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  • Ramanjit Singh

They were Outsiders


I found it impossible to decide which of the two countries was my homeland: India or Pakistan? Who was responsible for the blood being so mercilessly shed every day? Where were they going to inter the bones that had been stripped of the flesh of religion by vultures and birds of prey? Now that we were free, had subjection ceased to exist? Who were going to be our subjects? When we were the subjects of the British, we used to dream of freedom, but now that we were free, what would our dreams be? Were we even free? Thousands of Hindus and Muslims were dying all around us. Why were they dying? All these questions had different answers: the Indian answer, the Pakistani answer, the British answer. Every question had an answer, but when you tried to look for the truth, none of the answers were of any help. Some said that if you were looking for the truth, you would have to go back to the ruins of the 1857 Mutiny. Others said, no, it lay in the history of the East India Company. Some went back even further and advised you to analyze the Mughal Empire. Everybody wanted to drag you back into the past, while murderers and terrorists went about unchallenged, writing in the process, a story of blood and fire that had no parallel in history.

-- Saadat Hasan Manto

I must admit that at the very outset of creating this Partition Forum, I knew that it is not going to be an easy task. Learning about India's Partition is a humbling experience. I understood that I will confront facts that would question my faith in humanity. It will force me to question the actual intent of all the communities and how they behaved during Partition and how each community took part in mass murder of innocents. I understood that through this process I will start questioning the idea of what Punjabi Virsa really means to me and to the rest of us.

What happened in 1947 was out right genocide, a crime against humanity, some would call it a fratricide, and I think there must be a reckoning of why these events occurred and how we can come to terms with it. As part of archiving the events on Partition, the entire process has affected me and has brought about a convoluted and often contradictory series of thoughts that forces me to question who is a Punjabi or whether we are just strangers living in a land who can at an instant turn on each other at a moment's notice. Researching about Partition creates a sort of jumbled psychology in oneself where it is hard to rationalize or put logic to anything that happened during that fateful year. Nothing seems to work according to any plan. It is impossible to rationalize a mob mentality.

Events that took place in each village of Punjab were heart breaking. They were tragic and in most cases filled with horror that is hard to comprehend or describe. In one of the videos by documentarian Sanwal Dhami interviewing an eye witness in village Bharoli in Hoshiarpur, a person narrates a story of a Muslim villager who's entire family including two daughters were killed by the mob. When the elder daughter saw her younger sister getting killed, she begged the mob that they should kill her too. When asked who committed this murder, the villagers simply said they were outsiders.

There's another story about a Muslim woman who kept telling her young niece how the mob killed her family and eventually that woman became mentally unstable and went into shock. She kept telling her niece "aunaney teri maa nu ainj maarya, terey pyo nu ainj maarya". The shock of experiencing and even listening through these stories is not restricted to the family that went through the horror, it also affects the community that has to manage and support these victims for the rest of their lives.

When I hear these stories, I feel enraged about why these events happened. Why this happened to a family who has lived forever in a village and then all of a sudden gets slaughtered in an instant? I cannot explain it, I cannot understand why someone would do something like this. People who are narrating the events cannot explain it. What causes a human being to kill another and what makes others not to rush in and rescue the innocents?

When I read stories about how Muslims were being slaughtered in east Punjab, I sometimes question my own faith and think I should be a Muslim because I can relate to the suffering that they experienced as if it was my own and I understand how they feel towards us. When I read about the Sikhs and Hindus being killed in west Punjab, I want to be a Sikh or a Hindu because I have also internalized their suffering that they experienced during Partition and I can relate to the feelings of what they felt when they lost everything.

This is the seared conscience that I carry with me as I study and explore further about the tragedy of Partition. I understand what Saadat Hasan Manto meant when he said "I found it impossible to decide which of the two countries was my homeland: India or Pakistan?".

Learning about Partition is also about losing a sense of passion one has towards your own country because we lost so much to gain so little.

There are thousands of similar tragedies that took place in Narowal, Kapurthala, Rohtak, Hissar, Amritsar, Lahore, Delhi, Ambala, Ludhiana, Lyallpur, Sheikhupura, Jalandhar, Sargodha, Rawalpindi, Sialkot, Jammu and other parts of Punjab and bordering towns of Kashmir.

Violence that took place in Jaranwala, Lyallpur is often mentioned by some as one of the worst that took place in August but it's not documented in any detail. Author Gopal Das Khosla has written about it in his book Stern Reckoning. Another incident that took place was in Chak No 47 in Lyallpur district, west Punjab, where on August 28 about a thousand Hindus and Sikhs were killed and women were abducted.

GD Khosla writes in his book Stern Reckoning:

Chak No 44 was attacked by a Muslim mob on August 22 and the non Muslims escaped to Chak No 47. On August 28 Chak No 47 was attacked by a large mob assisted by some Police officials and Muslim soldiers. The mob made a large breach in the canal embankment and the whole village was flooded The non Muslims resisted the attack for a time but nearly a thousand of them perished. Many young women were kidnapped.

Similar genocide was also taking place in villages and towns of East Punjab. Stories about the killings in Gurdaspur, Amritsar and small towns such as Khanna or Nabha are mentioned in the video documentaries by Sanwal Dhami and Khyaam Chohan. Here's a video of one such person, a very famous Punjabi and Urdu writer Mr. Prem Prakash who talks about what he saw in the town of Khanna (in Ludhiana) during August 1947, (listen to him talk about the events from 11:25 minute onwards). He says he saw criminals going into Muslim houses and throwing women from the rooftops.

Let me repeat, as a young person Prem Prakash saw criminals going to a house, brought women to the top of a house so that they can then throw them from the rooftops.

There's an unbearable sense of guilt, of sadness about the human condition, and an unrealistic urge to amend the wrongs that were done to the innocent people. Sometimes I cry reading through the stories as I cannot understand the depravity of humans toward fellow humans. I cannot understand the urge to kill just because you can somehow profit from somebody's death or you can prove your religious purity by killing someone who is of a different faith. What nobel deed is it to abduct and rape a woman? What noble deed is it to kill men, women and children?

A door opens, a mob enters a house, there are screams for help, people run to save their lives, in the next moments what happens to the men, women and children is indescribable, and we as fellow Punjabis must recognize the fact that our forefathers were either witness to or were complicit in the genocide that took place in 1947.

Can you imagine the ordeal of saving your own life or that of others when you are being attacked by a mob. What does someone do in a moment like this? Where does a person run, what split-second decisions one has to make in such an event? If you are a parent how would you protect your children? If you are a husband what would you do to protect your wife? These same horrendous outcomes were being repeated hundreds of thousands of times throughout Punjab.

Centuries of "bhai-chara" that formed the very essence of Punjab was made hollow by these "outsiders" and locals who were complicit in the violence. Most common theme of explaining the violence is that the perpetrators came from outside or from nearby villages. Not sure how much of this is true and how many locals from the same village were also involved in facilitating and taking part in the violence.

When seeing the people narrating the horrors they had witnessed, I sometimes think they are now the contemporary Punjabis who are passing their life experiences to the next generation and these stories have sadly become part of our new Punjabi Virsa just like the folk tales by Waris Shah. Only difference is that these stories are real and not a dream. This new Punjabi Virsa is heartless, it's about the million heart breaks, million screams, million acts of violence, it's about forced migration and mass murder.

After 70 years, all we are left with are the very last pre-Partition generation of survivors who still long for visiting their birthplace, who still wait for their loved ones to come visit them for a very last time.

What I have learned through these stories is that never put yourself or your family in a situation where you are a minority in the area where you live. Whether the "difference" between you and the others is due to religion or any other socio-economic factor that makes you different from the rest. When events get out of control, when the State's opaque and often incompetent law enforcement system crumbles, when "outsiders" come in to your area of residence, it becomes very easy for them to make you a target. Don't think that the rest of the locals would come and protect you. In rare exceptions your neighbors can help but typically it is not going to be the case.

Another point I would like to make here is that it is important to have escape routes and backup plans planned out well in advance. It may look crazy to think about it because when things happen there's hardly a moment to think logically, but what I have learned through researching about Partition is that those who had connections in the military or police or had the means to arrange a transport or knew a government official, they got out unharmed. Those who suffered were the ones who were too late to realize what was happening around them and had no means to plan their escape. They got separated from the rest of their community, relied on the authorities to protect them and were often outnumbered and found themselves at the mercy of the other community.


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