Kids Corner


Torn Apart:
A Saga From The Partition of Punjab





A few years ago I wrote about the Partition of Punjab and India. First, it was a story called “Farewell to Shimla” about the migration of my family from Simla (as it was then known) to Lahore. The second was based on the first-hand experiences of Tufail Uppal who saw the events of partition unfolding as an adult. It  was titled “Common People and Partition of India”.

Uppal migrated from Raja Sansi, a town near Amritsar. I did not know at that time that these articles would be helpful in uniting a family after half a century (51 years) of separation.

Early morning on a Saturday in November, 2012, I received a call from Romy Singh. He asked me for help because he had read my article on the Partition. He told me a story about his mother Harbhajan Kaur.  Briefly the story in her words is as follows:

“I am now 82 years old.  My father Sardar Sher Singh was a landlord in Raja Sansi town near Amritsar.  I was married to a Sardar Harbil Singh in Lahore in 1946. In 1947, while fleeing from Lahore to Amritsar our truck was attacked and the mob killed everyone except the girls. I was one of the surviving girls.

“After capture, a person named Afzal Khan married me and renamed me Shahnaz Begum. Afzal Khan was 16 years older than me. After marrying Afzal Khan I moved to Karachi and we had five children. The name of the kids are: Khurshid, Zubeda, Jamila, Bala (Iqbal) and Rizwan. Afzal Khan lived in Kola Godaam (Coal Depot)  area of Karachi. He was in the cosmetic business.

“In 1962 the visa restrictions were relaxed and I decided to visit Raja Sansi. The two people who helped me were: Bashir Ahmed and Zahoor Ahmed in Akbari Mandi, Lahore. In fact their mother-in-law was like a godmother to me.

“So I proceeded with my husband Afzal Khan to Raja Sansi (Amritsar area) with my children. The youngest one, Rizwan, born in 1960, was two years old.

“In Raja Sansi, my parents did not allow me to go back to Pakistan but my husband Afzal Khan and children were sent back to Pakistan.

“In 1969, I was remarried to a Sardar Gurbachan Singh whose wife had died and needed someone to take care of his son Romy Singh who was then five years old. Romy Singh migrated to the USA in 1989. After Romy established his business, we moved to the USA in 1997 to join him. My husband passed away in 2007.

“Although I never revealed the story to my son Romy Singh, he found out from other sources. I am now 82 years old and Romy asked me if I wanted to contact my kids in Pakistan. Now they must have grown up and God knows where they live at this time."

My search started from this point onward. I asked Romy Singh to get as many details as possible from his mother about the various people and places in Karachi so that we could focus our research on a specific area. After more than fifty years it was probable that the family had scattered all over Pakistan and other countries.

I published the above information in “Pakistan Link” on December 7, 2012. The editor Akhtar Faruqui encouraged me in this pursuit. I also shared this story with various other press groups in Pakistan. I sent this brief to Dr. Ishtiaq Ahmed who writes a regular column for “Daily Times”, a newspaper in Lahore.

I also discussed this story with Tufail Uppal who had a vivid memory of Partition.  Here the story becomes more interesting. Uppal not only knew the family of Harbhajan Kaur, he had attended her first (pre-Partition) marriage in 1946. He had a personal friendship with her father Sher Singh and her family.

He had in fact met Harbhajan Kaur in Lahore while she was on her way to see her family in Raja Sansi in 1962. Since he had known the family, he had kept track of the events till 1963.

At that time -- Uppal tells me -- Afzal Khan went to the court in Amritsar for the sake of his small kids. The youngest son Rizwan was only two years old.  However the court decided that Afzal could take his kids back to Pakistan but Harbhajan Kaur would stay in India. Religious sentiments and wounds of Partition were still festering. 

So Harbhajan Kaur who had been forced to become Shahnaz Begum after her coerced marriage to Afzal Khan became a victim of Partition again. “Daily News” of Karachi published this story as “Wife, Who Never Was” on April 8, 1963. Uppal kept this published story in his personal archives for more than fifty years.

I continued my search by sending this story to many personal friends in Pakistan and the USA.  Meanwhile Dr. Ishtiaq Ahmed published this story in “Daily Times” of Lahore on December 16, 2012.  Dr. Ahmed was very interested in this story as he had already published a book on Partition, “The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed” (Oxford University Press, Karachi, 2012).  So he actively joined the search.

I kept in touch with Romy Singh to get more information. Romy Singh shared with me more details about his family. His father Gurbachan Singh was a writer and poet and had fled from Lyallpur (now Faisalabad) during the Partition. He could read and understand Urdu and Persian. His first wife had passed away leaving two sons who needed care. He named his son Romy Singh after Jallaluddin Rumi.

Romy was about five years old when his father Gurbachan Singh married Harbhajan Kaur. So for Romy Singh and his older brother Harbhajan Kaur provided the motherly care after her marriage in 1969. As time went by, Romy Singh migrated to the USA in 1989.   He brought his parents (Gurbachan Singh and Harbhajan Kaur) in 1997.  The family lived in the greater Baltimore area of Maryland.

Romy Singh learned the past history of his mother from the personal papers of his father Gurbachan Singh but he never mentioned the past to avoid hurting her feelings. When his father passed away in 2007, Romy Singh decided to ask his mother if she wanted to see her kids in Pakistan. 

Initially she avoided the subject but in 2012 she agreed to pursue the search, if it was possible to track them down after half a century of separation.  At that time Romy started an active search in India and the Internet.

He learned that his relatives had received a few letters from Pakistan asking for Harbhajan Kaur / Shahnaz Begum.  But they had simply ignored the pleas and dumped the letters in the garbage.

While doing further research on the Partition, Romy came across my article on the subject.

Our search continued, with Dr. Ahmed having joined the effort. I shared the story with human rights organizations in Pakistan and my Facebook contacts. No lead was coming through on this subject. We also explored the possibility of searching the NADRA data base in Pakistan.

During the second week of January, 2013, we invited Romy Singh and his family, including his mother Harbhajan Kaur, to meet Tufail Uppal. In that gathering other members of Uppal family also came. Tufail Uppal’s daughter Fazilat and his son-in-law Waseem Sheikh came to meet Romy Singh’s family.

In that meeting we decided to publish the story in an Urdu newspaper “Jang” in Karachi. Waseem Sheikh contacted his friends in Pakistan while Fazilat mobilized the search in Karachi through her personal friends. The story published in “Daily Times” by Dr. Ishtiaq Ahmed was translated in Urdu by Tariq Bashir of Jang newspaper. We provided all the relevant details to pursue the search in the area of Kola Godaam. 

This name referred to a Coal Storage Depot that had disappeared long time ago.  However there are still people who recalled the name in the Lyari area of Karachi. So as the Jang newspaper was preparing the story for publication, another person was asking around if anyone knew Afzal Khan in Lyari area of yesteryear.

The story of Harbhajan Kaur / Shahnaz Begum appeared on February 9, 2013 in the Jang Newspaper in Urdu. On February 12, 2013, there was a breakthrough in Karachi where a shop keeper was found who had heard this story from his father. He also knew Rizwan as a friend.

Initially Rizwan thought it was a kind of hoax because he believed his mother had passed away, just as his father Afzal Khan.

Meanwhile Jamila Begum, a daughter of Harbhajan Kaur / Shahnaz Begum read the story in Jang and sent an email to Dr. Ishtiaq Ahmed on February 14, 2013. I sent the phone number of Romy Singh to Dr. Ahmed and Jamila Begum while Rizwan got through the Karachi contact the news of his mother being alive and well in Maryland, USA.

The elder daughter Khurshid Begum contacted her mother from Canada. Within a  few hours on February 14, 2013, the whole family got connected on Skype.  Khurshid Begum came from Canada and met her mother for the first time after more than fifty years. She had grandchildren of her own at this time. Khurshid Begum had lived in New Jersey area for about ten years while her mother was in the Maryland area.

During this time Tufail Uppal was admitted to the Christiana Hospital for the treatment of respiratory infection. Although he was very sick at the age of over 92 years, he was very pleased to learn about the news of Harbhajan Kaur finding her kids in Pakistan. He smiled and conveyed his good wishes. After one week of this discovery, Tufail Uppal passed away in peace.

Romy Singh planned his trip to India and Pakistan. He applied for a visa for his mother and himself. Both of them went first to Amritsar on April 13, 2013. They crossed over to Lahore via Wagha border after one week stay with their relatives.

Romy Singh shared that he did not provide any details to his relatives in India about the visit to Pakistan. Khurshid, the eldest daughter, travelled from Canada to receive them in Lahore.

Romy Singh and his mom first went to pay their respect to Guru Nanak’s birth place, Nankana Sahib, a town in West Punjab. They then took a flight from Lahore to Karachi. 

In Karachi the whole family -- including Zubeda, Jamila, Bala (Iqbal) and Rizwan -- met after more than 51 years.  Khurshid, the eldest daughter was accompanying her mother from Lahore.

After one day the whole family went to Hyderabad where Khurshid owns a comfortable home. The family has grown.

Afzal Khan had married after his return from India to take care of his five young children. He had two more children from his second wife. Afzal Khan and his wife passed away many years ago. The larger family takes care of his younger kids.  The eldest daughter, Khurshid, has now become a grandmother. The family has grown with kids having their own family. There are many visitors every day of their stay.

After a week’s stay, Romy Singh and his mom Harbhajan Kaur have safely returned to their home in Maryland. Their stay in Pakistan was very pleasant.  They did not encounter any hatred, prejudice or threats of any kind.

In the beginning of this search, we thought that this will take time. However, technology has made it very easy to search people in all countries.

This story gives me hope about human decency of people from all religions. I wish them well as they try to reconnect and make up for lost time.

[Courtesy: The Pakistani Newspaper. Edited for]
June 24, 2013

Conversation about this article

1: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), June 24, 2013, 8:33 AM.

What a heartrending story of Partition. It is a script that has all the ingredients for a successful film/serial.

2: Manjit Kaur (Frederick, Maryland. U.S.A), June 24, 2013, 2:32 PM.

What an amazing story of a woman who was pushed and pulled because of sociopolitical and cultural reasons. Her struggles over the loss of her loved ones, having to start life over and over again, and finally to be connected with her family, one can only imagine her pain. She is a wonderful woman -- I have seen her at our local gurdwara always involved in seva and she recites beautiful poetry. Bless her family and friends who helped her trace the trail and to have her children see their mother. This story definitely needs to be re-told in detail about a woman's strength to embrace two different religions in one life time, albeit one against her will.

3: Jesse Bateau (Sterling Heights, Michigan, USA), June 24, 2013, 6:25 PM.

There are probably many stories of women who went through perhaps similar experiences on both sides of the border. Who can say? It was a terrible time, a thing that never should have happened, a terrible nightmare of a time that I am sure for most people living in those villages never made any sense at all. So many lost everything that they had, and so many more lost their lives. I cannot even imagine how this woman survived emotionally after witnessing all of her male relatives being slaughtered and then all of her female relatives being dragged off, just like herself, then to be married off against her will, but in fear, to a man so much older than herself, but unable to do anything about it, a man of a different religion who changes your name and your religion "just like that". It is impossible to imagine living in her shoes for even a moment, how terrified she must have been, and unable to mourn for what happened. Horrible. But how much the Blessed Guru provides, that he gave her long life, many children, and allowed her to reconnect with her family, to find her children after being separated from them for over 50 years, to return to Lahore after all this time as well to pray at the birthplace of Guru Nanak as well, so many blessings. Just to be able to go from India to Pakistan in itself is a miracle, which not long ago could not have happened. I do hope that peace prevails between the two countries, so that more people can find their lost relatives and reconnect. The division of the Punjab divided more than just land, it divided families, it divided people from each other. The Five Rivers flowed with blood that can never be repaid, and we should remember those lives that were lost in that transition, and in however way we pray, pray for their souls journey to seek rest eternal from the trauma of those events.

4: Jagtar Singh (Missouri, USA), June 24, 2013, 6:39 PM.

Blessed are sons like Romy Singh who has put in the super-human effort of helping his mother (step-mother!) re-connect with her lost family. We will see that Romy's contribution is of epic proportions if we stop for a moment and think how rare and extraordinary such a project is, given the knee-jerk reactions people on both sides of the border tend to have when dealing with forced conversions and marriages during the Partition era.

5: Amy Yawanrajah (Seremban, Malaysia), June 27, 2013, 5:02 AM.

What a heart-wrenching story of love and perseverence! A mother's love never dies and neither time nor distance bars this ...

6: Bikramjit Singh (London, United Kingdom), July 06, 2013, 12:39 PM.

There are many parts of this story which are reprehensible. The forced marriage is one thing but the husband then took her to Karachi so that she could not be recovered and sent to India under the agreement set up after the Partition.

7: Muhammad Rehan Rajput (Hyderabad, Pakistan), September 16, 2013, 8:33 PM.

I am the grandson of Harbhajan Kaur. And I salute Romy Mammon who did all this to re-join the two families.

8: Waseem Sheikh (Bear, Delaware, USA), October 30, 2013, 7:18 PM.

I am son-in law of Tufail Uppal. He is not with us now but his contribution towards reunion of family will always be remembered. Thanks all for making all possible efforts for this reunion. I have met Romy. What a man he is. He deserves more than a salute. On behalf of Uppal family (we all live in Delaware, USA), I thank Naseem Hassan and all who helped the old lady to meet her children.

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A Saga From The Partition of Punjab"

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