Partition of India: A Hitchin survivor remembers, 70 years on
- Credit: Archant
What would you do if you had to leave your home, maybe with just the clothes on your back, because of something as simple as who you are?
It wasn’t just a hypothetical question 70 years ago for Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs in the Indian subcontinent, as millions of men, women and children began an unexpected journey to an unknown tomorrow.
Britain granted independence to its Indian Empire seven decades ago this week in August 1947, dividing it into two countries: India – Hindu-majority, but secular – and Pakistan, intended as a Muslim homeland.
The partition divided the provinces of Bengal and the Punjab along religious lines and displaced between 10 and 12 million people, creating massive refugee crises in both countries amid the largest population shift in world history.
Violence was ever-present, with something between several hundred thousand and two million people losing their lives in the chaos – and the atmosphere of hostility and suspicion plagues the two great neighbours to this day.
The millions caught up in the nightmare included Harchet Singh Bains, who was 11 years old when he and his Sikh family were compelled to leave the village where he was born, in what is now Pakistan – never to return.
Speaking to the Comet across his front room in his adopted hometown of Hitchin – where he has lived since 1964 – 82-year-old Harchet, who today chairs the North Herts Minority Ethnic Forum, remembers the horror as if it were yesterday.
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In July 1947 – after partition was confirmed, but before independence – his community elders in the village of Keba suddenly told everyone to gather with what they could carry.
“We went to the village square, not realising what was happening,” Harchet recalls.
“There were swarms of people – all the village was there – and then, slowly, other people from other villages started gathering.
“The elders were talking about how to organise, but I didn’t understand at that time.
“Then, about midnight, we were told to start walking.”
Holding out hope that they might be back one day, Harchet’s farming family locked the house and gave the keys to their Muslim neighbours, asking them to look after their property and livestock.
They then took two bullocks and a cart and began the long march in the monsoon rain, hundreds of miles east to a new start in the new India.
“It was becoming muddy and all soaked, and the animals were getting tired – and we were getting tired as well,” says Harchet.
“Children were crying for food and because everything was getting wet. And eventually, we stopped and started, stopped – and then we ran out of food.
“We started picking up all the vegetables, whatever we could find – leaves and whatever vegetation. I remember my older sister found some green chillies in a field, and to make it a bit edible we put some chillies in the leaves and started eating them. We drank rainwater from the puddles.”
The caravan grew bigger with each stop as more people joined from other villages, with about five army veterans on horseback to protect them.
Marauding gangs with primitive weapons like axes, spears and bamboo sticks prowled around, harassing and killing travellers from the ‘wrong’ side.
“We had been friendly with the neighbours one minute, and the next minute become enemies,” says Harchet.
“I saw on the way people getting killed, right in front of me.
“There was nothing anybody could do, there was no medical aid. We left people half-dead to die on their own.
“It was such a bad situation. What could anybody do? We couldn’t pick up somebody on our back and carry them. It was so muddy and difficult to walk.
“Even when we reached India, we had nothing left.”
It took four or five days’ march along mud and dirt roads for them to reach the nearest point of the demarcation line, at the border town of Fazilka. Crossing into a country called India seemed a bizarre concept, as India was the home they had always known.
Absorption of the new arrivals was haphazard, with the starving refugees only given roasted nuts and water for nourishment.
Harchet’s family were given a patch of cheap land to farm at Garhshankar, in the Hoshiarpur district of the Punjab – where they travelled by rail, after another train ride to meet relatives hundreds of miles away.
“We were just completely homeless,” says Harchet.
“It was a horrendous time. Although I was young, we still felt cold, wet and hungry, and without any proper clothes. We had nothing left.
“The government gave us some assistance – the houses vacated by the Muslims who departed to the other end were given to us, so one of the houses was given to my family as well. But it was bare, with no furniture, nothing.”
Many families tried to make the journey using the massively overloaded trains running between the two new countries, but only a minority of those passengers reached their destination.
“More than half of the people on trains were killed,” says Harchet.
“We learned later on that a couple of million people got killed in the process. Both sides were so bad.
“They were friendly, living for centuries together – no animosity – but all of a sudden, people started killing each other.
“It was so bad. When the trains came, then it was more to dispose of the bodies than the able-bodied people – there were fewer of them than those who were killed.
“People went mad in those days. Why? Over religion. And it is still going on, Pakistan and India. They were living together and now they are worst enemies of each other.
“But when you go to Pakistan, for instance – some of our friends went – they say they are very hospitable, they are very friendly. Yet government to government, they can’t even talk.”
Asked for his single most enduring memory of that time, 82-year-old Harchet describes leaving his old school and friends in Keba – and how some of his new neighbours in Garhshankar looked down their noses at him.
He says: “Some of my friends were Muslims, and three or four were very close. We used to play together.
“I missed them, and I missed my school as well. When you are uprooted, the whole environment changes.
“We felt a little bit inferior because the local children were well-dressed and provided with everything, and we were given names like ‘refugees’ and ‘displaced persons’ – or ‘homeless persons’. They called us anything. Children are children.
“That was a very distressing thing to go through, but we had no choice.”
Harchet continued his schooling in Garhshankar – switching from Urdu, his original language of instruction, to Punjabi. He was subsequently also schooled in English.
He qualified as a teacher, and in 1964 emigrated to the UK – spending some nights in London before arriving in Hitchin, where there was already a burgeoning Sikh community.
He worked as a TV engineer until retiring in 1995, and also owned a shop in Biggleswade from 1992 to 2001.
Harchet, who has three daughters, a son and three grandchildren, is happy to have put down roots in North Hertfordshire – but he still dreams of one day returning to visit the village in Pakistan that he left as an 11-year-old boy amid the madness of 1947.
“At the back of your mind your childhood never goes away,” he says.
“It’s an experience I wish nobody else to go through – and these children, my children, they’ll never know what we went through. We were short of everything. The experience can never go away.
“I want to go back to my village again. I applied to the Pakistani high commissioner here, in London, and my visa was refused. They didn’t give any reason – India and Pakistan are not getting on very well diplomatically, so perhaps that was the reason.
“I doubt if anybody of my age, or many people, will be there, because I’m 82 now. How many people of that age can survive? But I’d still like to go there – where I was born.”
Pakistan marked its independence day yesterday, August 14, with India celebrating today. This quirk came about because the handover ceremonies were held a day apart in 1947 to allow the British viceroy Lord Mountbatten to attend both.
Those working to raise awareness of the partition today include the rector of Hitchin, Canon Michael Roden – one of the leaders of the Partition History Project, a national initiative to bring the story home to today’s schoolchildren.
The project includes performances of the play Child of the Divide – pioneered at St Mary’s Church in Hitchin and now going around the UK, with a show at Letchworth’s Broadway Theatre pencilled in for November.
Others marking the anniversary include Letchworth writer Dev Delay, whose next book will be set during the partition period.
To find out more about the Partition History Project, see partitionhistoryproject.com.
• Why was India divided?
Rising Indian nationalist ambitions meant that Britain’s grip on the so-called “crown jewel” of the Empire was considerably weakened by the time the Second World War started in 1939.
Mahatma Gandhi favoured a united India. The Muslim leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah did too, initially, but by 1940 he was arguing for a separate Muslim-majority state of Pakistan.
After the end of the war in 1945, Jinnah’s All-India Muslim League campaigned exclusively on the Pakistan issue and won every seat reserved for Muslims in India’s constituent assembly. The Indian National Congress and the British viceroy Lord Mountbatten – appointed in 1947 with instructions to grant independence quickly – reluctantly accepted partition as the only obvious way out of the resulting impasse.
Mountbatten confirmed partition on June 3 that year, with independence to follow two months later on August 15, 1947. A committee headed by Sir Cyril Radcliffe drew up borders intended to leave as many Hindus and Sikhs in India and as many Muslims in Pakistan as possible, but this still left about 14 million people on the ‘wrong’ side.
The largest mass movement of people in world history was the result, with the ramifications felt strongly into the 21st century.