Image credit: Sridharbsbu / Commons
This article is an edited transcript of The Partition of India with Anita Rani, available on History Hit TV.
The Partition of India in 1947 is one of the great forgotten disasters of the 20th century. When India became independent from the British Empire, it was simultaneously divided into India and Pakistan, with Bangladesh later separating.
During the partition of India, around 14 million Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims were displaced, according to the estimates of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, making it the largest mass migration in human history.
It was a tragedy. Not only did almost 15 million end up displaced, but a million people died.
Special refugee trains were put into service, so that people could be transported across the border, and those trains would arrive at stations with every single person on board killed, either by Sikh hordes, Muslim hordes or Hindus. Everybody was just killing each other.
Violence in the villages
My grandfather’s family were living in what ended up becoming Pakistan, but during Partition he was away with the British-Indian Army down in Mumbai, so thousands of miles away.
In the area where my grandfather’s family lived, there were little chaks, or villages, occupied by mainly either Muslim families or by Sikhs and Hindus living side by side.
There wasn’t much distance between these little villages so people like my grandfather would do business with lots of villages around.
Many of these people simply stayed in their villages after Partition. I don’t know what was going through their minds, but they must have realised that trouble was brewing.
In a neighbouring chak, a very wealthy Sikh family was taking Hindu and Sikh families in and giving them refuge.
So these people, including my grandfather’s family – but not my grandfather himself, who was away in the south – went to this next village and there were 1,000 people congregated in a haveli, which is a local manor house.
The men had erected all these defences around the property, and they had made a wall and diverted canals in order to make a moat.
They also had guns, because this wealthy Punjabi man was in the army, and so they barricaded themselves in. Part of the reason for the violence was that there were so many demobilised troops in the area.
Then there was a standoff for three days because the majority of people in the area were Muslims, and they continually tried to attack.
Eventually, those in the haveli just couldn’t hold out any longer and they were brutally murdered – not necessarily with guns, but farming equipment, with machetes, and so on. I’ll leave it to your imaginations. Everybody perished including my great-grandfather and my grandfather’s son.
I don’t know what happened to my grandfather’s wife and I don’t think I’ll ever know. I’m told that she jumped down a well with her daughter, because, in many people’s eyes, that would have been the most honourable death.
But I don’t know.
They said that they kidnapped the young and the beautiful women and she was young and very beautiful.
Women during Partition
I was really struck by the plight of the women during Partition. Women were being raped, murdered, being used as a weapon of war. Women were also abducted, to the point where it is estimated that 75,000 women were kidnapped and kept in other countries.
Those kidnapped women were often converted to a new religion and may have gone on to have their own families, but we just don’t know what happened to them.
There are also plenty of accounts of men and families choosing to kill their own women rather than have them die at the hands of the other. It is unimaginable horror.
This is also not an unusual story. Looking at oral sources, these dark tales emerge again and again.
All these villages had wells, and women, often cradling their children in their arms, chose to jump into a well and attempt to take their own lives.
The problem was that these wells were only so deep. If you’ve got 80 to 120 women in each village trying to kill themselves then not all of them would have died. It was absolute hell on earth.
We can’t even imagine what it must have been like.