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- Ramanjit Singh

A sense of panic and hysteria enveloped Punjab in the summer of 1947. The triggers were most likely rumors that a surrounding village has been burned and looted. People will gather around and try to decide what to do next.

If you are a Muslim living in Amritsar, Ferozepur or Batala, it will be even tougher to decide whether to leave the area or not since they were confident that the contiguously Muslim dominated zillas of Ferozepur, Gurdaspur, Hoshiarpur, and Lahore would be awarded to Pakistan.

If you are a Sikh or a Hindu living in Lahore or in Montgomery district you would be confident that there's little chance that the Boundary Commission led by Sir Radcliffe would give the capital of the Punjab province to Pakistan. After all the combined Hindus and Sikhs constituted 40 to 45% of population of Lahore and they also were the dominant business community in the city. Sikhs were the dominant land holding community in Montgomery and Lyallpur.

When the Boundary Commission's report was announced in August and people learned about how the land is being divided between India and Pakistan, a sense of panic engulfed the entire province of Punjab.

Sequence of events that happened in a village typically occurred like this. People would be told by the elders that they have to leave the village. Sometimes the Boundary Force consisting of Gorkhas or the Baluch regiments would go to a particular community's village to tell them that they have to leave. Some were forced out, some made a collective decision to leave on their own and some wanted to stay no matter what.

Elderly and physically challenged would often decide to stay as the journey to a new nation was fraught with danger. They realized that they may not be able to keep up with the constantly moving qafila or may die due to severe heat. People who were left behind became the most vulnerable in the following months.

Those who stayed formed a group that would stand guard around the perimeter of the village. Women and children would gather into a centralized area as it would be easy to defend them in case of an attack. Most of the men would be on rooftops ready to throw rocks on the attackers. Some retired Army men had rifles which often proved critical in situations when things got out of hand.

People would bury their jewelry or cash underground thinking they will recover it after "things settle down". For some there was a sense that this was a temporary situation and things will get normal and at some point they will come back to their village from the refugee camps. Sense of permanence was realized by some but not by all.

The underlying principle ruling the lives of the ordinary Punjabis in 1947 was that there was a complete breakdown of law and order in the province. People were left to defend themselves. No one was safe. No one knew what will happen next. No one knew which country they will end up living. People were forced to see each other as a Muslim or Sikh/Hindu and not as a human being. People became mere objects ripe for plunder and murder. It betrayed the very idea of Punjabiyat that so many Sufis and Peers had inculcated in the minds of Punjabis throughout the centuries.

Scale of panic was different in Punjab. In some villages the level of violence was so extreme that it is hard to comprehend the horror of being attacked and the steps that people took to defend themselves. Women jumping into the wells, some with their babies in hand. How can a fellow human being do this to another person? What factors abruptly converted centuries of normal co-existence into warring gangs of marauders killing each other in the name of religion? Destruction of temples, gurdwaras and mosques became a common occurrence.

I believe there were social and economic factors playing an important role in instigating the violence. People who owed money saw a chance to escape from the powerful money lenders living in the towns. People who worked in the fields saw a chance to seize the farms from the wealthy zamindars. The underclass saw Partition as an opportunity to clear the books. It was now their chance to become overlords. Ethnic cleansing was the means to clean the old "burdensome" socio-economic structure and replace it with the new.

Most moved out at night. Some were not fortunate enough and took the wrong escape route. They were often surrounded in the fields. Some hid in tall grass. Those who tried to escape were killed. I often read the stories describing how the tired and despondent men in the qafilas were unable to protect the women from the mobs who were hiding in the nearby fields. Children had no understanding of what was going on. They were being carried by their parents, so many were lost in the violence, so many became orphans. There are stories about mothers looking for their lost children in refugee camps.

The ordeal was relentless. Refugee camps in Lyallpur, Shekhupura, Nasrala, Jullunder, Narowal were some of the major camps that the government had setup for the population transfer. Most often there were only few army men protecting these camps.

As they escaped, families were separated. People spent years after the Partition trying to locate their lost family members. Some never did. The Partition of Punjab was not just a separation of land but it was a violent and forced separation of people, of families, of relationships.

I read about the people in adjoining villages who still have not forgotten the distant screams and cries for help coming out of the refugee columns. Mothers would often bury their dead babies in the fields. The elderly who could no longer walk would sit under the trees alone and die of thirst.

The original plan of the British to leave India in June of 1948 and not August of 1947. The dates were moved, the sense of uncertainty was everywhere. People tried to figure out what was the "right" side of the border. Riots in Rawalpindi, Jullundur, Lahore, Amritsar started in earnest.

In August the mass migration started from Hoshiarpur, Ferozepur, Rohtak, Montgomery, Sheikhupura and so on. The trickle of people moving out from one village were joined by hundreds more from adjoining villages. The "charhda versus lehnda", "Sutluj versus Ravi", "Lahore versus Amritsar", "Urdu versus Hindi" became the focal points of discussion. Why Narowal was not given to India, why Ferozepur was not given to Pakistan? The geographical gains and losses were being contested and accepted by the desperate movement of humanity.

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