By Haider Shahbaz
The Friday times : 16 Jun 2017
70 years after Independence, we recall the trauma of the division of a country and culture – and of homes, families and lives. The story of Sheikh Hafizullah, as narrated to and translated from the Urdu by Haider Shahbaz
Migration information displayed for residents of Amritsar, 1947
“My name is Sheikh Hafizullah. I lived in Amritsar before Partition: Hall Bazar, Chowk Farid. Hall Bazar was the main bazaar. You hit it as soon as you entered Amritsar from the station. I was born in Amritsar. My whole family lived there. When Pakistan was made and the decision of Partition was taken, after that, in August, we moved and came to Lahore. I was eleven years old and I had just finished sixth grade.
Riots had been taking place, still were taking place. A lot of killing had taken place. I remember now – there was a young collegiate in our muhalla, Ghulam Rabbani. Maybe he was a Khan – people used to call him ‘Khan’. He was a very brave person. When Muslim League held its rallies for elections, he would speak at the mosque. He would be so overcome with passion during these speeches, he would shake. The police were after him. When he left the mosque, they tried to arrest him, but the people in our muhalla surrounded him and brought him back safely. There was a lot of courage and commitment. People were not afraid. They were ready to fight. Every time the curfew was lifted, they would attack Hindus and Sikhs who crossed our area. They did this in response to the way Hindus and Sikhs were killing Muslims.
Our whole muhalla was nearly empty by the time of Partition. Our family was pretty much the only one left. There were also some youngsters who stayed behind to guard the area. And one other person, an older woman, Kashmiri, who used to cook for the youngsters who had stayed behind. There was an attack on Chowk Farid and that’s when we left, through Hall Bazaar. We came to Sharifpura, where there was a camp. We gathered there with others who were leaving. Soldiers from the Baloch Regiment were there to protect the camp. When did we leave? I don’t remember the date, but I know it was the days of fasting. It was Ramzan. We stayed in the camp for a while. After a week or two, some trains came. The trains used to go by Sharifpura and people got on the trains and came to Lahore.
We only left when there was an attack on our muhalla. Otherwise, our family was there. My dear father used to say: ‘Revolutions come in the world. Thrones change hands. But the people don’t leave. They stay in their areas.’ This caused us a lot of loss. Anyway, we left. When Chowk Farid was attacked, they used hand-made bombs and shot bullets. That’s when we left. We later found out that some of our brothers, cousins, had stayed and they arrived in the camp the next morning. They said another attack had taken place in the night. They said they were left with no choice but to leave.
Lady Mountbatten visits areas of Amritsar affected by violence in the lead-up to Partition, May 1947
“My dear father used to say: ‘Revolutions come in the world. Thrones change hands. But the people don’t leave. They stay in their areas'”
An alley used to run in front of our house. This lead to another alley that went around the mosque, Masjid Khair, which was Amritsar’s biggest mosque. They – my brothers, cousins, who had stayed – went there. It was a side-door they used. The main door was on Hall Road; it was made of iron. This was a side-door, a wooden door, people didn’t know about it. They said the firing continued. There was firing on the houses, on the mosque. But nobody broke the iron door. They went along the walls until they got to the mosque. In the morning, the curfew opened, and they left and came to Sharifpura. They told us this whole story.
My father, may he rest in peace, said to them: ‘We have to go back. All the registries of our property are there.’ My father was very rich. He was a rich, respected person in the community. Muslims had made an orphanage in Amritsar and he was its founding member and a life-time executive member. He said: ‘All the evidence, the registries are at the house. What will we say when we get to Pakistan? What will we show? What will we get? How will I support my family?’
“My father said, ‘Look, he was with the Congress, but they didn’t spare him. His support of the Congress couldn’t save him. They killed him'”
Then my father, one of my cousins, and my elder brother: the three of them went back. They entered our muhalla. In front of our house, in the chowk, they saw – there was a man in our muhalla named Haq: Abdul Haq, I think his name was – they saw his dead body. He was with the Congress. He didn’t want to leave. He would say there shouldn’t be Pakistan, it should all stay Hindustan. My father said, ‘Look, he was with the Congress, but they didn’t leave even him. His support of the Congress couldn’t save him. They killed him.’ My father and brothers were alerted when they saw the dead body. They wondered what would happen to them. Anyway, they opened the house and went inside. They got the trunk with the registries and brought it out. When they got near Ram Bagh Gate, they saw two army vehicles in Ram Bagh Chowk. One was facing the city and other one was facing the outside of the city. And there was firing. A lot of it. They were worried. They didn’t know how to cross. That’s when a Sikh, who was there, recognised my father. He gestured my father to cross. They stayed standing. My brother said, ‘Don’t go, they will kill us’. The Sikh told them to cross, again. My brother still didn’t trust him and didn’t want to cross. He said that the bullets would get us there, but my father said: ‘The bullets would get us here too. We can’t stay standing. We must cross.’ The Sikh had recognised my father and he gave him permission to cross. That’s how they reached Sharifpura.
Hall Bazaar, Amritsar today
And when Pakistan was made, we came here. We brought the registries with us. It was the only thing we took from the house and brought with us. We presented them when we got here. We presented original registries. And the government people took down the prices of the properties as they were written on the registries. It was a problem later that people made fake claims. People who didn’t own anything before Partition, they made exaggerated claims. The result was that there were overwhelming claims and the government imposed a cut. They said they’ll only give twenty-five or thirty thousand for each lakh – subject to a maximum of three lakh. Everything else was gone. Our claim was close to ten lakh. And this was based on the original prices. If they had accounted for the increase in property prices, the claim would’ve gone into the crores.
A few people who knew my father from Amritsar ran into him in Lahore. They were surprised to see him. They said: ‘You are alive?’ My father replied: ‘Of course! Why wouldn’t I be?’ ‘We thought you must’ve died of trauma because you lost so much property.’ My father was nonplussed: ‘Why would I die? My real property is my children. They are all safe. All the material things I gained in this world were going to be left in this world. It was all sacrificed for Pakistan. I am happy it was sacrificed for Pakistan.’