During the dark years of Nazi rule in Germany, there were Germans who overcame their fears of the Schutzstaffel, or SS – a paramilitary organisation under Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party – and Gestapo, the state secret police, to save many Jews from certain death. Theirs was a show of human solidarity against a rabid ideology that sought to inculcate in the Germans hatred against the Jews.
This is best symbolised in popular imagination by Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who saved more than a 1,000 Polish Jews. His life was fictionalised by Australian novelist Thomas Keneally in Schindler’s Ark, which, in 1993, was turned into a film – Schindler’s List – by Steven Spielberg. The film turned Schindler into a global epitome of humanism that is forever under stress from the brutality of the bad.
Two years after World War II ended in Europe in May 1945 – and the Jews whom Schindler had protected were set free – India too was caught in a swirl of hatred even as it gained independence from British rule.
Sixty-nine years ago, the chimes of freedom seemed more a death knell to lakhs who perished in the veritable ethnic cleansing undertaken in east and west Punjab as India was partitioned and Pakistan was born. The brute in us stalked the country with death and devastation.
Yet, as was true of Nazi Germany, there were also people in India and Pakistan whom the virus of communal hatred did not infect. Not only did they refuse to join the murderous mobs, some took enormous risks to save people of other religious communities. They were India and Pakistan’s Schindlers – but largely unknown, mostly unsung and barely finding a mention in the footnotes of our history.
As both countries celebrate their 70th Independence Day, here is a list of Little Schindlers who courageously saved lives. This list pertains to Delhi and undivided Punjab; it is not exhaustive. Save for two entries, the names have been selected from Ishtiaq Ahmed’s The Punjab: Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed – eyewitness accounts mentioned here were recorded by him.
Harijan Baba who saved abducted women
A horrific aspect of Partition violence was the abduction of an estimated 100,000 women. Subsequently, under the Inter-Dominion Treaty, signed between India and Pakistan on December 6, 1947, operations to find the abducted women were mounted in both India and Pakistan.
In Delhi, 200 Muslim women were recovered. The person who rescued most number of women was an old Harijan (the caste is now called Dalit). His name is not known, nor his modus operandi. Yet, when social activist Ais Kidwai would ask the women how they fled their abductors, a good number of them said: “An old Harijan brought me home.”
About the Harijan Baba, Kidwai writes in her memoirs on the Partition and the first two years of independent India, In Freedom’s Shade: “Some [abducted women] were recovered by social workers, some by Jamiat activists, some rescued by the police. A significant number was recovered by one man, working alone. This noble chamar rescued scores of abducted girls and secretly returned them to their homes. How I wish I could have learnt his name, but that remained forever a secret.”
He was truly India’s child of god.
The anonymous Khaksar of Rawalpindi
Months before India was partitioned, on the morning of March 5-6, pages torn from the Quran were found strewn in the area outside Rawalpindi’s Gordon College. A Khaksar collected these and put it in a well. To ensure the city did not erupt, he entered a Hindu-Sikh colony to calm people down. The Khaksar was stabbed to death. Khwaja Masud Ahmed, then a mathematics lecturer at Gordon College, recalls, “There is no doubt that the RSS was behind that heinous crime. It triggered rioting, arson, looting and stabbings…”
Formed by Inayatullah Khan Mashriqi to drive the British out of India, the Khaksar was a militant Islamic group which, however, was bitterly opposed to the Muslim League. Some Khaksars in Lahore joined the Muslim League, but those in Rawalpindi remained loyal to their commander Ashraf Khan, who inspired them to save Hindus and Sikhs in the riots.
About Ashraf Khan, Amar Singh, who left Rawalpindi to come to India, said: “I must…pay tribute to the Khaksars, especially their leader, Ashraf Khan. He and his comrades saved many Sikhs and Hindus.”
Another eyewitness Rashid Ishaq says, “Our leader Ashraf Khan had taken a vow from us that we would do all we could to protect whosoever was in distress. Therefore, the Khaksars were always in the forefront and saved many non-Muslims.”
The Dutt brothers and Dr Abdur Rauf
During Partition violence, even hospitals weren't spared. A hospital in Amritsar came under attack from a Hindu-Sikh mob. Dr Proshottam Dutt and his brother, Dr Narain Das, took out their guns and confronted the assailants.
Dr Dutt is quoted as having have told them, “This behaviour of yours is very cowardly…. You can even now repent and leave otherwise (for) as long as we two brothers are alive and our rifles have bullets, we will never let you touch the Muslim patients in this hospital.” The mob dispersed.
A very different logic prompted Amritsar’s Muslim doctor, Dr Abdur Rauf, to save 200 non-Muslims who were cornered in Katra Karam Singh locality. Dr Rauf was asked to decide on their fate. Though said to have been engaged in imparting military skills to Muslims, Dr Rauf invoked Islamic teaching of moral conduct to counter those who wanted to avenge the mistreatment of Muslims in other parts of Amritsar. All non-Muslims were set free.
The Sikh who sheltered hundreds of Muslims
Amritsar, too, erupted in March 1947, and many localities witnessed pitched battles between Hindus-Sikhs and Muslims. One man who is still remembered among Amritsari Muslims in Lahore is Bawa Ghansham, a Sikh who was a member of the Communist Party of India.
He gave refuge to hundreds of Muslims in his house. Most eyewitness accounts testify to the salutatory role the communists played on both sides of the border during Partition violence.
Mother Courage and her seven sons
In Gujjial village, Jhelum district, there were seven brothers who were in the British army and were captured by Germans during World War II. Their salaries and property were managed by Raghbir Singh Sahni’s parents.
When the raiders attacked Gujjial village, 70 Sikhs took shelter with the Sahnis. The mother of seven brothers exhorted them: “Mein dudh tadd bakshan gi jey tusi annadey kum aoy (For the milk you have sucked from my breasts, go forward and save these Sikhs.)”
The brothers took positions on the rooftop of Sahni’s house with their rifles, warning the assailants that they would be shot at in case they dared to attack the Sikhs. The assailants melted away. The Sikhs were evacuated to Chakwal – and then to Patiala. Of the brothers, Sahni remembers one name: Bostan Khan
The police officer who guarded a mosque
On August 17, 1947, in Firozepur, east Punjab, Lala Dhuni Chand informed the father of Malik Muhammad Aslam about an attack that the RSS and Sikhs were planning. Sure enough, the attack began at 10 pm. Around 300 Muslims took shelter in a local mosque, which was chosen because of its proximity to a police station.
The station head officer, Trilok Nath, was quick to post armed Muslim guards outside the mosque. Nath was an exception because many police officers turned partisans in Punjab. Aslam cites Nath’s neutrality as the reason why the mosque wasn’t attacked.
However, Aslam’s father had not carried his insulin injection to the mosque. As the sugar level steadily rose, the father became visibly ill. At 3 am, slipping through the city under curfew, Dhuni Chand’s son, Amarnath, came to the mosque to inquire whether Aslam and his parents were safe. Amarnath offered to fetch insulin from his father’s medicine shop.
Amarnath never returned.
Aslam later learned that Amarnath was shot dead by the RSS for helping Muslims. In his oral testimony, he said: “I still remember the night when Amarnath volunteered to go to his shop to get the medicine my father needed but was killed by fanatics of his own community. His father and mother must have been devastated.”
Aslam’s father became too ill to join the caravan going to Pakistan on foot. He too died.
An ashram that became a refuge
When Delhi and its vicinity reeled under communal violence, a small ashram of Swamiji of Narela became the refuge of Muslim peasants. He guarded them from marauders for days. When the violence abated, Swamiji suggested that they temporarily shift to their relatives’ homes in Uttar Pradesh, even accompanying them across the Yamuna to ensure they were not attacked. He promised he would facilitate their return as soon as normalcy was restored.
Unlettered, Swamiji secured permission from Gandhi to call the Muslims back and rehabilitate them. They remained in his ashram for months, as he persuaded the landlords to restore their customary tenancy rights.
Since Kidwai doesn’t mention the name of Swamiji, who was a Congress member, I asked writer and scholar Gopalkrishna Gandhi to help me identify him. He referred me to Supreme Court lawyer Anil Nauriya, who has a keen interest in and has written on the national movement. Accessing the archives of the Centre for South Asian Studies, Cambridge University, Nauriya identified him as Swami Saroopanandji.
Of him, Kidwai wrote: “After meeting some fine Congressis like Swamiji, I often thought to myself that Man emerged once again in these rural areas. Bapu’s deeds weren’t in vain… He planted a few trees, under whose shade weary souls would find rest.”
The Tapiala Dost Muhammad Village Peace Committee
It is a village located in Sheikhupura district, Lahore Division. Two-third of its population was Muslim, the remaining Khatri Hindus plus two Sikh families. A display of arms during Pakistan‘s Independence Day celebrations in the vicinity of Tapiala prompted its residents to organise a peace committee.
On August 25-26 in 1947, some 1500 armed outsiders attacked Tapiala. Around 60 Khatri Hindu families barricaded themselves in two large houses. The peace committee’s resistance was overcome – and the two houses were set on fire. Some Hindus killed their female family members before they tried to escape.
It was only around 11 am the attackers retreated. Gurbachan Singh Tandon, then in Class VIII, received a blow from an axe and fell unconscious; his brother was killed, but family elders survived.
The survivors were sheltered in the village for another 10-12 days, during which three more attacks were launched against them, each repulsed by the peace committee, which was now better prepared. Of the peace committee members, Tandon says, “I remember two names now – Chaudhri Mu’af Ali and Sheikh Muhammad Bashir.”
The man who saved Sunil Dutt’s uncle
The ancestral village of late film star Sunil Dutt’s was Khurd, about 20 km from Jhelum town. He was brought up by his tayaji, or uncle, who was among the principal landholders there. When the army evacuated the Hindus from the area, Dutt’s tayaji refused to go.
In his Friday sermon, the local Maulvi asked why a non-Muslim was living in Khurd. Dutt’s tayaji shifted to an adjoining village, Nawan Kot, where resided Yakub, a classmate of Dutt’s father. When Dutt’s absence from Khurd was noticed, the assailants swooped in on Yakub’s residence.
“But Yakub and brothers took out their guns saying that their guest was dearer to them than their own life,” Dutt told Dr Ishtiaq Ahmed in an oral testimony before his death. Yakub gave a horse to Dutt’s tayaji to ride in the middle of night to the refugee camp at Jhelum.
The saviour of cricketer Inzamam-ul-Haq’s family
On a tour of India, Inzamam-ul-Haq was met by a young man who gave the cricketer the telephone number of his mother, Pushpa Goel, requesting that he hand it over to his parents in Multan. Sure enough, the call from Multan came. Haq’s father hadn’t forgotten Pushpa, whose parents had sheltered him and his family from a murderous mob in Hansi, Hissar district, Haryana.
Pushpa was invited to the cricketer’s wedding. "It was like coming back to one’s own family," she said. "I can never forget my visit to Multan.”
In 2016, though, both India and Pakistan seem to have forgotten the heroes of Punjab whose conduct during the horrific Partition violence remains a lesson to us on what it means to be human.
Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.