Harking Back: Greatest exodus in human history that academics ignore

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn April 24, 2016

As you walk through Mochi Gate on an eastern alignment you will reach Laal Khoo, the corner of the house where once a well existed. Almost nine years ago the ‘pious’ of the area filled up this well so as to prevent people from leaving red ribbons on the ‘beri’ tree.

From the ‘beri’ by the well’s side once stood Hazrat Mian Mir praying for the well-being of Guru Arjan, imprisoned in the house to which the well belonged. The powerful story of Guru Arjan and Mian Mir is well known, the mere mention of the Sikh guru is today enough to stir up a hornet’s nest of the ‘pious’.

On Saturday morning my mission was to meet Mir Arshad, a sprightly man of 86 whose story had been repeatedly told to me by Pervez Butt, a real estate agent who lives in a bye-lane that shoots off Laal Khoo. The request was: “At least meet him. If you feel inclined then do write about him”. It was a fair enough request, and so with his help I managed to, rather early on Saturday, knock on the door of Mir Sahib.

We sat in his small front room as his household rushed to provide us with tea and a welcome breakfast ‘a la Mochi’ style. The generosity of the original inhabitants of the walled city is amazing, so very different from the rest of the city. It was the story of a 17-year old young student who had just appeared for his matriculation examination in Ludhiana, whose result was awaited. He was the eldest of seven siblings living with his schoolmaster father, Mir Wajid, in a “nice area” called Chaura Bazaar.

“As we came into the old city from Lakkar Pul and headed towards Gudh Mandi Union, we turned towards Chaura Bazaar. My father was a highly respected man of Ludhiana at least that is till Partition came upon us like all hell had broken loose”.

At this point it was clear that Mir Arshad, who is a reasonably articulate and educated person, seemed a bit upset. My friend Butt Sahib was getting a bit fidgety as if the story of Partition we were going to listen to would shake us up. As he went along he would also analyse why all this happened, which was a welcome break from the gory details. It is best that his version be quoted almost verbatim, and I say this because I am translating it from chaste Punjabi to English, and fear the effect could be lost in translation.

“My father came home one day and in a state of anxiety announced that our neighbour, Charanjeet Singh Dhillon, had advised him to move with his large family to Pakistan, and we did not know just where Pakistan’s border would be. My mother was of the opinion that this religious madness will be over soon and life would go on.

“The next morning people in the street were shouting slogans against Muslims and Pakistan, and shouting ‘kill all Muslims’, and then my mother thought that it was best to move for the time being to Lyallpur, where her grandfather had some agricultural land.

“The mob moved on leaving a silence in the house. There was a knock on the door and Dhillon Sahib came in. He was sweating in anxiety and told my father to immediately get out of Ludhiana as our neighbours were planning to murder all of us.

“My father replied ‘but they are all like brothers to me’. Dhillon Sahib frowned and said: “Do not invite death on your family. Just get out quickly”. He left and my father was puzzled as to how could we escape. He peeped out of the door and saw a group of people with knives in their hands standing nearby. This convinced him that delay would be harmful.

“The local police had started patrolling our street and knocked at the door. The Inspector advised that they pay him and the family would be accommodated in a truck that was leaving at night via Moga and Ferozepur.”

From what Mir Arshad described it seems this Inspector took away almost all the money his schoolmaster father had, but at one in the morning he came and ushered the entire family towards a truck that was guarded by armed police. “Dhillon Sahib came over and said this was a sensible move.”

So it was that the 11 persons that made up the Mir family of Ludhiana moved towards Moga. Along the way numerous horrifying events took place and it seemed that the entire Punjab had gone completely mad. Little did Mir Arshad realise then that the largest and most brutal exodus in human history ever was under way. Near Moga an amazing twist in events took place. Mir Arshad was tense as he narrated his story.

“Suddenly the truck stopped. We were 45 people on it. The driver got out and said he was going to the field to urinate. He never came back. What had happened was that he had called nearby Sikh villagers who came screaming armed with swords and knives. They jumped on the sides and entered the open truck. The first victim was my baby sister Shugufta, then aged five, and with one stroke her head was cut open and blood flowed onto my mother. She screamed as I jumped off the truck and ran into the fields. The last I knew was that my mother was calling my name and then she screamed and her yells stopped.

Little Arshad ran and ran deeper into the fields and, from what he told me, he probably fell unconscious in a field. When he regained consciousness he returned to where the truck was and saw silence. Everyone in the truck lay cut up in pieces. “My mother and father and brothers and sisters and all the other Muslim families from our ‘mohallah’ lay dead. I cannot describe anything further. All I know is that an Army convoy stopped to examine the bloody truck and they took me along and dropped me at Ferozepur.”

“From there I walked all the way to Kasur and entered Pakistan. My entire family had been destroyed. After some time it was difficult to even cry. So it was that life for me started.”

Mir Arshad managed to do menial jobs inside the walled city, slept where he could find place, yet managed to educate himself and did his BA from Islamia College, Lahore. His teachers got him a job as a Railway clerk. He married a Kashmiri girl thanks to the old women of his ‘mohallah’ inside Mochi Gate. He has six children and all of them are doing well for themselves. What amazes is how well he knows his old Ludhiana, just as he knows the old walled city of Lahore.

But surely his wish to meet this journalist must have had more to it. An old man in an obscure decaying ‘mohallah’ wanting to pass on his interpretation of events. “Pakistan came into being because Nehru wanted an educated secular India, and did not view past history from religious lens. That is where we Muslims and all our leaders continue to falter.”

That is all that he wanted to convey. In terms of historical analysis it was a reasonably precise and accurate conclusion. It goes without doubt that this greatest of human tragedies is the least discussed. There is an urgent need to record the stories of all those who went through the hell that Partition turned out to be. We owe it to our children, who like Mir Arshad will, hopefully, be educated and unbiased in their analysis of why this had to happen in the first place.


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