‘A Sikh soldier pulled me out of the rubble’: survivors recall India’s violent partition – and reflect on its legacy

·12 min read

The story of India’s bloody partition in August 1947, that led to the deaths of at least 1 million Indians and the displacement of around 15 million, is a very British one. In what was to become the British Raj’s swan song after two centuries of colonial rule, Cyril Radcliffe, a British judge who had never visited colonial India before, was appointed in July 1947 to carve through the ancient land within weeks. The borders for two independent states were drawn on religious lines: Hindu-majority India, and Muslim-majority West Pakistan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).

In just a few months, thousands of years of cultural exchange and co-existence between India’s Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communities, nightmarishly unravelled into panic, then terror, with millions rushing for the hastily established new borders as violence erupted.

Seventy-five years after partition, the generation who lived through it are dying out. In Britain today, almost half of Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority (BAME) communities are from Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Indian backgrounds, but few speak about the horrors they witnessed. Here, three of them do.

‘I feel that loss from my life every day’ … Zareena Parveen.
‘I feel that loss from my life every day’ … Zareena Parveen. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Zareena Parveen

Zareena Parveen was born in 1935 into a Muslim family in the Indian city of Patiala, Punjab. When the 87-year-old remembers growing up in the “princely state” – the largest Sikh state in India – she thinks of small trinkets of gold her grandfather was given by the Sikh maharajah, Bhupinder Singh. He worked as a guard for the prince, who once commissioned Cartier to craft one of the most expensive pieces of jewellery ever made: the diamond Patiala necklace.

Muslims made up about a third of the state before it was folded into India. “Before partition, our Sikh and Hindu neighbours were more like brothers and sisters,” Parveen says. “My best memories are travelling with my grandfather all over India and visiting its many hill stations,” she adds, describing journeys to Kalka, Nainital and Shimla, which were built at higher altitudes by the British Raj to escape the blistering Indian summer.

By the 1940s, anti-colonial revolts had swept across India and defiant calls for Indian independence had reached a deafening roar. About 40km east of Patiala, Parveen recalls travelling to the city of Ambala, a hotspot for independence rallies. There, she saw two titanic politicians speak: Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League, who was pushing for a Muslim nation-state as a sanctuary for India’s religious minority; and Mahatma Gandhi, of the Hindu-dominated Congress party, who wanted a unified India.

“Quaid-i-Azam [Jinnah’s title of ‘great leader’] said: ‘We can eat frugally, we can eat just lentils and roti, but at least we will have Pakistan,’” Parveen says. “Gandhi said: ‘Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Christians: we must stay together under one India, because we are all brothers.’”

As Indian independence and partition became a possibility, whispers that mobs might attack Muslim families in an undivided India crept into Patiala. Parveen and her family, along with about 200 relatives, fled to a large building inside the city, hoping they would find safety in numbers.

Then, one day in June 1947, the full horror of partition rained down on the 12-year-old Parveen. A mob of Hindu and Sikh men began targeting Muslim-owned properties in the city. When they arrived at the building Parveen’s family were sheltering in, they poured petrol over its walls, and set it alight, before bursting in her home. They surrounded her mother, Sharifa, hit her on the head with swords and sticks, and killed her.

“My mother was slaughtered in front of my eyes,” Parveen says, her voice quivering. She lay trapped beneath her corpse, while her five older siblings, aunts and uncles, were murdered. With fire rippling up the walls, other relatives were stuck inside when the roof collapsed. “I was trapped under those bodies for three days,” Parveen says. “There was a little airway in the rubble where I could breathe.”

Parveen’s family were among some of the 14,000 Indian Muslims who were killed in the state of Patiala. As reports of the massacre reached the Indian army, Gurkha soldiers arrived, sifting through the charred, mutilated bodies for survivors. “A Sikh soldier pulled me out of the rubble, and gave me food from his tiffin,” Parveen says. “He was wearing a dark blue and green uniform.” She can’t remember his name, but all these decades later, she says: “I still pray for him.”

He got Parveen transported to Bahadurgarh fort on the outskirts of Patiala, where tens of thousands of Muslim refugees were sheltering under Indian military guard. There, she stumbled across her mother’s sister, who was still alive. Around a month later, they were transported to a second refugee camp in the state of Malerkotla, west of Patiala, where they spent the next six months, edging at a snail’s pace towards the border of a nascent Pakistan in a military vehicle, with little to no food.

“We forgot what chapati was,” Parveen says. “For six or seven months, we had dirty water. We had dry corn to eat, nothing else.” Finally, in January 1948, she and her aunt crossed the border at Wagah into Pakistan in an army vehicle. “When the people in the truck realised they had reached the border, some of them prostrated themselves, then died. They were starving,” she says. As Parveen made her way to the now Pakistani city of Lahore inside an Indian military vehicle, she describes watching a line of refugees stretching for miles, and women who were snatched and raped by Hindu and Sikh rioters, as well as uniformed Indian soldiers.

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Parveen eventually settled in Lahore, and married a Pakistani journalist. Her mother-in-law, a headteacher, took Parveen under her wing, teaching her Urdu, basic Swahili and some European history. “God took away my mother and father, but then gave me my mother-in-law,” she says.

Now, Parveen is a great-grandmother to third-generation British-Pakistani children. Looking back, who does she think was to blame for one of the bloodiest periods in modern history? “The British Raj caused this bloodshed,” she says firmly, blaming the British for pitting communities against each other. “The British government cut us first, and then they put a Band-Aid on,” she adds, referring to the hurried withdrawal and carving up of India. “There should be an apology.”

Parveen never found out what happened to her father and paternal grandfather, who were working in the neighbouring city of Saharanpur when the massacre happened. It appears that Parveen, the youngest child in her family, is the sole survivor. She sits in her passageway surrounded by the green vines of a pothos, a resilient plant that can survive without direct sunlight. The darkness of being trapped under rubble and the corpses of her family in 1947, haunts her still. “I feel that loss from my life every day,” she says, and still has nightmares about what she witnessed in 1947. “I’ve seen so much in my life,” she adds, smiling at her great-granddaughter, Amal, who watches on quietly. “But I am grateful, because I carry the legacy of my ancestors.”

‘There was a bloodbath at every stop’ … Nilima Lamba.
‘There was a bloodbath at every stop’ … Nilima Lamba. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

Nilima Lamba

When sectarian violence broke out in 1947, 18-year-old Nilima Lamba had just finished her studies at Kinnaird college in Lahore, and was staying in nearby dorms. Now 93, Lamba, who was from an affluent Sikh family in Rawalpindi, a bustling town in the Punjab province of Pakistan, had heard about the the horror of Thoha Khalsa months earlier. Sikh women had been forced to convert to Islam, but many chose to kill themselves instead, in a mass drowning in a well. When their bodies were found, they had risen to the surface; pale, ghost-like figures floating beneath the murky water.

It is estimated that between 75,000 and 100,000 women from both sides were abducted and raped during partition, resulting in premeditated suicide and so-called honour killings by male family members. Terrified by the increasing violence and targeting of women, Lamba knew she had to get out. “All of a sudden, everything had changed,” she recalls from her home in Northwood, Middlesex. “I was just a schoolgirl in a place I considered my home, but it was no longer safe.”

Lamba with her husband Jagjit, on their wedding day in Lucknow, India, 1952.
Lamba with her husband Jagjit, on their wedding day in Lucknow, India, 1952. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

Her father was friends with a chief engineer at the railway station, whose son Jagjit Singh was also studying in Lahore at the time. After speaking on the phone, the parents made discreet arrangements for Jagjit, his sisters and Lamba to escape Lahore on the next train to Delhi. Armed with a pistol, Jagjit had strict instructions to shoot his sisters and then himself if they were met with danger.

When their train reached Gujranwala, the violence from the streets had already spilled on to the railway. “People were being murdered in cold blood in front of our eyes,” says Lamba. “We remained hidden in our cabin, too afraid to make a sound.” Suddenly, an Indian army officer and his wife ran past, trying to escape. “We pulled them into our cabin, where they hid for the rest of the journey,” says Lamba. The group watched in terror from their cabin window the horrific scenes unfolding at each station the train passed: “There was a bloodbath at every stop.”

Refugees flee by train, September 1947.
Refugees flee by train, September 1947. Photograph: AP

After a few days, the train reached India. Lamba knew she was lucky to have escaped and was grateful to Jagjit for helping her. “I didn’t know it at the time but this man who had saved my life would later become my husband,” she says with a smile. The pair married, five years after partition, when their families had settled in the city of Ambala.

Jagjit joined the Indian air force, where he received an award for gallantry. After retiring, they moved to England, where they lived happily until 2020, when he passed away. “My husband was a brave man and would go to any length to protect his family,” says Lamba.

Today, remnants of the Sikh and Hindu communities that once occupied Rawalpindi remain, in the form of abandoned havelis (traditional mansions), temples and gurdwaras throughout the city. “Though we never returned to Pakistan, I will always remember it as the place where we first met and where our story began,” says Lamba.


Dabirul Choudhury

On a hot summer’s day in Stoke Newington, north London, Dabirul Choudhury, is sipping a cold glass of lemonade. “We believed in many things,” says the 102-year-old. “But partition wasn’t one of them.

“Our home in Sylhet was surrounded by orange orchards and the smell lingered in the air for miles around,” recalls Choudhury, a devout Muslim. Even today, the smell of oranges brings back sweet pre-partition memories. “We would often share such fruit among our Hindu neighbours, who we lived with peacefully, side by side.”

When the riots first began, Choudhury was in his 20s and had been studying literature at Murari Chand college. A lover of words, Choudhury feels the trouble that followed came down to a barrier in communication. “People suddenly stopped speaking to each other. Neighbours, friends – even strangers who would otherwise greet one another in the street,” says Choudhury. “This created an air of mistrust. Nobody really knew what everyone else was thinking.”

Choudhury’s older brother had started a grassroots movement to campaign against the break-up of India and made Choudhury attend protests with him. “There was always a big turnout: men and women, young and old, Hindu and Muslim, would march through Sylhet together in procession, shouting anti-partition slogans.”

After partition, Choudhury recalls empty classrooms. “Our college, the first in Sylhet, had been founded by a local Hindu nobleman and was attended by people from all walks of life,” says Choudhury. “It was heartbreaking to watch our Hindu brothers and sisters leave their home town, since most of them didn’t want to.”

For Sylhetis like Choudhury, the history of partition which mainly focuses on India and Pakistan, often overlooks their unique experiences. After partition, the north-east of India was transformed into a geographical oddity. A Muslim and Bengali-majority district in Assam province, Sylhet held a referendum after Assam announced it would join India and it remained part of Assam until it joined East Pakistan in 1947. “We didn’t have to migrate to be impacted by the 1947 partition,” says Choudhury. “Partition came to us – in several forms, over the course of several years.”

The creation of East Pakistan demonstrated just how difficult it was to translate the dream of a Muslim homeland in India into a geographical reality. More than 42% of Bengal’s non-Muslims found themselves in Pakistan, while a huge number of Bengal’s Muslims were forced to migrate eastwards. By 1948, it was estimated that 800,000 people from India had migrated to East Bengal, while 1 million people from East Bengal had migrated to India.

Divided by thousands of miles of Indian territory, East and West Pakistan shared an Islamic identity, but in language, ethnicity and culture, they were very different. Soon West Pakistan began imposing its language and political customs on the East. After a brutal crackdown on protesting Bengali students by the Pakistani army, guerrilla groups from the East began an open revolt against West Pakistan, culminating in the creation of an independent Bangladesh in 1971.

Choudhury moved to England with his wife in 1960, where they settled in St Albans with their three children. Last year, Choudhury was awarded an OBE for raising £420,000 for charity after walking laps in his garden while fasting during Ramadan. “Even after all this time, I wonder, was it worth it?” he asks. “It’s difficult to look back without horror at the savagery that took place during partition. But to move forward, we must do so with compassion. We are defined not by our borders but ultimately how we treat one another.”

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