The year was 1947. My grandparents lived in a village in Amritsar, a city in the North-Western part of India. The partition of India into two separate states was agreed upon by Britain as a way to solve the mounting tension among its inhabitants. Pakistan was to become a Muslim-majority country, and India was to have a dominant Hindu population.When the partition was announced, people didn’t leave immediately. It was only until the violence started that migration began. My grandmother often spoke about her life growing up on a farm in India in the 1930s and how sad she was to have left. Delving into my family history, I got a glimpse into how chaotic, difficult and dangerous that year was for them.
Riots broke out throughout the city; local towns and villages were being set alight. Violence between Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus reached a new high as Muslims headed west and Hindus and Sikhs headed east. A group of Sikhs in a nearby town were running rampant killing sprees: burning down villages and people alike. Punjab was mainly occupied by Hindus and Sikhs; it was a dangerous place to be Muslim. My grandfather’s brother was in the army and warned him about the massacres; he rallied friends and family together and set off west to Lahore. Located in the state of Punjab, Amritsar is close to the border of Pakistan. The Ravi River, originating in the Himalayas, cuts through the west of Punjab, separating Lahore and Amritsar. My grandfather built rafts to transfer goods across the water, and helped so many people cross that river, his skin and body became red and wrinkled in the process. Travelling by foot, only essential items were carried on the journey. Many resorted to burying their gold and valuables, but belongings were later stolen when their whereabouts were uncovered.
My grandfather built rafts to transfer goods across the water, and helped so many people cross that river, his skin and body became red and wrinkled in the process.
Three religious groups divided the province of Punjab: the Muslims, the Hindus and the Sikhs. Each group was separated by language, culture and faith. Tension and animosity existed long before British colonisation. As one of India’s biggest provinces, it became a hotbed for conflict that year. My mother’s parents were from the district of Hoshiapur, in the Northeast part of Punjab. Their trek west was much longer, and incredibly violent on both ends. There was a lot of walking, jumping on passing trucks, hopping on and off trains that were crowded with bodies eager to escape. My grandma had a severe toothache that required urgent medical attention. She was treated by a kind Hindu doctor they met along the way. At one point, my granddad became separated from his family and was almost killed when he was attacked by a group of Sikh men.
About two million people were killed across the country. Over twelve million people had migrated east and west and gained refugee status. Militarised gangs found ways to inflict violence on people of the opposite faith – people who were once their neighbours, were now their enemy. This year marks 70 years since the partition that changed so many lives. For us, its just another terrible moment in history, but for others, it was their reality.