By Anj Handa
It’s my dad’s birthday today. This is me with dad around 1980 at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Actually, it’s not his birthday, it’s his ‘unbirthday’ and I’m looking forward to the Mad Hatter’s (Handa’s) tea party later.
Why his ‘unbirthday’? Well, we don’t know dad’s actual date of birth. All paperwork was lost when he and his family were displaced during Partition, which began when Britain gave up its rule of India, 70 years ago today.
Like many other members of that generation who became refugees, 15th August or 1st January were dates arbitrarily chosen for their new records.
If you asked my grandma when dad was born, her answer would often be ‘It was rainy season…no, wait, or was it sunny…’ So we don’t even know which season he was born in. And in fact, he maintains that he’s a year older than the date on his passport. Like many of dad’s tales, this may or may not be true. He doesn’t let it get in the way of a good story.
Partition: A Brief History Lesson
Before I begin telling you about his experience of Partition, here’s a quick history lesson: At midnight on 14/15 August, 1947, the Indian Independence Act divided British India into two independent states, the Dominion of Pakistan and Dominion of India. According to the Act, princely states were now free to join India or Pakistan or to remain independent. Most of the princes acceded to one or the other of the two nations.
Dad grew up in Jammu and Kashmir, which had a Muslim majority but was ruled by a Hindu Rajput Raja, Maharaja Hari Singh. Mostly due to his own self-interest, the Raja wanted to remain neutral between India and Pakistan and offered them both a standstill agreement to keep the status quo.
However, an uprising in the western districts of the State, followed by an attack by raiders from the neighbouring Northwest Frontier Province (supported by Pakistan), put an end to his plans. On 26 October 1947, he signed the Instrument of Accession, joining India in return for military aid.
This aid came too late for my own family and their friends. In 1947, a few days after a friend’s wedding party in Birnala near Jammu, Bhutan tribespeople killed all the men in the group by slitting their throats in front of the women. The females were taken away to a camp.
In 1948, Dr Nanda, my dad’s wealthy uncle through marriage and a British-trained dentist, recognised the names of some of the women announced on radio as having been held at the camp.
He went to secure their release into his care and took three, a mother and two sisters to Jalandhar. One of those was Shusheila, a 13 year old who had grown up in the same village as my dad. Dad’s uncle gave them shelter and later helped them to marry.
Shusheila was married to my dad’s second cousin and I think it’s fair to say that became closer to dad than his own sisters. She was such a character. The matriarch of our extended family, I miss her fiery personality which belied her warmth.
Fortunately for dad, he and the rest of the family had been sent to safety by my grandad, a brick factory owner. Dad travelled by camel from Jammu to Bhutankot, then took a refugee luggage train to Jalandhar, along with many other people – and cattle.
On the way, he saw many dead bodies on the road, a scene he can never forget. From there, a few weeks later, the family made their way to Dehra Dun.
Now homeless, they discovered a home abandoned by Muslims in Ritha Mandi which was large enough for their family and moved in. No doubt their own home would have been occupied in the same way. Having left their possessions behind, the family were now impoverished. At first, my grandad sold guava and sugar cane, until he saved enough to eventually buy twenty buffalo to sell milk.
Grandad was very strict and my dad and his brothers were made to work hard until they were ready to leave for England in their late teens. In the UK, resettled once again, they build their lives from poverty to success through hard work.
This work ethic has been passed down the generations but until recently, the stories were not told. I am so glad to be able to pass these tales down the generations.
Anj Handa is the Founder of Inspiring Women Changemakers. She helps women to speak up: for themselves, for others & for social issues.