Forgotten victims of partition

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 August, 2007, 12:00am

For seven days, Balwant Kaur trekked through hilly terrain cradling her newborn son in her arms, gently chastising her five-year-old boy to keep quiet as they fled the brutality that overshadowed partition.

'Death was waiting for us,' she says gently in her native tongue, Pahaari, as memories of her painful past flood back. The ordeal is one she remains tied to; an exodus which six decades on, continues to haunt her.

'I was frightened for my children,' she says. 'We did not take the straight road because we were frightened of attacks. We slept with dead bodies because we thought that was a safe place.

'[Once] I heard a scream from the undergrowth; a man was being slaughtered by the tribals. He was screaming 'help me', but we were so frightened. There were mutilated bodies, dead bodies of women, children.

'Every time I sit and am alone, I remember that scene.'

When Britain relinquished its claim over the sub-continent and political leaders Jawaharlal Nehru and Muhammad Ali Jinnah signed up to the creation of the modern states of India and Pakistan, the step was politically momentous. Two nations were moulded along religious lines; India became home for Hindu and Sikh populations, and West Pakistan (now Pakistan) and East Pakistan (Bangladesh) for Muslims.

But the birth of two countries in August 1947 was a harrowing episode, accompanied by mass migration and genocide.

Official figures vary, but historians estimate that 14 million people were forced to flee and resettle with little more than the clothes on their backs and their children in their arms.

More than a million people on all sides were slaughtered as the outside world, still reeling from the horrors of the second world war, looked the other way.

The episode left an indelible mark on those who lived through it, like 85-year-old Mrs Kaur. She lives in a world of memories in Simbal, an unofficial colony of partition refugees that skirts the north Indian city of Jammu.

She fiddles absent-mindedly with the kara on her wrist, a steel bangle that most Sikhs wear as a symbol of their faith, recalling the journey she made with her husband, Sardar Neta Singh, and their sons, Talog and Jaswant, from their 161-hectare farm in what is now Pakistani Kashmir to India in September 1947.

'In Devigali, Pakistan tribals skinned two men alive and hung them from a tree,' she says. 'I saw that happen.

'Before, we used to live peacefully - Muslims with Sikhs and Hindus. We used to go to each other's weddings. There were no problems with Muslims. The problems happened with partition and the politicians and the tribals. I will always remember my country,' she adds.

The family raided empty homes to get what little food they could find, in constant fear that they would be caught up in pogroms by tribals and Pathans, supported by the Pakistani military, who were looting, raping and killing non-Muslims.

On the seventh day, the refugees reached Poonch, 24km from their village of Malsikot, in a district sandwiched between India and Pakistan, before being moved to Jammu by the Indian Army. It was a region that hundreds of thousands of Hindus and Sikhs fleeing massacres in their ancestral homes hoped would be a sanctuary. It was not.

Many of those who survived the journey to safety found temporary refugee camps in Poonch carried diseases. Cholera and malnutrition claimed the lives of thousands, including Mrs Kaur's 65-year-old father, A. Sunder Singh.

'From the middle of August in 1947 until October - in two months - thousands were killed. No one did anything [to help]. Women were stripped, paraded naked and branded 'owned by the tribals' and taken away to Pakistan and Afghanistan,' she says.

'We thought we could go back after three or four days but those three or four days have never come.'

Now the great-grandmother is one of about 500,000 people from rural Kashmir who live in impoverished conditions in the unofficial refugee colonies of Jammu.

For the landless families wrenched from their homes 60 years ago, little has changed.

While the federal Indian government helped millions of people who fled to India from other parts of Pakistan by helping them get land, work and housing, those who were forced to leave Pakistani Kashmir were not considered refugees - refugees being non-nationals.

Mrs Kaur and her fellow Pakistani Kashmiris have never been given the legal safeguards - and with them the right to be compensated for lost land - that refugees from other parts of Pakistan were given by New Delhi. The Indian government feared that granting them refugee status would send a signal to the outside world that it accepted that part of Kashmir was Pakistani territory.

The stance was underlined again 13 years ago, when New Delhi passed a resolution that Pakistani Kashmir was an 'integral' part of India.

So Mrs Kaur and hundreds of thousands like her have remained caught in a political stalemate; denied the right to the compensation and help refugee status would entitle them to from the Indian government and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

'We have been given no compensation. We want justice for those who died. We want compensation for our land, even if we only get half of it. I want compensation for what has been done to us by the tribals and by the [Indian] government,' says Mrs Kaur.

'I would go back to Malsikot at any moment. I would go alone if I had to. I want to die there, to breathe that fresh air again.'

The village of Simbal lies on the outskirts of Jammu, surrounded by fields of millet sodden from the recent monsoons. Cows are tied outside modest concrete homes, in a scene reminiscent of a thousand other Indian towns. But beneath the veneer of normality, it seems almost every family has been scarred by the partition's brutal legacy.

But India, on the brink of celebrating its 60th birthday and freedom from British rule, remains sensitive about the volatile Kashmir issue and, by extension, the fate of half a million people.

'We are not allowed to make statements to the press. You should not be calling me up in an impromptu manner like this,' was the reply from Mitali Sen Gawai, joint secretary for Kashmir at the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs, after the Sunday Morning Post repeatedly asked for comment.

Back in Jammu province, the ad hoc cluster of 46 unofficial refugee colonies housing the 500,000 Kashmiris owes its existence more to the resourcefulness of the people who live there, than help from federal or state agencies.

Families had to build their own homes - on land owned by the Jammu and Kashmir state government - as tenants without residency rights. Health and education facilities are few.

At the Government Girls' High School in Simbal, which was built by refugees in 1953 and is staffed and partly equipped by the Jammu and Kashmir government, most of the classrooms are neglected. Ceilings have fallen in. Where children and desks should be, weeds compete for space with plaster and bricks.

The 150 girls studying there long ago crammed themselves into a handful of undamaged buildings, a poignant symbol of the daily hurdles they face and an attempt to escape the despair and unemployment that plagues the colonies.

Only 2 per cent of adults in the camps have regular work, claim campaigners for the partition families, while about 85 per cent of young people abuse drugs or alcohol as a means of escape.

Hope is a luxury Iqbal Singh has resigned himself to living without. The landless daily-wage labourer was born in Jammu's Gole Gujral partition refugee colony, a sprawling mass of humanity. He says he has not had a regular job since he left school 21 years ago.

The 40-year-old shuffles past his two-room home to an unkempt garden where he has buried some opium husks near a brick wall. He retrieves the precious, shameful bundle of drugs, carefully wrapped in newspaper.

He avoids eye contact, stuttering as he speaks about his drug problem, lowering his voice for fear his wife, Gurmeet Kaur, and their three children will overhear him say he is hooked on the opium he takes twice a day.

'My life was hard, that's why I started taking the opium. Sometimes I think I should take some poison and kill myself, but what would happen to my children? I just want to work.

'My older daughter wants to become a doctor and wants to wear nice clothes. When she tells me that, it's hard. I can't provide these things for her,' he says, crushing the coarse brown powder between calloused hands.

'If I could get good work, I would give this up, this addiction. I want my children to have a better life. Some people take injections [heroin], but I don't take anything else. The new generations take this - not the old people - because there is no hope.'

Tomorrow: Don't miss the South China Morning Post's four-part series on the anniversary of partition, the event defining South Asia's past, present and future