The price of partition

M S Gill, former Chief Election Commissioner of India and a member of the Rajiah Sabah experienced much that was different and a lot that was the same on this side of the Punjab

The price of partition
I was born in Aldinpur village of Amritsar ten miles from the border with Pakistan. Lahore and Amritsar are the heart of the old Punjab. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s original village, Jati Umra, is five miles from mine. The two Punjabs are embedded in two countries, but it cannot be forgotten, that in history and culture, they are one people: same language, same food, same dress, same ceremonies, and the same swear words and jokes.

Dr. Syed Babar Ali, is the Founder and Chancellor, of the Lahore University of Management Sciences, justly famous in Pakistan. Dr. Iqrar Ahmad Khan, an acclaimed agricultural scientist is the Vice-Chancellor of the Faisalabad Agriculture University. Both had been pressing me for long to visit them and speak to their students. In the last week of March my wife and I finally decided to go.

We crossed the new Attari Border. The process there is tedious and slow, and not conducive to expanding visitor’s numbers or trade. The trade trucks choke up the main road and there is utter confusion. There is an obvious need to park the trucks in a separate designated area, away from the road to Lahore. The Pakistani processing on the other side, is easier and faster.

The author at Baba Farid's shrine
The author at Baba Farid's shrine

At Wagah Border, I was surprised to be asked to take polio drops. I thought: these should have been given to me in my childhood. I know the reason now. But I would appeal to the people of Pakistan to give the polio drops to their children for their health and well-being. In India, there is no polio now. I was given polio drops to ensure I did not bring the disease back from Pakistan.

[quote]In our country security guards have become a means to elevate a politician's status[/quote]

We stayed at the Lahore Gymkhana where we did not have any security guards, nor have I ever felt the need for any, here or there. In our country security guards have become a means to elevate a politician’s status. They cannot protect him, hemmed in, as they are, by crowds pressing in. Anyone watching TV can observe that the guards are a futile waste, and could be better used in giving protection to all citizens.

'Boys and girls talk to each other as they would at Delhi University'
'Boys and girls talk to each other as they would at Delhi University'

In the afternoon I went to LUMS and spoke to a big gathering of students and staff from many faculties. The Vice-Chancellor and Dr. Syed Babar Ali – incidentally a school friend of our former Chief Minister Harcharan Singh Brar – were present. They were most curious about our election system, electronic voting, and the whole process of democracy that was going on in India. I noted with interest that boys and girls were present in equal numbers and they questioned me intensively. They want to learn more about India. I asked to be taken to the canteen for tea and observed boys and girls sitting in happy groups. I was also taken around the university; classes had ended and students were all gathered in an open courtyard. Boys and girls were talking to each other as they might in Delhi University, in easy camaraderie. The images of Pakistan people promote here are not correct. They have their loony bins, as we have ours. Like us, the large mass of people have a lot of good sense.

[quote]The officers sitting around and listening were shocked at my remarks[/quote]

The next day I went to see Mian Shahbaz Sharif, the Chief Minister. He had invited me. He was fascinated with our talk on development, and my explanations of the Punjab system of minimum support prices, full procurement of wheat and paddy, and prompt payments in 1500 regulated Mandi Board market yards. I laughingly said to him that our wheat would be procured after the 13th of April, and the entire Cabinet with the Chief Minister would travel to market yards to ensure farmer satisfaction. In my Punjab, I said democracy gets rid of chief ministers who fail in this prime duty! The officers sitting around and listening, were shocked at my remarks. The CM took them well. Pakistan has no such system. I saw later in driving around Sahiwal and Faisalabad districts that out of 20 million tonnes wheat coming in, they were going to buy only about 3 million, that too, from big influential farmers. I saw no godowns. In one place only, I saw a small stack under tarpaulins, on the ground, not even on plinths. The CM had recently been to our Punjab, but the time was spent in great political hospitality. No one was there to explain to him how we do things. He was fascinated and continued the conversation for long. When I left, he urged me to keep in touch. I suppose he does not ever get my kind of irreverent views. After I came back to Delhi, friends rang me to say that the CM had taken full note of what I said and directed his Cabinet to move out to the districts to ensure service to the small farmers, as I had urged.

'We were accorded a lavish welcome at the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad'
'We were accorded a lavish welcome at the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad'

The next day, we travelled to Pak Pattan beyond Fazilka on the Sutlej. We wanted to pay homage at the Dargah of Baba Farid. The shrine is in the middle of a small town, and the crowds in the bazaar were surprised to see us. Baba Farid is in the Sikh Granth Sahib, and one of our favourite listens. He lived 200 years before Guru Nanak who used to come to Pak Pattan. I was taken to a village outside the town, still called Nanak Tibba, where he used to stay. A small hospice has been cleaned up here and is looked after by the Archaeological Department. In the middle it had flowers and candles on a small platform in Guru Nanak’s memory.

At night in the Deputy Commissioner’s house, we were treated to great singing by a young Muslim farmer who had been to Delhi, and sung before our Prime Minister. He sang all the great Punjabi poets from Farid and Bulleh Shah to our Shiv Batalvi. In the morning, I went to visit another Pir’s dargah. They were having a big Mela where I got a clear profile of the tradition bound, Pir-oriented, uneducated, poor of the countryside. The Pirs have a grip on the people. I was fascinated by what I saw; they were equally fascinated by a Sikh in their midst. Most of the new generations after ‘47 have not seen a Sikh. Those who are 60 today were born after 1947.

We travelled by road on a fine morning towards Faisalabad (Lyallpur). The wheat was in full bloom. As I passed through Sahiwal, Okara and Samundari into Lyallpur, I saw miles and miles of the most fertile heartland of Pakistan. The loss of this was the price that the Sikhs – who had developed them all after the British canals were brought in from 1890 into the 1920s – paid for independence. I have said in Parliament that the truth is that the partition was not of India but of the Punjab and Bengal. The Partition of the Punjab was brutal and total.

[quote]I saw that the sugar mill near Nankana Sahib was owned by the local Deputy Commissioner[/quote]

The roads were excellent. We passed a sugar mill. They are all privately owned by big people – on a past visit I saw that the sugar mill near Nankana Sahib was owned by the local Deputy Commissioner! Naturally, it crushed the Deputy Commissioner’s cane first of all! As in the UP, they do not seem to pay the farmers for long periods. Who can protest?

Travelling through villages and small towns I noted the huge increase in population. Pakistan must address this problem, urgently. I also saw few trees and no forest anywhere. This too will be a disaster in the future.

The Lyallpur Agriculture University had laid out a lavish welcome. I was surprised to learn that the University had 16,000 students as compared to 3,000 plus in Ludhiana. In Lyallpur the VC had expanded the University into all subjects, apart from Agriculture. What hit me was the fact that 8,000 of them were girls, doing PhDs in the highest sciences. My wife and I were taken everywhere. She had to address 3,000 girls in a big hall as they were celebrating a ‘jashan’. They cheered her loudly. I walked around their craft exhibition. The girls came freely upto us to have their pictures taken with me. Some were wearing ‘Naqabs’ but that to me was like many of our girls of whichever faith following the family’s religious leanings. They were like any other spirited children, bubbling with curiosity.

The next day I had to give the main address in their week of University celebrations. 3,000 people were packed into the hall, 1500 of them girls. The press was there in full strength. The City Corporations, Commissioners, MLAs, MPs, the Deputy Commissioner, and people of all walks of life had come. They were curious about what I would say. It must be remembered that Pakistan is left only with about 5–7 thousand Sikhs after partition. Sikhs from India are allowed to go in small numbers on a few religious occasions. People see them only from a distance. Occasionally, a Sikh will go across to visit his pre-partition village. They have never heard a Sikh in a large gathering.

The compere introducing me and said that I might speak in Punjabi; I turned this around by saying that I know little English so have to! There was loud laughter as they saw me as one of their own. I greeted them with, Salama-e-lekum, they were happy. But then, I gave them a loud Sat Sri Akal and Namaste. They welcomed these. I said to them, I want you to know what I come from. It is this; “Awwal Allah noor upaya, kudrat ke sab bande. Ek noor te sab jag upjaya, kaun bhale te kaun Mande”. This is our philosophy. I further reminded them that they say five namaz in a day, we too do a final Ardas in the morning and evening. Our last request to the Almighty always is, “Nanak Naam Chardi Kala, Tere Bhaane Sarbat Da Bhala”. I hammered the Sikh message in “We all come from the same Almighty, call him Allah, or what you please, but we Sikhs always pray for the welfare of all, not our own only.” I was giving a serious message. It was welcomed with respect. Watching them and conveying to them our view point. I felt sorry that Dr. Manmohan Singh, despite repeated invitations had not found the time to visit his own ancestral village. Whether he was hesitant, or the party prevented him, it does not matter any longer. I wish he had at least insisted on a visit to Nankana Sahib. All I know is that even a sentimental visit would have done immense good to Indo-Pak relations. Prime Minister Vajpayee did better, and I know for a fact how much they remember his speech at the Governor’s dinner in Lahore.

Then I turned and pointed at the girls. I said I was happily surprised to see 8,000 of them in the University doing PhDs in every science, interacting freely and fully, as in any university in India. I explained to them about my three girls who have taken the highest education in the world and followed their own chosen professions. I said to them in the strongest Punjabi, that “it is these girls who will lift Pakistan to the sky.” The girls cheered loudly: the men of every persuasion took my message of women’s equality and education with rapt attention.

When we returned to Lahore, we were invited to breakfast by the Governor and his wife. The Governor had spent decades in the UK, building up a big business and now was back to contribute to the building of Pakistan. They were both full of enthusiasm for the progress of the country. The Governor was keen on better relations between the two countries.

[quote]I wear my passport on my head[/quote]

The Gymkhana Club has an eighteen hole golf course. Every time I sat in the verandah, golfing groups, all retired high civil and military, distinguished citizens, came up to me and wanted to talk of the need for more people to people contact and friendship, the only way to progress. Since I wear my passport on my head it was easy for people to spot me and walk across to share thoughts.

I was a small boy at Partition and I saw something of the horror around me, as well as in the disaster to my relations. 1947 is a cataclysmic event, which will live with us on both sides of the border. It is also true, that after the great killings of that time, the Punjabis on both sides have moved on. They believe in “mitti pao”, burry the past. We believe in moving into the future. Life is tomorrow, not yesterday. We know what the partition means to others. For them it is an academic thought, no more. The Sikhs are the only people in the World, who are denied free access to their “Mecca”, Guru Nanak’s Shrines, around Lahore. Tiny numbers of them are allowed by the Home Ministries of India and Pakistan to visit the shrines on a few occasions only. It is demeaning to be begging for these permissions. Even in Jerusalem, Jews, Christians and Muslims all go to their Shrines in the city. I have spoken of this perpetual denial of their shrines to the Sikhs, in Parliament, and on Pakistan TV channels. I believe both countries need to do more to give at least this comfort to the Sikhs. We want peace, trade, people’s exchange and progress. If these are opened, the growth rate on both sides of the border will be better than China’s. Sadly, in the making of India-Pak policy we seem to have little say. Others work out their passions, while we watch and wait. We are still paying the price of partition.