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Door to Door

- Ramanjit Singh

Listening to the Partition stories, the mind wanders into a distant time and tries to grapple with the enormity of human suffering that took place during that year. These are stories that are relived by those who witnessed the deeds committed by fellow human beings. These stories have become family heirlooms that are passed from one generation to the next.

Every generation goes through its own moment of crisis. As we are experiencing our own crisis with the pandemic today, a similar existential threat existed during that time when individuals were making life and death decisions to safeguard their own life and the lives of their loved ones. At that time, it was hate that became the catalyst that drove fellow Punjabis out of their homes. Killing became a blood sport for many.

In various interviews of the individuals who saw the violence first hand, I often hear about some common names of the locations that are mentioned in the interviews where killings happened at a large scale. The Hindu-Sikh refugee trains coming from Sialkot district which included areas of Sialkot, Daska, Pasrur were being routed through Ali Pur Syedan train station near Narowal that saw multiple train massacres during Partition. Kamoke station and Billoki Head are commonly recalled by many as logistical bottlenecks that became places of mass killings. Mobs waited as the refugees started to assemble before moving to the next waypoint. Some anecdotally talk about refugee caravan from Sargodha which faced tremendous difficulties as it slowly moved east and most of that qafila was wiped out.

In eastern Punjab, same was true in areas where Muslims were being slaughtered especially in the months of August and September. They too were being killed in train stations, villages and towns. I recall a heart wrenching interview of Mohammad Sharif, who lives in Jullundur district, telling the interviewer that as a small boy he ran door to door asking for help, pleading with his neighbors to save his family. He saw his parents and most of his extended family murdered by the villagers. The village of Mohammad Sharif is Kularan (map).

The words or phrases that are used to describe the stories are also important because these words encapsulate the pain they experienced and it allows them to narrate something that is indescribable. They use phrases and words like "I ran door to door pleading for help but no one came to help", "encircle the women and children inside the house so that the mob cannot reach them", "they kept jumping into the well", "we will put mehndi on your hands", "leave by dawn or else", "we will come back after few days", "they called us panahgirs", "we developed the Baars and now they are kicking us out", "you cannot live here anymore".

Mohammad Sharif's use of the words "door to door" are often used by many other eye witnesses. Where would one go when they are attacked. I recall an interview of a Muslim family of village Domeli (map), Kapurthala. Talking about the violence in their neighboring village, they describe one evening seeing a Muslim woman running towards their village screaming that she has thrown her baby into a ditch to escape the approaching mob. She ran door to door pleading for help.

Doors became symbols of survival. Some were saved because those brave souls who opened the doors to let them in saw these people as human beings and not as Muslims or Hindus or Sikhs. Probably every door was knocked on by harried souls looking for shelter, a place to escape. People were knocking on the doors and windows of the over crowded trains begging people inside to take their children. People were knocking at the doors of the authorities begging for rations and medical help as cholera spread into the refugee camps.

This was Punjab in 1947.

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