Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience


Shaheed and Shahdara


Your Name:

Recipient Email:

For whom the bell tolls

The 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 a 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.


Far and away in the north, is the valley of Doon.
The long arching Chenars join heads to deny any sunlight reaching their foot. Resilience, however, is a way of life in the mountains, and so the plants at the bottom sneak their share and slowly grow on their own.

The valley has had many estates and one of them was called Chand Bagh (the Moon Garden) by locals. Located in the vicinity of Dehra Doon, this estate was once owned by the famous Colonel Skinner of the British Army. India, at this time, was imbued with the idea of public schools and Chief`s College was the most famous of them all. A lawyer from Calcutta, Satish Ranjan Das, decided to open another school with a more Indian flavor. He requested all the princely states to donate funds towards setting up this school. Before these funds could fully materielise, he passed away.

It was in 1935, the dream of Satish Ranjan Das saw the light of the day, when the Doon School received its first student in the breath-taking scenery of Chand Bagh. The school went on to produce some of the finest men in all walks of life. The list includes statesmen such as Rajiv Gandhi, military commanders like Lieutenant General Kuldeep Singh Brar, Air Chief Marshalls as Asghar Khan, rulers like Mian Gul Aurangzeb and educationists like Bunker Roy. Yet another name in the alumni is Ghulam Jillani Khan, a General who later on served as Governor of Punjab.

Every passing day brings human beings closer to their past and they cannot resist transplanting this past into the future. Ghulam Jillani also envisioned opening a Doon`s school in Punjab. The grain market of Muridke would have lost into population but then Jillani`s dream changed it all. Chand Bagh School and its insignia of the cup of knowledge (originally Doon School insignia) now symbolise Muridke.

images (1)
Before the food outlets and rent-a-car showrooms of Muridke disappear, the ambience of Shahdara starts picking up. The phenomenon of highway and industry was once preceded by migratory birds which stopped in this area some decades ago. Now the area is overpowered with the stench of tanneries and their waste, even human beings rush through this patch. Left over space is claimed by housing schemes; 'Own-your-house' is ever-fascinating bait for a swelling middle class. When trains reach Shahdara, the railway station has a story to tell, a story I grew up listening to.

Boota Singh was a farmer in the village of Jullundher. He had seen action during the Second World War in Burma. On his return, in 1945, he learned about the death of his mother.

During the months of Poh that followed, the fading shadows in his veranda added to his loneliness. Like a good farmer and a seasoned veteran, he had planned his marriage in the summer of 1947. Boota had summed up around 1500 rupees and was now looking for a suitable match when the country was partitioned.

The ensuing madness surpassed the barbaric tales he had heard from Sikh soldiers serving in France. On one such day, Zenab a teenage girl, ran into Boota Singh while being chased by assailants. Boota Singh tried to ward them off but the monetary prospects of selling Zenab were more beneficial than the morality he preached. It did not take long for Boota Singh to decide, and he handed them the price they demanded, 1500 rupees and brought Zenab home.

As life returned to normalcy, tradition took over. The moral lot of Panchayat summoned Boota and informed him that Zenab’s stay in his house was a violation of social and religious norms. They offered him two options, either to marry her or send her back to Pakistan. He tried to convince them otherwise but no sense prevailed. Poh was two weeks away and the veranda had started wearing the old deserted look again. He silently arranged her return to Lahore and found a suitable person to marry her and take her across the border. Zenab, upon learning this was reminded of Boota’s sacrifice to save her life and honor. After all, the greatest sufferers of partition were women. Beside rapes, abductions and involuntary conversions, they had to take decisions that defied religion, society and at times morality.

When the hour of departure arrived, Zenab asked him a strange question. “If you can afford two rotis for me every day, I will not go to Pakistan… I want to spend my life with you”. The next day they married and Boota Singh was the happiest man in the village. In a year’s time, their daughter was born. Boota named her Tanveer, from the Granth Saheb.

Once the blood dried and wounds started to heal, the two governments woke up to the apathy of displacement. Both the countries passed a law, which required women to return to their newly formed countries. Boota Singh had gone to Jullundher when one of his nephews, eyeing his property, informed the police about Zenab. When he reached home, Zenab was missing and Tanveer was crying. It was the last week of Maghar and Poh was only a week away.

After gathering some basic information, Boota left for Dehli. He got his hair cut from Shahdara, across the river, embraced Islam at Jamia Masjid of Dehli and was renamed Jamil Ahmed. Zenab was in a refugee camp when he found her, but she was not allowed to leave. They spent the next six months sitting across a fence and talking endlessly.

Meanwhile, he met with the Pakistani High Commissioner but nothing worked out. The government had decided to stick with the law this time and Boota Singh was too important for an exception. One day, Zenab was called and told that her family had been located and she was to leave for Pakistan the next day. That day Boota Singh and Zenab sat across the fence, neither said a word. Whenever Boota tried to initiate conversation, he found her almond eyes looking away into space. A flock of birds flew towards the setting sun and a chain of tears rolled down her face. The time spent in their home now seemed like a dream. Zenab trusted Boota Singh with a reunion promise before she left. Boota Singh applied for Pakistani nationality being a Muslim, but was rejected. He applied for the visa being an Indian but that too was denied.

The immigration clerk tried to explain to him that the new states were busy in the settling down process and had done away with anything that reminded them of their collective past. He recommended that Boota Sing too, should move on and graduate to a new life. But Boota could not explain to him that there is something in Punjab which knots people down. It does not let you move on. He had carried Punjab in his heart on deployments to Burma. Pakistan, relatively, was just a line away. Few could know that this was not a small line. Despite all the blood, mutilated bodies and trampled youth it had taken, this crevice still appeared unfilled, insatiable and gasping for more...

To be continued.


Muhammad Hassan Miraj is a federal government employee.


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Author Image

Muhammad Hassan Miraj is a federal government employee.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (49) Closed

Usman Ahmad Jan 08, 2013 11:42am
Some more on Zainab and Boota. Though places and other details are conflicting at times.
swaranjit Jan 08, 2013 03:57pm
Very well said. And, in any case, Ranjit Singh himself did not flee anywhere but ruleds his kingdom from Lahore. He was an indigenous King of Panjab after a long spell of time, who happened to be a Sikh, and kept very capable and loyal Muslims in important administrative posts including that of his Chief Minister. We should therefore keep historical facts in perspective and not recast history in emotional metamorphosis.
abbastoronto Jan 07, 2013 09:03pm
... the two governments woke up to the apathy of displacement ... and then slept again unconcerned.
adnan Jan 08, 2013 03:41pm
a very beautiful story,,,,,,,looking forward to read it complete,,,,,,,,,the best line ""if u can afford two roties i can live with u for whole my life"explains the love and honour those people use to have,,,,and also explains non materialistic approach of these people,,,,,,beautiful
AI Jan 08, 2013 09:55am
The film 'Shaheed-e-Mohabbat, acknowledged that it's story was based on true events.....
Sagar Jan 08, 2013 05:28am
Copy and paste article from the movie "Shaheed-e-Mohabbat Boota Singh" by Gurdas Mann.
Narinder Jan 08, 2013 10:52am
With due regards Mr Sagar, you have completely missed the point Mr Miraj has pointed to.
dr makraja Jan 08, 2013 05:24am
Subhan Allah Mairaj Sahib What have you written! I am dumb founded and lost for words especially the end All I can say is we cant change history but we can certainly learn a lot from it and for the better How many more bodies we need to fill this man made bottomless crevice! How many more sons brothers fathers husbands and the ones they leave behind we need to sacrifice We have been unfaithful to the land unrespectful and now the same silent land is cursing us reminding us to respect it of what it gives and be grateful and respect diversity
B. Ally Jan 08, 2013 04:07pm
heart breaking stories of our common heritage. Let us build bridges on our common culture.
Harjit Singh Dhanoa Jan 08, 2013 03:32pm
Zinda abad Sheikh Chilli Saab, you are a role model to us all. Beautiful family with beautiful mind you have sir.......true Punjabi of Ranjit Singh's Punjab
Rocky Jan 07, 2013 05:21pm
I don't know if this story has been told in its entirety. As I have heard it, Boota managed to go to Pakistan with his daughter. The case was decided against him when Zenab refused to go with Boota. As a desperation, he committed suicide by jumping infront of an approaching train. I don't know if this part of the story is correct.
kamaljit Singh Jan 07, 2013 07:42pm
Miraj Sahib ; Could you please publish all these in the form of a book. Failing to find words to appreciate your art work. Long live.
Almanar Jan 07, 2013 07:37pm
I have read this story somewhere.. in Urdu.. can't remember
C. M. Naim Jan 07, 2013 07:32pm
Mr Miraj. Congratulations and thanks. You have a fine talent. Keep it up please. I hope someday you will put together a book of selected pieces.
Sandip Jan 07, 2013 08:56pm
partition a dark bloch on India. Haven't seen any takers to undo mistakes from our past.
jamil Jan 08, 2013 04:20pm
For that reason we should be have been happily living under British Raj than our present rulers in both countries
Rajeev Jan 08, 2013 12:59pm
Very nice story. Touches our hearts. Have taken me in the old memory lanes. May be a copy from a movie, Many of us have not seen the movie. Therefore we should respect the writer for his work.
Koi-Kon Jan 08, 2013 10:10am
Brar Saheb, You will have to wait till next Monday...
Harjit Singh Dhanoa Jan 08, 2013 10:16am
Boota Singh's story was made into a film. This story also appeared in Freedom At Midnight written by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre in the Epilogue section pages 574-578. Miraj Saab has left the story incomplete. Please read the above mentioned book if interested. Boota Singh's daughter survived the suicide tragedy and as I read somewhere else, she was adopted by a very kind family educated her and was married to an engineer who at one time worked in Libya.
Missy Jan 08, 2013 01:42am
This sounds like the story of the Punjabi film 'Shaheed-e-Mohabbat' starring Gurdas Mann and Divya Dutta. I cried watching it. Later they made it into bollywood pot boiler 'Gadar' but of course they ruined it by adding all the masala.
Anwar Amjad Jan 08, 2013 01:44am
I remember Boota Singh
Avtar Jan 08, 2013 12:57am
Thanks for covering Buta Singh case, a modern day Hir Ranjha. My father told me about this story four decades ago. Until recently I have not had time to research this episode of our modern history. Apparently there was some coverage of this story shortly after the partition.
Manny Jan 08, 2013 02:12am
The story resembles 'Shaheed-e-Mohabbat' by Gurdas Maan. very touching though...
Yasser Hussain Jan 08, 2013 12:55am
Please kind Sir what happened next, I'm intrigued by this story and wish to know more
Bikkar S BRAR Jan 08, 2013 01:35am
Dear Miraj Sahib, Thanks a lot. May I request you to unfold the remaining best part of this human tragedy? I have read it in the book "Freedom at midnight". I wish all the readers a great 2013. Bikkar Singh BRAR
Koi-Kon Jan 08, 2013 10:25am
Khan Saheb, I had two options, one was to stay quiet over whatever you had been saying and the other was to give my take on the subject. I tried to ignore your response but I think, this approach did not work very well. The silence and forbearance exhibited by many like me for many like you has actually acted as a naive encouragement. May I ask you that whom do you reflect when you tell me to go to India? Partition was a political decision, I am not here to debate it. What I tell my readers is only the human version of this history. Its not a Pakistani telling a Hindustani, its a man telling a man. I may be wrong but that is just a difference of opinion and I fully appreciate that but taking it a step ahead is probably unasked for. The hatred and intolerance wont take us anywhere, its a boomerang and it always comes back. Please try to live with people with other side of the story. P.S. I would rather prefer a Ranjit Singh who administered justice rather than a Muhammad Shah Rangila who symbolized debauchery.
Munir Shah Jan 08, 2013 11:42am
dear Muhamed Hassan Mairaj, I do not know what is in stock in the later part of this story, but one thing, I want to clarify that it was not a coercive PARTITION but it was the struggle for Independence of Pakistan spearheaded by Quaid e Azam Muhamed Ali Jinnah, the greatest statesmen of the time. Pakistan was just emerged with the twinkling of an eye, put more than a million people had to sacrifice their respective lives on the altar of the motherland. Therefore, we should keep in mind the sensitivities of using the word, the INDEPENDENCE OF PAKISTAN AND NOT THE PAINFUL 'PARTITION'. 'keh khoon e sadd hazar anjum say hoti hai sahar paide'
Atul Tankha Jan 08, 2013 06:34pm
I spent six wonderful years as a young boy in Chandbagh many years ago. There was talk of opening a school in Pakistan when I was there. I am glad they did it. We also played hockey and cricket with Aitchison in Lahore. I hope we still do.
Oz Jan 08, 2013 05:30pm
I don't think you have got the jest of what he is actually saying.. it is saying "to be continued" so wait for the later half. As for what happened to Boota Singh and how he was treated, that shows the mindset of the indo-pak society at that time. How could you take away a mother from a child, when infact she was married to him in unpartitioned dates ? Why did India send her to Pakistan and why did Pakistan not allow him to reunite with the family. Amongst all this, there was an innocent baby losing out on everything. No one disagrees with the bloodshed and sacrifices on either sides of the fence, except the pathetic political mafia.
Anu Jan 07, 2013 04:12pm
Khan Jan 07, 2013 03:54pm
Follower of ranjit Singh go to India and settled there
Kiani Jan 07, 2013 03:43pm
very nice
Shri Jan 08, 2013 02:48am
Mr. Muhammad I read many of your article and I find it very fascinating which reflect a vibrant and touched relationship. Sadly there are enough miscreants in our society who do not want any cordial relationship to exist. Actually unless rotten mind with stone age belief exist, there is less chances improvement of cordial relation. I hope many pakistanis should be like you.
MKB Jan 08, 2013 12:15pm
Untill you should come out from shackle of religion and value more the humanity of whole world.
MKB Jan 08, 2013 12:10pm
Very good. You have broken the barrier of religion. Very Good luck to your whole family member.
Kumsha Jan 08, 2013 02:01pm
Khan Saheb, It is difficult to imagine what part of the writing irritated you! Miraj's writing is trying to undo many of the myths which have been created by people on both sides of the fence. Most of his writings only increase brotherhood and love among separated people. How do you miss the warmth of readers from India? History is a complex subject, especially made so by vested interests who want people not to see the reality. I do not remember who said this: :"learn the true history from the literature of that time and place and not from history text books". I am sure Khan sahib, if you had a chance, you would have asked Manto to go back to India without realizing that for a sensitive person like him it would have made no difference where he lived. Manto would have written about what moved him to tears or smiles!
Sheikh chilli Jan 08, 2013 08:03am
This story is so sad. But thankfully things have changed in Punjab. For example, I am a Punjabi living overseas, and I still carry a bit of Punjab in my heart. We Punjabis have become much more accepting now. My daughter is married to a Punjabi Jat Sikh although She is a Punjabi Jat Muslim. My two grand-daughters are Muslims like their Mum and my grandson is a strapping "Gabru" Jat Sikh like his Dad. As proud Punjabis we celebrate Id, Vesakhi and Diwali each year.
someone Jan 08, 2013 08:23pm
thanks you told the whole story now i need not wait.
someone Jan 08, 2013 08:27pm
It is very beautiful to think that there was a time when Karachi and Mumbai where part of the same nation.
RJ Jan 08, 2013 09:49pm
This sounds much like the Sunny Deol movie with Amisha Patel (Gadar: Ek Prem Katha). The next is this - Zenab reaches Pakistan and finds her father as a leading politician who wants to marry her off to someone else. Boota Singh crosses the border, finds Zenab, and gets her back to India
N Parvana Jan 08, 2013 09:51pm
Dear Mr Munir Shah, A million or more people did not sacrifice themselves willingly but were sacrificed for the creation of Pakistan or what is now known as India by the selfish leaders of that time.
jamil Jan 09, 2013 12:06pm
@RJ actually the film you are talking about is inspired by this true story.....!!
Sheikh chilli Jan 09, 2013 06:06am
Hello Mr Munir Shah, We Punjabis were the last people in India who wanted partition because we Punjabis were the guardians of our motherland. Even days before partition, Punjab's elders and politicians were fighting to preserve the unity of Punjab. Punjabis must never forget that we Punjabis have been the biggest losers in the partition of India. Each and every Punjabi family was affected. We did not just lose our motherland, we lost our Mother language, our heritage and our culture. How much our Punjabi ancestors would have wept in our Punjabi elysium wheat fields when our Motherland Punjab was wrenched, torn and butchered into two parts. In India it was further butchered into smaller parts.
kamaljit Singh Jan 09, 2013 08:12am
Hi Munir; Ask the brothers whose sisters were raped. Ask the mothers who never saw their children. They never asked for this combo with Pakistan. They were not told what will be done to their brothers and sisters. I believe you had not moved from Indian side. How many family members you sacrificed for Pakistan. Jinnah created this frenzy which was beyond his control .. Enough of anti humanism.
kamaljit Singh Jan 09, 2013 08:14am
Hats off , Hindus and Muslims marry among themselves in Fiji. And they have no problem to live a decent life.
Harjit Singh Dhanoa Jan 09, 2013 10:52am
RJ, please DO NOT trivilise and show your ignorance what is a true and tragic story.
abbastoronto Jan 09, 2013 08:44pm
They would be if only Nehru had listened to Jinnah rather than to Patel.
Arshad Jamil Jan 10, 2013 05:09pm
It is very courageous of DAWN to let Mr. Miraj tell some unpleasant truth. While, it is more likely, that Miraj would be picked by Noble awarding committee for a prize in literature or Peace, it is most unlikely that the conscious of the nation will ever be awakened by a lone voice. Still, bravo to Miraj for an excellent piece of literature, besides the message of values.
Gulbaz Mushtaq Jan 10, 2013 02:54pm
Now when I visit new places, I think these places must have many stories to tell but some Hassan Miraj has not yet visited them. You have made these places a living being before us. They now speak to us and tell untold stories about them. Waiting for sad end of Boota Singh's story. Please also confirm whether Zenab is still alive or not??