THE partition of the country in 1947 saw bloodshed on both sides of the new border. This is an eye-witness account of the travails of the residents of our small village named Rukhsinghpura (since renamed Chhoti Rukh), which was about a mile east of Ramnagar (renamed Rasul Nagar) on the southern bank of Chenab river, in Gujranwala district. The region had been brought under his control by the illustrious Maharaja Ranjit Singh.
On August 15, 1947, houses of Hindus and Sikhs in Ramnagar were looted and set on fire, but no harm came to us. My father, Amar Singh Chattha, was a popular local leader. He had done yeoman’s service and enjoyed a good rapport with the local officials, prominent Muslim residents of the town, and notable Muslim Chatthas of the area, primarily of the neighbouring Salhoke and Burj villages. Our village had about 400 residents, consisting mainly of Sikhs. Till mid-September that year, no one touched us. However, by then, it had become clear that we had no alternative but to migrate to India. The Rajput Sikhs of nearby Bela (riverine) area also joined us, raising the numbers to approximately a thousand. My father went to the refugee camp at Akalgarh (now renamed Alipur) and requested the military officer in charge there to provide an escort of a few jawans for our safe passage to the camp there. He also sent a note to the tonga adda in-charge in the town for sending seven to eight tongas to carry essential clothing, etc.
The escort and tongas arrived on September 19. Chaudhry Mohd Khan Chattha and his nephew from Burj also willingly came, mounted on horses and armed with guns, to ensure that no harm came to us. So, on September 19, a caravan consisting of over a thousand women, children and men started for the refugee camp at Akalgarh, about 6 miles away. The move was incident-free till we reached the outskirts of Akalgarh. There, we found ourselves face-to-face with almost the entire male Muslim population of the town with weapons in hands, baying for our blood. On seeing us, they started shouting “Ya Ali!” and “Allah Hu Akbar”. The Sikhs, not to be outdone, countered with “Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal”. A deadly clash appeared inevitable. Mohd Khan Chattha announced that they will create history by laying down their lives fighting for their Sikh brethren. Realisation soon dawned on us that we stood to lose our lives in that Muslim-majority heartland, deep inside Pakistan. Hence, the escorting soldiers were rushed to the military camp with an SOS message.
Promptly, a Subedar of the Dogra Regiment arrived there with seven to eight armed jawans. He ordered the jawans to take up firing positions and announced loudly that anyone coming forward will be shot dead by the soldiers. That had a salutary impact as the army was held in great awe. A few Muslim leaders came forward and spelled out their two conditions for our safe passage. Firstly, all Sikhs should be completely disarmed immediately. Secondly, they could not be allowed to join the existing camps. As such, they will have to go to the railway station area (about a mile away) and set up their separate camp there. These were agreed to after some consultations, as the Subedar assured full protection to the Sikhs. Accordingly, the Sikhs handed over their swords, spears and sticks. After that, we were escorted to the railway station area and told to set up a new refugee camp inside a deserted rice mill within a walled compound.
After two to three days, the Dogras were replaced by a contingent of the Baluch regiment. The Baluchis were known to be highly communal. The Sikh elders apprehended danger. Since we had been disarmed, we needed something for our self-defence. It was decided to use bricks as a weapon. All the men and women were told to dismantle a bricked platform inside the compound, and place the bricks along the perimeter wall. Duties were assigned to man the perimeter round the clock, so that anyone trying to scale the wall from outside could be dealt with using the bricks. Sandbags were also filled up and kept ready to strengthen the entry gate.
Food articles had to be purchased from outside. The shopkeepers had been prohibited from selling anything to the Sikhs. Even after police intervention, Muslim leaders relented only with impossible conditions. Mercifully, a locked room inside the compound was broken open. To our delight, we found it full of rice bags. These saved our lives.
After about a week, one day we woke up to find that the Baluchis had suddenly deserted us. We were now more vulnerable to attacks by the rampaging crowds outside the compound. The elders put their heads together and decided to take two more measures. Firstly, there were five to six former soldiers who had been recently demobilised after World War II. They had their old uniforms with them. They were told to put on military uniforms and stand on duty at the entry gate and on top of the building. My airgun, which looked like a carbine, was given to them. Others picked up pipe pieces and other such objects to appear as guns from a distance. Word was also spread surreptitiously that during the previous night, Sikh troops had come to us from Sialkot. That ruse worked!
Secondly, the hair of two able-bodied Sikh youths was clipped, and they were sent to Amritsar, in disguise, for help. One of the two who entrained at night from the railway station of Gajar Gola had to jump out of the running train to save his life from young Muslims who spotted him as a Nau Muslim (recent convert). Badly bruised and bleeding, he lay there till a passing Muslim potter heard his cries. Taking pity on him, he put him on his donkey and brought him to our camp gate. The other person who was sent out just managed to escape to Sialkot and then to Jammu.
We managed to survive on our own for about a week. Then, one day, a contingent of the Maratha Regiment came to Akalgarh. Their Captain came to our camp with some soldiers and assured us full protection. He lauded the way we had survived on our own. He also called our ex-soldiers and thumped their backs. Seeing our plight, he promised to evacuate us on priority.
A couple of days later, a convoy of about a dozen military trucks came to our camp for evacuation. All the men, women and children mounted these, packed like sardines. By evening, we reached the refugee camp at Sikh National College in Lahore. The air there smelt of stale blood and smoke, a grim reminder of the senseless killings. Next day, under protection, another convoy took us to Amritsar, our land of freedom.
— The writer is based in Mohali
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