Qari Muhammad Farooq has a fading memory of riding on his father’s shoulders as a toddler when a group of Sikhs attacked them. He got separated from his father. His leg was injured. He does not recall much else. Not his father’s name or that of his village, not even his own name.
He started walking, headed nowhere. The small child did not know where to go. A Sikh man named Amroo came across him and took him to his home in the village Devidaspura, district Gurdaspur. Amroo had a wife and a son named Boota Singh. Farooq lived with the Sikh family for about four years. Then, the police came. The newly-carved states of India and Pakistan had decided to exchange stranded/abandoned children. The police was there at the behest of the government to send Farooq off to Pakistan. He was put on a bus filled with boys and girls of all ages, and women.
In the new country, he was sent to Milli Darul Atfal near Chauburji in Lahore. Around 400 girls and boys who were stranded in India or separated from their families were boarded here. Farooq was raised there until 1960, when Milli Darul Atfal was disbanded and he was shifted to a private orphanage. He went to a madressah and memorised the Quran. Over the years, he became head of the madressah, did his double masters, got married and had kids. He is now an old man but still yearns to connect to his kin.
Through YouTube and personal dedication, a few individuals are preserving the stories of those who experienced the violence of Partition and helping families reconect
Khayyam Chohan owns a small plot of land in Okara and runs a driving school. In January 2017, he started a YouTube channel on the stories of the Partition. “[In the violence of Partition], my nani (maternal grandmother) saw her family killed in front of her [in the village of Chandha Kalaan in Haryana],” says Chohan of how he started his channel.
“She was the only survivor in her family. Her painful life story always moved me. Then I started listening to similar accounts of other people, which led me to record them. When I had gathered about 10 stories, I started sharing them on YouTube.” So far he has shared interviews of more than 100 Partition survivors.
Chohan’s first post on YouTube received a positive response of about 2,000 views within days of uploading. He has travelled throughout Okara, to Pattoki and Sahiwal to record first-hand accounts of Partition survivors. Although he took up this project as volunteer work, it brings him enough earning to bear the expenses of filming the videos and cover the cost of travel. Chohan now has over 79,000 subscribers to his channel.
Chohan shared a video of Farooq’s story on his YouTube channel, Desi Infotainer. An oral history recorder in India, Tarsem Singh Tarana, prompted by the video, began a search for the village where Farooq and Boota Singh grew up. Tarana’s investigation helped reconnect two ‘brothers’ on either side of the border. Now Farooq talks to Boota Singh often over the phone.
Nasir Dhillon runs another YouTube channel by the name of Punjabi Lehar. His grandfather’s family had migrated from India and the old man would regularly visit them in India until the 1970s and 1980s.
“My grandfather’s memories of East Punjab inspired me always,” says Dhillon. “So far, I have recorded about 500 stories and uploaded more than half of them on YouTube.
For Dhillon, it all started with a Facebook page whose response prompted him to upload videos on YouTube. “[On the Facebook page], we got requests from Indians to trace the family homes of their elders. This gave us the idea to record interviews of the generation of people who had migrated [to Pakistan] from India in 1947. This led to more requests.”
He was a traffic warden and ran a little property business on the side when Dhillon started the oral history initiative about three years ago, along with a couple of friends, including Bhupinder Singh Lovely of Nankana.
“We put about 10 percent of our income for this volunteer work which is used to cover the expenses of our trips to the places and villages to record stories. We have a target of 1,000 stories. After that, we plan to publish them in the form of a book.”
The Punjabi Lehar team has travelled to Multan, Sargodha, Jhelum, Okara, Chishtian and Multan, to record eyewitness accounts of the Partition. They have also documented the historical heritage left behind by the Sikhs and Hindus. For example, they have made a documentary on the monastic complex of Tilla Jogian near Jhelum, which was a sacred place for Sikhs and Hindus.
“We have monetised our channel and there are 3,000-4,000 dollars so far in earning from the YouTube channel.”
Similar to Farooq’s story is of another man from Lahore whose interview was posted on Desi Infotainer and went viral. Fazal Ahmed was born Abdul Majeed. He hailed from the village Raipur Araiyaan in Patiala district. At three years old, he was separated from his family as they fled the mayhem of Partition.
Lost and alone, the little boy found himself picking his way among scattered bodies. He was rescued by one Sardar Bachan Singh, who took him to his home in Ambala, in a village named Bhooray. He named the boy Bhajan Singh. After about six years, the police came and took Bhajan away to send him to Pakistan.
But Bhajan escaped from the police station and went back to his Sikh family. Later, he was sent to Pakistan where he was raised at Milli Darul Atfal. When he grew up, he got a job in the public sector. Years later, he reunited with Bachan Singh and his family through Sikh yatris visiting the gurdwara in Lahore.
After 40 years of separation from his blood relatives, he got information about his real parents’ whereabouts: Chak 19, Samana, Faisalabad. But this was not until 1978, as the video documents.
There are entire villages of migrants settled in Punjab who survived the violence that ensued Partition, says Dhillon. Shahpur Kanjran near Lahore has a large population of migrants. Similarly, Kharak village, near the Indian border, and Raja Jung are populated mostly by migrants and they all have horrifying personal details of the ordeal they faced in 1947.
Dhillon and his team have travelled to Multan, Sargodha, Jhelum, Okara, Chishtian and Multan, to record eyewitness accounts of Partition.
It was, of course, not only the Muslims who faced atrocities. These Muslims are settled in the villages and places that were evacuated by the Sikhs and Hindus who had to flee to India. Most left and some had to save their lives by other means. “In Kasur, there are two sisters who had to live as converts to save their lives. They never married,” says Dhillon.
“Two brothers disguised themselves as Sikhs in Indian Punjab. One of them moved to Pakistan 10 years later but the other still lives [in India] as a convert,” according to Nasir Dhillon. “A woman who was left behind [during Partition] did the same to save her life and lives as a convert. 50 years after Partition, she located her brothers in Faisalabad and came to visit them with her son. But when she reached there, her brother refused to meet her and shut the door on her. The eldest brother was abroad and came to know about her. He contacted her but he is now too sick to travel. He is also finding it hard to obtain a visa to visit his sister due to strict visa policies of both the countries in recent years.”
Dhillon is aware that the people whose stories he records are from a generation that is dying fast. The younger generations of these Partition survivors are also keen to connect with the land of their ancestors and share the most indelible memories of their lives.
Chohan and Dhillon both receive requests from Punjab (both Indian and Pakistani) to record the accounts of elders.
“There are so many requests that we can’t respond to all of them,” says Dhillon. A young man from Chak 6 of Sargodha-Faisalabad Road contacted Dhillon to inquire about a location in Indian Punjab. The man’s grandfather had killed a Sikh. In his old age, he sought salvation and pardon for the murder from the Sikh man’s family but he had no means to do so. Now his grandson wants to meet the family and seek forgiveness on behalf of his grandfather.”
There are some organisations involved in preserving the oral history of Partition. One such venture is the US-based The 1947 Partition Archive, operating in India and Pakistan, spearheaded by Dr Guneeta Singh. However, the Partition Archive’s access is not open; one can get access only on request.
Fakhra Hasan has been working with the organisation since 2014, having recorded 280 interviews of Partition survivors in Gujranwala, Multan, Kasur, Lahore and Sheikhupura. Her own family had migrated from Delhi to Pakistan. Her maternal side of the family are descendants of Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar. Living in Gujranwala, Hasan has visited villages that had an overwhelming population of migrants, like Baddoki, near Gujranwala, where 90 percent of the population is comprised of migrants hailing from the Indian cities of Ambala, Patiala and Amritsar.
“Most of these people get very excited to talk about their experiences. They miss their native land and feel angry and betrayed as, at the time of Partition, they were told by the authorities that they could return once the situation became normal. But that never happened.”
When celebrating their independence, both countries must also recall the personal tragedies that a large portion of their populations suffered. Though we may have lost most of the generations that had personally experienced Partition and suffered grave emotional trauma, there are still a few left whose stories should not be lost. The gap left by the governments of India and Pakistan is at last being filled by individuals who have taken upon themselves this mammoth task of honouring the survivors.
Dhillon suggests that there should be a place at the border where these migrants separated from their relatives could reunite with their families, without going through the cumbersome red tape of the visa process. Many of those who have reconnected have done so via social media and easy means of communications, such as smartphones.
It is likely that policymakers who are ready to ban YouTube and Facebook have never ever thought of this.
Published in Dawn, EOS, September 9th, 2018