The main reason Manmohan Singh did not want to revisit Gah village in Pakistan where he was born was because of the brutal and treacherous way his grandfather was murdered during the blood-soaked 1947 Partition of India.
Having lost his mother when he was very young, Manmohan was brought up by his grandfathers with love and affection. One day, Sikh, Hindu and Muslim elders of the village met to discuss how to keep peace amid the mayhem. But in a gory turn of events, hot-headed youngsters from the dominant Muslim community pounced on the Hindu and Sikh elderly men and massacred them. One of the dead was Manmohan’s grandfather.
The young Manmohan survived because he then lived with his father in Peshawar. Even as his grandfather was brutally killed, a Muslim family in the same village hid his grandmother and saved her. As the communal fires spread, Manmohan’s aunt and her mother chose self-immolation to protect their honour.
Manmohan’s father shifted to Haldwani in India with his children. Later, when he opened a grocery store in Amritsar in 1948, Manmohan worked there. The young man was not treated well by his father. He went away eventually to Cambridge where he studied economics, at times skipping meals because of monetary problems. Back in India, destiny catapulted him to important posts before finally making him the prime minister for 10 long years.
Besides the fact that Manmohan Singh never sought sympathy or votes by relating how-poverty-and-sorrow-dogged-me stories, he never developed any hatred for Pakistanis in general and Muslims in particular, despite what had happened to his family when the British heartlessly separated millions who had lived together for generations.
Journalist-turned-Congress MP Rajeev Shukla’s book, based on real stories of the Partition days, is not only timely but is an autopsy on what politics can do when it is injected with large doses of religion. In 1947, it turned humans against humans, forgetting the long innings they had spent together, and brutally uprooted 14 million people. Men turned into mobs and slaughtered helpless men, women and children, leaving an estimated 1.2 million dead, just because a new state was to be created out of the old on religious lines.
Yet, amid all the savagery, everyone did not lose their sense of humanity. It may be difficult to quantify the numbers but Shukla’s gripping accounts clearly indicate a large number of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs were unhappy with the break-up of India. These included Muslims, who moved over to Pakistan but regretted till the end of their lives why they did so, as well as Hindus, who made it to India but could never forget the love for their place of birth and their Muslim friends. Equally important, there were thousands of cases when Muslims saved Hindu and Sikh lives and vice versa.
In Lahore, Shukla met a pretty woman in her 80s who spoke Marathi in a Parsi accent. She confessed that despite being a Pakistani, she could not tolerate anyone saying anything against India. She begged the author to get for her a handful of soil from Bombay, where she was born and grew up, so that she could kiss it before breathing her last.
Another elderly Muslim woman Shukla met in Lahore was forced, along with her family, to leave Kasauli in Himachal in 1947. She could never stop talking about her earlier life in India. She spoke about how Hindus and Muslims lived together like family, watched folk performances and Ramlila together, how Muslims enjoyed Holi and Diwali, and how she herself sang bhajans in the local temple and would have its prasad.
Lahore-born Som Anand, who became a writer, is eternally grateful to Maulvi Ahmad and his wife for saving his family when a bunch of Pathans attacked his Model Town house. As Hindus and Sikhs left the area, the Maulvi’s wife could never feel at home with her new neighbours although they were newly arrived Muslims from India. “She felt as if the city of Lahore had lost its true identity and culture following the emigration of the Hindus and Sikhs.”
G.P. Talwar aka Pran Talwar, who eventually established the National Institute of Immunology in New Delhi, lost everything when a mob vandalised his Lahore home. Talwar shifted to a relative’s place who made him take shelter with a Muslim, Hafeez Jalandhari. To ensure foolproof security, Hafeez asked Talwar to hide in the janaankhana, the section of the house where only females were allowed and where no male could intrude. In 1992, while visiting Pakistan, Talwar mentioned the loss of all his college medals and certificates in 1947; the university promptly sent to him in Delhi copies of every certificate.
Syyed Imtiaz Hussain recalled how even as northern India witnessed riots, Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh was an oasis of peace. Hindus and Muslims protected each other. One day he moved back to Pakistan and took over a house abandoned by a Sikh, Sardar Charan Singh. But even after Partition, Charan Singh visited the house three to four times a year, Hussain playing the perfect host.
When Shukla visited Lyallpur (now Faislabad), he was surprised to see the town’s ancient Clock Tower intact, with Sanskrit verses written on it. Vedic mantras were engraved on it along with the prayer songs for Lord Shiva, Lord Rama and Lord Krishna. Nobody had demanded that the carvings be removed. Around 500 meters away, there was a temple of Lord Shiva, in its original form. Indeed, a few meters ahead, there was a temple of Lord Rama too, again in its original form. “The roads and localities named after Hindu gods and goddesses had not been renamed.”
During the 2003 South Asia Free Media Association conference in Islamabad, Mehmood Haq Alvi told visiting Indians how he missed Karol Bagh in Delhi where he grew up. He remembered the Gayatri mantra – and recited it. He also recited a prayer to Lord Shiva in Sanskrit. A hotel employee told Shukla that Ali, who was a successful industrialist in Pakistan, had a habit of calling every Indian as his relative.
Truly, the stories in this book are more important than ever. Anyone in this sub-continent who reads the moving accounts will realise why the 1947 Partition amounted to a victory of nauseating politics over syncretic oneness.
M.R. Narayan Swamy is a veteran journalist.