Promila Saigal remembers the men in her family tossing her “like a football” from the rooftop of one family home to the next, in a bid to save her from the frenzy that washed over the Indian subcontinent 70 years ago.
Saigal was just six when the events of India’s Partition pressed in around her Hindu family’s compound in Lahore.
“I remember very clearly, outside the main road, a mob had collected at 12 o’clock in the night. And they woke us up,” she says.
In the nights that followed, she and other children were moved from one relative’s home to the next. When they finally boarded a train for India, she recalls, “We would be scared because we were hearing stories that they were stopping trains and killing people.”
Her family safely slipped into India. But Saigal, now 76, remembers growing up “terrified of Muslims.”
The stroke of midnight on Aug. 15, 1947, heralded a tectonic shift: India gained independence, ending 200 years of the British Raj, and redeeming, in the words of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, a “tryst with destiny.”
At the same time, Pakistan, cleaved from the Indian subcontinent, was born. As Hindus and Sikhs flooded out toward majority-Hindu India, Muslims streamed into the new Islamic state, formed as a homeland for them.
Slaughter and upheaval followed, as some 15 million people moved between the two countries in one of the largest migrations in human history.
In addition to Hindus and Sikhs already living in the territory that became newly independent India, the country became home to some 7 million more, who made the exodus from Pakistan. Muslims who opted not to join the mass movement in the other direction also remained in India.
Seventy years later, the memories of Partition stir deep emotions and some soul-searching among the last generation of Indians to have witnessed it. Many openly weep while sharing stories. When recalling Muslim friends they left behind, some are moved to tears. Here are a few of their stories.
‘I couldn’t have done it without luck’
By some estimates, as many as 2 million people died during Partition. Dharam Bir Ahuja, 89, was nearly one of them. Nineteen at the time, Ahuja’s narrow escape came when his family of eight was delayed catching a train near the Pakistani city of Sialkot, where they lived. A woman in their group had become ill.
“She fell sick, so we could not catch the earlier train, and all of us cursed her,” he recalls. “We cursed her – in whispers!”
They anxiously waited to board the next train, only to discover that the one they had missed had been attacked — and the passengers butchered.
“I saw the breasts of the ladies slashed,” Ahuja says. “The penises of the men cut, and the vultures hovering and eating the dead bodies.”
At the end of the train line, they walked across a bridge and entered India. Spent and soaked from the monsoon rains, they kissed the ground.
“We thought that we had reached our so-called new motherland, you see,” he says. “But what we had to go through was, again, a terrible experience.”
Ahuja’s father, a well-to-do factory owner in Pakistan, was reduced in India to commuting three hours a day for a menial job. He’d wanted to start a new business and asked Ahuja’s mother to sell her jewelry.
“She refused,” says Ahuja.
“Nothing doing,” his mother told his father. “This jewelry is meant for the education of my children.”
Under the glow of an oil lamp, Ahuja resumed his studies and passed one of the most difficult exams in India. He was admitted into the elite administrative services and retired in 1984 as the Commissioner of the Indian Revenue Service.
“It’s an instinct for survival,” he says. “But I couldn’t have done it without luck.”
To emphasize his point, Ahuja adds, “Listen, there were plenty of people just like me who didn’t make it.”
In refugee camps, the unlucky succumbed to disease. Some women were murdered by their own families — thrown into wells to “safeguard their honor” from sexual violence, a tactic used by rival communities to humiliate their foes.
Ahuja puts almost everything that’s happened to him since Partition down to luck — beginning with the woman who kept his family from boarding the ill-fated train.
“Only that old lady’s sickness – that made all the difference,” he says. “If she had been all right, none of us would be here.”
‘How could we leave?’
At 107, Mirza Naseem Changezi is reputed to be the oldest resident of Delhi’s Old City, where many Muslims sought refuge in Mughal-era monuments as riots swept the city 70 years ago. Hindus and Sikhs attacked Muslims, who rushed to board overloaded trains to cross into their new country. Changezi’s family opted to stay.
The long-bearded centenarian sits propped up in his bed as the call to prayer wafts from the nearby Jama Masjid, the grand mosque. In a clear voice, he declares that for generations from this spot, his family fought the British to quit India.
“Father, grandfather and great-grandfather — all we wanted was freedom,” he says, surrounded by curios, heirlooms and centuries-old artwork that bind him to this 400-year-old walled city.
Changezi’s son Khalid unfurls a 25-ft. long family tree firmly planting them in India. The elder Changezi says there was never any question of leaving India for Pakistan.
“Would we leave behind the bones, the shrines, the graves of ancestors? How could we leave that?” he says.
‘We’d die fighting’
On the opposite side of the city, a 90-year Sikh asks a similar question — from a different vantage point. Sardar Sampoorna Singh Virk navigated out of newly created Pakistan and into India.
“Who wishes to leave their home? Your birthplace — it’s extremely sad — but we were compelled to,” he says.
Partition split the northwestern Punjab region in two. Most Hindus and Sikhs, like Virk, came to India from western Punjab, which became part of Pakistan — fleeing fields they’d farmed for centuries.
Virk explains that his home in New Delhi — an airy, single-story house in what is now a dense urban enclave — formerly belonged to a Muslim who crossed to Pakistan. The Indian government allotted Virk’s family the house and 500 acres, spread across Punjab. It was less than the 800 acres they had to abandon in Pakistan. The new land came in fragmented parcels, and the uncles who used to farm together were separated by long distances.
Virk and his four uncles crossed the new border into India when passions were at a fever pitch.
“People were hanging off the roof of the train, and stuffed inside. They were scared for their lives,” he recalls.
Soldiers escorting them warned everyone to discard all weapons — including the ceremonial daggers worn by Sikhs — before they reached Lahore, a prized city on the Pakistani side of the border that seethed with unrest.
“Everyone had weapons,” Virk says. “A lot of people threw their weapons in the river. We didn’t — because we thought that if someone attacks us, we’d die fighting.”
‘What have we gained?’
Most refugees simply left their homes, locked the doors and never returned. S.K. Sethi’s mother, a Hindu, was escorted from their house in Lahore wearing nothing more than her nightgown and slippers.
“My mother was having tea with my elder brother in the verandah of the house,” Sethi says. “And [the] gate opens and a crowd of about 15 to 20 people walks in, and in Punjabi tells her, ‘Madam, please leave.’ ‘Leave?’ she asked, ‘what do you mean by leave? This is my house’ … ‘No, ma’am, it was your house.'”
When his mother insisted on changing her clothes, “Somebody from the crowd says, ‘You will leave from this verandah as you are.’ My mother and brother walked out. Partition had taken place. They had to go.”
The passage of time has not dimmed Sethi’s belief that dividing the subcontinent was sheer folly. Even at 91, he is incredulous.
“What have we gained by Partition? India and Pakistan — what have we gained? There’s bickering every day, there’s fights every day. What for? It just doesn’t sink in,” Sethi says.
‘A wonderful friend’
At his home in New Delhi, 85-year-old A.K. Saigal, a Hindu who came with his family from Lahore, breaks down while talking of an old friend, a Muslim from his boyhood days across the border.
“He was in Islamabad. I rang him on his golden anniversary and I was told – he just expired,” he says.
It’s been several years since that phone call. But even so, Saigal stifles sobs.
“I can’t think of it,” he says. “He’s a wonderful friend.”
Seven decades after the trauma of Partition, what comes across is the humanity of the survivors, their lack of bitterness — and even the desire to know each other again.