Revisiting Taxila Station, From Where The Partition Bloodbath May Have Started

Revisiting Taxila Station, From Where The Partition Bloodbath May Have Started
For dwellers of the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi seeking respite from scorching heat, the road adjoining the GT Road Bypass to Taxila City offers a scenic treat. Lush green orchards, local craft shops and picturesque Khanpur lake: this small road also offers heritage sites of Takshashila, a 1000 BC city named in honour of Taksha, the son of Rama’s half-brother and Ayodhya’s King Bharata. It is when one turns left before Taxila Museum that an old colonial structure appears with an iron shed and associated railway police picket – indicating a railway station. The crumbling black door of the picket with an iron plate has a name written on top, “Taxila Cantt Junction,” a quiet colonial relic that once offered this area its sole connectivity to a united Subcontinent. Still majestic, the main building’s old facade with freshly painted details of its construction holds memories of the bygone era of the British Raj and the years passed since, including the agonising sights of Partition in 1947.

While many comment on its deplorable condition, Taxila Cannt Junction holds the key to the exodus of 1947; a memory that still haunts millions on both sides of the India-Pakistan border as the site from where the massacre of 1947 started off – a chain of events that eventually killed 5 million refugees from both sides.

Arches and corridors in the Victorian style at Taxila station
(Image by the author)

Railways: personifying the horrors of Partition

Images of trains and railway stations are a mandatory reference to the sights and accounts of the Partition of 1947. No mention of Indo-Pak independence in literature or film can go by without reference to trains full of tormented people with eyes witness to the bloodbath of dear ones.

Raised in 1855 by the British, the railways structures in the Subcontinent still hold on to a colonial legacy in the form of Victorian façades, arches, wide courtyards and furniture engraved with British-era “NWR” (North-West Railways). It was due to how they were preferred as a mode of transportation that trains become a symbol of the journey towards the Promised Land in 1947. Yet many of those who made it were barely hanging on to the carriages, or hidden among unrecognised corpses, presumed dead by the mobs. They passed on their stories to succeeding generations.

Among such tattered souls was Hameed Ali Shah from Ferozepur, present-day India, who witnessed the death of his whole family in a train on his way to Pakistan. Starting life as in the unfamiliar city of Rawalpindi, the haunting memories of the train journey lived with them till his last in Mohallah Shah Chan Charagh, a majority Sikh/Jain neighborhood before Partition. Recalling our last conversations, he mentioned the insanity on both sides.

While literature and oral accounts speak of horrific massacres of Hindus and Muslims in 1947, none settles how the carnage started off. Most historians speak of skirmishes in Rawalpindi, Lahore and Amristar as the starting point. However, a majority mentioned of trains full of dead bodies of Hindus and Sikhs reaching Amristar as watershed moment. While narrating sequential events leading to wide spread massacre in 1947, Farahnaz Isphahani in her book Purifying the Land of the Pure: A History of Pakistan's Religious Minorities mentioned the first major clash on the 9th of March 1947 ,when a train full of Sikhs and Hindus was stopped at Taxila Cantt Railway station, killing 22 Sikhs and Hindus.

Facade of Taxila Cantt Station (Image by the author)

What caused violence at Taxila?

Taxila and the surrounding areas of the former North-West Frontier Province (present-day KP) had a large number of Hindus and Sikhs living before Partition. Mostly associated with trade, they owned the majority of businesses and built temples that still stand in the city. As debates of Partition were initiated amongst statesmen, the waving of a sword and hurling threats to Muslims by Master Tara Singh on the 3rd of March 1947 created tension among the Muslim-majority areas. Anticipating the forthcoming danger, many rich families and villagers in NWFP started winding up affairs and migrating to Hindu-majority areas.

One such village is Bandi Bareela. Situated at a distance of 45 minutes from Taxila railway station, it was once home to a thriving Hindu community and a business hub with more than 30 shops of Hindu traders. Abdul Qayyum, a native of Bareela, still remembers the days of living with Hindus and Sikhs. Retired from the Audit Department and settled in Rawalpindi, he recalled the wealth of those traders and how they were harassed by dacoits at night when they decided to migrate. Knowing of their exodus along with departure of Hindu traders from Peshawar is what caught the interest of the local bandits and criminals who organised mob attacks. What happed later is history. That train was among the first with dead bodies and wounded to arrive in Amritsar. Later, the announcement of Partition followed a looting and murder spree from August 1947 till the spring of 1948. As Leonard Mosley writes, “It was a time when trains were arriving in Lahore station packed with passengers, all of them dead.”

Various authors and historians in their books and novels attempted to discuss this tragedy; among the most acclaimed is Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh, who was among the unfortunate passengers of the train that was attacked by the mob on the Taxila Cannt Station on the night of 9th March, 1947.

Hameed Ali Shah revisiting memories


Khushwant Singh at Taxila and The Train to Pakistan

A significant work of Khushwant Singh revolved around his experience of Partition 1947 and migration from Lahore to Delhi. He was among the fortunate untouched passengers of the train that was attacked at Taxila Cantt Station. That experience of facing bloodshed firsthand and witnessing the carnage at Taxila Train Station drove him to share his emotions through Train to Pakistan. In his autobiography Truth, Love and a Little Malice, he shared his experience of the massacre while walking into Taxila Cantt station, where he was stopped by Sikh soldiers and informed of the carnage that killed every Sikh resident in the surrounding villages. He writes, “Except for the station master and a couple of ticket collectors, the railway station at Taxila was completely deserted. I saw the train I was to board came along and stop at the outer signal. I heard some shouting but could not make out what it was about. When the train pulled up on the platform, I got into a first class compartment. I was the only passenger and bolted the door from inside. There was no sign of life at any of the stations through which the train passed. When I got off at Lahore, there was no one on the platform except Manzur Qadir who had come to fetch me. He told me that communal riots had broken out in Lahore. The next morning, I learnt from the papers that the train by which I had travelled had been held up at the signal near Taxila station and all the sikh passengers in it dragged out and murdered”.

This was the last train journey of Khushwant Singh in present Pakistan before he migrated and settled in Delhi.

Writing inside a Taxila temple, occupied by settlers (Image by the author)

The wounds have never healed

While both Pakistan and India will celebrate 75 years of independence this year, the pain suffered still remains with hundreds of families who have not been able to reconcile Partition in their minds. Many like Hameed Ali Shah still recall the experience to their younger generation as it happened yesterday. While I recorded Hameed frequently on his views on life before and after partition; he mostly recited lines from Amrita Pritam written on the tragedy of Partition:

Aj aakhan Waris Shah nu, kithon qabran wichon bol;

(To Waris Shah I turn today; Speak up from the graves midst which you lie)

Te aj kitab e Ishq da koi agla warqa phool

(In our book of love, turn the next leaf)

But these lines not only reflect the story of Amrita Pritam or Hameed but of thousands like them. While 1947 is still viewed as an enchanting topic for Bollywood and a gaudy subject to stir controversy, locals on both sides get numbed whenever a story makes headlines from a parted family meeting after 70 years.

View of ticket gallery at Taxila Cantt Station
(Image by the author)

This year marks 75 years of the haunted memory of Partition. It is time to learn from Partition-era communal hatred before we descend again into such chaos. We can choose between tolerance and understanding, or promoting intolerance and hate despite suffering the same fate. Nothing summarises the agony and dichotomy of people from both sides except the lines from Ustad Daman:

Bhanve monho na kehye, par wichi wich

(Even if we don’t say out loud, but deep within)

Khoye tussi ve o khoye asi vi aan

(Lost you are and lost we are too)

Jagan waleyan raj k lutya ai

(These people have ravaged us mercilessly)

Soye tussi vi o , soye assi ve aan..

(Sleeping you are, Sleeping we are too)

Lali akhyan di payi dasdi ae

(The sore red eyes tell)

Roye tusssi vi o, roye assi vi aan

(Crying you are, crying we are too)