For whom the bell tollsThe 16th day of April 1853 is special in the Indian history. The day was a public holiday. At 3:30 pm, as the 21 guns roared together, the first train carrying Lady Falkland, wife of Governor of Bombay, along with 400 special invitees, steamed off from Bombay to Thane.
Ever since the engine rolled off the tracks, there have been new dimensions to the distances, relations and emotions. Abaseen Express, Khyber Mail and Calcutta Mail were not just the names of the trains but the experiences of hearts and souls. Now that we live in the days of burnt and non functional trains, I still have few pleasant memories associated with train travels. These memoirs are the dialogues I had with myself while sitting by the windows or standing at the door as the train moved on. In the era of Cloud and Wi-fi communications, I hope you will like them.
When train whistles out of Aimenabad, the smell of Basmati is maddening. The sights and sounds are mythical but nobody has the time to enjoy its novelty. Before the partition, the villages on both sides of the grand road were classified on land holding rather than religion. Muslims and Sikhs were farmers and land owners and Hindus thrived in trade, brokerage and money lending. When the Sikhs visited the Muslims, Hooqahs were silenced and when the Muslims visited the Sikhs, halal meat replaced Jhatka. Madrassahs, Paath Shalas and Gurudwaras served the educational needs of the villagers with their wisdom but the Muslims were found in pupillage to Pandits and Brahmins studied under the Mullahs.
The sweetness of Kamke's barfi has no match but it still does not mellow down the bitterness of September, 1947.
Lajwanti, widow of Manak Chand, aged 23, caste Khatri, resident of Nurpur Sethi, District Jhelum narrated her story while a recording statement to the Chief Liaison Officer, Lahore.
Her husband Manak Chand worked at the Alkali Chemical Corporation of India, Limited at, Khewra and they lived in the company quarters. As Bhadon, that year approached (August 1947), the Muslims attacked Khewra. Lajwanti and the family survived because the quarters were inside a guarded compound. The manager of the corporation, being a European, asked all non-Muslim employees to move to some safe place.
On the 6th of Asuj, the next month, a convoy of 6 loaded trucks picked all the non-Muslims from Khewra and reached Pind Dadan Khan. Lajwanti was accompanied by her husband, her one and a half-year old son, her uncle Ganda Mal, his wife Karma Wali and their little daughter, all in one truck. At the railway station, a large number of refugees awaited the train to India. This was the last refugee train to leave Pakistan. They left for Ferozepur via Lahore on the next day under the guard of 15 soldiers of the Pakistan Army and reached Kamoke by night. They travelled without water and even when the train stopped, nobody dared to get down.
That night was spent at the railway station. The next morning, the police ordered everybody to get down and started searching the train, the search continued for two hours. All men were disarmed including those with the license. They were told that the weapons will be returned before the move. After the search, passengers were asked to settle in the train so that the journey can be resumed. As the engine whistled, a huge Muslim crowd appeared from one side. Armed with daggers, rifles, knives and sticks, they shouted “Ya Ali” and charged the train.
On entering the compartments, they killed the men and shifted the women aside. The police, present at the platform, sided with the assailants and shot any passengers who tried to get out of the train. The military fired in the air, initially but after a while they also joined the mob in killings. Minutes later, all the men were dead.
The women were taken out and all jewelry and valuables were removed. After the loot, they were distributed amongst the raiders. Lajwanti was taken by Abdul Ghani, a tonga driver, to his house and she spent the next one month in great misery. During the assault, her son, tied to her bosom was also snatched away despite her protests. When Abdul Ghani left the house for work, she would go house to house to look for her son. Besides Lajwanti, the entire earth had lost her motherhood. During her search, she found multitudes of Hindu women in the locality, living under similar conditions.
After about a month, it was announced that all the abducted women would be returned. Meanwhile, rumors of famine in East Punjab and disowning of the returned girls did the rounds on the streets of Kamoki.
Uncertainty was written large over their faces of the 150 women at the police station in Kamoke, where they were to be taken to Gujranwala in tongas. Only 20 could gather the courage to return, including Lajwanti. The others turned down the option of going back and decided to live a renewed life, with a renewed faith. The returnees were then taken to a refugee camp in Lahore, and subsequently to Amritsar. During her statement, Lajwanti declared that her uncle, aunt and husband were all killed at the Kamoki Railway Station and that she was going to India without her son.
While looking for train massacres in 1947, a news clipping of The Advertiser, an Australian newspaper, drew my attention. On 26th September, the largest train killing was reported in Amritsar, where around 3000 Muslims were murdered, women distributed and children abducted. The British officer responsible for the protection of train did his best to save the passengers but was killed by his own men.
On one end were the stories of life-long associations of Sikh and Muslim land Jaats and at the other end, were the tales of vengeance and enmity. My writing table was stacked with the statements of immigrants who had left Pakistan for India and my memories were stuffed with the horrific stories of atrocities of immigrants who had come to Pakistan from India. I was confronting the one and had grown up with the other.
The dark stories, however, did have few bright narratives. One was Fateh Muhammad, a constable, who adopted 16-year-old Balwant Kaur, after her parents were murdered. When he took Balwant Kaur to his home, he gathered his family and called Balwant, his daughter. Fateh stood by his words, despite the opposition of the entire village. He eventually found her relatives and handed over Balwant to her brother, who had travelled to Lahore.
Another statement, which now rests in the archives of the East Punjab Liaison Agency Records is by Narain Singh of Bathinda. Narain sheltered a Muslim girl, whom he found abandoned. He sent her to school along with the other girls of the family and on growing up located her relatives through the Pakistan High Commission. Along with his own daughters, Narain Singh has also prepared dowry for her. While handing her over at Wagah, he gifted her with the dowry items.
The question arises for who stood on the right side of history, the slogan-raising mob that charged the convoys or the neighbors who stood for the people of other faith? Those who settled the score for immigrants or those who healed the wounds through forgiveness? History remains a one-way mirror. It does reflect one’s own self but cannot show the other side.
The sun was setting on the blazing Shah Almi. In this evening of August, Lanny asked, with Zoroastrian innocence, “Ice Candy Man, why are they killing and burning each other’s houses?”
The Ice Candy Man had heard the sufferings of a looted convoy from India in the morning and had returned after killing two Hindus. While looking at Shah Alami with blood-stained eyes, he replied, “In our quest for independence, we have set the inner wild animal free.”
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