Posted by: Singh Is King | Saturday, August 18, 2007

Remembering one of history’s darkest hours


Memories: Nirmal Kaur and her brother Ujjal Singh, who lives on Burford Road in Whalley Range

FOLLOWING 20 years of slaughter and civil unrest, the British announced the partition of India on June 3, 1947. Over one million people were killed in the troubles that followed. Tales of extraordinary courage, heroism, violence and murder abounded during this tumultuous period which would change the face of India forever. On the 60th anniversary of Indian independence people in south Manchester have been recounting their memories of the partition years as part of a new exhibition at the Imperial War Museum North. Their stories show the abject misery and suffering endured by people living through the turmoil. But they also paint a picture of utmost human fortitude in one of history’s darkest hours. NICK TOWLE reports…
NIRMAL Kaur was just seven years’ old when she made the arduous journey from Lahore to her maternal grandparents’ home in Amritsar.

She was heading for the border city which was the destination for thousands of Sikhs fleeing the Muslim territories after the partition of India in 1947.

Nirmal’s family was one of millions of Sikh and Hindu families who were forced to up sticks and cross the border to a new life as violence, murder and mayhem swept the country following partition.

The youngster’s mother Rajendra Kaur Sagar, who was in her late-twenties at the time, had to get her four young children – daughters Nirmal, Harjote, 2, Shakumtal and three-year-old son Harbilas – to safety without the support of her husband Gyani Sundar Singh, who was away on business with his father in Burma.

Though Lahore and Amritsar were just 50 miles apart, it took Rajendra two months to get her family to safety on a train carrying hundreds of migrants.

This transmigration of 15 million people was on a biblical scale and in amongst all the death and destruction Rajendra and her children had just one tiny gas stove to keep them alive.

It was hard enough not having any money and barely any food or water but Rajendra and her infants also had to spend the entire journey on the roof of the train because conditions inside were so cramped. Nirmal, who is now 67, said: “We were put on a train but as it was about to move it was ordered to stop because the train that had gone ahead of us had been attacked, with all the people being slaughtered.

“A few hours into our own journey the train was stopped and gangs attacked the train, killing people, women and children. Women were being raped and murdered in front of children. I could see blood all over and streams discoloured. There were corpses everywhere and people looting the corpses, taking whatever they could find. We feared for our lives.”

Nirmal, who is currently staying with her brother Ujjal in Whalley Range, added: “The train would travel maybe two or three hours and then stop because of engine failure, sometimes for days.

“It was a very traumatic experience – we had left our home without any money; we had just the clothes on our backs and it was very hard to survive the first weeks and months and it affected the rest of our lives.”

Nirmal’s mother occasionally found bits of food to cook from the fields. Often it was just a few potatoes, beetroot or lentils. Sometimes she and her children, who were all dangerously dehydrated and malnourished, had to run after the train as it moved off.

“My little brother Harbilas was so dehydrated we thought he wasn’t going to live,” said Nirmal. “My mother and older sister Shakumtal asked this lady for a few drips of water from this little bottle she had, but she said no because she only had enough for her baby.

“Shakumtal knew it was a life or death situation, so she dipped the end of her scarf into a bit of moisture in the grass and squeezed it into her little brother’s mouth.”

As well as the threat of starvation, Rajendra was always fearful that her children might fall off the circular roof of the train and be killed like many others had been.

To stop her children falling off when they were asleep Rajendra tied them to the roof railings with their scarves.

When, months later, the family finally made it to Amritsar – which, as one of the first cities along the India/Pakistan border, became a sort of mass refugee camp for Sikhs – they were terribly malnourished.

Ujjal Singh, 58, who lives on Burford Road in Whalley Range, wasn’t born when his mother and his four siblings made the arduous journey from Pakistan to the Punjab.He said: “During the partition years whole communities were destroyed, not just families.”

The Singh family’s struggle didn’t end there, however. When they left the troubles in India behind to start a new life in the UK in 1956 they made a long journey by boat via Madras, Colombo, Naples, Marseilles and London.

When the family arrived in Manchester they first lived in Hulme then moved to Fallowfield. For the young Harbilas, now 62, it was the first time he had ever seen his father. “He came up to us and we hugged – it was an indescribable moment,” he said.

Another man caught up in the tumultuous years leading up to partition was one Doctor Bhagabatcharan Das, who was a freedom fighter in Orissa, his home town in east India.

Dr Das was then an 18-year-old medical student and, like many people his age, protested against British rule in India.

The young rebel and his friends used to stage protests by sleeping in front of the magistrates’ courts but he was finally arrested and thrown in jail.

Dr Das, who is the founder and chairman of the Indian Senior Citizens’ Centre in Whalley Range, said: “I joined the Non-Co-Operation Movement. I was put into our district jail for three months and I did hunger strike for seven days there.” Dr Das went on to become a medical officer in the British Army.


The exhibition, called Life and Freedom: Experiences of War and Independence, runs until November 4 at the Imperial War Museum North.

First published by the South Manchester Reporter

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