Chapter 1: The Country is Partitioned
July 1947, Lahore, capital of undivided Punjab.
Punjab College of Engineering and Technology, (PCET) - Mcllagan College.
The sun has just set. The very shor tlived dusk, typical of the tropics, is fast deepening into darkness. Suddenly the skies are rent with cries; Nahra-e-takbir, Alla-ho-Akbara and Bole So Nihal, Sat Siri Akal. In the gathering dusk the roars seem to be coming from a grove of trees just across the campus. The first cry came from Baghbanpura; a Muslim dominated suburb of Lahore, and the second from the Sikh National College campus, about a mile away.
Those were the days just before the Partition of India. Feelings ran very high. Lahore was in the grip of serious Hindu-Muslim riots. Each day some locality or other was set ablaze by the warring religious groups. One day it was the Shah Almi area, on another it was Lahori Gate and yet another it was Bhatigate.
The blaze could be seen even from the college campus, nearly seven or eight miles away. At PCET - the only engineering college in the whole of undivided Punjab - the student community was mixed in terms of religion, as there were reserved seats for Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. Colonel Bertlam, was the British Principal. The college was predominantly residential, with a large number of students and almost the entire staff living on the campus. It was an elite college, admitting only the cream from the science stream of the Punjab University's graduate turnouts. Those admitted would later be absorbed in the engineering cadres of the various provincial services of the government like public works department, building and roads, irrigation and such, after completing their courses.
This was a time of intense activity and anxiety in the campus. The families of the staff members were to be evacuated from their homes and escorted to the students' hostels. Students were being assigned night-guard duties to protect the campus against possible attacks from any of the fanatic groups. There was mistrust growing amongst the students too, instigated through the machinations of a particular member. But on the surface everything looked placid. Armed with the long sticks normally used for putting up mosquito nets and with bedsheets wound round their heads, those earmarked for guard duty were moving into their positions while the families were being moved to the dormitory rooms. Fortunately, the students and staff hailed from various religious communities and the principal was a British officer, so the college continued to function smoothly and the examinations continued undisturbed.
This was the final year for Opana. The students were all very nervous about their performance, what with all the disturbances, night vigils and activity it was impossible to concentrate and prepare properly for the examination. But there was no choice. Finally, towards the end of July, the examinations were over and the boys began to disperse to their respective homes or to alternative places which were considered safe, even as violence convulsed all of Punjab.
Opana hailed from Daska, a small town in Punjab in the district of Sialkot. Daska was in a Muslim-majority region and likely to be allotted to Pakistan. There had been a comfortable amity amongst the town's different communities in the past, but now tensions were fast building up. To get away from the disturbances, Opana's family had gone to Nainital, a hill resort in the United Provinces. So, when Opana said goodbye to Lahore and the seven best years of his life, he set out to join them there.
Even though the Hindu-Muslim riots were raging in hundreds of places, nobody had the faintest premonition of the scale of the cross-transfer of population or the irrevocable break that Partition was to bring. The Partition was announced on June 3, to take effect from August 15, 1947. Opana's father, Amar Chand, who was also in Nainital, left the hills on August 11 to return to Daska, quite confident that he could carry on with life in his ancestral home even though die region and town had been allotted to the new nation called Pakistan. He reached Daska in two days and realised at once that the situation was far from what he had imagined. By then the attitude of the local Muslims too had changed. They made it quite clear to him that although they would make sure no harm came to him personally as he was a highly respected citizen, his property no longer belonged to him. Everything was now the property of Pakistan. He could continue to live there but could not take anything away.
The mass slaughter and migrations that followed August 15,1947 have been extensively recorded. Violence, like an epidemic, spread to all the districts and towns. Refugee camps sprang up everywhere, where people from the minority communities were herded in for the safety of their lives. Property was looted, destroyed or burnt and law and order broke down completely. Civilised and gentle people suddenly behaved worse than wild animals.
Amar Chand, on his own, continued to live in Daska along with Babu Ram, the family servant. All communications were cut. He did not move to the refugee camp and continued with his daily routine, including the evening walk to meet his dear friend Dr. Aroor Singh who lived in the hospital estate about two miles out of town. It was during one of these walks in late August that he was confronted with a harrowing situation. The doctor sat stunned and confused that evening. He had received an anonymous letter informing him that some local goons had planned the abduction of his four young daughters that night. The informant acknowledged that he owed his life to the doctor who had treated and cured him of a serious disease and said that he wished, by way of the letter, to repay his debt of gratitude even at the risk of his own life.
The two old friends were in a quandary and deeply distressed. Dusk was about to fall. There was hardly any law and order in the town, and no escape was possible since all means of transport had come to a halt. They walked up and down the hospital road in acute anxiety. All at once, a military truck passing by braked to a stop and out stepped one young officer, Lieutenant Colonel Amar Singh, son of Sardar Punjab Singh who had for long been a munshi with Amar Chand. He touched Amar Chand's feet as was the custom and explained that he had come to take his own family away from the village as it was no longer possible for any Hindu or Sikh to live in West Punjab. Since he was in the army, he had been able to arrange an escort and vehicle for that purpose.
Amar Chand asked him only one question: "Can you take these four girls to a safer place?". The young man said that he could accommodate them in the truck but he could not undertake any responsibility for them after crossing into India, as he had to report for duty immediately. He suggested that one man should go with them. Dr. Aroor Singh had his family, his wife and sons among others to look after and moreover, carried the responsibility for the hospital on his own.
Amar Chand was left with no choice but to offer to escort the girls himself. There was no time to go home to change, so he climbed into the truck in the dhoti, kurta and topi he was wearing and brought the girls out of Pakistan upto Amritsar and handed them over to some relatives of Aroor Singh. It was a sacrifice of the highest order. He had left his home and hearth, his land and property, everything, without a second thought. He was never to see them again. Nothing would be left except memories.
There in Nainital, Opana felt confused and dejected, unable to understand the full import of what was happening around him. He had left Lahore full of hope for the future and now could see nothing but darkness and despair all around. He walked alone, up and down the valleys of Nainital, trying to reorient and reconcile the clash of thoughts and emotions within him. He was cutoff from the landscape of his home and was unaware of the devastation taking place in his beloved Punjab - Lahore, Daska and in his ancestral village Kandan Sian. Nainital was a strange place for him. With nothing to do and feeling absolutely helpless and lost, he moved about like a ghost, dreaming of his childhood and the wonderful times spent there in the surroundings of Daska and Kandan Sian.