Om Prakash Juneja was born in a small village called Midh-Ranjha, close to the city of Sargodha. The village is associated with the legendary Heer-Ranjha story of doomed romantic love. The famous 18th century Punjabi ballad “Heer”, written by well known poet Waris Shah, originated in his village.
Boyhood memories of village life
Mr. Juneja’s registered date of birth is January 7, 1941 but his actual date of birth remains unknown. As a result of partition, all the documents including birth certificates and deeds of land ownership were lost.
His grandfather owned land in seven villages and was also a moneylender. Respectfully called ‘Mala Shah’, he was one of the few who owned three tube wells in the village.
Mr. Juneja’s father was an assistant to the canal “overseer,” who was a British officer. His job was to watch over, inspect, and take care of the vast canal system the British had built in Punjab for irrigation. As part of the job, he had to travel to various locations accompanied by his wife and three children.
His earliest memories are from the village’s school, where he learned Urdu, played marbles, and went to the fields to pluck fresh tomatoes and cucumbers.
A year before partition, his grandmother summoned her son back to the village to ask him to quit his job and move back with his family.
Mr. Juneja recalls that his father stayed updated with the news through listening to the radio and reading the newspaper. He was the first to tell the family that trouble was brewing and they may have to move.
The struggles of migration
In July 1947, the family decided to leave when they received the news that an attack on their village was imminent.
His father and step brother immediately took a flight to Delhi to prepare living arrangements for them. The rest of the family began their journey by road.
His grandmother buried the family’s jewelry, documents, and cash in the form of silver coins into the wall of their house. The family believed they would return and never anticipated the journey to last several months.
Mr. Bahri, a local who ran the only bus service between the village and Sargodha, arranged a bus for Mr. Juneja’s family for Sargodha city. Before embarking on their journey, they discovered several houses had been set on fire.
Apart from a few clothes, his mother took only one article of sentimental value - a mirror that her husband gave her.
Life in the deficient camps
Their first stop was Sargodha camp, which was home for over two months. They lived in dire conditions as it continuously rained. Six-years-old at the time, Mr. Juneja remembers constantly feeling thirsty. They couldn’t leave the camp, which had no toilets and limited food and water.
Apart from experiencing this deprivation, his mother gave birth to her youngest son, who they instantly named “Camp Raj.”
Two months later, his family left on army trucks to a camp in Amritsar. The trucks were constantly under attack, which is why strict orders were given to never set foot outside.
One day, Mr. Juneja’s eight-year-old brother, alongside other boys, jumped out of the truck to get water. They were instantly murdered.
With limited time, the family had to quickly bury the bodies and continue moving. There was no time to grieve properly or hold a proper cremation.
Six days later, they reached the river Ravi that they needed to cross to reach India. However, it was the monsoon season in August and the river could not be crossed since the waters overran the bridge. They set up a camp and waited for two weeks waiting for the waters to abate. During this time Mr. Juneja recalls seeing numerous dead bodies float by on the river.
Eventually, the flood receded and the trucks crossed into India. They eventually moved to the refugee camps in Gurgaon near Delhi.
Mr. Juneja’s father and step uncle had already arrived in Delhi and were working at the railway station. Since so many families were missing and separated, All India Radio allowed free announcements on the radio to help families find each other. One such announcement finally reunited the family.
They bought small shops selling chrome leather in Agra and moved there. They purchased this business from two young owners who were leaving for Pakistan, whom the family was acquainted with.
The lifestyle of the family dramatically changed after their migration. They moved to a small apartment, with 20 people living with them. They had no access to running water or proper bathrooms.
69 years later
Later, Mr. Juneja got married in that same home. He was a dedicated student and went on to win several scholarships and saved most of his money.
Today, he is a professor at Baroda University while maintaining his commitment in sharing partition stories. His hope is that humanity does not repeat a tragedy similar to partition ever again.
The interview was conducted by Citizen Historian Reena Kapoor, who is a technology professional in California.