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Amritsar, When Humanity Lost

- By Parvez Mahmood

This is a sad tale. A tale of an unfortunate woman. A tale to reaffirm that life is not fair; that the bounties, justice and peace of Heaven are unfairly scattered.

This author heard the story when he had not entered his teen years, but its tragedy has stayed ever-fresh locked in his heart. Now, in his twilight years, he feels it his duty to narrate and preserve the tale for posterity.

The readers would understand that these events occurred between 75 and 60 years ago. This author heard them from his elders of the maternal family, who belong to a Kashmiri clan of Amritsar; as also was the family of this woman. Kashmiris, because of their close family relations, are said to have a common Nani (maternal grandmother), meaning that they stay connected up to three to four generations down.

Our two families lived a few blocks apart in Amritsar and were known to each other. A lot of migrants from Amritsar – as did these two families – settled in houses around Railway Road in Lahore. The lady’s family settled in Barafkhana Chowk, a kilometer from the Railway Station, and ours in Gowalmandi, half a kilometer further away.

As a writer who likes to base his articles on research and references, it is conceded that this story doesn’t meet that criterion strictly. At the same time, there are enough eye-witness written accounts that corroborate the circumstances in which the incident occurred. The mist of time and a second-hand account may also have distorted the tale a bit. But all that is doubtful has been left out, and only the reliable part of the story is being narrated.

In the Punjab general elections of 1936-37, the feudal and pro-British Unionist Party won a clear majority. In a house of 175, the party won 75 of 84 seats reserved for Muslims and 23 other seats for a total of 98 or 56% of total seats. The Muslim League won in only two constituencies. Unionist leader Sir Sikandar Hayat Khan was elected the Premier of Punjab. In December 1945, Sir Sikandar died of a sudden heart attack on the eve of the marriage of one of his children, and in his place Malik Khizr Hayat Tiwana was elected the Premier. It was he who led the party into the elections of January 1946. By now, the political tide had turned and the Muslim League won 73 seats to emerge as the largest single party. The Unionist Party could manage only 19 while Congress with 51 and Akali Dal with 21 were the other big winners. To deny the Muslim League a government, other parties pooled their seats and elected Sir Khizr Hayat to continue in power. However, this denial of the legitimate right of Muslim League to form a government fed their narrative that Muslim political rights would be denied in a United India.

The resultant unrest and sporadic violence forced the resignation of the Khizr ministries on 02 March 1947. On 03 March, Master Tara Singh, the firebrand Sikh leader, stood on the stairs of Punjab Assembly and, in a scene etched in the collective memory of Punjab Muslims, waved his Kirpan in the air as a warning against Muslim League rule. Widespread communal violence commenced immediately. The Viceroy imposed Governor’s rule in the province to control law and order situation.

The walled city of Amritsar is centered around Darbar Sahib or Golden Temple- including the water pool, Harmandir Sahib (House of God), Akal Takht (Throne of the Eternal) and the Food House – which is the holiest site in Sikh religion. On its east, a few lanes away, lies Jallianwala Bagh, the site of the massacre on Baisakhi day in 1919, an event that propelled India towards freedom. This author feels pride in stating that his maternal grandfather, who had a polio-induced limp in his left leg, was a survivor of this massacre and who would narrate his account of sudden firing and his escape across the Shaheedi Well and over the eastern wall. This single event where no more than 10,000 people had gathered to protest against the draconian Rowlatt Act, transformed the Indian demand from self-rule as a British dominion to complete independence. That is a matter for pride indeed.

Areas to the south of Darbar Sahib and Jallianwala Bagh and up to Delhi and Ramgarhia gates were mainly inhabited by Sikhs and Hindus. It is reported (Ishtiaq, The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed) that some troops belonging to Sikh States too were either stationed there or had come for a darshan or visit to Darbar Sahib in early March. Prag Das and Moni Chowks, within this area, saw some of the worst atrocities committed on Muslims in early March 1947.

The area around the Darbar Sahib is now home to hotels and guest houses to cater for the ever-larger crowds visiting the holy site from across India and also from the very large and successful overseas Sikhs. In 1947, however, this locality was primarily a residential area, where Sikhs and Hindus lived overwhelmingly, with a small population of Muslims. The Muslims, it may be noted, mainly lived on the periphery of the city. They were concentrated in Farid Chowk, Hathi Gate, Chitta Katra and Lohgarh, among others. They were especially in overwhelming majority in Sharifpura, developed in the 1920s in the northeast between the railway line and GT Road.

Chowk Parag Das, Amritsar

On 05 March, a train on its way from Batala to Amritsar, carrying Sikh pilgrims from Dera Baba Nanak, as well as Hindu and Muslim passengers, passed through Sharifpura. A Muslim planted in the train pulled the emergency chain to bring it to a halt. A gang armed with knives, lances and sticks was waiting on the side, who immediately put a lance through the driver (Ishtiaq, ibid). Some of the Sikh and Hindu occupants of the train, including women and children, were massacred. There is no official record of the incident but there are enough eyewitness accounts to establish its general circumstances (Khawaja Iftikhar. Jab Amritsar Jal Raha Tha). Justice Khosla’s book Stern Reckoning, though an anti-Muslim account of events, mentions the train incident in some gory detail on page 102. The Tribune of 08 March 1947 too carried a report.

Burned-out and ruined buildings in the Katra Jaimal Singh area of Amritsar after communal violence in the city during the Partition of British India, Punjab, March 1947. (Image: Getty Images)

Fearing reprisals, a meeting of the Muslim leadership of Amritsar was held latter on the same day under Sheikh Sadiq Hasan of Muslim League. It was decided that the Muslims living in Hindu/Sikh-majority areas should be relocated to Muslim-majority areas for safety. Those living in Muslim majority areas could continue staying in their homes. This author’s paternal grandparents’ family lived in Chitta Katra (Kucha Sikandar) inside Lahori Gate, Hathi Gate and Bhagtanwala Chowk. They stayed on and departed during the first fortnight of August.

The majority of Muslims in Hindu-Sikh mohallas heeded the call and moved to Sharifpura. However, the Imams belonging to Majlis-Ahrar, a pro-Congress religious party, reached an agreement with the local Sikh-Hindu leaders for peace and stayed back along with their followers. It may be added here that this author’s maternal grandfather, a follower of Majlis-Ahrar living In Katra Karam Singh inside Khazana and Hakima Gates, also sent his family to Lahore around 14 August, but he himself stayed on till a week after 15th August, thinking that he, being a known supporter of united India, wouldn’t be harassed. He left only when his Hindu friends warned him that some of the Hindu migrants from Lahore were planning to attack him to get his newly-built house vacated.

Many Muslims in Chowk Parag Das (in Katra Ahluwalia) and Moni Chowk also stayed back; a decision that proved tragic. On 6th March, a Sunday, the Muslims of Parag Das were convinced by the local Hindus/Sikhs to deposit their weapons with them in return for complete security. Muslims had no choice and obliged.

The protagonist of this story, we call her Zainab, was living in Chowk Parag Das with her husband and two infant children. They, too, decided against moving. Though apprehensive because of the grim news coming other parts of the town, they felt safe as their ancestors had lived in the area for about a century.

Massacre at Jallianwala Bagh, 1919

Towards afternoon, an armed gang began attacking the Muslims. They torched the houses, killed their occupants, abducted women and looted property. When the sounds of attackers and the victims reached Zainab’s household, they gathered their children and got ready to fend off the attackers. When the angry sounds reached their street, they ran out and headed for the safety of the local mosque. However, the mosque had become a major crime scene.

As the family neared the mosque, they saw that it had been attacked but they now had no other place to go except this house of God. They entered the mosque, fending off isolated attackers holding guns, daggers, spears and kirpans (Ishtiaq. Ibid). The husband received a cut from a knife but they were able to reach the main hall. However, they found it littered with mutilated bodies, while the floor and the walls were smeared with human blood. Sickened and frightened, the family headed for the stairs and climbed to the roof. It appeared that the assailants had left the mosque after finishing the job at their hands. However, there was going to be no escape for the family.

The attackers who had seen them entering the mosque, went around and informed others about the new prey. Soon a large group of attackers gathered and headed for the mosque. The family hiding on the roof heard the calls of Sat Sri Akal and Har Har Mahadev emanating from the prayer hall below; shouts that froze their blood. Then they heard the footsteps on the wooden staircase.

The husband huddled the children and the wife in a tight embrace. Then they saw savage faces with bloodthirsty eyes emerging from the door on the stairs.

The attackers were armed with knives and rods. Their clothes were stained with blood, indicative of their recent activities. Zainab later recalled that she had not seen these men in her street earlier, though she had grown up in this neighbourhood. The bolder, and perhaps the more experienced of the group, flashed his long knife and made a dash for the huddled family but hesitated as he reached near. His associates were a few steps behind. Zainab started pleading for mercy. Curiously, her entreating gave courage to the assailant; just as a hunter gains courage in the knowledge that the game being pursued is an innoxious deer and not a menacing tiger. He moved forward and tried to separate the woman from her family.

By this time, other attackers, too, had reached the huddled family. They caught hold of Zainab and pulled her apart and went after her husband and the children with their weapons. The husband held the children, one under each arm, and ran towards the edge of the roof. As the assailants caught up with him, he jumped into the street below, where a hostile crowd had gathered.

Zainab was dragged down the stairs into the street, where she saw the mangled and mutilated bodies of her children and husband. The crowd pointed in one direction and she was led away to a house nearby.

Zainab was pushed inside the house where she found about twenty other Muslim women. She could recognise that most of them were from her neighbourhood. All of them were distraught as they were witness to the slaughter of their loved ones. Some of them were wounded; all of them were terrified. Outside, the men were mirthful and jubilant. Through the windows, they were pointing to the women and girls and reserving them for themselves. Soon, they were quarreling as there emerged more than one claimant for a younger or a prettier girl. Arguments gave way to heckling and blows.

As the division of spoils created a feud, a Sikh doctor walked into the house to tend to the injured women. Having dressed up a few wounds, he whispered to the women that on learning about them, he had called the military before coming there. He hoped that the troops would be there soon. Having given the medical attention, the doctor left but soon thereafter, the women could hear the sounds of rifles being cocked and the authoritative commands of the army. Some of the soldiers forced their way inside the house and took all the women in their protective custody.

As the women were being led out to the waiting vehicles, the rowdy crowd of feuding murderers, now disappointed for losing their human loot, took to blaming each other for having turned informers. The women were taken to safety of the Muslim-majority areas. Zainab stayed there with a family and migrated to Lahore in August.

Having reconciled to her terrible loss, Zainab settled in her new life. After a lapse of a couple of years, she got married and, like all migrants, restarted her life. In due course, she gave birth to two children. However, unluckily, her new husband was a habitual gambler and would often frequent a den near his home in Barafkhana Chowk. One day in early 1960s, there was a police raid. The gamblers attempted to make an escape. Zainab’s husband ran upstairs to the first floor, in a replay of the tragic event in Amritsar. With a policeman after him, he went to the window and jumped down into the street. He had a bad fall, got seriously injured and succumbed to his injuries. Zainab had lost her second husband in similar circumstances, though in a different environment. She went on to raise her children, though this author is unaware of their subsequent life.

In relation to this story, this author had heard about Chowk Prag Das, the mosque, the fires, killings, the captive women and the good doctors. My recent e-search led me to some authentic sources that helped me finetune and corroborate the story as narrated to me by my maternal grandfather. I am grateful to Farah Gul Baqai who writes in her Jenkins and the Partition of Punjab 1947 on page 127 that the Prag Das incident could have been avoided if the administration had taken stern steps. Also the Dawn of 12 April 1947 carried the story. Both these sources mention the date of the incident as 11 April. Ishtiaq Ahmed (ibid pp 147-48), quoting Iftikhar (ibid), has written the incident in detail and has mentioned the date as 06 March. He has also quoted an official correspondence by the Punjab Governor reporting the Prag Das violence with a number of Muslim deaths (ibid, pp155). These sources enabled this author to write the Amritsar part of the story.

In fact, this author is personally aware of the Lahore part of the story as in addition to hearing it in first person, he had also seen the house where the second husband of the lady died.

The Partition of India was a calamitous time for humanity. Savagery and tyranny were practiced on a grand scale. Partition violence is a textbook case of the explosive nature of mixing religion with politics. Raw passions ruled the hearts and minds of people. Neighbours who had lived in the same neighbourhood with love and peace dehumanised each other.

All we can say now is that one’s beliefs should not be guided by passions, nor passions by beliefs. During the Partition of India, each ruled the other and, as a result, humanity lost.


Credits:This article was published originally at The Friday Times

Publishing this article in the Punjab Partition forum with permission from the author.

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and can be reached at

Additional articles from the author are available here.


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