Divided countries, not a divided human race


Eyes Wide Open

A photo of the Indira Gandhi International Airport’s immigration area.

Dr. Suess once said, “When something bad happens, a person has three choices. They can either let it define them, let it destroy them, or let it strengthen them.” My grandfather and his brothers embraced the third option. In India, we fondly call our paternal grandfathers and great uncles Dada, and my Dadas are some of the strongest people I know; they are survivors of the 1947 India-Pakistan Partition. The Partition was the most defining event of Indian history but also the most impactful event of my own family’s history. Family reunions have never felt like the appropriate time to bring up such memories, so up until now, all I knew was the simple fact that my grandfathers lived through the Partition. Listening to their stories now gives me a deeper insight into the intense trauma and suffering that my Dadas experienced.
My Dada and his family were Hindus and a part of the ten million people who migrated during the 1947 Partition. Though all of my paternal grandfather’s brothers and cousins lived through the time, my grandfather’s oldest cousin, known to others as Om Gandhi, remembers the most. Om Dada, as we call him, was in the ninth grade in March of 1947 when the government announced the independence of old India from the British. For context, what we now know as the separate countries of Pakistan and India, was all considered to be India before 1947. The declaration of independence resulted in the separation of India or the Partition; the subcontinent of India was divided into Muslim majority Pakistan and Hindu majority India, triggering months-long riot (Bates, March 3, 2011). Om Dada and his family lived in the small city of Multan, which is now a part of Pakistan; Multan is nestled between Pakistan’s capital Lahore and the city of Amritsar which is situated just beyond the border of India (Ahmad, August 8, 2014). Om Dada vividly recalls sitting in a classroom taking the third exam out of the six required to graduate the ninth grade. A teacher came into the classroom frantically saying, “Boys, stop everything. Leave your pencils and papers and please go home. Independence has been announced and riots have broken out, so try and avoid the main street. The goons will threaten your lives.”
Om Dada was the oldest of the siblings at school, so he gathered his brothers and cousins, ready to take on the two-mile walk home. The children took their teacher’s advice, avoiding the main roads at all costs and praying that the side streets would hide them from the goons. They walked for two hours unable to call their parents or tell their grandparents that they were safe. Om Dada finally got his siblings to safety; however, he recalls coming home to his anxious grandmother who was standing in the doorway, worried sick that her grandchildren had been shot down on the way home from school.
After a few hours, the children’s fathers came home from the courts. They were prominent lawyers, and due to the riots, the courts had been closed and everyone was advised to return home. All spring and summer my family hoped that the riots would end and that the country would re-open; however, the family was instead forced to stay home all summer. The country’s closure meant that Om Dada never finished ninth grade and for months the children were denied education. Om Dada kept telling me that while the children were happy and protected, their lack of education was always on their mind; neither the elders nor Om Dada and his siblings knew if they would ever be able to go back to school.
My relatives had no idea that this tension would be permanent and that life would never return to normal. The family was determined to stay in their home despite the worsening violence; nonetheless, safety was also of utmost importance. At the time, the goons were breaking into the homes of Hindu families and murdering them as they slept. When Om Dada told me about the brutal killings, I expected that the family fled the area right after. Instead, I feel as though the family thought that they had the time and protection to not be targeted. However, one day as the tensions were worsening, my family’s neighbors explained that despite how much they wanted to, the neighbors would not be able to protect my family from the goons. Though the family’s neighbors were Muslims, the Gandhis were good friends with them; therefore, when the neighbors told my family to protect themselves and leave, the elders listened to them.
At the time, the walled city of Multan was divided into two sectors; the inner part, a Hindu enclave, and the outer part, the majority-Muslim community where my family lived. To keep their children safe, the elders of the family sent Om Dada and his siblings to the children’s older sister’s house, which was inside of the walled city. Every night at dusk, the children would walk to the inner part of the walled city, sleep in their sister’s house, and return home in the morning to spend the day at home. The children continued this routine until the formal declaration of independence and partitioning on August 14, 1947.
When the formalities were completed on the 14th, Multan was formally given to Pakistan. Though some people had already escaped, including my real grandfather, his brother, and his dad, there were still millions of Hindus left in newly-declared Pakistan and even Multan. Many Hindu police officers and bank officials requested and were immediately granted government transfers as public citizens. As private citizens, the government had no responsibility for my family; therefore, when Om Dada and the family decided to stay in Multan, they were left to fend for themselves. At one point, even the Muslim police told the elders to leave in order to avoid being a target and killed. The numerous threats and warnings were enough to finally convince the ever-stubborn and resilient Gandhis to run for their lives.
Multan was only about 220 miles away from the border of India, but 40-45 percent of Multans at the time were Hindus. Panic set in with the remaining population, and the chaos transformed a usually normal and straightforward journey into an obstacle-ridden one for the family. To begin, the train system was good for its time but could still not accommodate such a large number of people at once. Waiting for transportation took months; it took so long that the impoverished who could not afford to keep themselves safe in Pakistan anymore, started to walk. Older people of the poor communities were carried by the young on benches and chairs.
Om Dada and his relatives were privileged in that they were able to wait for a spot on the trains as they also felt as though a 220-mile walking journey would be impossible. However, privilege did not mean that all obstacles were removed for them. Every day for two months, Om Dada’s father would stand in line in hopes to get a permit that would allow the family to leave India. Day after day, his turn would not come and he would return home in fear for his family’s safety. On October 2, 1947, the permit was finally granted. Om Dada remembers the conductor telling his father exact instructions: they were to stay at the train station’s refugee camp overnight, and board the train starting at 6 A.M. Once the train was at capacity with other residents, the permit holders could then board. Om Dada and the family followed each instruction very carefully, even being forced to limit their packing to just one trunk with all of their belongings.
The next morning, the elders and children finally boarded the train. Om Dada vividly recalls using trunks as seats and being able to touch the roofs of the train due to overcrowding. Sikhs and Punjabis were divided onto either side of the train. Space was tight and bathrooms were just barely accessible. These trains were filled three to four times over maximum capacity, and those who could not afford a permit would hitch onto the roof and ride out the journey on top of the train. Boarding such a large number of individuals meant that the train only started its journey around 10 AM, four hours after the doors opened. Though their destination was fairly unknown, what should have been an overnight journey of 220 miles became a two and half-day ordeal due to multiple barriers, literal and figurative.
On the first night, Om Dada remembers the lurch of the train coming to a stop in a small station in Pakistan. The conductor announced that goons had been blocking train tracks with tree trunks and then breaking into the trains and shooting Hindus to death. Therefore, the driver requested that the train stay overnight at the station where it was lit and armed by guards. Though the conductor had a duty to protect the passengers, the Muslim station master did not, denying the train refuge at his station. Thus, the conductor had no choice but to continue the journey. They traveled five miles into the “dark of the night,” soon lurching to another stop. The passengers started to hear goons banging on the doors of the train with their guns. For an hour, the train guards and passengers were barricading doors and verbally arguing with the goons. Om Dada and his family started to pray, asking God to spare them from the wrath of the goons.
Though the defenders of the train were Muslims and Pakistanis, they had a duty to protect the Hindus trying to leave. Om Dada recalls a man of the Baloch people being the one to defend the train with all his might. Baloch people are ethnically Punjabi, and though they have declared their independence from Pakistan, the majority of them reside in the Pakistani region of Balochistan. Therefore, this man had an affinity with the goons, telling them that he too was Pakistani; he told the goons that if they killed the Hindus aboard, then the Balochi himself would also be killed and Hindus would revolt for not protecting their people. Verbal negotiation for that hour had no effect, so finally, the Baloch man shot a round of bullets into the air, causing the goons to slowly back off. The Baloch man then told the conductor to return to the earlier station where he would threaten the station master into allowing them to stay the night. These same events took place on both nights of the journey.
Finally, two and a half days later, the train reached inside India’s boundary line. The train entered India through Amritsar, the closest major city to the border of India and Pakistan. Amritsar was the approximate area inside the boundary line where the train first entered India. There awaited a gathering of Hindus to welcome the train to safety at last. Om Dada and his family were given food and drinks during what Om Dada calls “a celebration of life and being alive.” There, the conductor was told that the train could go no further into India than Jalandar, 30 miles away from where they were. The trip to Jalandar was quick, and once the train arrived, Om Dada and his family lived in the refugee camp which had been set up in a Hindu school that was shut down during the riots. Though the journey had been excruciating and traumatic, Om Dada recalls himself and his brothers being “young boys who were ready to have fun in a city bigger than anywhere they had lived before.” With stars in their eyes, my grandfathers would stroll around Delhi simply taking in the unfamiliar grandeur and size despite the nationwide lockdown.
The family stayed in Jalandhar for about 15-18 days until they got a call from Om Dada’s uncle. Om Dada’s uncle, my real grandpa’s dad, who had taken my grandfather and his brother to India earlier, finally got in contact with the rest of the family. All India Radio was the only source of communication at the time. They had a large radio set up at the school where people would call in saying, “___ is looking for their family, so please call.” Finally, the family heard from my great-grandfather who had escaped in April. Om Dada vividly remembers the joy in hearing the loudspeakers of the refugee camp belting out: “Sita Ram is looking for their family. We are in Delhi. Leave Jalandar, and come join us.” At the time, India’s Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was pleading with people to stay out of Delhi due to overcrowding. Thus, there was once again no easy way for the family to get where they wanted to. One day, however, some Sikh truck drivers told the family that for 80 rupees each (about $270 now), the truckers would take the family on the 200-mile journey. The truckers stayed true to their word and the family was reunited in Mid-October of 1947 in New Delhi, India. Though they were thankful for their safety and luck, it took them four more years to truly settle down in a completely new place. The family lost their numerous properties in Multan and hadn’t earned in months. The trauma and memories of the event will also never leave the minds of Om Dada and his relatives.
Listening to the trauma that my grandfathers went through made me sympathize with them, but what made me emotional was Om Dada’s outlook and values now. He recognizes that Muslims botched the independence movement and turned their back on the Hindus, yet he emphasizes that he has no hatred towards the group. In fact, in some ways, he credits the guards, Baloch man, and Multani Muslims for saving his lifetime and time again. Om Dada also spoke to his privilege and positionality. Many people died because they were too poor to get on that train. Many people had to convert because they were too impoverished to move to India but didn’t want to be killed as Hindus in Pakistan. Om Dada reminds me that our family was fortunate enough to not even have to think about converting. Additionally, Om Dada reflects on how he believes that without the partition he would not be where he is today. Never did his family want to move to Delhi, but moving there is what gave Om Dada opportunities he would never have gotten otherwise. In fact, my own grandfather, Avinash, describes the move as “hell to heaven.”.
Later in life, Om Dada moved to Salt Lake City, Utah. To this day, he lives in his primarily White, Mormon neighborhood in the suburbs of the city. My aunt often talks to me about how she was often racially discriminated against; children in Utah would pelt rocks at her and her siblings because they were Indian. When I asked Om Dada about how the Partition contextualized this racism for him, I was once again, in awe of his response and tolerance. Om Dada explained to me that he and his family were more willing to accept the racism felt in America than those in his own country because he felt as though “they were imposing on the White man.” Om Dada acknowledged that the outlook he has is unfortunate as it gives power to the people who hurt him; however, he also emphasizes that everyone is scared of unfamiliarity, and the people of Utah were simply fighting for their race and culture in the same way the Muslims in Multan were.
Om Dada’s experiences with the Partition and then Utah have made him realize that society’s emphasis on religion and specifically difference in religion has, “caused grief to the world.” He poses the question, “Why discriminate against people with different cultures and values?” Taking from these beliefs, Om Dada has exposed his kids to the practices of the Hindu religion but gives them the opportunity to practice it in any way they want. To him, it is more important that his children “find value in the way in which he lives.”
My other grandfathers (Om Dada’s brothers and cousins) have all become just as progressive and successful as Om Dada, something which I am in awe of and beyond grateful for. My grandfathers were only children when they witnessed the tragedy of such an event, but they have never let their hardships get in the way of their happiness nor success. Instead, my Dadas have taken their experiences with grace and humility, using their lessons to raise their children to be as strong and confident as they are. In fact, the lessons of equality and tolerance have even given me and my cousins, our Dadas grandchildren, the value system that we have. I know people in America, ones who are far removed from the tensions of Pakistan and India, who speak terribly about Muslims, but never once have those atrocities come out of the mouths of my own grandfathers. My grandmother puts it best: “We are all deeply impressed by the Gandhi brothers. They have gone through hell, but have each made something of themselves and have no hatred towards anyone.” The positivity and grace of Om Dada and all my grandfathers have humbled me and taught me to use my experiences, even the bad ones, for strength. This recounting of my interview with Om Dada will never match the emotion and passion with which he spoke; my only goal is to put his memories in writing so that future generations can even remotely comprehend the strength of their ancestors.