The Partition of British India in August 1947 was marked by severe communal violence killing millions. But how does one categorise violence perpetrated by their own? Sardar Sadha Singh Virk of Gujranwala and his son Ajmer recount the Partition experience and the ‘betrayal’ faced by their family, The Nishaura-Virks in the aftermath of India’s independence from colonial rule.
by Chandini Jaswal
“ये दाग़ दाग़ उजाला ये शब-गज़ीदा सहर
वो इंतिज़ार था जिस का ये वो सहर तो नहीं”
“This stained tainted light, this night bitten dawn,
That we were waiting for, this is not that morning.”
Excerpt from ‘Subah-i Azadi’ (August-47) by Faiz Ahmed Faiz
Often out of naivety or a lack of awareness, we tend to view history in black-and-white strokes— labelling one community, one ethnicity or one country “good” and the other “bad”. This is especially true in our understanding of the Partition of India. In the oral interviews that I had conducted in the past year, a common statement that I heard was that the communal violence in 1947 was not committed by people belonging to that village or township, but by those who had come from “outside”. Then, how do you account for violence perpetrated by your own? Would accounting for this be an act of “betrayal”?
This is the question that I grappled with when I finished interviewing the “Nishora-Virks”: Sardar Sadha Singh Virk and his son Sardar Ajmer Singh Virk of Gujranwala.
“We belong to village Nishora (spelt Nowshera) in Gujranwala District. It was nearly ten km from the Nankana Sahib. Gujranwala was Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s Rajdhani (capital)”- Sadha ji replied softly when I asked the customary question about their place of origin. We are the “Nishora-Virks”, his son, Ajmer, chimed in. “You can trace the entire history of our clan on the internet! Papa was about seven years old when the partition happened. You studied in Class II, right, Papa?” Sadha uncle nodded in affirmation. “I studied in a madrasa and was taught by a Mullah. However, ours was a mixed classroom— children of all faiths studied together there. Our family was greatly respected. My grandfather, Sardar Fauja Singh, was the lambardar (landlord and village head) of the village. A born leader, he was a generous man. When the British had enlisted Indians in the army for the Second World War, my Dadaji (grandfather), as head of the village, had to induct young boys as soldiers. For every soldier he inducted, the government gave him Rs 10. But Dadaji gave the entire sum of his commission away to the soldiers itself!”
As the interview progressed, Sadha uncle became more comfortable. His son, Ajmer, gently nudged him to share the anecdotes. “Papa shared the entire story with me last night,” Ajmer uncle said. “Even though he was very young at the time of partition, his memories are vivid. Fauja Singh, my great-grandfather, was a very far-sighted man. He was not only a landlord, he was also involved in trade and frequently travelled to Delhi. He often passed Karnal on his way and had grown fond of the place. He had foreseen its commercial potential, wanting to migrate. My great-grandfather also had an inkling as early as 1940, that trouble would brew in his village soon.”
The fear was not unfounded. Sometime in August 1947, news reached Nowshera that Ganganagar (a town in present-day Rajasthan, India) was engulfed in riots and that the rioters were advancing towards Punjab. When rioters reached the neighbouring city of Nankana Sahib, Fauja Singh took his entire clan to hide in the Dera (temporary refuge) in the fields on the outskirts of their village.
“What was your experience as a child, uncle?” I asked. “We were very excited, and saw the entire episode as an “adventure”. Nobody told us anything. I clearly remember our parents trying to discipline us as gunshots were heard— we were silly and ran about with sugarcanes in our hands!” Uncle chuckled.
As partition was announced, Fauja Singh set out with his family and the rest of his village in a Kafila (caravan) of 500-600 people. “We would begin travelling at the break of dawn and travel continuously throughout the day. Some of us used bullock carts, others walked. The kafila was often robbed on its way. But we only stopped when we encountered riots.” Sadha uncle remarked.
The one instance that he clearly remembered was at the outset of their journey, in a village called Bado Ratta (near Gujranwala). “Uh lok bande kat ke gadiyaan bhar rahe si… (trans. Those people [the rioters] were killing people with swords and throwing their dead bodies away in carts).” The local officers were overwhelmed. “My Dadaji (Fauja Singh) volunteered to help the officer on duty, Colonel Khajan Singh.” Whilst people ran towards safety, Fauja Singh, accompanied by a few people from the caravan, rushed into the lanes with the soldiers on duty and overpowered the rioters.
The caravan travelled to Gujranwala City and then to Lahore. However, sensing trouble, they changed the route and reached Nankana Sahib. On their halt there, the caravan broke. Fauja Singh, his brother and his son Amar Singh (the narrator’s father) stayed behind with a small group of men from the caravan to help the army officers, sending the rest of the family away. The destination was clear—Karnal. Till now, matters were relatively easier for the Nishora-Virks, but life took a turn for them when the family was struck by ‘the betrayal’ (as they call it).
Amidst partition violence, floods, and epidemics, what proved fateful for the Nishora-Virks was their age-old village rivalry.
Balkari Singh, a fellow resident of Nishora, had been a contender for the well-respected position of the lambardar and never saw eye to eye with Fauja Singh. When the Nishaura-Virks split up in Nankana Sahib, Balkari was among those who had stayed behind with Fauja Singh. As the chief lambardar and village head, most of the villagers had entrusted their jewels for safekeeping with Fauja Singh.
Ajmer uncle remarked: “These men [Fauja Singh, his brother and son Amar Singh] were huge, strapping fellows, nearly seven feet tall. They had huge pockets sewn into their kurtas to carry the money (worth nearly Rs 34,000) and gold given to them.”
In a fit of revenge, Balkari informed the roaming goons about the money Fauja Singh and his brother had on their person. Those men killed Fauja Singh and his brother and fled with the gold. (Balkari Singh was referred to only by his first name by my narrators— a silent emphasis that he was an outcast for his actions).
“Did you ever hear from Balkari again?” I asked.
“Balkari had come to the Karnal Camp after he fled from Nankana Sahib. He had assumed that no one would know of his ‘treachery’. But the news had spread. He was cautioned that he would lose his life if he stayed in this camp. A relative of ours visited Pakistan and our ancestral village a few years ago. He was told that Balkari had settled back in Nishaura upon his flight and had converted to Islam. His descendants still live there. My uncle met them, I think.” Ajmer uncle replied.
Captain Khajan Singh, who had been helped by Fauja Singh before, did the last rites. Amar Singh, Fauja Singh’s son who had stayed back, suddenly found himself not only as the head of his family but also as head of the clan. He had no time to mourn the tragic death of his father and uncle, obligated to fulfil the responsibility they had left unfinished — ensuring that the valuables of the villagers (that had not been looted by the goons) reached them safely. “With 20 cartloads and accompanied by 20 soldiers, Amar Singh made it to the Karnal Camp.”
The rest of the family had already reached the camp by then, but not without struggle. “In parallel, whilst Dadaji and Papa (Fauja Singh and Amar Singh) fell victim to ‘the betrayal’ of Balkari, the other group which consisted of myself, my mother, younger brothers, uncle, grandmother and other villagers, we travelled to India, reaching Moga.”
Unfortunately, in Moga, the family was struck by massive floods and lost the little they had managed to bring along. Most refugees did not have the means to flee for safety from the floods. Young kids sat on embankments, whilst elders stood knee-deep in water, waiting for the floods to subside so that they could proceed to a refugee camp.
Building Life Again
Sadha uncle, despite my subtle probing, did not mention Balkari or his grandfather again, focusing instead on his family’s effort to ‘rebuild’ their lives after the tragedy in the camp. He narrated how his family reached Karnal, one of the largest refugee camps in independent India, as the floods began to recede and vividly described the camp:
“[In the camp], an area of roughly 45 feet or so, there were 15 camps lined in each row. Bahut patli galiyaan si (The lanes were very narrow)… We stayed here for more than 6 months. Ultimately, a temporary education arrangement was made. We would go to the camp of one of the refugees, but who wanted to study? So we ran away!” Sadha Uncle smiled.
After a long wait, his family and most of the Nishoria residents were allotted land in Sanch (a village in Kaithal district, Haryana, India). Since most people in this village were locals, a silent rift developed between the “refugee” Nishorias and the “natives” of Sanch. “Due to lack of proper land, we were fed bajre di sitte di roti (an Indian bread made of millet husk). We were undernourished. Once during a festive fair, a scuffle broke out— with a boy from Sanch village challenging one of our Nishoria boys to a wrestling match. But before the match could even begin, our boy fell with the first blow! When my uncle came to know of this defeat and humiliation— he became so angry that he cut the elbow of the poor boy with a blade! We knew he would lose, he was too skinny compared to the Sanch boy!” Sadha uncle shared.
As animosity grew and a lack of acceptance from Sanch villagers remained, the “refugees” had to settle on the periphery of the village— which was mostly forested and much less fertile. But Sadha uncle’s family, who had retained their pre-partition “dabdaba” (influence) on people, persisted. Ultimately, the Nishorias were able to carve a place for themselves and settled in Habri village, some 3 km away from the Sanch Village. “My uncle became the head of the village in Habri. We were called the “Haveliwala” (owners of the haveli).”
Life continued. Sadha Uncle grew up in Habri village and went on to serve in the army before he was injured, switching to another job in the Government sector. He lived in Habri till 1994, before shifting to Fauja Singh’s beloved Karnal and ultimately settling in Dasuya (present-day Hoshiarpur district, Punjab, India), where they live currently.
As I ended the interview, Ajmer uncle remarked that several of his relatives in the extended family were also keen to share their partition stories, coming from a myriad of places in Punjab! I smiled and promised to get back in touch with them before quickly asking if this partition connection was a coincidence or intentional. Uncle remarked that it was 100% intentional— “Contrary to how the locals disparagingly used “refugees”, we are very proud of it! Even today, we only arrange marriages in families who have descended from partition families like us— partition may be old now, but the cultural differences between the refugees and locals have persisted. Papa still says some words in Punjabi that have the Nishoria touch— “jaandeiyaan hain” instead of “jaanda hai” [different ways of saying ‘going’ in Punjabi]… We have also inherited that Nishoria touch from our father and so have my young children!”
On my request to access their old family photographs, Ajmer uncle sheepishly said that whatever photos they had were misplaced during their frequent shifting in the past years. However, the next day, Ajmer uncle shared a dozen photos— apparently, he had contacted all his relatives and neighbours in Habri, Karnal and Dasuya and managed to retrieve some photos!
A common emotion that I have recorded in almost all my interviews, is the family’s insistence on focusing on the “positive” despite the tragedy each of them endured. The murder of the family patriarch, Fauja Singh, who had remained the key figure in the story was not discussed in the interview again. Apparently, the family did not discuss it among themselves either. Death looms large in most partition stories. Statistics report that more than fifteen million people were uprooted and about two million perished – as lives hung by a thread, those who had survived the perilous migration, did not have the luxury to ‘mourn’ the dead. Every possible effort was instead made to make the ‘present’ better. The tale of the Nishoria-Virks showed me that contrary to how studies on partition paint all episodes of violence in the colour of ‘communal disharmony’ pitting one community against another – ground reality was much layered– also relaying stories of ‘treachery’– as rivalries older than 1947 prevailed. In instances like these, ‘faith or village brotherhood’ was rendered meaningless. It was heart-warming to see how the Nishora-Virks had preserved their family history. Ajmer uncle, born much after the partition, had inherited the passion for partition not from his father, but from his grandfather, Amar Singh as a teenager. With Sadha uncle’s first-hand account of the family’s journey and experiences in the camp and Ajmer uncle’s acquired, second-hand memories of the ‘events of betrayal’ happening with the other half of the family, the partition had transcended the bounds of history for the Nishora-Virks, becoming a companion for generations.
PS: The author wishes to thank Navroz Kaur for connecting her to the family and making this interview and blog possible.