Partition of India: Recollections

A Nightmare for Millions Memories Of A Young Witness And Experience Of His Family

The Independence of India from two hundred years of British Rule seventy years ago came with a heavy price and uncalculated distress: dislocation of nearly 15 million Hindus, Sikhs, other non-Muslims, and Muslims from their ancestral homes and familiar cultural and spiritual anchors across the Indian Subcontinent. The simmering tensions and occasional violence became a raging inferno upon the declaration of independence of India and creation of a new country, Pakistan, out of India on August 15, 1947. Murderous mayhem and breakdown of law and order followed: looting, burning, ethnic cleansing and forced migration, revenge killings and genocide took three million lives. Resettling in newly created boundaries and settling as refugees in truncated India became a long and torturous nightmare for millions.

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The images of that time and events that I and my family experienced are alive and vivid in my memory, recollections, and my senses. I was a few months past my 8th birthday, old enough to remember, and innocent enough not to comprehend, the weight and complexity of the savagery and holocaust of leaving my hometown of Jaranwala, near Lyallpur (later renamed Faislabad), now within the boundary of Pakistan. Threats and violence against non-Muslims swelled the town of nearly 50,000 by several thousand, uprooted from surrounding villages, who sought shelter in Jaranwala, hoping that this town may become be a transit point to facilitate their passage to India. We were no longer safe and welcome here. All communication services were interrupted and non-Muslim police officers were dismissed. My family decided to take refuge in the huge Gurdwara (Sikh Temple), across the unpaved alley from our 5-story home around September 1, 1947, and joined several dozen Sikh families who had already taken shelter there.

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On the evening of September 7th, a bespectacled Sikh man, dressed in white, much like my father, was killed in town and a false rumor was spread that he had come to set fire to the local mosque. The news sent shockwaves and a feeling of something terrible in the making. This was followed the next day by a full-fledged pre-planned assault across town on the dislocated families temporarily housed in relatively unprotected sites and enclosures: school yards, grain markets, and other vulnerable locations. I can, nearly seventy years later, hear the cries of people shot or stabbed outside the Gurdwara and non-stop gunfire that began around 4:00PM, as the last train left the Jaranwala Railway Station, and continued past 8:00PM. Then, we could hear the rumbling of trucks until past midnight, carrying the injured and dead, numbering according to estimates 20,000, were dumped and buried at predesignated sites. We also learned that several men and women jumped into the area wells to their deaths to avoid capture and terrible fate.

On the fateful night of September 8th, all children and women were sheltered in a dark room on the second floor of the Gurdwara with instructions on what to do if the militia broke through the doors and entered the Temple. The thought still gives me chills. The summer temperature outside was in the 90's F, but inside this hell-hole was oppressive for the150 terrified souls cramped in the 500-square foot room, well past all tolerable limits. The 50 or so men stayed on the main floor or on the rooftop lookout, armed with sticks, swords, a pistol, and one double-barreled gun. We were certain our end was near and imminent. In stunned silence we prayed as we imagined the worst.

Almighty God had other plans. We survived the night of unimagined tyranny and murderous rampage. For the next 3 days, we stayed holed-up in the Gurdwara with nearly 300 others, our ranks had swelled with the addition of several injured who were able to escape and take sanctuary in the Temple. We continuously prayed and each Hukamnama read assured God's protection and grace. We had heard rumors that we would be attacked on September 12th after Friday Prayers. Before that were to occur, there was a knock at the giant door of the Temple around 10:00AM and four Sikh military officers ordered us to leave the Temple in ten minutes, and they would escort us to the caravan of refugees passing about a mile from the Temple. Everyone scrambled and obediently ran with the clothes on their backs, relieved and hopeful to live another day or die with others travelling towards the new border and sanctuary of India. Along the route, I recall seeing a caravan as far as the eye could see, people on foot and in bullock carts; intense sorrow of abandoning loved ones who died on the way; great sadness and uncertainty; fear and shock of dead and wounded; tales of the nightmare of assaults on human dignity and missing family members and leaving behind generations of memories and treasures, carrying indescribable grief and deep anguish written large on their faces. Our family members were separated; we feared that we would not see them again.

Those images live in my memory and are etched on my soul. My survival and lessons from what I experienced guide my spirit, provide direction to my faith and optimism. I pray to see light and strength in my journey; celebrate faiths and cultures; wisdom, arts, and sacred heritages different from my own.

SAM_2751 (26K)God answered our prayers. Our family of seventeen members survived this dark nightmare of the unknown; after several weeks we were reunited in the home that my sister and her family had occupied in Ludhiana, India. With no resources in their name, my parents began the formidable task of rebuilding their lives and future of their children. After nearly 18 years of struggle and sacrifices by my parents, I was given the undreamed-of opportunity to come to the USA in 1965 for higher studies at the University of Michigan. Indiana has been my home since September 1967.

A new world opened for me since; that I could not have imagined. It was like a rebirth, a daily renewal, a powerful reminder that I was following my preordained destiny: to be displaced from the once-familiar anchors and environment, and travel to another faraway place and be a pioneer in shaping, not just my life, but also be a passionate partner to work with other enlightened and brilliant friends and put my modest gifts and divine opportunity to service. That transformational event of my childhood stays with me and guides my solemn commitment to move past my encounter with death during the Partition and focus on my blessings.

Thank you for inviting me to share my memory of the time that generated so many images, sights, and sounds that one would rather forget, but they live on as if it happened only yesterday, perhaps to witness and advance the hopes and dreams of so many innocents that became victims on both sides of the Indian Subcontinent. I grieve for all lives lost and all who suffered.


Kanwal Prakash "KP" Singh is an Indiana Artist, Author, Advocate, Interfaith Leader, Sikh Community Spokesperson, and Public Speaker

Kanwal Prakash 'KP' Singh

KP participates in interfaith and humanitarian initiatives (Interfaith Hunger Initiative); activities and celebrations of diverse faiths and ethnic communities in Indiana.  KP assists with cultural training for Police Officers and TSA personnel; works with teachers, students, civic leaders to create a better understanding of Sikh and other faith traditions and contributions. KP advocates interfacing and mainstreaming ethnic talents, assets to benefit and serve all Americans.

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