, ‘nawabi’ character was rapidly transformed, much to the chagrin of traditionalists but welcomed by modernists, who, just as in Delhi, saw the phenomenon as a boost to the city’s flagging economy.
Referendum in Sylhet: Anindita’s family history
It was my grandfather, the late Prafulla Chandra Dasgupta, who I came to know primarily through a series of faded black-and-white photographs, who forever linked me to the great upheaval of Partition. He was the Sub-divisional Police Officer of Habiganj in Sylhet, a Muslim-majority district in Hindu-majority Assam, on the fateful days of 6 and 7 July 1947, when the Hindus and Muslims of Sylhet voted in a referendum to decide if their district would go to Pakistan or remain in an independent India. Louis Mountbatten, the last viceroy of India, had proposed the plebiscite hardly a month earlier, on 3 June. The rest of Assam, it had been decided, would become a part of India.
During the plebiscite, my grandfather was not given any additional personnel, arms or ammunition to help him keep the peace in Habiganj. In fact, on the two days of the referendum, he only had the usual ten to twelve Assam Rifles personnel under his command. Much later, my grandmother would proudly tell us how, even as hooligans prepared to attack their official quarters, “grandfather had only one personal double-barrelled gun”. All of us listening would tremble, trying to imagine the situation. The family elders would tell many similar stories, often trying to impress us. “Such fish you would have never seen as we had in Sylhet,’ they would tell us. “Our gardens were as big as your football fields.”
On 16 August 1947, my grandfather was one of the first Assam government officers to migrate from Sylhet and relocate to the picturesque hill-station of Shillong, where he took up his new position as Superintendent of Police. He looked resplendent in his colonial police officer’s uniform, and his looks reminiscent of his legendary Burmese ancestor. His greatest legacy to me has been this historical link to an ancestral homeland that I had never known. That link provoked an immense yearning to understand what Partition might have meant to Sylhetis like my grandfather who had to leave their homeland, uproot themselves and re-settle in a new environment after such major socio-economic and emotional upheaval.
My father, who was about ten or twelve years old at Partition, still had quite a clear memory of those days. From his account, my grandfather had an easier time than many others in relocating his family after 1947. According to my father, “He [grandfather] was not a refugee.” Just before the referendum, the Government of Assam had offered its employees the choice of where they wanted to serve post-Partition – in India or Pakistan – regardless of the final outcome of the vote in Sylheti. When it was announced that the referendum had been decided in favour of East Pakistan, a large number of Sylheti government employees like my grandfather immediately opted to return to India.
During the last ten years of documenting Sylheti eyewitness accounts of Partition and the referendum, many Sylhetis told me that despite the promises, not all government employees had been successfully reinstated in Indian Assam. I met several Sylhetis whose parents or relatives fought lengthy legal battles to regain their former positions. However, for my grandfather, life took a more optimistic turn. Though he lost all the property his family had owned in Sylhet, as well as a house in the heart of Sylhet town, he was financially secure as he had a permanent government job with its attendant perks. My father remembers having changed schools 13 times in all his ten years of schooling, as my grandfather was frequently transferred from one part of Assam to another. Nevertheless, he had a comfortable upbringing and was fortunate enough to have received a British education.
In my interviews, educated Sylhetis also refused to be considered refugees. They saw themselves primarily as migrants who chose to leave Assam after the referendum because they considered their positions weakened by having voted against joining Pakistan, as well as by the all-pervading communal tensions of that time. There were, however, very few cases of direct communal violence in Sylhet, in striking contrast to Punjab and Bengal.
If my grandfather represented one side of the coin, Subir Jethu – my father’s elder cousin – represented the other. While many Sylhetis had started leaving almost immediately after the referendum was announced, relatively few left between 1947 and 1950. Still, my grandfather’s post-Partition home in Shillong was filled with such migrants from Sylhet at the time. He helped some of them find jobs in the Police Wireless organisation, and by 1950 most of the house-guests had left our family home. In 1950, however, following terrible communal riots in other parts of Bengal, thousands of Sylhetis fled their homeland, fearing for their lives. Subir Jethu was one of them.
I met Subir Jethu for the first time when I was about ten years old. My father called him Subir da, using the Bengali honorific for an older brother. One evening, my father and I walked to a huge, crumbling mansion – I called it Lal Baari, the Red House, because of its red tile roof – in a busy and thickly populated neighbourhood in Guwahati. Although the mansion was quite close to where we lived, the sheer size of the collapsing building, its tottering wooden pillars, and the corridors teeming with people at all times of the day were intimidating enough to keep me from going anywhere near it.
I do not remember much of our visit to Lal Baari, where Subir Jethu lived in one little room with his wife and three children, but one distinct memory has stayed with me ever since. It was a large framed black-and-white photograph of Subir Jethu, taken a long time ago in Sylhet, where he was born and had lived until Partition. It showed a handsome, energetic young man sitting on a large black horse, dressed in the finery of the well-to-do, and with a half-smile on his face as he swung his riding whip high in the air. I could not make the connection between the figure in the photograph and the thin, sad, tired old man before me a quarter-century later. On our way back home, I asked my father about the portrait. “Subir da was the son of a rich landowner in Sylhet,” my father told me. “But when the 1950 Partition-era riots happened between the Hindus and Muslims, he had to flee for his life, leaving behind all his ancestral property. His family lost everything.”
But why did he live in an old and cluttered place like Lal Baari, and not in a nicer house? My grandfather had also come from Sylhet after Partition, so why did we live in a bigger house? “Because as the only son of a richzamindar in Sylhet, he did not bother to get himself a proper education,” replied my father. “Those Sylhetis who were educated were able to build better lives for themselves after Partition, even though they lost land and other properties.”
That photograph of Subir Jethu was my earliest encounter with the ugly face of Partition. At the age of ten, however, I understood little about what had happened; nor did I have any idea of where Sylhet was located. Gradually, from my father’s stories I began to understand how and why Partition had affected so many people in so many different ways, depending on their family background, education, social standing, and the timing of their move to Assam. Examples were easy to come by, because we were Sylhetis ourselves, and many of our relatives and family friends had also come over. But few had fallen into such difficult times as Subir Jethu. In fact, most were quite well settled: several of my father’s childhood friends were professionals like him, and generally held comfortable government jobs, while many others ran small businesses and could afford to send their children to the slightly more expensive English-medium schools in Guwahati in the early 1980s.
However, all this only made real sense to me several years later when my preoccupation with Sylhet’s Partition took me back to the region to document eyewitness accounts of the event. Travelling on the borders of Sylhet Division in Bangladesh, to different parts of Cachar and Hailakandi in Indian Assam, and to West Bengal, I gradually unravelled the complexity of the Partition experience among the Sylhetis, themselves separated by class, caste, gender and education. In the final analysis, it was Sylhet’s long association with the rest of Assam, many Sylhetis’ English education, their thriving social network in Assam’s urban areas, and their positions in the colonial bureaucracy that gave most middle-class Sylhetis a foothold in Assam after Partition.
Over time, the Partition diaspora rebuilt their lives and fortunes not only in India but in many other parts of the world. Gradually the perception of the ragged and homeless refugee was replaced by the image of the successful professional, entrepreneur and businessman. Yet there were scores of others, on both sides of the new divide, who had to forever bear the burden of loss in a land that never quite embraced the tired and huddled masses, the unwitting victims, of a momentous political decision over which they had no control.
~ Neeta S Singh is Senior Lecturer at Sunway University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
~ Anindita Dasgupta is Associate Professor of History at Taylor’s University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Her book on Sylhet’s Partition is forthcoming from Manohar Publication. The research for this article was made possible in part by a SEPHIS postdoctoral grant.