“When you shake mercury, it keeps trembling until it reaches a point when it stops. When you get me started on Partition, that is how I am. It goes back and keeps shaking me up, on and on,” said the Academy Award-winning poet and lyricist Gulzar, who has always proudly called India his country, but Pakistan his homeland.
This is perhaps a common sentiment among people who were pulled into one of the biggest and bloodiest migrations in human history, with an estimated 14.5 million migrating within four years.
In August 1947, when the British finally left India after having been here for 300 years, the subcontinent was partitioned into two independent nation-states: the Hindu-majority India and the Muslim-majority Pakistan.
As millions of people made the trek to the countries where their religion was the majority, the idea of “home” was irrevocably changed. Rioting followed, rapes and looting became commonplace on both sides of the border.
On the 75th anniversary of the partition, VICE spoke to people from both sides of the border to understand and document their firsthand experiences of the great divide.
Syeda Fehmida Siddiq, 86
Syeda was just ten years old during the partition. She migrated to Lahore with her family from Jalandhar.
Syeda Fehmida Siddiq was just ten when the Partition took place. She migrated to the Pakistani city of Lahore with her family from the northwestern Indian city of Jalandhar. Her father was a senior politician who had longstanding relationships within the Hindu and Muslim communities in the area. However, as Partition inched closer, fears of intercommunal hostilities began to increase. Siddiq and her loved ones managed to escape the violence that began spreading across the region.
VICE: Can you describe the events leading up to your migration from India to Pakistan?
Syeda Fehmida Siddiq: With the clamour of partition rising, we started making security arrangements at our house. We were scared. Large threatening groups started congregating outside our home. We had soldiers stationed outside. One day, a Hindu neighbour warned my father about an attack that was going to be done by a Hindu mob at our house. We left our house and stayed in our barn where the cows were kept.
We stayed there one night. Our relatives eventually arranged for a military truck to retrieve us and bring us to safety. All of us women and children were rescued. My father stayed behind because he was hoping that tensions would cease. He did not want to abandon our house, our land and our animals.
We arrived at the Jalandhar Cantt, a former British cantonment town in the city of Jalandhar in the Indian state of Punjab. Every day, the country’s conditions were getting worse. We heard news about people being massacred in the trains. My brother-in-law grew increasingly determined to bring our father over to us.
He was an only child. Despite the fact that there was a chance that my father would refuse to join us, my brother-in-law risked his life for him. His mother would weep a lot and say, “My son has jumped headfirst into boiling flames.” She was right. There was so much fire. So much blood. It’s a miracle from God that he and my father survived and came back safely to us. We travelled on a military truck to Lahore and arrived in Pakistan.
Syeda Fehmida Siddique in Pakistan after her graduation from medical college.
What was life like when you moved to Pakistan?
My father owned a lot of cinemas in Jalandhar. At the time, Hindus owned the majority of cinemas there. Muslims would watch the most films but would say that running a cinema is not right or appropriate. When we built our first cinema in Jalandhar, we received a lot of criticism that we owned it as a Sayyid [the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad] family. When we came to Lahore, we were allotted a cinema and a house by the newly formed government.
But we never received it because the officials wanted a share of the estate in exchange for the allotment. This was the time when all the corruption began. Corruption started in the country the very day Pakistan was created. So, we ended up leaving Lahore and arriving in Rawalpindi, a northwestern city in the Punjab province of Pakistan. A lot of time passed and some people managed to receive their allotted houses but there was nothing for us. We ended up renting and sharing a small house with my sister and her family.
Bhag Bahri Malhotra, 89
Bhag Bahri Malhotra at her home in New Delhi
Bhag Bahri Malhotra was 15 when the partition was announced. From the town of Dera Ismail Khan, her family crossed the Sindh river to reach the main railway station of Darya Khan in Pakistan, from where they boarded a train to Delhi, India. Fortunately, she was spared the physical horrors of partition because of the kindness of strangers and her Muslim house help.
VICE: Can you describe your experiences of partition?
Bhag Bahri Malhotra: All our house help were Muslims, and if it weren’t for them, we perhaps wouldn’t have been alive today. Whenever a stray rioter would come outside our gates and ask us to leave Pakistan because we were Hindus, our Muslim house help would stand their ground and tell them they will have to kill them before they got to us.
My brother and I left Pakistan right after our matriculation exams to stay with our elder sister who was married in Delhi. But my mother only migrated during the days of the Partition with the rest of my siblings, when it became impossible to remain in the Frontier Province. They travelled by boat, crossing the Sindh river from Dera Ismail Khan to Darya Khan, now in the Punjab province of Pakistan, and then by train to Delhi via Lahore.
We stayed together in my sister's house for just a few days before it became crowded with other refugee relatives who had also migrated to India. On August 16, we decided we would go back to Pakistan. But by then, the situation had escalated. We saw that the trains that now came from Pakistan to Delhi were heaped with slashed dead bodies, and there was just blood everywhere. That’s when we knew that going back to Pakistan was completely out of the question.
Bhag Bahri Malhotra was 15 when she boarded a train to Delhi
Do you fondly remember your childhood in Pakistan? Do you miss the country and the people you left behind?
My father passed away when I was very young. But my mother decided to raise us all on her own, and my grandmother supported her with all her might. My childhood in Pakistan was the best of times, with open farmlands, big houses, and laughter in the air. I still remember how our caretakers would make us sit on camels for rides that seemed never-ending, or how we’d simply play in the fields. I would love to go back and see all that once again, but getting a visa now is impossible.
Nuzhat Fayyaz Wyne, 93
Nuzhat Fayyaz Wyne shares her stamped thumbprint after voting on election day
Nuzhat was 16 when she migrated with her family from New Delhi, India’s capital city after Independence, to Lahore, now the capital of the Pakistani province of Punjab. In the days leading up to the Partition, she had just finished high school and was about to get married to a relative. She would regularly attend political protests with her aunt calling for the establishment of a separate Muslim country. On one instance, Wyne spoke directly to Pakistan’s founder, Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and shared with him her hopes for a new Muslim state.
VICE: What was it like growing up in India before Pakistan was carved out of it?
Nuzhat Fayyaz Wyne: When World War II was about to end, my father and his relatives, all of whom were involved in his carpet selling business, moved from Burma (now Myanmar) to Delhi. They moved to Delhi because it was the capital city and there were all these big hotels there. My father bought a shop in a hotel from where he would sell carpets. He eventually called us there.
We would never know where we would end up moving because I was born in uncertain times. Previously, I lived with my grandparents. My grandfather was an engineer so my grandmother would take me along wherever he was posted. He would always find a house to live in near the trains because of his work.
I was around 3 years old when my grandfather was transferred from the Punjabi city of Amritsar to the northeastern city of Gujranwala. We kids would just go around happily playing here and there. I was really little when my grandfather would take me along on trolley rides for his work inspections at different train stations. It was so much fun!
Nuzhat at age 17 after her migration to Pakistan
Can you describe your experiences of partition?
My father started receiving reports from the British officers whom he worked with that India was about to gain independence. We had to quickly gather all of our belongings. We couldn’t just go empty-handed. My mother placed around three sets of clothes in a suitcase for each of us children. We didn’t know at that point if we would find any food. We emptied big tin boxes and filled them with spices, lentils and ghee.
There was an old fort called Purana Qila in Delhi with a forest next to it. People were gathering there to leave. We were escorted to it by retired military officers because on the way, some Hindu groups had started killing people. The day we arrived, there was a soldier present with us in the car. We were sitting in the front of the car when we saw Hindu and Sikh men gather with swords in their hands. They were crying out that they would kill us. They slaughtered two or three people right before our eyes. We started crying and screaming.
How did you and your family escape? What happened next?
The soldiers rushed us inside the forest. We set up makeshift tents from clothes and around four people would stay in a tent together. We had no idea how we would live there. How would we go to the bathroom? My baby brother, Sajjad, was an infant at the time and my mother had been able to keep sweetened milk for him, but still, there was barely anything to eat. When he would cry, she would give him water and feed him lentils.
There was a Muslim aristocrat nearby who started providing us with food and basic necessities. We were living in a terrible state. When the time came for us to board a train to Lahore, we heard reports that the trains had been stalled. We were stranded in the forest. We began to despair. We had no idea how long we would be stuck there. We just wanted to go to our own country. Finally, the trains started again and we left.
Geeta Pratapray Dave, 81
Geeta Pratapray Dave now lives in Mumbai
Geeta Pratapray Dave was just seven during the Partition. In the late 1930s, her father migrated with the family to Karachi – today, the capital of the Pakistani province of Sindh – but their home was always in Gujarat, a state on the western coast of India. Her father donned various hats throughout his stay in Karachi, from bookkeeping for shops to teaching in the local school. All of that was cut short when they were asked by their well-meaning neighbours in Karachi to leave everything behind and go back to the safety of Gujarat.
VICE: Can you describe your experiences of the partition?
Geeta Pratapray Dave: There were already murmurs of Partition before it was actually announced. Curfews were extended, and there was palpable fear in the air. But things hadn’t escalated until it was formally announced on August 15, 1947. We stayed in Karachi where my father was well-respected as a school teacher and our neighbours were our biggest well-wishers. But when we heard rumours of full-scale rioting coming up, we were told to leave everything, and get on a steamboat to Gujarat. We didn’t carry anything – no clothes, documents, or even food to eat. The house was left as is. When we reached our coastal village of Halvad in Gujarat, all of us let out a collective sigh of relief. Fortunately, there were no fights or rioting on our way to Gujarat.
Geeta Pratapray Dave, back in the day
How was it growing up in Pakistan?
There was a sweet shop on the ground floor of our house run by my uncle. I remember how we would play various games competitively in front of his shop because we knew we’d be rewarded by sweets. But asking us to play in front of his shop with those incentives was also perhaps his way of keeping an eye on us. The memories of praying in the small Ram temple which was just adjacent to our house still soothe me. Our Muslim neighbours would frequently ask my father to accompany them whenever a Gujarati film would play in the local cinema. Later, when we heard about all the bloodshed and rioting, I remember there being days of silence in our house in Gujarat. If only things could have been different.