Friendship in a time of mass murder

Ishtiaq Ahmed shares the testimony and lived experience of Partition from left-wing artist Rana Muhammad Azhar Khan

Friendship in a time of mass murder
On 6 March 2016, I recorded an interview with veteran socialist, painter-artist and sculptor Rana Muhammad Azhar Khan at the Government College Faculty Guest House in Lahore. My friend Zakria Khan and his brother Yahya Khan drove all the way from Sahiwal, picking up Rana Azhar from Okara and brought him to Lahore. Rana Azhar’s story is one of the most fascinating account of pre-Partition Punjab and will be included in the next edition of The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed. He told me:

“I was born on 14 December 1934 in a family belonging to the Naru clan of the Rajputs who converted to Islam some centuries earlier and were settled mostly in Hoshiarpur district and the areas around it. My elders were the chiefs of the Naru Rajputs. We belonged to Hariana, a kasbah (hamlet) nine miles north of Hoshiarpur district. Hariana is at the foot of the Sivalik mountain range. In those days it would rain a lot, sometimes for a whole week. The rain water used to gush rapidly through the streams, some of which would become quite deep, thus disrupting communications and transport. Those powerful currents of water were known locally as choas. Apart from Muslim Rajputs the other main religious community in our area were Hindus. The Rajputs owned most of the land while the shops were owned by Hindus. There were very few Sikhs. The Rajputs held important positions in the traditional social order and were granted administrative and honorific titles such as honorary magistrate, zaildar, lamberdar, sufedposh, and so on, by the government.

Hariana was a paragon of communal harmony, peace and solidarity. Our idyllic community could pride over a school called Hindu-Muslim High School. The name of the school and the idea of building it was that of Pandit Lala Harcharan Das, a local Brahmin. He approached our elders for a grant of land, which my uncle Rana Muhammad Ali gave happily. Lalaji was childless. He donated all his property and savings to the school. The school building was built with his money. Unfortunately, he died before the building was completed. However, panditji’s contribution was always remembered with gratitude by the people of Hariana.

The novel name of the school - Hindu-Muslim High School - attracted idealistic people from all over the Punjab of those days. Lala Madanlal Chadha, who belonged originally to Bhaati Gate, Lahore, joined the school as headmaster. He was an amazing personality. I have yet to come across someone more charismatic. He devoted his life to the school, always maintaining the best standards and providing good education. Once in a while he would visit my uncle who was the head of our clan. Uncle would get up to welcome him, notwithstanding the fact that he himself commanded the highest social standing in Harianvi society.
"There was a Sikh who was a very close friend of the Muslims. He gave his pistol to them when Sikh jathas began to attack"

Our teachers were saintly people. Maulana Rahimuddin belonged to Meerut. He used to teach Persian. He also led prayers on important occasions. During the daily hour reserved for deeniyat (religious) studies, Pandit Mast Ram used to teach Hindus and Sikhs their scriptures while Maulvi Fateh Mohammad taught Muslim students about Islam. He was from Lyiah, a small town in southern Punjab. He was such a simple man that when partition took place he was in Lyiah. However, he did not realize the big change that had taken place and started his journey from Lyiah after the summer holidays to return to Hariana. Someone from Hariana saw him at the Lahore Railway Station and informed him that he could no longer return to his work because Hariana was now in India.

Then, there was our Sikh teacher, Master Attar Singh. A Kashmiri Muslim family lived in Hariana. The head of the family was in the British Indian Army. They had a tiny little boy. His grandmother brought him to school. He used to wear a shalwar while the rest of us wore pants or narrow churidar pyjamas. He would cry all the time. Master Attar Singh took him under his care and gave him a lot of affection. Thereafter he would always sit beside Masterji and eventually started taking interest in his studies.

Our school used to get donations from the maharajas of Kapurthala.  The tradition was that the Maharaja of Kapurthala would stop for a short while at our school when he came in a motorcade of fancy cars and jeeps. The students would dress up smartly wearing turbans to welcome him. Once I was also among the welcoming party. Master Madanlal Chadha never went to receive him. He kept away from such pomp and show. It was Maulana Rahimuddin who would offer tribute (symbolically) to the Maharaja on behalf of the school and in return receive donation to the school.  The Maharja’s motorcade would then drive off.

All the religious festivals were celebrated with great joy and with all communities taking part in them. Dussera was a Hindu festival but Rana Mohammad Hussain Khan zaildar (Hariana) presided over the organising body of the function. On that occasion Hariana girls married outside that area would come to visit their parents. The cool winds from the mountains, plenty of mangoes and festivities created an ecstatic environment in those days.

Hariana remained largely free from the confrontational politics of the 1940s. Once Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Nehru, Maulana Azad and some other Congress leaders came to our remote community. They had heard about the Hindu-Muslim High School and wanted to express their support to such an initiative. A pehlwan type fellow of Hariana lifted up Gandhiji on his shoulders so that everyone could see him. There was a lot of clapping because such national-level leaders were not expected to come to such a faraway hamlet in a remote corner of the Punjab.

Nasrullah Khan, a Rajput, was an independent Member Punjab Assembly from Hariana in the 1937 Punjab Assembly. He was supported by our elders who were supporters of the Punjab Unionist Party. In 1946, he contested on the Muslim League ticket and won my uncle who contested the seat on the Unionist ticket lost. In any event, our area remained peaceful till the very end when the partition was announced. Our elders did not want to leave at all. However, there were people from Hariana and adjoining villages who worked in Lahore and in the western districts of the Punjab. They wanted to leave because they had jobs in what was going to become Pakistan. My father had died but my mother was alive. My elder cousin Anwar Khan had just completed his first examination of law exam at Lahore. We were determined not to migrate to Pakistan.

However, it was decided that two of my cousin sisters should be sent to Lahore where we had some close relatives. They wanted me to come along. I started crying as I did not want to leave Hariana.  So they left by car but it got stuck in one of the choas. We learnt later that two Sikh strangers helped pull the car out while the women stood aside. Thereafter they could travel to Lahore without a problem.

One of my uncles, Mahmood Khan, was employed in the revenue department. He was appointed in charge of the Walton Refugee Camp. My cousin sisters were staying with him. They used to come daily with him to the camp with a view to finding out if we had arrived from Hariana. The first attack which took place in our neighbourhood was on a Muslim Gujjar village, Mastiwal, by Sikhs. The Gujjars were employed in the army and so they fought back while their women escaped on foot. We offered them refuge but they wanted only milk and some food and preferred to stay in the refugee camp which had been set up when attacks began to take place. I remember our Hindu neighbour Prem Sagar and another Hindu came to the refugee camp and expressed great sorrow. Prem Sagar was a very good football player. In fact, the Hariana football team was one of the best in the Punjab and included Hindus, Muslims and Sikh. There were other good Hindus and Sikhs too who remained loyal to their Muslim neighbours. Rameek, Mohinder and their brother Jatinder were close friends of my cousins. Another was Susheel Kumar.

I was in the eighth class at the time of Partition. We left about two months later. Our relatives sent a military convoy consisting of soldiers of the Baloch regiment from Pakistan to fetch us. There were four trucks in which all of us had to find a place. Women sat in a separate truck. Chacha Aslam Khan sat with them. Each truck had one respected elder in it at least. A Pathan family had joined us. The head of the family, a doctor, was in Africa at that time. The rest came with us. It was October and it was raining heavily. There were nine choas or streams we had to cross. We started early morning but it took us twelve hours to cross them as they were spread over a distance of nine miles. We saw people in the thousands on their roofs when we reached Hoshiarpur. After crossing Hoshiarpur, we encountered Nasralla Choa. It was so deep that the trucks could bogged down completely. We spent the whole night there because it was raining. We did not get any food until about one o’clock next day. However, we children started playing and collected wood and stones to stop the flow of water. This idea appealed to the elders and they began to collect wooden logs to build an embankment to obstruct the flow of water. Thus the trucks crossed the choa. A Sikh military captain came in our direction. He let us cross first. Many dead bodies were lying around. I saw dogs eating dead corpses. Those were horrifying scenes.

Then we reached Jullundur. After Jullundur we crossed River Beas. Dead bodies were no longer floating in it although we heard that some weeks earlier it was full of them. Then we reached Amritsar. We were warned that an attack will take place near the Khalsa College (now called Guru Nanak Dev University). Everyone was scared. The soldiers were ready with their sten guns and other firearms to meet any attack but fortunately nothing happened. Then we crossed Amritsar and people began to shout “Pakistan Zindabad” as we saw the Wagah signposts.

Then chacha Mahmood Khan brought us to 19 C Model Town Lahore. My cousins were already living there. It was a big bungalow. It had many books and pictures. For two months we ate very simply food made from radishes. Local Lahorias would come with empty trunks. They would bribe the constables who let them fill the trunks with goods left behind by the Hindus and Sikhs. My cousins told us that the Pathans had killed a Hindu. My bua (father’s sister) lived on 47 Poonch Road, near Chauburji, Lahore. Sometimes we would assemble there. That became the centre where all relatives from different parts would gather.

Now, when we were leaving Hariana my taya (father’s elder brother) was left behind. Nobody noticed his absence until we had gone far away from Hariana. A local trader Seth Pyarelal took tayajee home. Seth Pyarelal told him, ‘Rana Feroz Din during the day you can go around here, but now uprooted Hindus and Sikh from West Punjab have arrived in this area. It is no longer safe for you to be out in the evening. You come here and sleep here in the same room as me’. Then someone came from Pakistan with a truck looking for his family. They had been killed. So, taya ji came to Lahore with him. One day I saw tayaji walking on Poonch Road. He knew Buaji was living there. So, finally we were all united. Nobody in our immediate family was killed.

There was a Sikh whose surname was Sharna who was a very close friend of the Muslims. He gave his pistol to them when Sikh jathas began to roam and hunt down Muslims in the villages and localities of Hoshiarpur. When we were leaving he helped lift goods to the trucks the whole day. After Partition Sharna became the custodian of a shrine of a Muslim holy man, Shami Sahib in Sham Churasi, a famous centre of classical music My cousin Azam Khan and others met Sardar Sharna met after many years. Sadly, pro-Khalistan Sikh terrorists killed Sharna.

Our immediate relatives never accepted the partition and always longed for Hariana. Once, when Prime Minister Nehru visited Pakistan he met one of our elders, Lt. Col. Aziz Ahmad Khan who belonged to the INA. Nehru invited him to return to India and promised him that his and the property of others who wanted to return would be returned to them. However, things had changed so much by then that it was too late to return and we are here since then. Our clan is now dispersed over West Punjab. We settled in Okara; some of our relatives went to Arifwala, others to Chechawatni, Lyallpur, Sheikhupura (Manawal) and Lahore. My heart, however, belongs to Hariana and I will always be the son-of-the-soil of Hariana.”

Dr. Ishtiaq Ahmed is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Stockholm University; Visiting Professor at the Government College University, Lahore, and Honorary Senior Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore

The writer is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University; Honorary Senior Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. He can be reached at: