An hour with history

Amit Ranjan

Amit Ranjan, Ph D, researches and writes on international affairs. He can be reached at amitranjan.jnu@gmail.com.

Usually, a discussion on the Partition of India in 1947 begins and ends with holding Gandhi, Nehru or Jinnah responsible for it. Such discussions depend on secondary sources. Understandably. I am, however, always enthusiastic to meet someone who was either a witness to the Partition-related madness or a direct victim.

This is purely for an academic exercise with no intention to hurt someone by scratching his/her wounds. I got one such opportunity when, about a month ago, I met Sardar Avtar Singh Datta at Kamla Market, New Delhi. He runs a bookshop: Datta Book Centre. I was at his bookshop to buy Professor Raj Mohan Gandhi’s book titled Punjab: A History from Aurangzeb to Mountbatten. During an informal shopkeeper-buyer talk he informed me about his roots in Pakistan-side of Punjab. He was kind enough to share his Partition-related memories with me without any hesitation or a second thought.

Old-sikh-man-carrying-wife1947I do not know why but while talking to him, I felt that he wanted to share his memories with someone, and incidentally that someone was me.  Sardar Avtar Singh Datta told me that at the time of Partition he was twelve- and-half-year old. His family used to live in Mohalla Mojala, Mohni Road, Lahore. His ancestral village, Ghania Shikhan,  was in Lyallpur district. His grandfather, Sardar Bhadur Amar Singh, was a landlord. He was granted lands in canal colony by the British commissioner of the Punjab. At the time of  Partition, Sardar Avtar’s family was in Lahore. Asked about the nature of relationships his family had with the Muslim neighbours, he said, ‘The Muslims in his neighbourhood were gentle people and they never created any sort of problems for his family even during those awful days’.

He says miscreants from other parts of Lahore created mayhem in their neighbourhood. ‘Things changed overnight after a bomb blast in our locality at the start of August 1947,’ he recalls. Within a few days of the blast, his family home was set on fire. After their home was gutted, for a few days his family stayed at a police station in Qila Gujjar Singh since a relative was in the police force. He was, as luck would have it, posted at the police station. Sadly, at that tender age he lost his father in the Partition-related riots. Finally, on January 1, 1948 he and his brothers arrived Delhi after months- long ordeal on Pakistani-side of the Punjab.

The question of ‘honour’ killings carried out during the Partition often comes up in such narratives. A lot has also been written about it. I always find it hard coming to grips with the fact that a father could kill his daughters or a husband could kill his wife.

Even if I did not pose the question, the matter of ‘honour’ killings popped up. Sardar Avtar Singh Datta told me that fifteen women in her maternal family  were either killed by the male members of the house  or they ‘willingly’ committed suicide. His maternal family lived in Kotla Arbali Gaon, in Gujarat district of the Punjab. This ghastly act took place after a news spread that their village had been attacked by the Muslims. When asked if he felt that massacre of women members of the family was a barbaric act, he said: ‘No. Such were the times and situation’.  He justifies his maternal uncles’ decision even if  I strongly disagreed. He never returned to Pakistan. 

After an hour-long talk with Sardar Datta a sketch of Partition-related bloodbath appeared in my mind where  I found the legendary poet,  Amrita Pritam, walking among the dead bodies, humming:

Aaj aakhan waris shah noo kiton qabran wichon bol

 Aj kitab-e-ishq do koi agla varka phol………………..

I left his bookshop troubled by many questions. A few of them will keep on knocking unless I find the answers.  

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