The Wrenching Separations of Partition

The Partition of 1947 was a defining moment in the history of the Indian Subcontinent. Once the decision to leave South Asia was taken, the British, in a hurry to leave, drew a careless line to divide the Punjab. Much of the farm-land that belonged to the Sikhs lay on the wrong side of the divide: in Pakistan.

The bloodshed and violence that erupted as a result caused one of the largest migrations known to history at the time; over 14 million people were forced across borders as Hindus and Sikhs fled to India, and Muslims to Pakistan. Thousands of women were kidnapped and fleeing families separated from each other during attacks on trains and caravans.

People who had hitherto lived peaceably honoring each other’s religious differences suddenly turned into religious zealots. I was a child in Lahore at the time. Our Hindu and Sikh neighbors left their belongings with my parents. Refugees secreted their jewelry in their houses, certain that the trouble would soon blow over and they would return. But in the prevailing anarchy, morals collapsed and greed and bloodlust took over. The dread realization dawned that their move was permanent. They had lost not only their possessions but also their homes and the soil that had nurtured them.

The province of Bengal, with a large population of both Hindus and Muslims, was also divided. But before the nascent violence could erupt into chaos, Mahatma Gandhi went on a fast in Bengal and together with the leader of Bengal, Mr. H. S. Suhrawardy managed to cool tempers and stop the rioting. Gandhi was on his way to the Punjab - hoping to calm the situation there - when he was murdered.

Although Sindh, which was a part of the Bombay province at the time, was also divided, it escaped much of the violence experienced in the Punjab. There is still a large population of poor Hindus in the Sindh. The wealthier Sindhis moved out gradually.

In most other parts of India there was relative peace and millions of Muslim families opted to stay where they were. Many Muslims, however, moved to the State of Pakistan, hoping for a better life in the homeland specially created for them.

Many men traveled ahead to find a home and sources of livelihood to maintain their women and children on the other side of the divide. On their return, they often could not find the families they had left behind. In their search for their families they lived in different refugee camps, terrified by the fear that they would never be reunited with their families again. Many never found their loved ones.

The experience of relocation and their struggle for survival taught many refugees to adapt and make do with whatever they had. Material possessions lost their value. Although families realized that education was of paramount importance, studies had to be set aside for many children. Mothers were distraught that deprived of an education, their children would be disadvantaged. The children found themselves having to adjust to tragedy and loss and in many cases, dire poverty.

However, the displaced people did not allow the Partition to define their lives. In some instances, brutal wounds were healed by noble acts of repentance and forgiveness. Their endeavors to adjust to their new lives instilled perseverance, kindness, understanding and acceptance of different cultures and people. They learned to adapt to the new conditions demanded of their new hometowns. Despite the hardships and struggles they faced, children eventually overcame their past and became successful in various fields. In fact, against all odds, Om Prakash Juneja -- one of the people cited in the Partition stories -- became a professor. Examples such as his provided the refugees with strength and hope.

Dr. Bapsi Sidhwa is a Pakistani novelist who currently resides in the United States. Her book Cracking India, originally published as Ice Candy Man in 1988, was made into the popular film Earth which takes place at the time of Partition.

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