In the days after partition, elderly Sikh members from the village of Jasso Mazara in the Indian Punjab took the decision that one member of each household would join a revenge attack for the recent slaughter of their people.
Fifteen-year-old Swaran, as the elder son of his family, was chosen. Carrying his sword, he walked with the men from the village for over an hour. Sikh men from four or five other villages joined them along the way, all with their swords. It felt like there were hundreds of them marching towards the village he knew as Kangroad. Swaran knew this village was Muslim. He says they took the swords for killing but also for protection.
When they arrived there was panic. The Muslim villagers tried to escape. One of the adults Swaran was with, a heavily built man, tried to behead a Muslim. But his sword was damaged in the act.
He shouted to Swaran, who was just ten yards away from him, to hand over his sword. Swaran said the man was much older than him, and he had no choice but to give it to him. The young man watched as his sword was used to murder a Muslim, not far from where he was standing.
The day of killing will never leave Swaran. He can still visualise how the older Sikh villager took a cloth to wipe the fresh blood off the murderous blade and then handed the sword back to him.
The scene was one of chaos. There was frenzied killing, blood in the street, bodies on the ground. “Maybe fifty to a hundred people they killed in that village.” Swaran insists he did not harm anyone, that he had no choice but to go along with the other men.
The group returned to their villages that day jubilant, some with property looted from the homes – silver trinkets and jewellery belonging to the women. How did ordinary people become murderers? Swaran thinks it was the refugees from the western Punjab who came with their stories of horror that turned minds. But he is not really sure what happened. There was no way he could have stopped them. He said nothing, just followed.
He shows me a black and white picture of three generations of his family taken when he was five. In the front sits Swaran, formally dressed as a proper English boy would be. He has Fred Astaire two-toned brogues, embroidered knee-high socks, a white shirt, tailor-made shorts and an oversized blazer.
His father, who he says liked to dress “posh”, is wearing a white suit and has a black turban. His grandfather’s angular face, not dissimilar to Swaran’s now, has a flowing white beard. He wears a tailored suit over smart traditional pyjama trousers. His father was in Karachi hundreds of miles away, working as a carpenter, the day Swaran was chosen as the eldest male in the family to go on the raid; otherwise the young man would have been spared.
“We never thought this would happen,” Swaran says. Jasso Mazara was mixed, pretty much equally, between Sikhs and Muslims. Sikhs lived on one side of the village, Muslims the other. There had never been any trouble there.
His best friend was a Muslim, Gulam Rasool. They played together, went to each other’s homes, knew each other’s parents. Though they never ate together. Guru Gobind Singh forbids the eating of halal meat.
From the age of eleven the two had gone to high school together, six miles away in the city of Phagwara. Swaran, along with the other Sikh boys, stayed in a hostel during the week, as the journey was too far to make every day from the village. Gulam didn’t have a bicycle to make the trip back home, but the owner of the boarding house was reluctant to take him in, as it was only Sikhs who stayed there.
Swaran argued successfully with him that Gulam should stay there too. The boarding-house owner was worried Gulam would be preparing food in the kitchen. Sikh religious rules prevented a Muslim cooking food for them. Swaran reassured the owner that they would prepare food for Gulam, that he would not be making it, though they would all be eating together.
Since the announcement of partition things had grown tense in the village. There was concern about which country the village would be in.
Swaran’s family had even packed belongings in case they needed to move. Swaran remembers choosing which clothes to take. By then he was at school but had no interest in politics. He had never been involved in the freedom movement, though he was aware partition was coming. He says the Sikhs and Hindus wanted the Ravi River, so that Lahore would be part of India.
On Independence Day there were no celebrations, everyone felt fearful. They waited for the announcement about which country the village would be part of from the local newspaper. No one had a radio. The family were relieved that Jasso Mazara was awarded to India, but concerned for their father, who was still in Karachi, now Pakistan’s new capital.
Attacks against Muslims nearby had already started, so the Sikh villagers told their Muslim neighbours it would be difficult for them to protect them, and it was better they head to the camp a mile and a half down the road for their safety. It was guarded by Indian soldiers and was a transit point to Pakistan.
Swaran remembers saying goodbye to his Muslim “brothers” in the middle of the night. He can still recall the sadness he felt at their leaving. “We were very disturbed, we had all been living together for hundreds of years.” He carried some of their belongings to the camp.
Gulam and Swaran hugged as they parted. It was an emotional departure. It was too hard to say anything to his best friend, Swaran says. He knew even then that Gulam and the others were never coming back. “Why this partition?” Swaran says seventy years on as he remembers this scene. It still makes no sense to him.
Schools were suspended after partition as there were so many disturbances. He thinks he was off for around four Partition Voices months. A male from each house now patrolled individual homes each night in case there was trouble from the Muslims. It was around this time the murderous raid happened.
As Muslims left the surrounding villages, looting took place of their houses. Swaran was part of these raids, but says he never took anything. Jasso Mazara was on the road where many refugees passed by, heading for the camp. Swaran says he saw two or three Muslim women who were on their way there with their families, forcibly taken by elderly Sikh men. He remembers the girls crying, but they could not put up a fight. He says the men who abducted them were not from his village, he did not recognise them. The Indian Army seeing these incidents just fired into the air, they did nothing. No one saved these women. Swaran has no idea what happened to them.
Both sides did these things he tells me. Muslims wanted to brand “Pakistan Zindabad” – Long Live Pakistan – on women’s bodies and their chests. His future wife was a girl of ten at the time, travelling from Montgomery district in western Punjab, with her family in a truck towards India. She told Swaran years later that Muslims were going through the vehicles looking for girls. She was hidden by her family in the gap between the trunks in the boot. They are doing things with these ladies, Swaran says. Then he stops.
I am sure he remembers I am much younger than him. Maybe he does not think it appropriate for me to hear, or for him to be telling me the details. “I can’t say these things at present, these things are so bad.”
Gulam’s home and all the others were quickly taken over by refugees from western Punjab. They came with their carts, exhausted and angry, full of stories of what was being done to them in the name of religion and nationhood.
While school was suspended, Swaran still went to Phagwara where a centre had now been set up to distribute clothing and food to the many refugees arriving there. He shows me a picture, which I recognise as one of the iconic ones taken by the American photographer Margaret Bourke-White for Life magazine. It shows a train with hundreds of refugees sitting on the roof. Swaran’s mother prepared chapattis and he would take them and throw them up to the refugees who were on the train’s roof – like those in the picture – as they pulled into Phagwara station. Sometimes they caught them, sometimes they did not. Chapattis were the only food that was light and easy to throw.
Swaran has still kept a tattered “social service” certificate from 1948 which notes his work over a ten-week period in helping the new arrivals, handing out clothes and food to people who had lost everything. He went on to graduate from high school the same year, and was given a certificate by the examiners at East Punjab University. Swaran explains even Punjab University was split into two at partition – east and west.
Ironically, his own life would later be uprooted. Swaran emigrated to Uganda in 1951 with his parents, in search of a better life. He worked his way up to being a grade VI clerk with the East African Railways and Harbours Corporation in Kampala. However, his job was abruptly ended in 1965. He still has a letter from the chief operating superintendent, which he shows me. It states: “Due to the policy to replace non-African officers with Africans ... you shall be called upon to retire ... to make way for a suitable African officer.’
In 1972 Swaran, his wife and three children, fled Uganda after they and other Asians were expelled by President Idi Amin.
The family arrived in the UK, first spending a few nights at a camp in Newbury, before heading off to Wolverhampton to be with his brother. Like those refugees to whom he threw chapattis, Swaran Singh Rayit had now lost everything. He was lucky, though, to have been able to bring £50 with him from Africa. But he had to start life from scratch.
He blames the last Viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten, for hastening the departure of the British and precipitating the disaster that followed. However, he no longer holds grudges, as it was the British who gave his family refuge after they were kicked out of Uganda – a decision he is still grateful for. He admits that if it had not been for partition and the upheaval that followed, the family may never have left for Africa in the first place and then ended up in Britain, where they have all thrived.
Excerpted with permission from Partition Voices: Untold British Stories Kavita Puri, Bloomsbury.