Recording Punjab ’s darkest hours for posterity
Oral histories are people’s histories — free of political hues. A unique public — funded project,1947 Partition Archive, is recording narratives of Punjabis, in their own words, of their memories of uprooting and the largest migration on earth
EVEN though much has been written and theatrically retold about the Partition of 1947, talking to Partition eyewitnesses brings forth more recollections of what life was like in Punjab , before and after the Partition. I use the phrase "life in Punjab" because there is nothing but the wailing cries of an erstwhile Punjab that can be heard in the stories told. Many believe, there is little new wisdom or knowledge to be sought from stories of Punjab 's past. After all, in the last few decades, its history has been seeped in divisiveness and controversy. After my experience of working with the survivors of the Partition, this belief couldn't be any further from truth.
With funding through the American India Foundation's (AIF) William J. Clinton Fellowship for Service in India , I spent the last one year living in Punjab and collecting oral narratives (on video) of the people who were an eyewitness to the Partition. Guru Nanak Dev University 's Center for Studies on Sri Guru Granth Sahib, hosted me for my work of contributing recorded stories to the 1947 Partition Archive in Berkeley , California . Undivided Punjab spoke to me during this period like no book ever did. I touched its scars, heard its cries, smelt its burning flesh and tasted its tears as it painfully recalled through the memory of every living elder all that it had, and all that was lost in the mortal man's unending quest for more power.
When one engages in a lengthy dialogue with the generation that was an eyewitness to the partition, one begins to realise the magnitude of change this generation has experienced in its lifetime. Most elders I interviewed were between the ages of 70 and 105 years, born anywhere between 1908 and 1942. If we broadly recall Punjab's history for a moment here, we realise, we are now engaging with a generation of people who lived through the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, Gurudwara Reform Movement of the 1920s, World Wars I and II, the Partition of 1947, Indo-Pak conflicts of 1965 and 1971, Punjab's division into Himachal Pradesh and Haryana in 1966, the Indian Emergency of the late 1970s, Operation Blue Star, Indira Gandhi's assassination and anti-Sikh pogroms of 1984, the birth and evolution of the Khalistan movement, economic liberalisation of India in the 1990s and finally, the unprecedented rise in the Punjabi and Sikh diaspora in a now globalised, digitally accessible world. Few of us have the general cognizance of the spectrum any detailed dialogue with eyewitnesses about the life before, during and after the Partition actually entails.
End of composite culture
While interviewing elders from all walks of life, from ordinary citizens to highly distinguished Punjabis like Khushwant Singh, Dr. J.S Neki, Dr. Bhai Harbans Lal, Bhai Ashok Singh Bagrian, Shanno Khurana, Shiromani Ragi Bhai Balbir Singh and fellow Everest climbers Captain M.S Kohli and Major HPS Ahluwalia, to name a few, a picture of undivided Punjab began to reveal itself to me albeit very painstakingly slowly, almost as if it kept testing whether I was serious about bearing deeper knowledge of it. With the small bit of life still left inside its body, here is what that wounded Punjab tells us.
Renowned kirtaniya Bhai Gurcharan Singh, 32, at the time of Partition, tells me about how he, his two brothers and father gathered all the Muslim families of their village Saidpur (in Kapurthala) in their haveli and gave them shelter for over a month to protect them from those who wanted to harm them, as they awaited their turn to travel to the west Punjab. When a few non-Muslim families threatened to kill any Muslims using their fields to answer nature's call, Bhai Gurcharan offered his family's fields to those Muslim families. The Partition became a cause for his father Bhai Jwala Singh's contemporaries, that included several rababis (Muslim exponents of gurbani sangeet) who were his colleagues as performers at Darbar Sahib, to leave for west Punjab . It is known that Bhai Jwala Singh's student, the legendary percussionist Bhai Arjan Singh Tarangar, said that after the rababis left, a sense of healthy competition - one that brings with it challenges meant to foster creativity among music legends, disappeared from the community of gurbani sangeet practitioners and thus, from Punjab. Partition brought an end to this beautiful gesture of cultural unity and harmony in an undivided Punjab .
Quest for a better life
In the Shivalik mountains I meet Mahanbir Singh Dhillon, 11- year- old, at the time of Partition and the only other male member of his family besides his father, who recounts for me the Sukhmani Sahib verses his father recited as he lay dying of cholera he had contracted near Multan in August, 1947. Mahanbir then describes to me his widowed mother and two elder sisters' difficult journey in quest of life their father had imagined for all of them — one with education, professional success and most of all, honor and dignity. With Partition, Mahanbir not only lost his father at such a young age, but also couldn't perform his father's last rites (his body was buried not cremated). Born in Nankana Sahib, Mahanbir lives with a sense of lost childhood due to the uprooting and destruction of Partition, now barely accessible to his progeny, both physically and emotionally.
Eminent Sikh studies scholar, poet and psychiatrist, Dr. Jaswant Singh Neki, barely 22, in 1947, narrates his and his friend's escape from the medical college in Lahore, in a car. On the way to Amritsar , the car they came in broke down just as a mob was approaching them. With some lateral thinking and good fortune, the car started again just as the mob reached close enough to break the windshield. Dr. Neki and his friend drove off as shards of glass from the shattered windshield began quaking on the car's seats, just the way the earth shook in the 1935 Balochistan earthquake, when Dr. Neki was a 10- year-old boy, who remained buried under the kucchi roof of his house for six hours, breathlessly awaiting his rescue.
Last miles — the longest
Krishna Singh of Amritsar recalls the house she spent her childhood in on Abbott Road, on the outskirts of Lahore . She loved flying kites with her brother on their house's rooftop. During the early 1947, half-burnt pieces of paper and cloth, carried with the winds and brought to her house on Abbott Road signaled that danger was looming right around the corner. Krishna Singh and her siblings came to Hoshiarpur, few weeks before their widowed mother, who arrived from Lahore after August 15th 1947. Krishna said that she heard no news of her mother for 22 days and when she finally saw her mother again, it took her some time to recognise her. There was not a single strand of black hair on her head. Krishna believes it was as if her mother had grown older by 15 years in the 15 days it took her to journey the distance between Lahore and Hoshiarpur.
Sangeet Natak Akademi Puruskar recipient Vilayat Khan, the grand old dhaadi (balladeer) of Goslan, near Malerkotla, describes his forced migration to Sargodha , at the time of Partition. After exhausting whatever little money he could bring with him and then finding no encouragement or patronage for his art form in Sargodha , Vilayat had to become a daily wage labourer to sustain himself and his family in Pakistan . When it became both spiritually and financially unfeasible to continue living on in Sargodha , Vilayat and his father arranged for their journey back to India , almost 10 years after the Partition. Vilayati, as he is lovingly called, says the music suppressed and suffocated inside him for those 10 years in Pakistan, experienced a rebirth when he returned to his native village of Goslan, on the Indian side of the border. At 92 years of age today, Vilayati sings in praise of his 'yaar' (God) and Guru Nanak, for it is they who he credits for all that he has been able to achieve for himself and his family.
I stumbled upon episodes related to legendary pakhawaji Bhai Nasira from Amritsar during a meeting with Satguru Uday Singh of Namdhari Darbar at Sri Bhaini Sahib in Ludhiana . Satguru Uday Singh's father, Maharaj Bir Singh and his brother, the former guru of the Namdharis, Satguru Jagjit Singh, were students of Bhai Nasira. Soon after Partition, Satguru Pratap Singh sent a Namdhari Sikh to Lahore in search of Bhai Nasira in order to enquire about how he was doing. After searching for Bhai Nasira for many days, the messenger finally found him in a garden. As he was instructed to do, the messenger offered him two silver coins as nazar and enquired about his pakhawaj playing. Bhai Nasira showed him his hands, soiled and badly blistered, and told him that as his art form was heartlessly disregarded immediately after the Partition, he had to turn to gardening for a living, as a mali (gardener).
The number of stories told is thousand times more than the small fraction I could share here. Our community elders are the last remaining bearers of the realities of an undivided Punjab, one, in which stronger values were cultivated and loyalties were earned, not preemptively appropriated on the basis of religious expressions. The gravity and multiple dimensions of Partition violence can be best understood only when one becomes well- acquainted with the Punjab that was before Partition and begin a dialogue about that Punjab with the elders. Perhaps, it is not the most effective way to do it. Talking to them is like getting a 'reality check' on what it was and how it has changed. Most of them are deeply saddened to witness such capitalisation on manipulated histories and wish to see Punjab undivided again.
Unity out of severance
It would be imprudent to believe that undivided Punjab was completely devoid of religious clashes (after all, is any part of the world like that today either?). But it is important to remember that those minor frictions occurred largely due to differences deliberately exacerbated again to rally support for political control. The result of this deleterious exercise has been that all generations of Punjabis born after 1947 have lost out on a spiritually and socially enriching life in Punjab . On this side of the border, we have forgotten that before the Partition, many who were the finest in several skills were not only Sikhs or Hindus, with alienation of an entire community in 1947, a large part of Punjab became alienated from itself. It is this alienation that we must undo as much as possible now. And there may not be a better place to begin the search for that unity than the original moment of severance itself.
Manleen Sandhu is a US-based anthropologist and writer, currently working as a cultural research coordinator and fundraising manager for The Anad Foundation, New Delhi .