The Dispatches Of Hira Singh: Punjab Burning (3)


I did think of making this a 4 part series, but my good friend, Hira Singh, reminded me that all good things should end. Moreover, he did mention that a trilogy is a good thing in general.

So, what I will do, is to make it impersonal-personal. I will write a short personal story, interject this with a few quotes from survivors of the period, and end with a short injunction on what I believe, is the danger that lawmakers pose, and what we could do.

This may be longish so, beware.

My father came from a village called Mithitawana, in Sargoda District. This is in West Punjab, which is now in Pakistan. My mother grew up in a nearby village, and spent many years in Lahore, which is also in Pakistan. My father was lucky, in that his family came to India before the Partition. Yet, it seems his father was a large landowner, and they left everything behind.

My father then started life at the bottom, as a typist clerk. He applied for the Army, got selected, and rose to be a Major General, before retiring. He then worked in a few private companies before finally hanging up his boots.

“I was a young boy in those days. The Chowk Pragmas events deeply traumatised me as I saw humanity being debased in the worst possible manner. For many months I could not cope with what I had seen………. Killing innocent human beings cannot be condoned under any circumstances”….. Ripudamman Singh

You know, previously we always addressed elders of the Muslim community s chacham (uncle) or chichi (aunty), the same way we greeted our own elders. On the whole, the people of Amritsar were friendly with each other, even the gangsters showed respect to the elders, and molesting of women was severely punished by them. However, once the communal war had begun, human beings had been transformed into wild beasts”…. Devi Das Mangat

When I came back to India in 2009, I had distributors in Pakistan. One of them upbraided me for not being fluent in Punjabi. He called my parents to say hello, and they were shocked to hear a Punjabi accent from their youth coming from across the border.

“We were told that Pakistan would be an Islamic site where the system established by Allah and his prophet would again be revived. For doing that, Hindus and Sikhs who were infidels had to be killed or kicked out of Pakistan…….. Every ruler looted us. Pakistan is a very corrupt society. If all this were to happen, then why were we asked to do what we did? ….. It happens quite so often that I pray to God to give me pardon for the murder of those Sikhs and Hindus. I have a feeling that Allah understands me and has forgiven me. We were misguided and used by our politicians.” ….. Mujahid Taj Din

These Pakistanis, who were then living in Karachi, sent people to my father’s village to film it. They also managed to film his old house, and when he saw the video, I could see him reach his hand out to touch the screen, at the spot where the doorway to his old home appeared on the screen.

This was the home he had not seen in almost 70 years. He died a year later.

We walked all the way to the inner city where we had some relatives, Shahalmi and other Hindu localities had been burnt down…… I am not sure if this is the Pakistan we wanted…..” Ali Bakhsh. 

Shams and I have stayed in touch. We call each other on our festivals, and when one of his friends was dying of cancer, he called me to see if I could get a second opinion on his reports. Which, I did manage to do.

“We arrived in Amritsar where the Muslims were on the receiving end. There was great pain inside all of us…… How many did we kill? I think I stopped counting after I had struck the first victim with an axe…… I never married because I could never overcome my grief and sorrow. My life was shattered in August 1947.” Mahinder Nath Khanna

Some months back, I quoted Hermann Goering, and I repeat the quote:

“Why, of course, the people don’t want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece. Naturally, the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship…
Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”

People are often manipulated by politicians and leaders to act in manners that are irrational, and dangerous.

India and Pakistan are at loggerheads again, with the recent terror attacks, and the surgical strike back by India.

Yet, if people like Shams can reach across the boundaries of hate and borders to create a common bond of humanity and friendship, why can’t we all do this?  Do we have to wait for politicians to tell us what to do? People essentially want to build bridges, unless driven by emotional fear to tear them down and build weapons instead. 

If we pause a bit, and try and realise that we are the same under the skin, then I believe that much of the killing can indeed stop.

Lali ankhian dai pai dasdi ay                                                                                                           Roay tosí vi o roya así vi aan”                                                                                                        (“The redness of our eyes tells us                                                                                                  That both of us have wept”)

—- Pakistani Punjabi poet Ustaad Daman expressing his sorrow at the Partition


What I have written may sound simplistic indeed. It is not. Politicians believe in complex treaties, which are never implemented. In the old days, a look in the eye, a shake of the hand and a hug would do the trick.

The song above expresses a person’s love for his/ her homeland. I discovered this version by the late John Wright. What does it have? A simple acoustic arrangement, and a magnificent voice, full of emotion.

Listen, in particular, to these words of the song. While he is singing of Caledonia, these words apply to any country, your home, your origin, your roots:

I’ve been telling old stories, singing songs                                                                                                   That make me thing about                                                                                                                                       Of where I came from,                                                                                                                                        That’s why I seem so far away today” 

India was Partitioned because the British wanted out, and did not give a damn. India was Partitioned, to fulfil the different ambitions of Nehru, Jinnah, Gandhi and Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel.

They may have shed copious tears later, but their lives were not destroyed. In the end, millions were torn from their homes, their traditions, their friendships.

What was left, was a festering wound between the two countries, one that has serious implications for world peace.

Normal people like us can make a difference, one person at a time. It is difficult. To see through traditions of bloodshed, and walls of hate, and to then perceive the humanity that defines all of us is not easy.



  1. Your article does a lot for me. It confirms the existence of a place called Shahalami which my grandmother remembered nostalically as Shaalmi Darwaja. I thought it was something she had imagined and I am glad it existed as a Hindu area in Lahore as written by Ali Bakhsh in your Blog. Thank you indeed.

    1. Well, thanks… Yeah, for many like me, this is an emotional topic. Sadly, in one sense, for the next generation this won’t matter. On the one hand, they won’t be burdened by these past events. On the other, this shared history will disappear

  2. What a great post Raj. You are right, “All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.” It is the same. I fear we are moving in this direction as well. I’ve always said in between extremism lies the truth. Neither side is “right” and the sooner we all realize that, the better.

      1. They are a baseball team from San Francisco. I’ve been watching them since I was just a kid! Baseball is the all american sport. Some like football but not me. Baseball is it for me!

  3. Thank you Rajiv, for that part of your history. There are a lot of places that are at odds but if Ireland can find peace after so many years of their troubles and if Columbia, South America can come to terms after many decades of civil war, India and Pakistan can too. No one said it would be easy but it can be done.

      1. I hear that Columbia is still having problems. They had a referendum and the people were against letting the drug lords off from criminal charges.
        It is never easy.

    1. Its often to do with money…. interesting how Ireland was happy to come to the ” table” and talk once the money supporting them dried up. Why did it dry up? Because after 9/11 it became illegal in USA to support these types of groups and so once the Irish knew the Americans wouldn’t or couldnt send them any more money, they had no option but to talk. So once the money dries up – people are often ” happy to talk” . Sweeping generalisation I know, but that’s the gist of it – in my humble opinion 🙂

  4. A very strong post, Rajiv. As you say, normal people like us can make a difference. At the very least, the exercise of kindness, regret and forgiveness, and displays of humanity, can shame the politicians. Thank you for writing this.

  5. I need to read this again quietly and make notes. I do remember the previous blog you spoke about and in fact I sent it to one or two friends to discuss. I love the example you make. This is great stuff though. I am completely hooked but will reply later when I have read and digested. I think I need to leave work to make more time to enjoy Blogs. 🙂

  6. Such a moving and insightful article Rajiv…being torn away from one’s beloved place is not justified. Partition was a tragic happening. May peace always prevail!

  7. I am really enjoying these ” stories”. Great stuff. In fact your quote of Goering is one I have kept from your other Blog. That I really like and have quoted it over chattering class dinner parties. ( yawn yawn )…often starting….” I have a friend in India…” ( okay not strictly true but it gets their attention.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.