“Tu ki’uṁ pucha rahē hō? Chaḍō.”
Why are you asking? Leave it.
These were my grandfather’s words when I asked to interview him about his experience of the Partition of India. This was quite unlike him. In the past, my Dada, Dr Malvinder Pal Singh, had often voluntarily shared outlines of the traumatic violence that shaped his identity and worldview. His anecdotal recollections, while never lacking in gravity, also had an ethic of time-worn normalcy. It was as if he expected his listener to share his nonchalance.
My tenacious proposition to transcribe his experience triggered further resistance – he insisted that “it does not matter. Nobody will read it.” Paralysed by the perceived futility of his narration, he tried to change the subject.
But memory is a sum of contradictions. While he maintained an outward ambivalence, his memory of his birthplace – Lahore – was suffused with an almost diasporic longing to return. Despite having lived and worked as a psychiatrist in the United Kingdom since 1974, he tacitly expressed a desire to re-experience the past, while at the same time, remaining wedded to the perception that “Maiṁ nahīṁ jā sakadā” – I can’t go.
The narration of personal history is fraught with difficulty. Its central dilemma is distinguishing the personal from the historical. Oral tradition – or the oral transmission of ideas – could be perceived as having the same conundrum at its core. But as historian Aanchal Malhotra says, “Oral history is not reportage or journalism, but rather, the very penetration of human memory.” Indeed, the fragility, fallibility (and fiction) of individual memory makes its capture more precious, for we depend on it to remember the collective past.
My grandfather and I began with the question of origin. Historian Benedict Anderson said that nations are “imagined communities” – modern constructions that use mythologies of origin as the basis of national meaning. When asked where he came from, my grandfather replied, “Lahore, India”, following it with the clarification that Lahore was in India at the time he lived there, and ending with “But we are refugees from Pakistan.” This geographic contradiction, running parallel to his dual origin narrative, demonstrated how his national identity was transposed on him, replacing his regional sense of self.
Dada’s memory of Lahore exhibited a nostalgic cosmopolitanism. He was born in 1938 to Captain Dr Jaswant Singh and Ishar Kaur in a family that was comfortably affluent. His maternal grandfather Avtar Singh Marwah – the headmaster of a local boys’ school – had built himself a splendid family home, which housed two dozen families as lodgers.
His remembrances of 1940s Lahore were mostly from time spent in the playground. Referring to Sikhs in the collective “we”, he said, “We played with Hindu [and] Muslim children. There was no discrimination at that time. We had a very good relationship with each other.” He recalled the mixed religious composition of his school as well as the milieu around Mohini Lal Road: in addition to Hindus and Muslims, “there must have been some Christians also. Everyone was living there.” In the domestic setting, though, individual identity was asserted, and he remembered attending a local gurudwara sitting alongside mosques.
Naturally, as a child, Dada was unable to assess the communal politics of the times. He nonetheless painted an image of everyday coexistence and cultural symbiosis: “It was not Sikh or Muslim or Hindu as it is now. We lived very amicably. We sent greetings on each other’s festivals and we attended each other’s weddings.”
Between August and September 1947, that oasis of harmony drowned in a tsunami of violence, turning his family into refugees.
Dada could not specify the precise trigger for his family’s departure, but he noted that communal escalation was a sudden affair. There had been ambiguity over which side of the Radcliffe Line Lahore would fall, and the tensions led to anticipatory violence. His family had no choice but to go into exile.
He rued, “I witnessed shops being looted, holy Qurans being burnt, and papers torn. I saw these things while leaving on foot. We left when things were getting worse. It became very dangerous. People were scared for their lives.”
From Lahore, my grandfather travelled on foot with his parents and elder brother – Bhupinder Singh – to a refugee camp in Nurpur, a village in Jalandhar district. He said the camp was desolate and life there chaotic because of interrupted food and water supplies. There was nothing to do and he yearned to attend school again. After several months, Dada and his family migrated to refugee camps in Chandwara, Jharkhand, and finally to Karol Bagh in Delhi. Their subsequent urban resettlement was relatively smooth, with Dada’s father, whom he respectfully called Darji, establishing a medical practice and eventually buying a house in Delhi’s Defence Colony.
Much of Dada’s extended family, meanwhile, remained on the Pakistani side. In Jhelum lived his eldest step-sister and paternal grandparents. As Punjab’s cities transfigured into urban slaughterhouses in August 1947, Darji – dressed in army uniform – travelled from Lahore in a British army van to urge his parents and step-daughter to leave Jhelum. This was after he had facilitated his immediate family’s exit to the Indian side of the new border. Perceiving no danger, they refused.
Their refusal was based partly on the local Muslim pir’s assurance of safety to Darji: “He is as much a father of yours as mine.” That Darji was convinced of the promise suggests that trust in religious leaders transcended faiths, foregrounding a sense of Punjabi community or at least a pious respect.
“Darji trusted the imam-sahib,” my grandfather said with regret.
When tensions intensified further, Darji’s father resolved to leave. He started loading the contents of his house onto a bullock cart, ready to make the cross-border journey. When the pir caught sight of him packing his bags, he shot him dead. Hearing the report of the gun, Darji’s mother came running out of the house. She too was killed. Fearing the step-sister would be kidnapped and raped, a close family friend pierced her belly with a spear. Dada explained that this elder did not want anyone to “misbehave with the daughter of Captain Doctor Jaswant Singh. He wanted to save the honour and dignity of the family...and he did not want her to be taken away by those people.”
The status of women as the repositories of national honour is a common theme in histories of Partition violence. Notions of purity and shame were so deeply ingrained in both men and women that death was preferable to violation. Indeed, multiple instances of gendered violence afflicted my grandfather’s family. Dada mentioned that while his grandparents were trying to escape Jhelum, his “Uncle Avtar Singh left Pakistan in a train with his six daughters [and one son]”.
On September 24, 1947, the train of refugees stopped at Kamoke, a prosperous Hindu-Sikh trading centre situated a few miles from Gujranwala in what is now Pakistan. Dada said, “The train was stopped by Muslim gangs, who wanted to loot and kill and rape people.” These mobs were abetted by members of the police force and National Guards, who distributed the captured girls among themselves. In fear of this eventuality, Avtar Singh “shot all his daughters dead, because he didn’t want his girls to fall into the hands of Muslims”. According to anthropologist Veena Das, sexual violence was used in 1947 as a method of “polluting” communities. If women were the custodians of honour, then defiling them ensured victory.
Avtar Singh’s throat was slit, and his grievously wounded body dumped on a nearby riverbank. Playing dead, he slumped in agony. But a slight movement alerted a member of the mob, who beat him with a stick, worsening the injuries. Rescued by Indian soldiery, he was taken to a hospital where he was reunited with his son, who was initially unable to recognise him, and one of his daughters, who had miraculously survived her father’s gunshot. The overall number of casualties and women abducted in the Kamoke massacre is unclear, but archival evidence puts the figure in the hundreds.
At this point in the interview, my grandmother interjected – with an anxious concern for balance – to say that massacres and sexual warfare were also perpetrated by Sikh militia. As the political scientist Bina D’Costa writes, “In effect, men of different communities were shrieking at each other through the medium of women’s bodies.”
If these patterns of violence may be described as strategies of de-feminisation, then it makes sense to also speak of aggressive de-masculinisation during the Partition. In Jhelum, the home of Darji’s younger sister, Ujagur Kaur, was raided by Muslim looters in search of gold. Her ignorance of where the gold was buried triggered the marauders to exact humiliating revenge on her husband. He was tied to the back of a horse, which bolted to his gruesome death. The savagery of this act was not lost on Dada who remarked during the interview, “Uha sārē jānavara baṇa ga’ē (They all became animals).” Fortunately, his aunt resettled in Gorakphur, Uttar Pradesh.
Reflecting on the totality of his family’s experience, Dada sighed while remembering his grandparents’ fate: “This deprived me of my grandparents’ love and affection...This story is very fresh in my mind.” At the same time, his pride in his father’s achievements was boundless. “To be a Captain and Doctor in the British Empire [was] no small thing beteh.” Asked who, if anyone, he would blame for these calamities, his response was swift. “The British [went] to the country, they took everything, they made a mess...They made no effort to secure the people, whom they had governed for over 200 years. Their conscience should hurt. They should have guilt.” Again, my grandmother interjected, requesting I do not record his critical description of “British arrogance”.
The initial reluctance of my grandfather to have his story published stems from an ongoing sectarian trauma. “Uha sānū ikalē nahīṁ chaḍaṇagē (They will not leave us alone),” he said. But underlying the rhetoric is a genuine concern that sharing his story risks damaging relations between Sikhs and Muslims in modern-day Britain. The fearful legacy of revenge endures in his conscience. It also exposes a paradox of diasporic memory: despite the pluralism of British life, his trauma is cemented as prevailing distrust. My grandmother’s hesitation to publicly criticise the colonial authorities for their negligence – lest it rouse contemporary political sensitivities – further demonstrates the uncertainty of her immigrant experience. Despite having held British citizenship for more than 40 years, she feels the exercise of her basic rights constitutes a privilege she cannot afford. More substantially, it showcases how members of the Partition generation have failed to unlearn the deferential ethic of coloniality. If offending the ruler is the ultimate sin, then one’s own suffering must be forgotten. Tragedies have no remedies but if the opportunity for learning exists, then remembering is where we must begin.