Kids Corner


The Partition of Punjab:
The Story of My Dad
Part II





Continued from yesterday … Part II


In Rohtak, I joined the Government High School. But the school was closed. There was nothing to do. So I volunteered at the Rohtak Refugee Camp.

The camp was an open field near the High School. Admiral Gurdeep Singh – a retired navy officer was in charge of the camp. He ran a very tight ship. We were about twenty volunteers. I was put in charge of the rations. I worked at that camp for five to six months.

“But Dad, you were so young? How come you were given such an important charge?”

I worked very hard. All my waking hours were spent at camp. I would only go home to wash up and change. The rest of the time I was at camp.

I remember when Sarojini Naidu, the well-known poet and freedom-fighter, came to visit our camp. Admiral Gurdeep Singh introduced me to her as head of rations. She was also very surprised to see a sixteen year old in such an important position.

There were nineteen items on ration at our camp – spices, medicines, quilts, rice, lentils, etc. The rations used to come from Delhi and were stored at the high school. Gurdeep Singh would send a telegram listing what was needed. The next day the trucks delivered them. We had about 20-30 trucks delivering supplies every day.

As far as I can remember, there were no Sikh refugees at our camp. Most of the refugees were from Multan. The men were big and hardworking. They were the ones who unloaded the trucks and stored the rations. Each man would carry a sack of 100 kilos of rice on his back. They were the ones who put up the tents, the toilets, and did all the manual work at camp. No labor was hired to do any of the work.

Running the camp was not difficult because the refugees helped a lot. The biggest problem was the fights they had amongst themselves. Almost every day part of our jobs used to be to settle their disputes.

The only thing that was difficult at camp was providing security for the young orphaned girls. Gurdeep Singh had a special section right in the middle of the camp next to his office for them. He had a barbed wire going around those tents and also placed guards to protect the girls. I think there were about thirty girls. He sort of adopted them. He got them trained, married and gave each one a sewing machine and Rs. 500 from his personal finances.

“So, Dad, there seemed to be a government in place?”

Of course, there was. There never was a fight at camp over rations. But the mood was very sad. Everyone was crying. They had lost all their belongings, some had lost family. I used to cry a lot listening to their stories. Mami ji (aunt) used to get angry seeing my swollen eyes and dirt-filled clothes. She wanted me to stop volunteering, but I didn’t.

Living conditions were hard at camp. At one point we had about 400,000 refugees. Slowly people began to move out. When the orders came to close camp we were down to about 50,000 refugees. They were asked to leave. It was not easy.

I must say, Gurdeep Singh did a remarkable job. He was an amazing man. I salute him.

School reopened and I joined the High School. I already had a very good friend in Ishar Singh. He was also a volunteer at camp. I think that friendship helped a lot in my settling down in Rohtak.

“Dad, what are your thoughts about the Partition?”

Partition was like separating your own children. It was so wrong. I don’t think anyone could have imagined what happened. Nana ji, who was a Congress leader, never for a moment thought that he would have to leave Jhelum. Partition changed everything. Our home, our land in Chakwal, everything was gone. All my childhood connections were lost. I never went back.

Dad goes silent.

My mind drifts …

I want to know more about my great grandfather, Bhai Mehtab Singh Maini (1880 - 1947, son of Bhagwan Singh and Sarasti Devi – Pind Vahalee, District Jhelum).

I reach out to his son.

“Uncle ji, tell me what happened to you during the Partition?”

The following is narrated by Sarmukh Singh Maini, (b.1928, Jhelum) son of Mehtab Singh and Budhwanti Kaur.

*   *   *   *   *

Dear Inni, in all these years, you are the only one who has asked, (he says).

I was in the final year of high school (matric) during the time of Partition. We were eight siblings. In August of 1947 my sister Tej Kaur, my brother Trilochan Singh, and I, were the only ones left with our parents in Jhelum. By mid-August, Dar ji (father) then sent my brother and sister with our very good friend Sardar Avtar Singh to Amritsar. His son had come with a military truck to evacuate his family. So I was the only child that was with our parents.

I can still hear Dar ji’s voice: “So what if there is a Pakistan? It does not mean we have to leave Jhelum.”

But things in Jhelum began deteriorating rapidly after August 15. Our home was in Machine Mohalla No. 1. (Machine Mohalla 2 was a Hindu area; Machine Mohalla 3 was Muslim area). Our family had three homes that were inter-connected. My two uncles (Dar ji’s brothers: Sant Singh and Sardar Singh) had their homes on either side. We could reach each other’s homes via the roof.

One September morning many Hindu and Sikh families started coming to our home to seek refuge. The Muslim mob had forced them out and taken over their homes. By that afternoon, there were about 3000 people in our homes. 

Around 5 pm that day, the Muslim mob stood outside our home and began shooting. Many people knew that Dar ji did not own a gun. But we had one gun in the house that belonged to my cousin. Dar ji grabbed that gun and started firing back at the mob. The shooting went on for about an hour or two. I was handing Dar ji kartoos (cartridges) which I had put in my pockets.

At 7.30 p.m. the mob began to torch the house. Fire was started on all sides. We were forced to evacuate and come out in the open. We were walking towards the police station through the small bazar that was behind our home. I was walking with my parents on either side. None of us saw the gunman who was sitting on the roof of one of the Sikh homes.

He fired on Dar ji. I am sure Dar ji was his target. The bullet hit Dar ji’s left thigh. I immediately had Dar ji lean on me. We struggled and walked another 100 yards to the police station. The police station was barely 200 yards from the house.

The police could hear the firing but they did not come to help. While walking towards the police station, I saw a constable and requested his help in reaching the police station. Instead of helping us, he spat on us, saying, that we were kafirs. Dar ji knew this constable. The police station was overcrowded. It seemed like every Hindu and Sikh family from our area was there.

I remember Dar ji asking me for water at the police station. He was bleeding heavily. I could not leave him. I asked the constables if they could bring me some water. None did. Dar ji knew all of these constables.

Suddenly, I saw Narpat Rai Khairati, who was a very good friend of Dar ji’s. He lived about 500 yards from our home. He immediately went to the hand pump, wet his white turban and poured water into Dar ji’s mouth.

All the wounded people were put in a truck and taken to the Civilian hospital.

Although I was not hurt, my clothes were drenched with Dar ji’s blood. I too boarded the truck. Dar ji was in a semi-conscious state. By now it had gotten dark. I emptied my pockets of the remaining bullets and threw them from the truck.

Then I removed Dar ji’s gaatra (belt) which held his kirpan, his gold pocket watch and Rs. 5000 that was on him and put them in my pockets.

I was hoping that he would get the right treatment and survive. But soon after we arrived at the hospital, he died in my arms. A few of my friends also died that day.

Next morning I, along with the others, was taken by the police to the main gurdwara which was declared a refugee camp. The police took away Dar ji’s kirpan from me.

When I got to the gurdwara, I told Bey ji (mother) that Dar ji was no more. She went silent. From that moment on, her entire attention was focused on me. I was in a state of shock. She kept saying, it will be alright, it will be alright.

Bey ji and I stayed for a few days at Ramey Shah’s home which was opposite the Gurdwara Singh Sabha. Ramey Shah was a kind and good man. He knew us very well. His house was on the banks of the river Jhelum. That area was safe at that time.

After five days, twelve trucks came to the gurdwara to begin the evacuation of 10,000 people. There was such a rush to get onto the trucks. It was impossible for Bey ji to jump up on the truck, so we returned to Ramey Shah’s home.

The next morning, around 10 a.m., I heard my name being broadcast via a loudspeaker on the road. There was a message for me, to appear with Bey ji by the order of the Indian Government representative Lala Avtar Narain (father of ex PM Inder Gujral).

Ramey Shah requested us to take his young daughter as well. He stayed behind. So, the three of us sat in the car that had an armed escort. The car took us to the truck convoy that was in the Cantonment area. The convoy was waiting for us. We boarded the truck and headed to India.

At the town of Gujranwala our convoy was held up for 8-10 days due to floods. We slept on the ground. There was hardly any food. We were lucky if we got one roti a day. It was terrible. This is how we reached Amritsar.

My elder brother was waiting for us. He did not know that our father was killed. He wept uncontrollably, when he heard the news.

Uncle goes silent. It’s a similar silence that I experienced when my father was narrating his story.

Gently, I ask, “Uncle ji, did you go back to see if your house was totally burnt?”

No. It was not safe to go to that area. But I now know that our home has been converted into a mosque. Can you believe that?

I pause to digest this. A mosque!

“Uncle ji, do you remember the date when this happened?”

I think it was September 25, 1947. But I am not too sure. I was in such a state of shock. Everything was gone. I knew nothing would ever be the same again.

“Please tell me a little more about Dar ji’s life.”

You know, Inni, Bey ji was from a Hindu family. She was one of seven sisters. Her father wanted one Sikh son-in-law. So, he got her married to Dar ji. Bey ji was illiterate when she got married. Dar ji taught her Gurmukhi and under his influence she became a staunch Sikh. That tells you how important his Sikhi was to him.

He was a great hunter and a horseman. One year at the mela in Jhelum he accepted a challenge to ride a beautiful wild horse. The owner of the horse was confident of winning. Well! Dar ji jumped on the horse and rode it like a champ.

He was in his early forties then.

In 1930, he was jailed in Gujarat for over a year under the Civil Disobedience Movement. It was a terrible time. The business suffered greatly.

He was member of the Chief Khalsa Diwan and used to go to Amritsar every two months for their meetings. In fact, he was in Amritsar in July of 1947 for a meeting. He was also the President of the Gurdwara Choa Sahib (Rohtas - Jhelum).

Sant Suraj Singh, the Panjabi poet used to stay with us regularly. He had written a book Jagrit Khalsa in verse against the British Raj. Dar ji got the book published.

When the book hit the market, the police immediately came to our home and confiscated the entire print run.

I remember one Vaisakhi, Baba Kharak Singh was invited to give a lecture at the Choa Sahib Gurdwara. British intelligence found out. They, along with the local constables, arrived at the gurdwara to arrest him. The Sikhs immediately formed a circle around Baba ji. The British Officer told Dar ji that he would have to use force if they were prevented in arresting Baba ji. Dar ji told them that they could arrest Baba ji after the lecture, but not before.

An agreement was reached. Baba Kharak Singh was arrested after he delivered the lecture at the Gurdwara, without the use of force.

Scenes from the film “The Last Samurai” flash before me. I can see Dar ji in action. I know how he died, but the hunger to know how he lived gnaws me.


Continued tomorrow ... 

To read an earlier story -- "My Grandfather’s Story", please CLICK here.

[Inni Kaur is the author of a children's book series, "Journey with the Gurus". She also serves on the board of the Sikh Research Institute.]

August 13, 2013


Conversation about this article

1: Harinder Singh (Bridgewater, New Jersey, USA), August 13, 2013, 8:52 AM.

How could Inni bhainji not have had her own "Journey with the Gurus" with ancestral narratives like these? It was just a matter of time, re-telling from her is bursting forth on Gurus and their Sikhs. Our narratives are drenched with acceptance and love, even amidst bloodshed. This is the Panth of the Guru.

2: Sangat Singh  (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia ), August 13, 2013, 8:04 PM.

Inni ji: You add to the body of painful writings of the partition. Punjab, in particular Rawalpindi, suffered the most from the contrived ethnic cleansing in the wake of the bloodiest riots. It was a botched up partition. The guilty leaders were: Mountbatten, Nehru and Jinnah. When Jinnah saw the endless lines of refugees he remarked, "What have I done?" "What a glorious charade of British Imperial largesses and power 'peacefully' transferred." (Walpole)

3: Rup Singh (Canada), August 14, 2013, 2:47 PM.

I agree, there is plenty of blame to go around. We do have to also look at the Sikh leadership's role or lack thereof during these tragic events. The biggest reason I believe all the killings happened was due to the lack of government providing security forces for the protection of the people. The summer heat alone must have been unbearable, now imagine having to move by ox cart or even on foot carrying whatever you could, and under fear of being attacked or even be killed.

4: Dya Singh (Melbourne, Australia), August 14, 2013, 8:10 PM.

I have just seen 'Bhaag Milkha ...'. Reading this by our dear sister Inni is like a double whammy. I have heard other stories too ... all heart-rending. By the way - those who have not seen 'Bhhag Milkha ...' - please see it. It is based on true events of one of our living heroes - Milkha Singh, the Flying Sikh ... and it is about the trauma undergone by those who had to flee during Partition. Inni, awaiting your next compilation of "Journey with the Gurus".

5: Preeti Maini Jatar  (Dubai, U.A.E), August 15, 2013, 7:51 AM.

Dear Inni didi, thanks a ton! Have heard from dad what he and his parents went through during partition and now, thanks to you, have also read what Vir ji experienced.

6: Devinder Kohli (Chandigarh, Punjab), August 25, 2013, 10:52 AM.

It's a touching story. I was ten years old then. My father was in the army. He put up a small camp in his bungalow for people from Gujarkhan, Takht Pari, Kalar, etc., for a month with army tents, and provided them with food.

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The Story of My Dad
Part II"

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