Partition Stories

70 years after Independence, we recall the trauma of the division of a country and culture - and of homes, families and lives. The story of Ilyas Ali Khan Sherwani, as narrated to Aima Khosa

Partition Stories
“It was, perhaps, 1947 when I properly opened my eyes to the world. I was a student at the Matric level and India and Pakistan were about to achieve Independence. Especially after June 1947, there was much communal uproar over the creation of Pakistan. We heard of communal clashes and of Muslims being attacked. But our state, Malerkotla, was a Muslim-ruled princely state of British India. It had its own defence forces and police. So we were, for the time being, safe. In fact, Muslims from nearby areas which were affected by communal riots were fleeing to the safety of Malerkotla. We were arranging supplies for the refugees, I remember.

We are Sherwanis: my own family was closely linked with the Sherwani ruling family of Malerkotla. You could say we were the aristocratic Muslim elite of Malerkotla.

People would sit near the radio all day, at times, in an effort to find out the latest news about the progress towards Independence.

Nawab Ahmed Ali Khan's son at his coronation ceremony, 1947

In the middle of July, I was invited by my brother to visit him in Ferozepur. He had been serving with the British Indian Army since the beginning of the Second World War in 1939.

Now the date of creation of Pakistan was very close – we knew that power would be transferred from the British to the new states of India and Pakistan on the 15th of August. As I travelled to visit my brother in Ferozepur, which was a Muslim-majority area, you must understand that we had very little idea of where the Radcliffe Award would actually draw the border line between India and Pakistan.
"I realised that something horrible was going to happen. I ran to the soldiers' compartment on the train"

So in the middle of the violent outbreaks of August 1947, I found myself with my brother in Ferozepur. It was the month of Ramazan and I told him I would like to travel back home by train, so as to be able to spend Eid with the family in Malerkotla. My brother was hesitant. He told me that entire trains were being systematically attacked and cleared by gangs of killers on communal grounds. He did not think it was safe for me, a young Muslim, to be travelling on trains in Punjab under such circumstances. But I insisted and he eventually agreed despite his apprehension.

So he took me to the Railway Station at Ferozepur, to get me on a train that would take me to Malerkotla.

Due to the riots and attacks on the railway services, armed soldiers were travelling with many of the trains. There would be a special compartment for the soldiers on each train. I was placed in the compartment right next to that one that seated soldiers. My brother told me that in case of any trouble, I should go into that compartment. He had told the soldiers to accommodate me in case it was necessary.

Malerkotla, with its own defence forces, became a safe haven for Muslims in Punjab

So I got on the train and we proceeded from Ferozepur, and approached Moga railway station. Moga is a place between Ferozepur and Ludhiana. There was a red signal to halt the train some distance before the station at Moga. We thought that the signal would soon go green and the train would be free to move further. But that signal had been put it in place so as to facilitate an attack on the train, you see. I remember seeing Sikhs approach our train with drawn swords.

Some of the people on the train with us were already victims of communal violence. I remember some Sikh women sitting in the train with us. When they saw the mob of Sikhs approaching our train, they remarked ‘Ab mazza aaye ga’ [Now it will be fun!], in expectation of revenge against Muslims on the train, for what they had already experienced. I realised that something horrible was going to happen. I ran to the soldiers’ compartment and they took me in with them. I expected these soldiers to intervene in the massacre that began on the rest of the train, but they did not. I suspect it had something to do with the fact that they were Dogras.

Finally the train moved on and entered Moga. I saw dead bodies everywhere. I turned pale. It was the first time I saw such death on such a scale.

The Nawab's mansion in Malerkotla

"I had to go to Pakistan to take my exam"

Eventually we reached Ludhiana, where I was to switch trains, so as to proceed towards Malerkotla. Over there, at the station in Ludhiana, some people were ready to travel to the opposite direction, towards Ferozepur. But they had heard that something bad was happening at Moga. They began to ask people if everything was alright on the railway. Many of the people alighting from our train at Ludhiana, being local Sikhs, said that there was no problem and that everything was fine. But I began to scream that they were lying and that there had been a great massacre near Moga. I was a boy – I don’t know how much they took notice of my words. In any case, I got on the train for Malerkotla and reached my family.

They saw that I had turned yellow and wondered what had happened to me. They heard my tale of the massacre I had witnessed and the horrors I had seen. But at first, at least, they were not entirely prepared to believe me. My father even suggested that I had spun some tale because I had been hearing so much of death and destruction around Punjab. But eventually, they did believe me, of course.

Ilyas Ali Khan Sherwani, as a young man

That night, the mosques began to announce, with naqqara drum-beats that an attack was taking place on Malerkotla itself! My father told us to stay inside and went out armed. As he stepped out, he raised the slogan of “Allahu Akbar!” and received a most enthusiastic response from the men of nearby homes. But nobody actually joined him – they stayed within their homes and responded. You see, we lived amongst people who were considered our tenants, and perhaps were not quite as martially inclined as our family! But as my father reached our ancestral area, there were armed contingents ready for action there.

As they advanced to defend their homes, they eventually discovered that it had all been a false alarm! Someone had lit a light somewhere in the fields, and this had escalated into a panic about an attack on Malerkotla.

Now you must understand that Malerkotla, despite its large Muslim population, was far from the areas of Punjab that were incorporated into Pakistan. The rulers of Malerkotla had to accede to India. My father and much of the family chose to stay behind in India – with the Nawab and their ancestral lands.

But my older brother, as a member of the armed forces of British India, had been given a choice like all personnel during Partition. And he had chosen to move to Pakistan. He had moved first to Lahore and then he was posted to Karachi with his unit.

My problem was that I was ready to take my Matriculation exams, but there was no possibility for me – a young Muslim boy – to accomplish that on the Indian side of the border. I had to go to Pakistan to take my exam, I concluded.

This was not going to be easy. Eventually, I found a rather unlikely way.

During the chaos of Partition, many women had been left behind on both sides, subject to the brutality of opposing sides in the communal conflict. The two governments were now engaged in rescuing as many of them as possible on both sides and returning them to their families across the new borders. This was being done with the protection of armed escorts in special buses. The officer in charge of such convoys was not keen on letting me travel with these reserved buses, but I insisted. Eventually he agreed, if I was willing to travel on the roof of a bus – which, of course, I was! Пробуйте крутить колесо фортуны на реальные деньги и получайте свои выплаты без особых проблем. В интернете полно ресурсов, где вы сможете покрутить Колесо Фортуны на реальные деньги уже сегодня. Начните получать выигрыши сразу после регистрации на сайте казино, где есть такой вид азартных игр. Это идеальный вариант для новичка.

His Highness, Nawab Ahmed Ali Khan, ruler of Malerkotla, with veterans of World War I, 1918

I arrived in Lahore with weeks to spare for my exams, and was supposed to stay with a cousin. But I did not want to impose myself upon them with their limited living space. So I asked them to send me to my brother in Karachi, who had accommodation provided by the state as a serving soldier. I got on the Khyber Mail, and arrived in Karachi – with my brother having no idea that I was coming. I arrived at my brother’s unit, and his fellow soldiers took me to him. He was shocked by my sudden arrival, but of course, quite happy to see me.

I stayed with my brother for two months until my exam, and then chose Muzaffargarh as my exam centre. There, the family of the late Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan had close relations with my own family in Malerkotla. They accommodated me for the duration of my exams at Khangarh House in Muzaffargarh. The exam centre was close nearby, and there was a cook there to provide for their guests.

With my exams completed, I had to wait some weeks for my results. I now wanted to return to Malerkotla, across the new border, back in India!

I travelled back to Malerkotla in India with Nawab Ahsan Ali Khan’s son. He was travelling to the Indian part of Punjab, for the urs commemoration of the founder of the ruling dynasty of Malerkotla, with special permission from the Indian government. I went to his home on Zafar Ali Road, Lahore, and he was quite willing to take me along. He had booked trucks for those travelling with him, and in that manner I got back to my family in Malerkotla.

Two months or so later, I got word from my cousin in Lahore that I had passed my Matric exams. Now I faced the question of what to do with my life in India as a young Muslim. I told my father that whether I studied or found some sort of job, my future was going to be in Pakistan. In any case, those who were staying there knew that the future was not so bright for them in India. My father had small children from his second wife, as well as agricultural lands. He could not move easily, but he agreed to let me move to Pakistan if I wanted to. And I decided to go.

By then, the state of Malerkotla was providing a proper armed guard to any of its people wishing to migrate to Pakistan. With that facility, I travelled to Pakistan. I went back to Khangarh, near Muzaffarabad, where my older brother was spending a break with the family of his wife.

When his break ended, and we set off for Karachi, it happened by chance that in our compartment there was a Muslim air force officer from Madras who had moved to Pakistan. The two military men, my brother and this air force man, struck up a conversation in English. I was greatly impressed by his uniform and bearing.

Some days later, in Karachi, despite the apprehensions of my brother – that I was perhaps too young or that my father might not approve of me ending my education so soon – I insisted on taking the entrance examination for the Pakistan Air Force. My brother agreed in the end, and took me to the very Madrasi we had met on the train. I was taken to the Air Force Mess – and there too, I was very impressed with the life and bearing of the Air Force men. British officers still serving the newly founded Pakistani forces were also present at that Mess. I must say: I loved the uniforms! That is what caught my fancy and I decided I would definitely want to join the Air Force.

I was given a letter by our new friend from Madras, and went to his colleague at the selection centre in Karachi. I passed the written test and was told that very day that I was among those who got through. The next day I went for my medical examination to join the Air Force. And that is how my new life in a new country began!”

The author works as an editor for Vanguard Books and tweets at @aimamk