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Escape From Gujar Khan Part


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Escape From Gujar Khan

Part I



I, Surjit Singh, was 12 years old when my parents decided to send me to a boarding school in Gujar Khan.

We lived in the village of Begham (pronounced b‘-ghaam) - a settlement named by our ancestors, literally the "Land of No Sorrow” - on the Punjab side of the River Jhelum, which fell under British rule.

Across the river was Kashmir, loosely 'ruled' by a Dogra, the direct descendant of a handful of rogues who had betrayed the Sikhs a century ago and were awarded this part of Ranjit Singh’s empire as the contracted price for their treachery to assist the British in annexing Punjab to the Raj. The current raja, Hari Singh, was an absentee landlord, whittling away time in Europe, permanently adrift in debauchery and a drugged stupor, while his people drifted into starvation.

Our family had logging contracts within forests extending all the way to Srinagar. The entire operation of their business covered cutting down the timber, transporting it to River Jhelum, strapping them into booms, floating them down the river, shoring them in the city of Jhelum, and then, finally, selling them in the mandi.

Hence, it made sense to settle down in remote Begham, where they had lived for generations. Kashmir was a hop, step and jump away. Way below from the hill-top village, they could trouble-spot the booms for log-jams. And the mandi was within a day’s journey.

Westwards from the river, including Begham, sprawled the Potohar plateau. Once past the jagged cliffs that guarded the river, it took a few hours’ walk to get to the town which served as the headquarters of the tehsil (somewhat like a county) of Gujar Khan. The town bore the same name.

55 miles north was Rawalpindi. 40 miles south was the city of Jhelum; a further 60 miles was Lahore, the bustling capital of Punjab.

I had completed Class 6 by this time, at a school located in the neighbouring village of Hill, which was a 5 mile walk eastwards from Begham into Kashmir, over a set of cliffs and along a string of hills and valleys. It would take me two hours each way, and didn’t leave me much energy once I got to school, or fit to study much once I got home in the evening.

The walk itself held its perils. I would, of course, be accompanied by a few other boys from the village, heading for the same school. Boys being boys, some of them simply decided to hang around en route, day after day, and head home in the evening without having been to school at all.

I must confess I sometimes gave in to peer pressure and participated in the truancy.

As a result of all these factors, I wasn’t doing well at school and before long was branded a “na-laayak” - “not so bright”!

I was the youngest of a brood of six children. The eldest four - two brothers and two sisters - were already married. The fifth, another brother, was engaged to be married shortly. I was the baby of the family.

My parents - Sardar Budh Singh and Sardarni Sahib Kaur - were worried about by education. The remedy they came up with was to send me to The Guru Nanak Khalsa High School in Gujar Khan, the nearest town. The distance - 20 miles - necessitated my being admitted as a boarder.

There was no easy way to do those 20 miles. You simply walked the dirt track; it took 5 to 6 hours. For those who were elderly or sick, you had the choice, once you reached the village of Qadian 14 miles away, to do the final six by tonga. For those who had more than what they could carry on their persons, you could hire a camel to assist with the load.

It was a school populated by several hundred, a majority of them Sikhs and Hindus, but also some Muslims. The boarding school held approx. 100 of us, of which 90 or so were Sikhs, the rest Hindus. The school being known as the best in the region, it also attracted Muslims, but because they were usually less well off, they were only day-schoolers.

The monthly fee was Rs. 4 or 5 . The cost of boarding and lodging was Rs. 16 - 18 per month, though we were on our own for breakfast, which we bought with our pocket money from the canteen.

I would receive Rs. 30 - 35 per month allowance from my parents; it covered all of my expenses.

I remember I was assigned to Room No. 4 in the dormitory area. I shared it with 3 other Sikhs and 2 Hindus.

Again, school didn’t prove easy for me.

My handicap this time around lay in the fact that English was taught here from Class 5 onwards. Back in my previous school in Hill, it started in Class 7, which meant I was totally clueless amongst the other students who had already been studying English for two years.

Didn’t take me long to get branded “na-laayak” all over again!

I liked History, though, and fared well with Punjabi/Gurmukhi, Urdu and Persian, in all of which I had had good exposure while at Hill.

The new year - 1947 - brought some relief.

My brother, Ishar Singh was out in the eastern end of the country in the border State of Assam, dabbling in business along with our elder brother, Phulel Singh. With the war recently over, the Americans using this area as an army base for their operations in Burma, Malaysia, Singapore, etc. against the advancing Japanese during the World War, were now heading home. Shiploads of supplies were being dumped at throw-away prices. Hence, the business in “disposals” which the two brothers had got into, buying truck-loads of auto-parts, for example, in Assam, and selling them in lots to the traders in Calcutta.

However, they were heading home now for the younger Ishar Singh’s wedding.

I trudged home too to join the festivities. The wedding took place at the bride’s village - Ratala, a village ensconced between the trade-mark ravines of Potohar, midway between Gujar Khan and Begham.

I didn’t get to know my new bhabhi (brother’s wife) - Mahinder Kaur - because, within days after the festivities ended, I was shooed back to Gujer Khan. The newly-weds headed to Anandpur Sahib for their honeymoon.

Back in Gujar Khan, I began to settle back into our routine, and I returned to playing catch-up with the English language.

Rumours of general unrest in the country-side filtered into the school. The recently ended World War had played havoc on the British Isles and they had lost their appetite for carrying any more the “white man’s burden”, as they described the systemic pillage and plunder they had conducted on the subcontinent through the preceding centuries.

Gossip was rife with stories of English bureaucrats carving the country into several parts to cater to the growing demands from the minority Muslims who were suspectful of the historic smugness and arrogance displayed by the majority Hindus.

Both communities wooed the Sikhs who, to date, had proved a buffer between the two.

But, as March brought warmer weather, progressively Punjab too began to feel the effect of rising political temperatures. The heat was on. The cauldron had long gone past simmering, and had begun to boil. Time was running out, as the British administration was precipitously ordered to head home, which they did with unseemly haste, leaving behind a mere handful to complete the formalities.

Independence from foreign rule was finally in sight, after centuries of virtual slavery.

But there was no joy or celebration in the air.

I remember going into town in the evenings. Signs with slogans like “Pakistan Zindabad!” had suddenly begun to appear in stores and street corners.

Gone were the usual Punjabi friendliness and courtesy you once knew you could expect from even strangers. Wherever you went, you were met with inexplicable angry glares from Muslims … my friends and I obviously stood out in our Sikh turbans. It just didn’t make sense to us, this new and strange hostility.

Sometimes we would walk past large crowds assembled in circles at the road-side, intensely focused on a mullah’s oration on how Muslims had been kept downtrodden by all - British, Hindu, Sikh - and that it was time to rid the yoke.

Not yet in our teens, we simply shrugged our shoulders and headed back to the hostel.

Then, one night, it began.

The school was protected by a wall around. Across the gate was the residence of the local municipal official, the Tehsildar. He was a Sikh. Within the compound was the single-storied school-house. Another building, also single-storied, housed the gurdwara. A third, a short distance away, closer to the gate, was the hostel. It had a partial second floor, which housed the hostel superintendent.

It was dark outside; we heard voices and a growing din outside the gate. A crowd had gathered. They began to pelt stones into the school compound, shouting slogans of “Pakistan Zindabad” and demanding that all Sikhs and Hindus leave for India.

They left after a while. But thereafter, it became a daily occurrence, with increasing intensity night after night until, within a week, the crowd had grown into an unruly mob, armed with knives, lathis, axes and a variety of farming implements. They rattled the gates, and then attempted to scale them and the walls.

We rushed to the rooftop, armed with stones, and showered them with our own missiles until they retreated.

It was common knowledge by now that mass killings had begun, starting with the Peshawar area in the northwest, but murder and mayhem had now spread into the Punjab hinterland.

Sikhs and Hindus were being indiscriminately killed … in the streets, in their homes, wherever they were outnumbered by the Muslim mob.

There was also word that thousands of Pathans had been imported into the region to terrorize the non-Muslim populace into fleeing eastwards into what was now being described as “India” as opposed to large areas identified as an exclusive Muslim “Pakistan“.

There were rumours that entire villages of Sikh and Hindus had been wiped out; that women had been raped, mutilated, carried away or brutalized before being murdered.

In Gujar Khan, the daylight hours were still relatively safe. We occasionally sauntered out in groups to get food supplies. We even ventured into the train station, hoping to meet some Sikhs we would recognize and ask them for news ... and help. Or troops - we could urge them to guard our school.

But the train station, we discovered, had turned into a hell of its own.

The fleeing British had left no troops or officers behind. The local armed forces were struggling with the new reality - of separating into an Indian Army and a Pakistani Army. Who could you trust? Would Muslim soldiers help Sikhs and Hindu victims? And vice versa? What were their instructions? Were they willing to follow them? Did they even have any weapons or had they been taken away as a precaution, or by the ‘enemy‘?

Also, of the few one did see from time to time, there weren’t enough of them to go around … each village, town and city - nay, each mohalla and neighbourhood, was begging for protection and intervention!

Amidst a total breakdown of law and order, it had become a free-for-all, literally, and human nature being what it is, each side vied to out-do the other in its atrocities.

Thus, on the Pakistani side, corpses of brutally mutilated Sikh and Hindu victims were loaded onto India-bound trains … to strike terror in the very heart of India.

It didn’t take long for trains to start arriving on the Pakistani side, loaded with Muslim corpses.

Each act of inhumanity had to be outdone to continue the terror-effect.

Trains of Sikhs and Hindus fleeing to India were then stopped en route by mobs assembled from the countryside, the occupants murdered in cold blood, and only then was the train allowed to proceed to Amritsar, but with a lone living occupant … the train driver!

So, when we ventured onto the train platforms in Gujar Khan to seek help, we were confronted with the sight of groups of men gathered around each carriage door, loading them with corpses. Blood-soaked. Mutilated. Decapitated. Severed limbs or limbless trunks. Men, women and children. But often unrecognizable as anything resembling human beings.

On another occasion, we witnessed - from a hidden vantage point - the same grief-stricken mob receiving a train chugging in from India, carrying its corresponding cargo of Muslim corpses.

Neither side claimed monopoly to boorishness. Each outdid the other, hour after escalating hour.

We were young boys and couldn’t help being mesmerized by the surreal scenes enacted at the train station every day. Of a death train leaving, of a death train coming in. The wails, the moans, the screams. The “Allah-o-Akbar”s and “Pakistan Zindabad”s … and yes, “Hindu-Sikh Murdabad” - 'Death to Hindus and Sikhs'!

Classes were suspended. They would resume, we were assured, once the ’raulla’ - ’troubles‘ - had blown over.

Naively oblivious of the gravity of the danger that lurked all around us, we repeatedly sneaked out of school during daylight hours to witness yet again and again the hell that the train-station had turned into.

More significantly, we found ourselves without any adult supervision, in times that seemed to have suspended all semblance of normal human behaviour. There didn’t seem to be any rules in operation. No morals. No ethics. No compunctions.

Back at school, we collected a whole arsenal of rocks and bricks and had them ready in convenient stacks on the rooftop of the hostel.

Come night, when the mob arrived on schedule, we hurled our missiles and, at the same time, screamed blood-curdling choruses of the Sikh war-cry - “Boley so nihaal, Sat Sri Akaal!“: ’Blessed is He who cries - God is Truth!’

It seemed to work, because the mob would hastily retreat from the shower of bricks and stones and then disperse for the night. We were told by the Tehsildar that the impression the mob had from the war-cries was that a unit of Nihang Singh warriors had been brought in and were in now entrenched in our compound to defend us and the gurdwara within the school complex.

The Tehsildar, the head bureaucrat for the tehsil, was - being a government official - guarded by a spartan staff. The mob had seen it fit not to meddle with him. He had summoned an army unit for our protection, but there was no yet sign of relief, because none seemed to be available.

The Nihangs are a left-over of the fierce Akali battalion in Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s army a century ago! - crack troops who were widely feared as the Sikh Emperor’s “suicide squad”, warriors who would stop at nothing to vanquish the enemy. It was a well-known fact that even the Pathans of Afghanistan feared the Nihangs.

Descendants of them still hung around in groups outside gurdwaras or in farms and villages, but now no more than a historical oddity and anomaly.

The mere rumour of their presence in our compound had struck fear and second-thoughts in the minds of the marauders.

The following night, however, the mob were encouraged by their swelling numbers, and seemed to have found some confidence. It was obvious to us from the sounds we heard, as we huddled on the roof, that they were getting ready to storm the school.

Earlier in the day, the school staff had realized - based on rumours pouring in from the town - that matters were rapidly escalating, and made the decision to cancel classes.

They still expected things to settle down in a few days, especially if troops would arrive to restore law and order.

But that night, it seemed to have turned into a different ball-game. It looked like the whole town was outside the gates. Their slogans were now organized and in chorus, like claps of thunder. Some had already climbed atop the walls and appeared to be awaiting a signal.

All of us, the hundred students or so that were left in the hostel, and what was left of the staff, had climbed onto the roof. We had begun to rain stones down on the mob, but we knew that our arsenal wouldn't last very long, and the gates and walls wouldn't hold up much longer.

Even though we didn't put it into words, our eyes and faces in the shadows betrayed to each other that we had become resigned to our fate. But strangely, it had the effect of injecting a dose of bravura. It was surreal - each of us screaming our heads off, some with unearthly and hoarse voices by now, and pitching away as if it was the last stand against the Zulus.

Then, we heard the crack of a gun-shot. A lone shot.

We couldn't make out where it had come from.

It was worrisome because the populace did not, and was not allowed to, have firearms. If someone had got hold of one, it meant we were in far more trouble now. Suddenly, being perched on the rooftop did not look like a good idea anymore.

Then, slowly but surely, the slogans from outside the gates died down. There was an eerie silence, not for too long, and then a different kind of yelling and screaming. The crowd was turning around and fleeing, trampling over each other. They too were not sure who had a gun.

Magically, the shadows on the gates and walls dissolved. We could hear the people running and shouting. The sounds scrambled away into the dark abyss of the night.

The Tehsildar appeared like an apparition at the gate, a lone figure. A torch in one hand, a gun in the other.

* * * * *

The school authorities were cognizant of the fact that things were not over. They'd only been postponed. Next time, the mob could be expected to turn on the Tehsildar ... his position, or bare-bone staff, even his official capacity, couldn't keep him safe for too much longer.

With sunlight came a mad rush to take home the boys whose families lived close by. Some parents, having heard of what had happened the night before, were at the gates early to pick up their children. Others left on their own, feeling safety in numbers. A few were escorted by the servants.

About 80 of the boarders were gone by mid-day. 20 or so of us were left behind.

It was common knowledge by now that much of Punjab was under siege, with no recourse to law and order. Transportation was either non-existent or simply too risky. And there was concern over the fate of our families back home. Were they still alive? Or were they forced to flee for their lives?

I too had heard that mass killings had already taken place througout the Potohar region. There had been no word from my parents or anyone else. It did not bode well.

Expecting another assault on the school within hours - and this one would invariably be a disastrous one, we knew - our headmaster made desperate enquiries on behalf of the 20 or so of us left in the school hostel.

I told him that I had an uncle, S. Labh Singh - my father’s younger brother - who lived in town. There were no phones then, and negotiating even a single sortee into the neighbourhood was rife with danger. Chacha ji was contacted immediately and I was rescued immediately and taken to his residence at the other end of the town. I have little recollection of how I got there.

I do remember though, that as we waited for an opportune moment to leave, we got the distressing news that most of the students heading home that morning had been waylaid and murdered. Those who did make it to their families seemed to have inadvertently given the mobs in wait the information that Sikhs and Hindus were still around, in hiding ... and specifically, in which homes. They were attacked, and the occupants were killed.

The general feeling was that most, if not all, who had left that day had not survived.

I recall being shepherded into my uncle's heavily barricaded home ... it was a Sikh neighbourhood. There were anxious lookouts on every perch. I recall I felt a little bit more secure being there, though not much.

* * * * *

My brother, Ishar Singh, and his new bride were still on their honeymoon in the Anandpur Sahib area when they heard that new borders had been hastily demarcated by "direct action" and were now "closed", and that massacres had taken place all across the Potohar area.

Remember, it was a time when there were no phones available to the public. Radios were not commonplace. There was no TV, no internet. Local newspapers were of little help, other than in conveying the enormity of what was going on in the land.

The only reliable source consisted of the refugees who were pouring into East Punjab.

And the word from them was that the villages in Punjab's countryside had been, or were being, systematically emptied of Sikhs and Hindus. Many were already dead, with the Sikh and Hindus in the villages massacred in cold blood. Or, they had fled in whatever direction they could, leaving their properties and possessions on a moment's notice, often even having no choice but to leave loved ones behind.

My brother and bhabhi ji were told in no uncertain terms that his village, Begham, and hers, Ratala, as well as the nearby villages where our relatives lived ... were 'lost'. In fact, if you hailed from there, you couldn't "go back".

Hill. Thamali. Dadyal. Mirpur. Qadian, Bewal ...

The young couple dropped everyhing and headed back ... not knowing exactly where they would be able to go.

Heading back into the maw of the monster was not easy. A journey that would take more than a few hours today, took them several days, as they zig-zagged across the state, making connections between buses, trains, tongas, bullock-carts, army-lorries ... and spending nights on the road-side or at train-stations, wherever they found themselves at night.

There were further complications. Staying put after dusk was imperative because strict curfew had been blanketed across the land. Except, the marrauding mobs did not feel obliged to follow the directives.

The two arrived in Gujer Khan and made a bee-line for my school, knowing I would be there. They were told I had been moved to my uncle's only the day before. Escorted by local Sikhs, they rushed to my uncle's.

For the first time in weeks, I felt hope return as I saw them walk in.

My uncle was able to confirm to them that much of rural Punjab was already out-of-bounds, with the larger centres - including Lahore, Rawalpindi, Jhelum, even Gujar Khan - quickly becoming too dangerous.

And he confirmed that eyewitnesses had reported that certain villages had no survivors.

There was no word on the fate of my father or mother. Or my eldest brother, Inder Singh, and his family. Or of my sisters - Sita Kaur and Veeran Wali - and their families.

My brother Phulel Singh was last known to be still in Assam, but there was no word on his wife, Jaswant Kaur, or their new-born child.

My new bhabhi ji, Mahinder Kaur, did not have any better news. The village where her sister - also named Jaswant Kaur - had been attacked. No one had survived. There was no word about her parents, or her other sisters, or her brothers, or their families, who lived elsewhere. Police sortees into the area had brought back confirmation that no Sikhs were left in any of the villages and towns; that the countryside was littered with corpses, as even the escapees had been waylaid. A few children had been found hiding amongst the crops, emaciated after days and weeks in the fields; they had been sent to refugee camps in the east ... though their fate along the way was also unknown.

* * * * *

There was no time to waste.

The three of us - my brother, bhabhi ji and I - rushed to the train station under escort. I do not have much recollection of the journey ... I was both exhausted and terrified. We had decided to go to Patiala - an affluent Sikh kingdom in the Punjab region - where the Maharajah, an unusually enlightened man, was reputed to have made adequate arrangements for the deluge of refugees, even though they were pouring in by the tens of thousands every day.

As Sikhs, it seemed to be the safest place to go.

The journey was not a pleasant one. There was no forgetting the fact that trains heading in both directions were being stopped every day along the way, and their occupants murdered. But we had no alternative. The hours it took for us to traverse from West Punjab to the East were, I must say, full of ardent paatth and ardaas.

With Waheguru's Grace, our train sailed through with out a hitch.

Once in Patiala, we were herded into a refugee camp.

We spent all our waking hours talking to other refugees, trying to piece together the fate of our loved ones.

The best our fellow-sufferers could do was confirm what we already knew ... that there was no good news.And give us a few more pieces of the puzzle.

By the next day, we felt overwhelmed by it all ... by our losses to date, our homelessness, the uncertainty, the images that were seared into our brains from what we had witnessed in the last few weeks, and the worst part of it all: we had no one to turn to for guidance or help. The immediate future appeared to be as dark and impregnable as the recent past. We were in an unfamiliar part of the country, with no home to go back to, and no place to go to.

Were any of our loved ones alive? If so, where were they?

How could we ever find out, in this vast new land of half-a-billion people that had been bequeathed to us precipitously by a fleeing bunch who had left behind a subcontinent stripped of all wealth and dignity.

Veer Ishar Singh remembered that the last missive he had received from our brother Phulel Singh was from an address located in a town called Daltonganj. It was somehere in a distant state called Bihar, at least a thousand miles away.

It was the only clue, the only contact we had of anyone we knew anywhere in this strange new country we had been thrown into.

We headed to the railway station and bought three tickets to Daltonganj.

Switching trains and making connections between cities we'd never even heard of before, two days later, we arrived in this dilapidated little town ... alien to us in language, history, culture, geography, religion.

All we knew was that we had left behind Begham ... the Land of No Sorrow.

But we did not know then that we would never see it again.

[s. Surjit Singh now lives in Florida, U.S.A.]

To be continued next week ...

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Most accounts published in the west give the sullehs point of view or a British apologist's account which tries to shift all the blame on the Sikhs. It's good to hear someone's view out in the public eye that echo's what my own Grandparent's went through.

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can you share their experiences with us?

Well one side of my family already lived in East Punjab so they didnt need to leave.

My Grandfather on the other side never talked about it but I do know from other family members that he was pretty young when it happened (early teens). They left West Punjab when the trouble started and all of them got out. There was none of that cutting off girl's heads nonsense in other parts, I think this was mainly due to so many of the men from that village having military training and having weapons that were modern for the time. I also know they werent that well off so it was no great loss to go to East Punjab.

My Grandmother was in her early teens. Her family were caught a bit off guard by what happened as they were fairly well off and didnt see something like partition happening. They left for East Punjab using wagons to hold everything they owned. On the way her mother died of shock, but they couldnt cry because if they did then the other villagers would have told them to dump her body on the road as it was slowing them down. With her mother dead she had to look after her younger siblings until she got married and grow up without a mother for the rest of her life. To be honest I only know the bare basics of what happened as it is still something that is a bit of a taboo to talk about for some older Sikhs.

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