Usually, a discussion on the partition of India in 1947 begins and ends with holding Gandhi, Nehru or Jinnah responsible. However, during days of partition-related communal riots, these leaders, and others, lost their authoritative hold over their party men. Instead, local leaders along with the badmash or rowdies from their respective religions took charge of their areas. It is they who instigated the people to carry out attacks and engage in all forms of brutal atrocities against the people from different religious groups. Once the riots began, Gandhi, Nehru or Jinnah, though they tried, failed to stop the killings.
In the communal carnage, millions of innocents were killed, more than that number were displaced and thousands of girls were raped and murdered. The victims of that trauma can be broadly categorised into two groups: those who lost everything and those who were rescued by the people from other religious groups. There were also people who claimed that they had crossed the border without any direct or indirect attack by people from other groups. If this happened, then the number of such people must be a handful because, in 1947, this was almost impossible unless one was from the political or social elite class.
The sorry fact about history is that we have to heavily depend on secondary sources. This exercise allows us to interpret the interpreted secondary source in our own words or ways, and we do it because there is no other alternative. As I wanted to escape from being an interpreter of interpretation, I was enthusiastic about meeting someone who has either been a witness to partition-related madness or has been a victim of it. This is purely an academic exercise with no intention to hurt someone by scratching his/her wounds.
Fortunately, I received such an opportunity when, about a month ago, I met Sardar Avtar Singh Datta in Kamla Market in New Delhi. He owns a bookshop named Datta Book Centre. I was at his shop to buy Professor Raj Mohan Gandhi’s book titled Punjab: A History from Aurangzeb to Mountbatten. During our informal shopkeeper-buyer conversation, he informed me about his roots on the Pakistan side of Punjab. He was kind enough to share his partition-related memories with me without any hesitation. I do not know why but, while talking to him, I felt that he wanted to share his memories with someone, and incidentally that someone was I.
Sardar Avtar Singh Datta informed me that at the time of partition, he was about 12 years old. His family used to live in Mohalla Mojala at Moni Road in Lahore. His ancestral village’s name was Ghania Shikhan, which was in Lyallpur district. His grandfather, Sardar Bhadur Amar Singh, was a landlord who had been granted lands in a canal colony by the British commissioner of Punjab. At the time of partition his family was in Lahore. When I asked about the nature of the relationship his family had with the neighbours, he said, “There were Muslims in my neighbourhood. They were gentle people and never created any sort of problem for my family even during those awful days. It was the people from other parts of the city who created problems in my area.” Things speedily changed after a bomb blast occurred in his locality in the beginning of August 1947. Within a few days after the blast, his house was set on fire. After leaving their home, for a few days his family stayed in a police station at Qila Gujjar Singh, where one of his relatives, who was in the police force, was posted. Sadly, at that tender age he lost his father in partition-related riots. After facing problems and spending months in Punjab, on January 1, 1948 he and his brothers arrived in New Delhi.
One issue that haunts many people is of ‘honour’ killings carried out during partition. There is much literature available on this issue. I often wonder how a father could have killed his daughters or how a husband could have killed his wife. Without my asking about honour killings, Sardar Avtar Singh Datta told me that 15 of the female members from a joint family on his maternal uncle’s side were either killed by the male members of the house or they ‘willingly’ committed suicide. The name of his maternal uncle’s village was Kotla Arbali Gaon, which was in Gujrat district of Pakistan. This ghastly act took place after the news spread that their village had been attacked by Muslims. When I asked him if he felt the killing of female family members was a barbaric act, he said it was not because the time and situation was such. He was justifying his maternal uncle’s decision to which I just could not agree. Finally, when I asked whether or not he had visited Pakistan after 1947, he replied that he had not. He said that he had a fading memory of his Muslim neighbours and that none of his relatives now live in Pakistan.
After an hour long talk with Sardar Datta, a sketch of the partition-related bloodbath drew itself in my mind, where I found the legendary poet Amrita Pritam walking among the dead bodies and humming: “Aaj aakhan Waris Shah noo kiton qabran wichon bol te! Aj kitab-e-ishq da koi agla varka phol.” After relocating myself in the present, many questions again entered my mind. Out of them, I think, a few will keep on knocking unless I find their answers.
The writer is a freelance columnist